What do a color wheel, a black and white copy machine, the Fibonacci series, beautiful photography, a beautiful yarn, a ride through an scenic area and a small hole in a piece of paper have in common? These can all be tools for study in color.
In helping a weaver come up with some stripe sequences that were pleasing to her, I thought about my past experiences with color and "tools" I have used to design something pleasing. None of these are original or hard and fast rules. As for me, a lot of what I know about color is intuitive. But tools have helped my intuition out a lot of times!
What would the world be without color? There are so many ways to use it in art that it can become somewhat confusing and a lot depends on the medium with which one works. Color is mixed differently depending on the medium, i.e., dye, type of dye, oils, acrylics, water color, fabric paint and even mixing as I have with the help of some computer software.
Rules differ for various fiber techniques as well: weft has to be considered with weaving as prints need to be considered with quilting. Surface design requires knowing what color interaction is going to take place when one color is laid on top of another. Pattern weaving shows up better with a blending of color or tone-on-tone, if not a solid. Lace knitting shows up better in light colorways and/or ones with similar values.
Invest in a good color wheel. Direct complementary colors are opposite on the color wheel and generally always look good together. Split complements probably work better to prevent colors from appearing gray or brown. Triads are as the name implies and make somewhat of a triangle on the color wheel and are very pleasing together, particularly in large pieces. Analagous colors are next to each other on the color wheel and can be blended in small pieces effectively. I have found in blending warps and/or wefts that the larger the woven piece, the more one can experiment with color. The same colors in a small piece can be overwhelming and confusing particularly in pattern weaving.
I took a class from Donna Sullivan once who had us to do color wrappings of yarn on cardboard. It is a very interesting thing to do to design both symmetrical and asymmetrical stripes in neutrals from black to white, dark brown to beige, complementary colors, split complements, triads, etc. Use a strip of sturdy cardboard and apply double-sided tape to the back. Embroidery floss works great for this if you don't have a large palette of yarns. If you feel uncertain, Fibonacci series to the rescue! Without going into the history of Fibonacci, I will briefly say that it is a system that can be used to come up with a pleasing color blend or stripe by adding a number such as 1 with itself to equal 2, then 1 + 2 = 3, 2 + 3 = 5, 3 + 5 = 8, 5 + 8 = 13, etc. You may choose any of these numbers in sequence or out of sequence to design something that is generally always pleasing to the eye.
Still something wrong? Take it to the black and white copy machine. There was a good article in "Handwoven" several years back and it contained a gray scale. Colors that are equidistant from either end of the scale work well together. Making a copy in black and white will give you the overall feeling of a color that is too dark or light for your sequence or if you have used too much of it or not enough. For example, a little yellow goes a long way. Sometimes, just 1 or 2 ends here and there of a highlight color will bring a fabric to life.
If you can't seem to come up with inspiration, flip through a book of beautiful photography of scenery. Colors of nature are in good balance and always pleasing. Make a wrapping with the colors you see or even one portion of the picture. This is where a one-inch square hole cut in the middle of a piece of paper will come in handy. Move the paper around until you see the exact colors and proportions that are pleasing to you and make a wrapping. No books of photography? There are lots of sites online including Webshots with wonderful photography. Or it may be a good excuse to take a ride in a park near you or go for a walk. Take along your camera, a notebook, colored pencils or some embroidery floss. If you get caught without a camera, colored pencils or floss, write a word description such as intense sky blue. It may look different when you get home and pull your yarns together but chances are that you will like it a lot.
Visit an art gallery and study the colors in good paintings. What makes them good? What is the balance and proportion of color? What attracts you to the painting? What color(s) surrounds each color?
Or visit your stash of variegated or hand painted yarns that followed you home from some conference. Use the yarn as a jumping off point to design a beautiful piece of fabric. Pick up solids of some of the colorways that are in the colorway and design stripes featuring the hand painted yarn.
You can also use the hole in the paper to view your wrapping when you're finished. Look through it with only one eye and block out everything else around the wrapping, i.e., zero in on it and at different angles.
And, by all means, listen to music that inspires you whatever it may be. There's some color in there somewhere!