Contrast, in all visual art forms, creates interest. It is no different when creating your own nontraditional quilt designs. Willow Ann Soltow, in her book “Designing Your Own Quilts” offers some very practical advice about the different kinds of contrast you can use in quilt design, and how to use these techniques to add visual interest.
The first way you can create contrast in your quilt design is the most basic and the most obvious: use a contrast of light against dark. This works so well, in fact, that it is commonly seen in your traditional pattern blocks where a dark solid or calico fabric is done against a white background.
The second way you can create contrast in your quilt design is to use visual elements of different sizes. Just as the eye will travel naturally between a dark and light color, it will enjoy comparing the difference in sizes between large, medium, and small elements. You can also use size to give an illusion of perspective or realism: larger elements can be used to appear closer, while smaller elements appear to be farther away.
You can also create contrast by using a mixture of “hard” and “soft.” This can be done by having some portions of your quilt pieced using a precise geometric shape, while other parts are done with soft-edged applique. Though the author did not mention this, it seemed obvious to me that you could also gain the same effect by having some flat, pieced shapes next to some gently rounded (stuffed) figures.
By using curved piecing, you are actually using a naturally contrasting technique, with its straight and curved lines and shapes. Even though this can be a challenging technique to master, consider adding an element of curved piecing in your nontraditional quilt design to add visual interest.
If you enjoy doing geometric piecing with it’s short, crisp lines, you can add a pleasant visual tension to your design by doing curved quilt stitches over the geometric shape. The eye will naturally look at the geometry and then contrast it to the more free flowing curves of the stitches and hopefully find it appealing.
The author did warn that the contrasts in the printed fabrics you chose could have either a positive or negative impact on your design. If you were going to be doing small, delicate patterns in your nontraditional quilt, she recommended that you either used a solid or a fabric with a small print. A too large print (unless it was going to be cut down into smaller, unrecognizable pieces for a more abstract look) could end up clashing with the quilt’s design and confusing the viewer about what he was seeing.
Color, too, of course, can be used to provide visual contrast. In an earlier article I gave an overview of basic color theory for the quilt designer. You may want to read this to get an idea of how to use color in your quilts.
To finish this article I would like to mention that I was surprised that the author did not mention using different fabric textures to provide contrast. That, to me, seemed like such an obvious technique to use. A shimmering metallic sun against a soft light blue cotton sky, for example, came to mind. But as I browsed further through the book I found that she did write an extensive chapter on fabric and listed the wide variety of fabric choices that are now available to the nontraditional quilt designer. For the traditional quilt that is going to be used and later washed, the 100% cotton is probably the way to go, but if you are going to be designing a wall hanging that should never need to be cleaned, the sky’s the limit in what textiles you can use in your art.
Willow Ann Soltow. Designing Your Own Quilts