Trouble with Color? The Rule of 3

One common complaint amongst quilters is that they have “trouble with color”. Generally this means that they have difficulty deciding on a color combo for a quilt, don’t feel confident in their selection, or don’t like their color selections when they are done.

Do we all see color the same way? No, no we don’t! Color is a somewhat subjective experience and people also have physiological differences in how well they see color.

For more technical info, there is good explanation in this article.

You have probably also read articles regarding value (the lightness or darkness of a color) and tone (the amount of gray added to a color), which endeavor to explain color selection from a technical, art theory point of view. These discussions on color theory can leave people more confused than ever!

So what is a person to do when they have “trouble with color”?

  1. Select a fabric “family” from a single designer’s line, which is now easier than ever. All the fabrics in a jelly roll, fat quarter pack, layer cake or charm square selection with go with each other.
  2. Select a large scale print and pull the colors from that print. Break it down into the component colors and select small scale prints, blenders or solids in those colors.
  3. The Rule of Three. The Rule of Three is my own creation. Other quilters sometimes ask me for help with color selection and I have developed this simple – theory free way – to think about color selection. Here are the rules for The Rule of Three.
    1. Pick three colors.
    2. One of those colors should be somewhat dark. One should be light or bright. The third one can be either, or it can be in-between dark and light.
    3. You can use any shades, tints or hues of those three colors.

My friend Sandra sometimes struggles to choose colors. She used my Rule of Three in this wonderful Esther Aliu pattern, Love Entwined 2. We discussed which colors she preferred and then looked at fabrics online together (she is the UK and I am in the US.) She found a large scale print that she loved and used in the border. Her three colors were chosen from this fabric. Teal, deep rose and gold were her chosen colors. The background is a white grunge with gold metallic, bringing that gold into the background.

Love Entwined 2 by Sandra Pearson in deep rose, teal and gold.
Close up of Sandra’s center, embellished with machine embroidery
My version of Love Entwined 2 in Purple, yellow and teal. Batiks with a grunge background, using of one of the three colors as background in a very pale tone.
Close up of my Love Entwined 2 center.

Rule of Three Q & A:

I like baby blue and dark blue! These are not two different colors! If you pick blue, you can use both of those (rule 3), but you still need two other colors.

I like soft pastel colors. Pick three “soft” colors, but you still need a darker one and a lighter one. Contrast is important in making a quilt. Without the contrast of darker/lighter, it can be hard to see the pieced pattern or differentiate between applique elements. Put your color choices on a wall, or place the bolts on a rack at the shop and step back…3 ft, 6 ft, 10 ft…can you still see contrast between them?

I like dark, intense colors! So do I! But again, you need contrast. This was tough for me. After I pick a couple of deep, intense colors, I have to remind myself that I need a light one. I have made more than one return trip to a shop to find a “light”. A light tone/shade brings light (like sun through a window) that will help your dark, intense colors to pop and look even better.

Example of deep batik colors teal and brown with wheat (pale brown/gold) color.

Three is still too hard! I can do two, but not three. Having trouble with three? Think gray or yellow/gold. I am yellow avoidant, but I can do gold or very pale yellow. Pale yellow, light gold, pale gray or an off white can be a light. Deep gold or gray can be a dark.

I found a good print, but it has 4, or 5 colors in it! No problem, just remember which THREE are your 3 colors. It can have pink/dark rose (one color), pale green/dark green (one color), yellow/gold (one color) and flecks of blue. The blue or any other additional non-3 color(s) will add texture and interest, but don’t be distracted by them in your color selection of additional fabrics.

Do I have to use equal amounts of the three? No, no you don’t. I usually think of two as the main colors with the third as an accent color.

The pattern is shown in a color you don’t like at all, or in a very limited color range. Use your artistic license to expand or modify the color palate. Don’t be put off of a great pattern by the designer’s color choice.

Does the background count as one of the three colors? Usually, yes, yes it does! If it is white or black I may include it in the three, or not. It’s optional. If it’s any other color…off white, gold, teal, blue, etc then I count it as one of the three. Using darker or lighter tones/hues of the background color in your main piece will increase the eye candy value of your color palette.

Can’t I just stick with two main colors in different shades? Of course you can; it’s your quilt. But adding a third color, even in small amounts, will brighten the piece and make those two colors look even better.

What is an example of using different shades of a color? Do you like a winy Burgundy color? Great! You can use anything from a pale rose shade all the way to a deep dark burgundy shade and still be in your one color. Using several different shades of a color will add texture and depth. Is blue your chosen color? Anything from a sky blue to a navy can be used within that one color.

A recent purchase from a local quilt shop, using my rule of three strategy.

Loved this deep rose blue and green batik. I can easily envision it as a border on an applique project.

Fabrics bought at the same time to coordinate with this intense batik in a future applique project, pulling the rose, blue and green in varying shades and intensities, dark to light. I will probably rob more bits and pieces from stash as I go along.
Pale denim grunge to use with the fabulous batiks.

I hope this helps a little in thinking about choosing fabric colors.

Remember that CONTRAST is as important as color.

Don’t try to overmatch colors, just keep within your color range.

Indecision may be the most frustrating part of the process. Start small, with a wall hanging or table runner perhaps, and try the rule of three. But keep on quilting; the more you quilt, the more you learn and grow.



  1. Lennea, what a great explanation of how to do colour, I thankyou for helping me to do Love Entwined 11. It is proudly displayed on my bed. I learnt a lot when doing it. I look forward to more private tutorials. Lol. X

    Liked by 1 person

  2. WOW Lennea GREAT Tutorial and blog. You laid that our so easy to help with colours and tones. I could see so easy those 3 steps on Sandra beautiful LE and yours, what Great examples. Please don’t stop writing your blog, may be people don’t comment but its good for you and many many people do drop in and read your blog I’m sure. You have the gift of teaching with words. Cheers Glenda who always enjoys visiting.

    Liked by 1 person

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