The Value of a Color is in the Gray

Understanding color value

Here is a color theory post about the usefulness of thinking in terms of shades of gray that will not devolve into uncomfortable and awkward jokes about that movie/book/internet meme on how gorgeous, wealthy, and brilliant men are always looking for pretty, naive young women to shackle. Its about color and yarn and picking colors in yarn. And no shackling.

I’ve written about color theory before…

The Tyranny of Color and How to Pick One
How to Use That Color Wheel

and I probably will again. Its a deep and fascinating subject. Every time I delve into color theory I learn something new, something that opens my eyes to a whole new way of seeing and using color. I love it. I love all the colors. I’d be hard pressed to pick a favorite and there are none that I would refuse to consider. I’m an equal opportunity colorist!

Which is why I’m enjoying making this Hue Shift Afghan. It uses ten colors, all in combination with each other. Here is how mine looks so far…

Making the Hue shift afghan
In-progress Hue Shift Afghan (pattern by KnitPicks)

and here is how it will look when its all grown up.

Hue shift afghan, pattern by KnitPicks

(The pattern is from KnitPicks. You can buy it separately or with a “kit” of yarn to make it. The kit is in Brava sport weight and I’m really liking this yarn. For the price, $2.99 a skein or $34.89 for the kit, its fantastic. I’ve liked all the KnitPicks yarn I’ve ever tried which is why shortly after starting this project I became an affiliate, aka online sales person, for KnitPicks. I like their stuff. I happily recommend it.)

When people look at my in-progress blanket, they usually tell me which squares they like and which they don’t. Most of the time they don’t know why, they can’t explain what it is, but “there is something about those two colors and they don’t work together.” I know why. Its the colors’ value. Rather its those two colors’ values relative to each other.

Now the Hue Shift Afghan is not about individual squares, its about the whole thing and getting the big effect. But let’s take a look at it square-by-square and talk about color value.

Every color has a value. Every color also has a hue and that is not the same thing. A color’s hue is determined by where it sits on the red-orange-yellow-green-blue-indigo-violet spectrum, also known as the ROYGBIV spectrum.

ROYGBIV spectrum from Wikimedia

So when you are trying to find an orange-y red or a yellow-y green, your thinking about hue. Value is something different. A color’s value is determined by where it sits on the white-black spectrum also knows as the gray scale.

A gray scale from Wikimedia

The value is a measurement of the brightness of a colour. – from Colors on the Web

Yes, value is a measure of a color’s brightness. It says so in every book on color theory. That’s not a very useful definition for me. I think of it it like this:

Color value = how it looks in a black/white photograph.

Let’s go back to the Hue Shift Afghan.

Determining a color's value

Here we have 5 colors worked into 6 squares. Looking at the black/white picture you can see right away which squares are made with colors of similar, almost the same, value and which squares are made with colors of very different values. Which combo’s do you like best? Wait, don’t answer that yet. Let’s look at two other color sets first.

Determining color value

Here we have a set that mixes warm colors with cool colors. But warm/cool has nothing to do with the color’s value. Check out the top center square. That’s a greenish blue (its called Marina) with a pink (called Rouge) and they have almost identical values. Maybe that’s why you like them together. Or maybe that’s why you don’t like them together.

Take a close look at the bottom right square. How do you feel about that one? That deep blue (Celestial) and plum (Fairy Tale) are exactly the same on the gray scale. They are both a very dark gray which is why we call would call them dark colors or dark shades. Some people like deep rich colors together and some don’t.

Determining a color's value

Look at one more color set because I had fun making these up. Three of these squares combine colors with moderate value differences: the two on the left and the top right. Compare them to the top center (almost no difference) and to the bottom right (high difference).


What kind of combo’s do you like? There is no wrong answer. I have noticed people tend to have habits. Some like to pair up colors that have high value difference. Those tend to photograph better by the way and so you see them more often in magazines and such. Some people favor colors that are all the same value. They might think of them as “colors that don’t clash”. If you’re planning to combine many colors, say four or more, staying in the same color value is a safe way to go. Pick as many colors as you like, keep them all in the same value range, and you can decorate an entire living room.

Using This Trick at The Yarn Store

So the next time you are at the yarn store yarn and can’t decide which to buy (because sadly you can’t buy them all) start taking pictures of yarn in back and white. I’m sure your phone can do that. Even my crappy, out-dated phone can do that. (FYI, I hate my phone, and all other phones, and will be hanging on to this crappy, out-dated phone for as long as possible because I resent spending money on things I hate.)

The crappy phone set to take black and white pictures
Pictures taken with said crappy phone

Here are the last two colors that haven’t made it into the Hue Shift Afghan (yet). The light green (Alfalfa) and light yellow (Canary) have the same value. If you’re looking for that in a set of colors, these two might work for you.

And that’s my quick and dirty study of color value. Hope that was useful!


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27 Comments on "The Value of a Color is in the Gray"

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Great blog! I love colorwork but always have the worst time trying to pick the colors. I once bought 68 colors of Knit Picks Palette for a vest that required 6 or 7 colors! I.just couldn’t decide what I liked or what would look good. Looking at your examples above, it seems I like the squares knit with same values on the lighter side of the gray scale.

Julie B

This was most interesting. Thanks so much.


This was probably one of the most helpful blogs I have read! Your explanations are so clear and having the gray-scale pictures right there to compare made the light bulb come on! My one complaint was that you had to end today’s blog…you left me wanting more! Thanks for this.


I have trouble with gray. Most of the time it looks on the green side to me. I have a beautifully made shawl that I hesitate to wear because while it looks light green to me I have been assured that it is actually grey. So I just toss it on and wear with my usual assurance.
Thanks for all the tips. This is a fun way to learn.


Very cool! That explains why I like some of the combos in mine better than others I think. (I only have the first column down, but you know 9 months pregnant and I’ve had a horrible upper respiratory infection for the last week…)