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Diane Fitzgeral presents... Beautiful Beads

Chameleons, Mirrors, and Sunbeams: A Short Lesson in Color
Diane Fitzgerald

Welcome to the world of color and seed beads. For me, it is the most amazing, most challenging, most intriguing, and most appealing aspect of beadwork. It is the first question one must answer when beginning a new project. Some of the things I will explain in this short lesson I learned through experience and some in formal color theory classes where we mixed endless swatches of color with tempera paints. (I highly recommend color classes where you work with actual paint, not computerized versions of color.)

Have you ever wondered why the colors you select sometimes just don't seem to work out? Are you frustrated when you start working with two beads that you thought would be lovely together but they just fight with each other or lose all their punch? Well, it's happened to all of us, and some attention to why bead colors work the way they do may help you avoid such situations.

The first thing to realize about bead color is that it is like a chameleon--bead color is affected by three aspects of its surroundings: thread color, reflections from adjacent beads, and light.

The Chameleon Effect: Thread Color

The minute bits of thread that are almost imperceptible between beads change the overall color our eye perceives. It is to our advantage to take this into account just as the Impressionist painters paid attention to detail to obtain the richness of color they are noted for. For example, opaque yellow beads will shift to orange if red thread is used, just like the yellow finger paint did when we mixed it with red in kindergarten. Medium blue thread will give the same yellow beads a turquoise tint, and black will change them to almost army green. This phenomenon is known as visual mixing of color. Only white thread, a color with a value* similar to yellow, will not affect the color of yellow beads. So, why not always use white with all colors? If you are working with any bead color darker in value than yellow, the white thread will show and will tend to lighten your bead color.

To intensify bead color, use matching thread. To soften bead color use thread in a lighter shade or gray. We are fortunate today to have more than twenty colors of Nymo thread available, so take advantage of this tool. Try making samples with various colors of thread to see the effects of thread color on beads.

Mirrors: Reflections of the Color of Adjacent Beads

Working with a peachy pink, silver-lined, semi-matte Delica recently, I placed a column of three pink beads between two columns of black beads. Lo and behold, the pink turned almost gray! One of the characteristics of glass, its reflectivity, can give us unexpected results. Think of every bead as a mirror reflecting back to our eye all that the bead sees, which brings us to the third point, light. 

Sunbeams and LightColor palette of beads

The light in which our beads are viewed will also shift their colors. Look at a piece of beadwork in full sunlight and you'll see the full spectrum of colors fairly accurately. Then look at the same beadwork in bright moonlight. Colors will become grayed and indistinct, much like beads with a Ceylon (whitish) coating. Fluorescent lights, incandescent lights, and even the famed Ott Lite will each show beadwork in a unique and different way. One of the most unusual effects of light can be seen in gold luster beads which have a thin coating of gold applied to the outside. Hold a gold luster bead up to the light and you'll see one color with the light coming through the bead, but let the light bounce off the bead and you'll see a much different color. Beads with rainbow, iridescent, or AB (aurora borealis) finishes will tend to blend, while matte and opaque colors tend to remain distinct. 

What to do? Know your beads. Become familiar with their colors by making small samples of each color in brick or peyote stitch. To see how beads interact with other colors, lay these samples next to each other and see which combinations you like. Even putting a few beads of each color on a needle will give you an idea of how they contrast or blend. As you look at the beads, squint your eyes to determine whether you can see any difference between two colors that are close in value, or look at them from a distance. Spend some time developing groups of beads or color palettes that you know work well together. Occasionally throw in a zinger, or something to spark up the palette. My favorite is silver-lined lime green. It seems to work with everything for me. When buying beads, don't forget that the container--the plastic bag, box, tube, or even the thread if the beads are strung--will affect the color you see!

So, remember chameleons, mirrors and sunbeams, and use these three elements, thread color, reflections, and light, to achieve the color effect you want, to give highlights and shadows, to shift colors in subtle ways, and to make bridges of color that blend. While bead "soups" will give texture and interest, it is only through the precise placement of bits of color that we can achieve richness of color in our beadwork. We may have only a thousand colors of beads, but when we multiply them by the number of colors of thread available to use, we can have millions of colors and endless fun in expressing our own imaginative ideas.

*Value refers to how light or dark a color is. It is one of three terms used to describe color. The other two terms are hue, which refers to the color itself such as blue or red, and saturation or intensity, which refers to whether a color is mixed or diluted with other colors such as black, white, gray, or its opposite on the color wheel.

Diane Fitzgerald is the owner of Beautiful Beads in Minneapolis, Minnesota. You may contact her at

Diane Fitzgerald
Beautiful Beads
8432 Claymore Ct.
Inver Grove Heights, MN 55076

All graphics and designs 2003 by Diane Fitzgerald