Hand embroidery poses a special challenge because you can’t mix different colors together in the same way that you would when you are painting. This tutorial focuses on perfecting the technique of color blending in hand embroidery using color gradients and the long and short stitch.
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Color Blending In Hand Embroidery
Long and Short Stitch
The long and short stitch is the backbone of the embroidery technique called thread painting. (You can read a basic tutorial with tips and product recommendations here: How To Thread Paint By Hand) This is the technique that embroidery artists use to create realistic-looking embroidery.
Using a single strand of embroidery floss, long and short stitches are made with one color. Then, one or several colors are blended together into the first color using long and short stitches. Colors appear to blend into one another using this stitch technique.
Choosing Colors That Blend Well Together
If you want the colors you use in your embroidery to have a smooth, blended look, choosing the right colors is crucial. In order to do this, you need to have at least a basic understanding of color theory.
First, I wanted to share with you a very quick overview of some color theory. While some aspects tend to be geared towards painters/artists who mix their own colors, I find it really helpful to be at least familiar with basic color theory because it will help you to be able to develop harmonious color palettes and have a better understanding of the best way to utilize colors.
You’re probably familiar with a color wheel. Color wheels are made up of hues, which are pure colors, meaning there is no white, grey, or black added to the colors. The colors that make up the color wheel are the following:
- Primary Colors (red, blue, yellow)
- Secondary Colors (orange, green, violet)
- Tertiary Colors (green-yellow, yellow-orange, orange-red, red-violet/purple, purple/violet-blue and blue-green)
Additional Color Terms
- Value – how light or dark a color/hue is
- Tint – hue with white added to it, has a lighter value than the original hue
- Shade – hue with black added to it, has a darker value than the original hue
- Tone – hue with grey added to it, value is lighter or darker than the original hue depending on what grey is added
In order to add depth and contrast to your embroidery, you’ll want to add shadows and highlights to it. An image or embroidery without these elements in it will appear flat and one-dimensional.
Using a combination of different hues, tints, and shades, you can add shadows and highlights, which will make your embroidery art look more 3-dimensional and life-life.
Shadows use colors with a darker value than the original hue, while highlights use a lighter value than the original hue.
This is all to say that you should choose shades and tints that are the same hue and similar enough to one another in value for them to blend well together and look realistic!
This is a super basic explanation of a dense topic. If you’d like to read even more about color theory, I suggest reading this article by Mary Shipp.
How To Shade With Embroidery
Choosing Similar Shades/Values of Color
As I mentioned above, shadows use colors with a darker value than the original hue. This means you’ll want to have several different shades of the color you are using.
When adding shadows, using a combination of shades that are close in value will make the colors appear to blend more smoothly together.
As you can see in the picture above, the leaf in the top photo has a subtle blend on the left side, but there is an obvious change in color on the right side.
The left side uses 3 different colors that are similar shades/values which gradually blend the color.
The right side only uses 2 shades of colors, which aren’t as close in value.
To fix this, I added a 3rd color (bottom photo) whose value was in between the two colors to make the blend a bit more subtle.
That being said, you can use a shade that is significantly darker or lighter than the other color you’re blending together, which will add a significant amount of contrast and depth. It really depends on what kind of effect you want to create.
In the photo above, I added a stem stitch down the middle of the leaf using a very light shade. This shows how you can use a lighter color against a significantly darker color to add contrast and detail.
Another thing that will help to blend colors more smoothly is by keeping your stitches uniform. They should lay neatly beside one another without any gaps in between them.
You should also have a plan as to which direction(s) you will be making your stitches. You’ll want to make sure that your stitches are going in the direction you plan to blend them.
For example, the stitches in the embroidered leaf were worked at a slight diagonal, running from the center to the outer edge. This is because the veins of the leaf naturally run in this direction and also because the transition from dark to light starts at the center of the leaf and gradually becomes lighter at the outer edge.
Instant Access To Exclusive Tutorials
If you’re interested in step by step tutorials to help you learn the art of thread painting, which includes many tutorials about animals and pet portraiture, please consider joining my Patreon community!
When you join the Serious Stitcher tier, you’ll get instant access to:
- a monthly thread painting pattern
- behind the scenes content and progress photos
- ability to vote on future embroidery patterns
- instant access to video tutorials, PDFs, and helpful resources
Common Mistakes And How To Fix Them
Not Blending Colors Enough
A common mistake people make when they are first learning how to thread paint is that they don’t blend the colors into one another enough. The stitches should be randomly long and short and they should overlap into the other color. This with make the blend look less obvious and more realistic.
Inconsistent Stitch Direction
Stitches should lay neatly beside one another and not cross over in different directions. This will make your embroidery look so much neater and it will be easier to make smooth color transitions.
Space Between Stitches
It can be easy to leave little spaces in between your stitches when you’re only using 1 strand of thread. Make sure you are stitching using proper lighting. It may also help to slow down and pay close attention to where you are making each stitch.
Using Too Many Strands of Embroidery Floss
The photo above shows the difference between using 1 strand and 2 strands of floss.
Colors will blend together so much easier when you use only 1 strand of embroidery floss. Using multiple strands will make it to where your stitches won’t lay as neatly and the transition between the two colors will be more obvious.
I hope this tutorial helped you to better understand how to blend colors together! Here are a couple of helpful resources I personally use and recommend for further learning.
Another resource pertaining to the use of color in embroidery that I highly recommend is the book Colour Confidence in Embroidery by Trish Burr. This book goes in-depth about choosing the right colors and color combinations as well as proper techniques to really bring your thread paintings to life.
I recommend anyone seriously interested in thread painting to purchase a DMC color card. This will help you select the colors you’ll need as well as organize them. Your collection of embroidery floss is guaranteed to grow significantly because of all of the different shades/tints of colors that are required, so keeping it organized is key! You can read more about some tips for embroidery floss storage and organization here.