Updated: Mar 10, 2021
The goal of this blog post is to help you discover more about combining colours effectively in your leather projects. Just a little knowledge will make your work stand out and get noticed.
Ask yourself this, have you ever wanted to break from the standard 'safe' choices of black, brown, tan and undyed leather?
Do you want to feel more confident about adding colour into your designs without being concerned that your choices won't match?
Because if you want to create the best luxury leather goods you can, it's not always about the neatest stitch or the smoothest edge, that is the department of craftsmanship. Other tangible considerations are important, such as design, function, and colour.
In this blog, we will be focusing on that last part, colour (or 'color' if you're American!).
So, grab your favourite tea or coffee, turn your phone off, and give this post your full attention. Because this subject, to my knowledge, has never been tackled openly in the leather goods industry! (consider printing it off and putting it up on your workshop wall)
Now, when it comes to selecting colour combinations for leather goods, many makers will select whatever they have in their inventory, or perhaps their selection can be based on what feels right at the time.
If they are asked why they chose the colours they did for their last project, could they specify why? What were their choices based on?
For example, you may see a colour combination on a wallet, a bag, or another accessory, and you think to yourself ‘wow, those colours just work perfectly!'.
Sometimes you may not even notice that the colours have been chosen thoughtfully, and you can’t put your finger on why you like it so much, even if the design or the craftsmanship is not perfect.
Usually, such good choices involve thought and intelligent design, rather than a spontaneous happening. So what is this thought process that goes into choosing what colours work well together, and what colours don’t?
Enter, the colour wheels.
By allowing you to identify colours that work in harmony, the colour wheel can act as a simple guide on what hues pair well together.
Monochromatic - just one colour (not shown above) The colour of a monochromatic palette boils down to a single hue, but variations in saturation can be played with. Full saturation is when a colour is at 'full power' with no black or white added to lighten or darken it.
An example of this would be the exterior of the De Havilland Travel Bag (which is a bag making video course available on this site). This combines two shades of the same colour, brown.
TIP: Use monochromatic colours in combination with varying textures in the leather. This gives more visual contrast without too much colour variation. Note the image above using very similar brown tones, yet the textures are different. This adds interest to the design.
Analogous colours are next to one another on the wheel, meaning they have similar tones and blend well together such as red and orange, green and yellow, or blue and green.
Analogous colours add interest to your design in a more subtle way. A simple option to choose if you are not sure, or your product design is more of a classic conservative piece.
Complementary. Colours which are opposite on the wheel offer the greatest contrast for a more striking effect. This is a bold option for those who want the most bang for their buck when combining colours.
Examples are red and green, orange and turquoise, navy and mustard.
Split-complementary is a colour scheme using one base colour and two secondary colours. Instead of using a complementary colour, two colours placed symmetrically around it on the on the opposite side of the wheel are used (see the chart above).
The base colour is the main, while the secondary colours can be used for highlights and accents such as linings, piping, bindings, thread, attachments or edges. An example could be a tan wallet with a navy interior and a light blue cash pocket lining. This isn't going to be to everyone's tastes, but it can work with the right design.
Triadic colours are three evenly spaced hues. They work in harmony but the effect can be quite bold.
The three colours are the furthest away from each other on the colour wheel.
While the wheel can provide a useful guide, you shouldn’t rely on it solely. Nailing the perfect combinations will come with experience and knowledge about shades and style.
Achromatic - no colour at all. Black and white. These shades can be used just like colours. But watch out, when combining them it can be a bit of a grey area :D
Polar opposites like black and white offer a similar look to complimentary colours, whereas analogous colours can be mimicked with shades of dark grey and mid grey, or black and dark grey etc.
How many colours should I have in one leather item?
Now this is not straightforward to answer, as good design can make every colour in the rainbow work in the same project IF it is done with thought and purpose.
However, as a general rule, I recommend two colours for each visual section of a leather item.
Why only two? While three colours is a good choice when putting together an outfit, a leather item can look busy with more than two colours. Add to that, the less colours a leather item has, the easier it is to pair with clothing.
This is especially true for more conspicuous items like bags and belts which are seen, compared wallets which are usually hidden in a pocket.
But you may have noticed I said ‘for each visual section’ of a leather item. A bag for example can have three sections - an external, internal, and pockets. This means that you can play with at least two colours in each section (don’t forget hardware!).
A wallet can be similar with the external component, internal, and linings for cash pockets or card slot linings.
So what materials can we use to play with colours? Let’s break it down.
Leather edge binding
Gusset welts (for some designs)
Zip tape (the fabric of a zip/zipper)
Leather reinforcement (an extra layer of leather outside a zip, for example)
Shoulder strap attachments
Exterior cover leather
Cash pocket lining
Snap button covers
This list could extend further with some creative thinking, not to mention the myriad of other items that you could make.
Tints, tones and full saturation
What are tints, tones and full saturation?
To help you understand this part, let's take something you are probably already familiar with - edge paint.
Let's say you've made a navy blue wallet and you want to apply edge paint that matches the navy colour.
But you have one problem, you only have regular old 'mid blue' on your shelf. The solution is to add black edge paint and mix it with your regular blue until it darkens enough to match the navy leather of your wallet. This is called 'tinting'.
Tinted colours often have common names which you may be familiar with, such as navy for blue, olive for yellow, burgundy for red, forest green, burnt orange and others.
On the flip side, we have 'tones'. Using our edge paint example again, lets say you have a wallet made from leather that is light blue. Again, you only have regular mid blue edge paint, which is blue at full saturation.
The answer this time is to add white until your blue turns light blue to match the leather.
Common names for tones you may be familiar with are baby blue, pink for red, mauve for purple, lemon for yellow, peach for orange and others.
You may also know these colours as 'pastel colours'. Long ago pigmented pastel crayons used to be made with chalk, which adds the white component of the tone.
Full saturation is simply a given colour without any black or white added. It is represented by the centre in the circle chart above.
So how does this translate into colour choices for your leather projects?
Well if you want to create an item that combines colours without looking too bold, then tints and tones can calm the colours into something a little more understated. Ever heard of 'tone it down'?
You may have your colour choices correct according to the colour wheel 'rules', but that doesn't guarantee that your bag will look good with all colours at full saturation.
At full saturation, a red and green wallet may make your project look like a Christmas decoration. However, a tinted version will give you deep burgundy and dark green, or toned colours which will create pink and mint green. That way you'll have something looking less like a festive ornament.
The choices are literally limitless and you can play around until you arrive with a decision that works.
A great way to start a project is to take small samples of differing colours of leather and place them together to arrive at a winning combination using the above charts. Swatch books available from most brands of wall paint are also great to play around with - and free!
So, taking a look back over your past projects, how have your colour choices fared now that you know what to look for?
Some people such as stylists, designers and make-up artists (creatives) tend to have a natural talent for what colours work together, as well as when to break the rules intelligently.
Others may prefer to use the information above, and make a more methodical and calculated colour choice moving forward.
So how about colours not represented in the colour wheel?
That's a good question, since brown is by far the most popular colour choice in leather goods, let's start there.
Brown luckily, is extremely versatile and can be paired with a number of other colours, and is easy to combine with the following:
Green/ forest green/ mint
Turquoise/ light blues
Cream/ off white
Pink/ fuchsia/ rose
Gold and copper. Not colours, but can match well with metallic skins and hardware
Now as we know, black and white are not strictly colours, so how to these combine with normal colours?
Black. Virtually any colour can be paired with black, as long as the colour chosen isn't tinted too dark where it could look visually similar at a glance.
So dark blue can be fine, but if you have to look closely before realising a particular hide is navy and not in fact black, then it's too dark.
The same goes for any colour that is too dark.
White. You could argue that white is even more versatile than black as you can still use colours that have a very light tone and get away with it. I can't really think of a colour that doesn't pair well with it. Tan maybe? A little too much like popcorn?
Finally, just like any set of rules or generally accepted practices, in order to add you own flair, or go against the grain, it is important to understand these practices and know them well. That way you can add you own twist, be unique, break the rules and still create a stunning showpiece - when done intelligently.
“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
― Pablo Picasso
“Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.”
― Dalai Lama
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