White: Color’s Secret Frenemy

When I was about 6 years old, my 13-year-old sister told me that white goes with everything. Of course I believed her. She was a teenager and she knew everything. White is  known to be pure, basic, modern, minimalistic. White is a blank slate, an empty page.

But my work with color has brought me to the conviction that white has a dark side. I spend a lot of time thinking about colors and noticing my reactions to them in various combinations and environments in knitting and crochet. I will never say that I hate any color, because its pleasingness or un-pleasingness is entirely dependent on the environment in which it is used, but for me, white dominates other colors in a way that I anthropomorphise as bullying, and I hate bullies. Here’s an example:

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I tried to like this swatch, but I just don’t. I think the white makes the other colors look harsh and out of place, even though Ravelry friends were nice enough to tell me that the swatch looks cute, playful, childlike.

White does have its friends. Blue, especially when it doesn’t have much yellow or green in it, is one of the most reliable members of white’s in-crowd.

And neutrals. (Thank you to Raveler “some” for the use of her photos.)

And sometimes white does look really good with colors (sort of like that 6th grade queen bee who is nice to you for a day for no apparent reason). I keep a category in my Ravelry favorites for projects where white has a good effect on other colors, because for me that’s exceptional and I want to analyze these cases for commonalities.

I love the way Norwegian traditional knitting uses white, generally with gray, dark blue, red, and dark green. I disagree with the idea some people propose, that white makes the colors pop. I don’t think so. The colors make the white pop.

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To me, white evokes traditional needlecraft of various ethnicities. Besides traditionalism, white carries messaging of persuasion: vote for X, purchase Y and Z. Take a look at the flyers in the Sunday papers and see how often white is used that way.

Cheerfulness and babyishness are characteristics of designs that combine white with colors. I don’t think it’s an accident that when I was trolling the internet for not-so-pleasing examples of white and colors, I found myself looking in Target’s girl’s clothing department:

Ouch. And while we’re on the subject of cheerfulness, how about the forced cheerfulness of medical scrubs?

On the other hand, cheerfulness and playfulness are positive attributes when the colors have a reason to be together.

Once more, with feeling: the colors need to have a reason to be together! 

In the left photo above, the colors are gradients from the red, green, and yellow color families, and the pale green and pale pink are a gradient with the white. These gradients create a cohesion that forces the white to be a team player and not the 6th grade mean girl who squelches the personalities of her friends. The saturated dark reds and oranges also rescue the colors from baby blanket cliches. In the right photo, the colors are related to one another because they share a similar degree of chroma, that is, the degree to which “a sample appears to differ from a gray of the same lightness or brightness and that corresponds to saturation of the perceived color” (as defined by The American Heritage Dictionary, 2011). The colors, including the white, repeat according to a rota, which produces an interrupted diagonal line and engages the eye and brain for a long, long time trying to work out the pattern. This is the definition of great design.

In the photo on the left, the colors are a rainbow gradient that is roughly balanced by dark values at the top and bottom, with a zigzag of colored boxes that start small, get big in the center, and get small again. They look sort of like bubbles in the white background. The colors and shapes send the eye up and down and side to side. The eye doesn’t want to leave. (Thank you to Monika at http://www.facebook.com/https://m.facebook.com/VortexCrochet/ for the use of the photo.) In the photo on the right, the colors are cool shades of green, aqua, gray, white, and black, circles in white squares. The eye moves because the random arrangement of the colors sends it on a hunt for a rota, while the soothing and compatible colors provide the relatedness that satisfies the eye’s desire for order.

When colors don’t have a reason to be together, white isn’t going to make things better. It’s going to make their disharmony worse.

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These colors have the random look of using up leftovers from other projects. Now here’s something interesting: the next pair of photo shows the pattern in pretty much the same colors, but instead of white in the dominant role, this alternative uses red, pink, and purple as the background colors, outlining the motifs in blue, with minimal accents of white.

It has a very different effect. My nerves have stopped jangling. In fact, I kind of think the colors work!

My daughter told me not to use the phrase “white power” in this post, but the fact is that white has more power and impact than any other color the human eye experiences. It will hijack other colors and rob them of their glow when used carelessly. It is not a team player. To illustrate, compare these two African Flowers motifs:

The two motifs have entirely different emphases. The one on the left emphasizes the shape of the flower, because the white grabs the attention and won’t let it go. The purple/blue/brown multi and the copper-colored edging are pretty much an afterthought after serving their primary purpose for the white, which is to be a contrasting backdrop. It’s not ugly at all, but the multi and the copper know their place in this arrangement, which is to sing back-up for the white. The one on the right has a yellow-orange in place of the white, and it’s there in order to make the multi’s blue and purple glow and to create a subtly contrasting gradient for the copper. The yellow-orange lives to serve the other colors, and actually that’s just generally orange’s thing. Orange has a bad rep as a socially gauche loudmouth, but it is the secret friend of most colors, whereas white has this saintly, holier-than-thou reputation while going behind most other colors’ back and making them look bad.

There are ways to use the impact white has on the eye to create great design. White attracts the eye, so the designer needs to use that tendency in a way that makes the eye move and causes the brain to linger on the design, searching for patterns in the design that is making the eye move.firenze_blanket_medium2

White dominates other colors, and the greater the value difference between white and other colors the more it dominates them. The designer needs to take care to choose colors and a way to arrange them that doesn’t let white harshen and cheapen them. I’ve been thinking about gradients as a a way to keep white from doing bad things to the other colors in a composition, either by including the white in the gradient or by making gradients of the other colors while they swim in their sea of white. (Thank you to Raveler “some” for the photo on the left.)

I have an idea that I want to experiment with, inspired by these socks:IMG_1844I love that heel flap. I love the way it draws in the eye with the zigzag in white and dark brown, and then sends the eye upward, downward, and outward to consider the zigzags in vibrant color. The white doesn’t diminish the other colors in the least– in fact, it enhances it. I wonder if the geometric pattern in the dark brown neutralizes white’s tendency to subdue and conquer other colors? Keeps it too busy to do any mischief? I’m thinking about color experiments involving black and white checkerboards.

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11 thoughts on “White: Color’s Secret Frenemy

  1. I read this post with interest and agree with so much of what you’ve said. I rarely use white, other than as an edge or accent. I do love white with china blue though, or with red for christmas makes.

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  2. Ugh, yes, love this post!
    I’ve always felt white was usually far too harsh; anywhere that white is used (except, like you said, with a few color exceptions) a light grey can be used with a much more pleasant effect.
    I made a yoked sweater with orange, blue, green, and yellow in it, with white as the background (I was copying the colors of the original sweater); I then made a tam in matching colors, but used light grey instead of white, and I far prefer the tam colors. Everything looks more cohesive.

    Also, I don’t really look good in white. It washes out my complexion. I’ve always thought that because of that, I’m just a bit prejudiced against it. Now I see I’m not; it really is a bully color 😀

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  3. Thank you so much for this study – I shall keep in my colors folder.
    Thank you for looking up the samples as well – the afghan with the colored circles on white background was in my color ideas folder. Not so sure about it anymore.

    I will be referring to this again and again. Thank you!

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  4. I agree wholeheartedly with your analysis. White confuses me. White is a colour I use to write on, with pen and ink. Or mop up spills in the kitchen. I don’t like to knit in it, so much so that peely-wally (Scots for ‘pale’, ‘hint of’ colours like barely there pink…) even put me off. I don’t use it as a background colour on my computer as it’s too harsh – I use a pale warm grey. The elongated bauble-shape where your nerves were jangling – my eye disliked the black separating stripe, it seemed to leap off the page like a panther in full attack mode… not sure why, but maybe my nerves were jangling too!

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  5. Absolutely love this- I’ve never thought about white in exactly this way before. In art school we learned a lot about the dangers black posed to other colors. One painting teacher insisted that black paint be banned. But I’ve never thought about the dangers of white! Really smart post. Thank you.

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