Box is a simple quilt block design of a central square surrounded by “wings” which go off to each of the sides. It is used here to show how to do shading in needlepoint. The block has lots of space to learn the two different shading techniques covered here. These techniques must be done using stranded threads as strands of more than one shade are needed. You will need one color family of floss or silk with three colors in it. You will also need floss in your background color.
This block is stitched next to Spool and above Air Castle.
Shading gives new ways to create color and realism in needlepoint while only using Tent Stitch. It provides new ways to fill in the spaces between colors of floss or silk and results in a broader selection of colors. Shading techniques also soften the hard lines between shades of thread. By doing this, those lines where the color changes get blurred and so the piece looks more realistic.
Shading, while easy, is something which has the “stitching distance” problem. While stitching, the piece is held closely and it looks blotchy and messy. This is because we stitch with the piece so close to our faces we do not get the optical blending that is key to shading. When the piece is a bit further away, at a viewing distance, the eye blends the shades together so it looks harmonious.
A wonderful example of this in painting can be found in books on the Impressionists. Look for paintings by Serault. He used a technique called Pointillism, where he painted the entire painting (and some of them quite large) in little dots of color. Look at it closely and the dots can easily be seen (if it is a good reproduction). Now look at it from a bit further away and the dots disappear, only the shapes and colors can be seen. This is exactly the same phenomenon as the stitching distance problem.
Using three shades of silk or floss, there will be six colors in the block using two different methods of shading. The central block uses one method of shading while the wings use another, more complex, method. In the chart below the entire block is charted. There are many symbols on the wings, this reflects the technique where more than one shade of thread is blended in the same needle.
Begin with the center block. In this method of shading, there is a transitional area of color between each solid block of color. By using the two colors in these areas, an intermediate shade is created. The entire block shades from light to dark and back again. Since the block is square, the transitions are done simply, by alternating the stitches between the two colors. Depending on the piece and the space for transitions, you can have more stitches of one color than another or scatter the stitches.
Scattering is also a great technique when you want to “blur” a line between two colors or shades. It also allows you to shade using single-strand threads. Just scatter a few stitches from one color into the first few lines of the other (on both sides of the line) and the line will look softer and more realistic. If this is not done, then the line between colors becomes very solid unless the two shades are extremely close in value.
Begin with the lightest shade of silk and use four strands. Stitch two lines of Tent Stitch (Continental is best) using this thread. Now stitch two more lines with this thread, skipping every other stitch. Fill in the empty spaces with the medium color of floss. Stitch two solid lines with the medium color and then two more lines with this shade, skipping every other stitch. Using the darkest shade of silk, fill in the empty spaces in those two lines. Now add four solid lines of the dark shade which fill in the center of the block.
The remainder of the block is the reverse of what you stitched:
- Two lines with every other stitch dark, fill in with medium
- Two lines of solid medium
- Two lines with every other stitch medium, fill in with light
- Two lines of solid light
This is probably the easiest way to do shading. It can be used anytime there are two shades next to each other. Scattering some of each color into the first lines of the adjacent color makes for a better result.
All four of the wings are shaded using a technique called needle blending or tweeding. Two of them (right and left) shade from light to dark, while the other two shade from dark to light. In this technique one or more colors of thread are used in the same needle — a new color is “blended” as you stitch.
The hardest thing about needle blending is keeping the different shades straight so the correct colors are combined. This is especially true when the shades are close in value. One way to keep from getting confused is to keep each shade in a different place or in individual flossaway bags so that it is easy to remember which is which.
The sequence of shading is the same for all four wings, so the same list is used. Go from top to bottom for one and from bottom to top for the other. There are two rows of every color except the outside one, where there is only one row.
Depending on the number of strands in the needle, the number of shades available can be expanded. If there are two strands and two colors, three shades can be created. Here, using four strands, there are two solid colors and three intermediate shades.
The more intermediate colors, the subtler the shading. Here is the breakdown of colors in the wings using light, medium, and dark instead of the numbers (this makes it easier to apply this to another project). The numbers after each color are the number of strands to be used.
- Light – 4 (four strands)
- Light – 3 Medium – 1 (one strand)
- Light – 2 Medium – 2
- Light – 1 Medium – 3
- Medium – 4
- Medium – 3 Dark – 1
- Medium – 2 Dark – 2
- Medium – 1 Dark – 3
- Dark – 4
This is for the wings going from light to dark. For the other pair of wings just read from the bottom up.
The background is done in Mosaic Stitch (diagrammed above) using four strands of the pink DMC floss. This block is a case where the background stitch has more texture than the main part of the design, which usually is not the case. But with shading, the technique draws attention to itself, so the main part of the design stands out, even though it is in Tent Stitch. Subtle darning patterns also make great backgrounds for heavily shaded stitching.
Do not forget to add the Cliff’s Stitch Border around the patch when the block is complete. Be sure to leave off this border on the outside; that side will have the wider quilted border.
If you want to explore shading in depth, but the Predictable Results book on shading (available here).
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