Using Contrast to Achieve Perspective in Stitching

By Lois Kershner

This article first appeared in NANthology, the NAN newsletter, in winter 2011.

Perspective is a technique for representing dimensional objects on a flat surface to give the illusion of depth or distance. The designer can choose which design elements to include and/or emphasize in a piece — the “what” of a composition. Design principles are the tools for how the elements are achieved, including such considerations as balance, contrast, movement, and unity.

In embroidery, the stitcher not only takes into account these design considerations, but also adds dimension and perspective to a composition by:

  • Selecting appropriate thread types, colors, texture, and value.
  • Choosing stitch size, direction, and placement.
  • Using a variety of stitching techniques.

Perspective can be achieved in the foreground and background areas of a piece of embroidery by relating the design principle “contrast” to design elements.

Color — Color contrast is achieved by the amount of color, adjacency, and whether the color is pure or mixed. To bring color forward it would be bright, pure, and dark. Color will recede when it is muted, mixed, and light. Adjacent complementary colors will draw the eye to them. Placing the lightest light next to the darkest dark will also draw the eye.

Line — Contrast in line, when the goal is to achieve a sense of depth, is achieved by line length and width. Lines are wide in the foreground, becoming increasingly narrow as they move into the background. Stitches in the foreground will be long or wide, in the background will be short and narrow. Stitch direction, pattern, and color selection can also create a line.

Shape — Shapes are distinct and larger in the foreground, less distinct and smaller in the background. Shapes can be made distinct using solid color, less distinct through thread blending and shading.

Size — Larger items will be in the foreground, smaller in the background. Size can be achieved in stitching through stitch length, selection of stitch pattern, and the number of strands used. In the foreground, stitches will be longer, stitch patterns larger, and the number of strands greater than in the background.

Texture — Contrast in texture is achieved through thread type, stitch type, and special stitching techniques. Threads in the foreground can be of heavier weight and nubby; in the background they would be fine and smooth. Stitches that build on top of the fabric (for example needle weaving, composite stitches, and an overlaid stitch technique) work well in the foreground.

Value — Darker value moves forward, lighter value recedes. Value in perspective can be achieved by thread color and mass of color used. In scenes with a horizon line, a thread shading technique can be used to gradually shift from a lighter value at the horizon to darker value away from the horizon.

Intensity — Contrast in intensity is achieved by the reflective quality of the thread. High intensity threads with sheen and luster or metallic finish will move forward. Threads that are flat, furry, or hairy will recede.

Achieving perspective is not limited to considering contrast, but in embroidery this design principle maps nicely to all of the design elements. The challenge is to remember to apply all of these tools when planning your stitching.