Color (and Finish) Dynamics

This segment of the website might end up being more difficult to write than any other. There is a lot of information here to be mined; and much of it is intuitive and experiential in nature. It calls on our emotions and upon our past histories with similar hues, shades, and tints. Reactions and responses to colors and color combinations do show trends, but it is not even the case that we know that everyone even sees the same colors, as versus calling them the same thing. This is the reason for the development of Pantone colors; though researching the history of Pantone, I’ll leave up to you.

Searching for information about color interactions online does reveal that others are talking about this, as you would likely know if you found this site by running such a search. As such, I realize I don’t need to reinvent the wheel. I do remember, from a very long time ago, a Web page which identified which finishes of bead tended to advance and recede. I remember it when I use metallic beads, which tend to advance most of all; and with matte beads, which tend to strongly fall back (unless they’re also opaque). Unfortunately, I ran across that site several machines — maybe a couple of decades — ago, and I know that I was unable to carry forward my bookmarks on at least one of those data transfers.

Ultimately, the best way to learn about color interactions in beadwork, is just to work with the beads, themselves. In other parts of this site, I have advised against working all with one size of bead in different colors, because it locks one into a specific type of work.

However: if a person is looking specifically at color combinations and color interactions, initially keeping all other variables (such as size and brand) within a limited range may help them see what the colors — and finishes — actually do. It’s possible, with loomwork and other basic flat stitches such as Peyote, Brick, and Square stitch, to essentially “paint” with beads. Just remember that you can do far more with beads, than this.

In my case…I started out around the age of 11, working with a beading loom, a needle, thread (was it dental floss? don’t use dental floss), a film case, and a bunch of super-cheap size 11/0 seed beads…though my particular memory has to do with having gotten a baggie of tiny Purple Iris beads from the only actual good bead store I then knew; and learning Peyote stitch at recess. I’m not sure if I knew exactly how much more having the right beads would help, but I’m sure it did.

However, I don’t recommend this path, for two reasons.

One, I often see warnings on glass beads against use by people below the age of 14. I’m not sure what this is about, but I believe it may be developmental in nature. I was too young to care, and my parents were permissive and unaware of this fact.

Two: super-cheap beads tend to be super-low quality. I’m not talking about good beads (like Tohos) which you find at a low price, someplace like a craft or fabric store. I’m talking about beads which are uneven in size and shape, where the dye comes off on your fingers as you work with them. Where, if you attempt to use them in loomwork, your rows could come out uneven through no fault of your own.

To some degree, a bit of variance is to be expected — especially with Czech seed beads, which can be mislabeled (or unlabeled) as to size, or bought in tiny variants of size, unknowingly. These, you could get into very easily, with experience. But the beads I’m talking about here (not Czech) just are not quality. I’m not going to name brands, but they’re usually extremely inexpensive and found at craft, fabric, and some art stores which do not specialize in jewelry trade or tools.

For that matter, don’t expect to find good inexpensive beads at Jewelry Supply sources, either: “Jewelry Supply” is aimed mostly at those undertaking hot and cold metalwork (silversmithing, goldsmithing, reactive metals, etc.), stone setting (with bezels, prongs, or other wire), cultured pearl stringing, and the like; which is not exactly what we’re talking about, here. When you think, “Jewelry,” with a capital “J”, think of metals. Jewelry Supply sources are the people you get your high-quality wire, sheet, findings, cut stones, and tools from, for (usually) a better price than you could from a bead store.

Color interactions and dynamics are a major reason I am involved in beadwork, and not hot metalwork: metalwork is more about form and process, while beadwork provides much more room from the start, for experimentation with color.

There are a lot of good places online which specialize in serving customers involved with beadwork. Unfortunately, shopping online is regularly a bit scattershot, due to variations in digital photography (like lighting, at minimum), and variations and limitations in screen display. It’s preferable to actually be able to see the beads in real life, before you buy them (and even more preferable, to see them under more natural light than the bright illumination often focused on walls of beads): but being safe, these days, may require shopping from home.

Although beads look different all at once in a tube or hank or strand than they do when they’re on their own next to other beads, at least you can hold those beads up against a wall of other beads, and see what color interactions draw a response from you. You can then also differentiate between whether you want, say, “yellow,” or, “dark yellow,” which may be just a minuscule difference in coloring or value. (“Value” refers to the lightness or darkness of a color, as you would see if you could see a grayscale photocopy of that color. Squinting at a color, thereby cutting down on the amount of available light, helps to discern value.)

A choice between two close colors depends on the interactions desired among the other beads in your piece. One choice may strengthen certain elements, while the other could strengthen different ones. What the beads in question will be directly next to, also matters. In this case, you need to decide what will be your focus and what will be your support. What do you want the eye to be drawn to, most? In a basic design, you may want the focus to advance while the supports recede.

The opacity and hue of beads are key in whether they advance or recede; bead finish is also a factor. Metallic (“galvanized”) beads, opaque beads and silverlined beads advance; matte and transparent beads tend to recede.

Warm colors (red, orange, yellow) tend to advance, relatively, while cool colors (green, blue, violet) tend to recede. Color saturation, or intensity, also matters. A very strong color will stand out more than a weaker or dilute color, and could overpower it. However, these factors are not stagnant; a pastel pink (a dilute color) can stand out if it is a clear opaque pink with a reflective Luster coating.

There are other finishes such as Iris (multiple colors within a range; usually opaque), Ceylon (a light, translucent-to-opaque base with a pearl-looking coating), various specific Luster coatings (which can but usually don’t look like Ceylon), AB (a.k.a. Aurora Borealis, which is a rainbow effect coating), etc. There are also beads variously called “waxy”, “greasy”, or “opal”, which are a mixture of opaque and transparent glass. I shouldn’t make any generalizations about these, however.

Adjacent colors are also subject to optical mixing (which the Impressionists were known for). The perception of each color in an adjacent pairing is different than it would be alone, depending upon similarities and differences of their underlying color biases. Two colors which are complementary (across the color wheel from each other), such as blue-violet and yellow-orange, mutually strengthen each other when placed side by side.

As regards overtones, let’s look at the yellows, once more. Any color, such as a yellow, can lean cool or warm. In this case, a cool yellow leans green, while a warm yellow leans orange. If you pair a cool yellow with a green, the underlying green tone in the cool yellow will strengthen similar color within the green beads. They should then both appear more vibrant in the green part of the spectrum, when paired. If you pair an orange-leaning yellow with a green — granted that the green is not a muddy green which contains orange (these exist; it’s very easy to produce these colors in paint) — it could clash and waste the overtone (unless steps are taken to bridge the temperature divide via introducing other beads, or there are other hidden similarities between the beads).


There are two extant books I’ve read, specifically on color in beadwork. These are The Beader’s Guide to Color (2004, Watson-Guptill), by Margie Deeb, and Beaded Colorways: Creating Freeform Beadweaving Projects and Palettes (2009, North Light Books), by Beverly Ash Gilbert.

On a quick lookup, I also see another book by Margie Deeb called The Beader’s Color Palette (2008, Watson-Guptill). Searching WorldCat…which is a global database of library holdings, I began with a known-item search for the first two books I mentioned, and then looked under the Subject Headings applied to them. Searching these turned up a third book, The Beader’s Guide to Jewelry Design: A Beautiful Exploration of Unity, Balance, Color & More (2014, Lark Jewelry & Beading), also by Margie Deeb. Somewhat surprisingly, I also found this in my library.

I believe at this point that finding the last book under the same subject heading may have much to do with who cataloged it, which in turn may relate to the author’s connections in Publishing (like CIP data), or to the precedent established for her books by prior Catalogers. I can’t be certain, however.

The shortcoming any book has in describing color and finish interactions in beadwork is apparent when you actually have the beads in front of you. Printed paper can’t really describe internal reflections of light (referred to as “fire”), or the effects of surface treatments which substantially alter one’s impression of the color of the bead (like Transparent Luster Cobalt, searchable by manufacturer [Toho] plus the color code: [#116]; the “#” sign is optional). It can’t even accurately reflect the effect of matte-finished beads as contrasted with metallics.

I have even experienced digital cameras just not picking up rainbow (AB) coating reflections on the outsides of beads, as though I were photographing them through polarized lenses.

The only way it’s possible to clarify what is meant when one tries to explain color theory and interaction, in these cases, is either to distribute samples of materials which demonstrate the particular phenomena at play; or, perhaps, to use video. Video can demonstrate fire, which changes with the angle of light; and luster, which is the amount of light reflected from surfaces; but the other problems (majorly, the effects of other and varied surface treatments [sometimes more than one on the same bead, e.g. Matte Celsian], plus metallic or colored linings) still hold steady.

Fugitive Colors

“Fugitive color” is a term borrowed from the more mainstream Art world, where a color may change due to inherent or environmental factors over time. Of course, in drawing and painting, the time scales in question — over which the drawings and paintings are meant to last — are much longer than anything we may be looking at in beadwork. Because of the capriciousness of fashion trends, and the envelopment of jewelry within the fashion industry, many beads are manufactured to last a short while; not hundreds of years or more.

Not all seed beads have unstable colors, despite the fact that some retailers cover themselves by labeling all seed beads they sell, this way. There are glass formulations which produce colors within the solid glass, which will not fade. From what I can tell, however, the number of these formulations is limited. For example, blue-violets seem regularly difficult to produce in glass; these tend to be approached with the usage of a base color with either a coating that interferes with the reflection of light, or color-lining, which coats the inside of the bead hole(s) with a color. This is if they are not outright just glass covered with a purple coating…which calls in the question of color permanence (and sometimes, just basic quality).

“Amethyst” appears to be a trade name for one of the better-known formulations of purple glass; unfortunately, at times, it also ranges towards a reddish brown — even in light tones. All of the really nice colors that I’ve seen in glass beads which range toward blue-violet (Cobalt Blue and Sapphire excepted) have special coatings applied to them (e.g. Bronze Iris [Luster] Sapphire, where the Bronze Iris Luster coating causes the bead to appear violet with a “Sapphire” blue undertone). Many of them do not have base colors one would think of right off as a good base for violet (e.g. smoke topaz AB: a cool brown with a rainbow coating). Sometimes, they don’t even mention purple or violet in the name at all (like cobalt blue luster, or fuchsia AB).

I should also note that trade names seem to be a bit fluid. What I refer to as cobalt blue luster, may appear under a different name, the next time you see it (like “transparent luster cobalt” or “translucent luster cobalt” or “transparent cobalt luster” — not to mention variant spellings like “lustre”). This happens even though the product is the same (for example, “Toho #116” — although cobalt blue with a luster coating is so common that multiple companies produce their own versions [e.g. Preciosa #36100; Miyuki #2243, or, as a possibly closer match, #308 — although 308 is named as a “gold luster” color] — not to say at all that these are exactly exchangeable. In addition to differences in the visible color and finish combinations, the sizes, shapes, and dimensions of each company’s beads are subtly different).

Color impermanence can be an issue with some seed beads, for example dyed beads and galvanized beads which don’t have an added layer like “Duracoat”, “PermaFinish”, or “Permanent”, to protect their colors. Even these will eventually wear, but they’ll last longer.

I’ve found recommendations to seal beads with a protective spray varnish (or fixative?) in order to keep the colors from wearing. I personally wouldn’t go to that length, largely because spray varnish on a baseline is pretty toxic. I don’t think the toxicity would so much affect the end user, but the process of spraying it exposes one to the hazard of breathing both the varnish mist, and the solvent. This is not stuff you want inside your lungs. There are respirators available — and you need a special cartridge for an application like this, which I haven’t been able to exactly pin down (maybe reading the MSDS of the particular varnish, would help) — but I have wondered if it is even worth it to consider the process, given the risks.

I have also read claims that SolGel colors (which I’ve seen largely in relation to Czech seed beads) do not wear or fade. I personally haven’t tested them, but I do have one vial of intensely purple beads which I’m pretty sure are SolGel, likely from the late 1990’s. They’re still intense in 2021. The drawback to SolGel beads is that the colors may be difficult to coordinate, due to this intensity and clear color.

Even light colors with SolGel dye can be very pure. Pure colors can be difficult to use, especially when you’re coordinating beads by using their color overtones. However: I’ve recently found some nice beads with a “Tint” label, which are SolGel dyed (on a light base), and also have either a warm or cool overtone. (For instance, pink can lean warm peach [i.e., tend towards orange], or cool blue [i.e., tend towards magenta].) I wasn’t able to find both warm and cool tones using the same vendor, however. Finding them was a benefit of shopping around and taking chances on what I ordered.

I should note that dyed beads are not all bad — sometimes the tradeoff for having a bright, intense, or specific color, or a color which cannot economically be made in solid glass, is the fact that it won’t last hundreds or thousands of years. And, of course…there is the question of whether a resistance to decomposition is actually a good thing…or whether disposability, as normalized by the fashion industry, is preferable. I don’t think there’s an easy answer to that.

In reality, the thread that a piece of beadwork is woven or knotted with is likely the weakest part of the entire piece. Usually, this is nylon, but — even if it is something stronger such as steel cable — in my experience, it’s the most vulnerable component, and often the first component to wear or break. Because a few beads are usually lost when that happens, it may not even be possible to fully repair and restore a piece of vintage beadwork to its original state — especially if the beads used in it have already faded over decades, preempting the possibility of finding matching replacement beads.