In Search of the 12-Tone’s “Icy” Lights

A FAQ: How do you find the “icy” lights of winter? Why is it so easy to fall over into pastels that aren’t as stunning as you’d hoped?

The short answer is that these beautiful, clear, bright lights can be genuinely elusive.

Very clear light colours are hard to reproduce accurately with printed inks and are also difficult to achieve on some textiles (and impossible on most unbleached natural fibres). They can also be challenging to photograph accurately without professional lighting and expert camera setting control, with the resulting image showing flash bleaching, softening, inaccurate darkening at short exposures, or otherwise failing to capture the clean, crisp feel needed.

Winter ice lights need a clear, true white point as their base, and tend to be most easily found in formal shirting, high formal and bridal wear, lingerie, sleepwear, and traditional infant wear. If these strikingly light, clear, jewel hues are nowhere to be seen, it is easy to ease over the line into the lightest of summer’s softer colours and the lightest of the neutral springs’ blossom swatches without realising that you’ve substituted something else. (That said, we all live in the real world of tight budgets, urgent purchases and busy lives, and sometimes we all have to buy less-than-ideal items – but our aim is to know exactly what we are doing when we do.)

Examples of icy lights are found on strip 3.1-3.5 of all three classic TCI winter fans. At this extreme of value the differences between the three Winters are tricky to depict and to detect, and it may help to keep a few points in mind. True Winter is truly cool, wears stark optical “true” white the best, and True Winter’s lights are truly icy, based on that very stark white. Bright Winter’s versions are as always the lightest and highest chroma, and Bright Winter’s ideal white and lights have a very faint hint of warmth as if touched by sunlight (many silks have this bright quality of a very faint, clear yellow undertone, almost as if lit from within, which may be hard to discern until compared with true white). Dark Winter has a near-white point and ices too, but again there is a hint of warmth compared with those of True Winter, and DW looks their very best if a suggestion of antique depth and patina is present.

All winter lights, like diamonds, need their own version of the 4 “Cs”: coolness, clarity, contrast (that is, very high value or lightness), and we can sum this all up with the fourth word: crystalline. It may help to imagine an animator trying to realistically draw a clear quartz crystal – could they incorporate this colour convincingly?

Avoid any hint of murkiness and mutedness. Winters need clarity, saturation and high definition. Their colours are not pastels, nor are they milky, heathered, creamy, powdery, dusty, dusky or chalky – think brilliant tints of royal icing, not tinted cream, homemade buttercream or marzipan. Avoid, too, the warmth of BSp’s lightest colours, which can’t go as light and cool as winters do, and the warmer, darker, mellow depth of Dark Autumn’s. Maintenance is not easy – yellowing, fade, muting and greying of fabric all detract from the clarity winters need and you will notice right away as clothing wears and the bright, fresh, new feel gets a bit tired.

If you’re having trouble finding anything on the racks you normally frequent, you can still get your eye in by taking your palette elsewhere. As mentioned, try looking at men’s shirting and ties, or for definitive versions of those elusive ice tones, try formal and bridal ready-to-wear and fabrics – satins, crepes, crystal organzas, and so on. Look at haberdashery, stationary departments, kids’ costumes, dinnerware, glassware, paint chips, craft shops, anything.

Perfect matches to the palette are always reassuring, but above all you are looking for harmony. No palette will ever show you everything you can do, and winters can take lightness and darkness out to the edge. Sometimes it is more helpful to focus less on exact matches and more on questions like “Is it light, clear, cool, striking, and could it possibly be anything but winter? Is it cool or over to one or other neutral side? Does it sit easily with my blazer blues, my rich deep greens, my reds? Does it seem to make the whole fan sing, or does it look a bit faded, soft, and worn when compared with my palette, as if it wants to be somewhere else and on someone else?”

The more you look, the better you will see the often very fine line between what is yours and what is not quite as good. Get to know your icy colours “off piste”, and you will spot them from the doorway when they show up.

The question concerns winter lights, but the same idea applies to every limb of every other palette. Treat your palette as a field test guide that can show you something new anywhere. Take it to the florist or garden centre – springs and light summers, check out the spring flowers, softs, see how yours compares with proteas and grevilleas. Hold it in front of the mineral cabinet at the natural history museum, and in front of paintings. Drop your autumn palette onto wooden chopping boards, compare the greens in the upholstery section.

As a bonus, the more familiar you are with your tone the easier it will be to spot its harmonies when it comes mixed and organized into patterns (note that a lot of patterns mix palettes, which makes this an even more interesting exercise.  The question of just how far you can mix it up in these cases depends a lot on the scale of the colour blocks, the palettes involved, and on personal style and preferences).