A Red by Any Other Name

“Hey Mom, what’s your favourite colour?”

I heard this question often when my boys were young. I could never give them a definitive answer though. “It depends,” I would say. “The colours I like for my garden aren’t necessarily the same colours I like to wear, or the colours I like to decorate the house with.” Was I a bad Mom, because I wouldn’t play the what’s-your-favourite game?

Over the years I’ve thought more about this – I suspect one day I’ll have grandchildren who will no doubt ask, “What’s your favourite colour Grandma?” – and I want to have an answer for them. So I decided to abide by the old adage, ‘when in doubt, make a list’. I took inventory of the colours in my garden, the colours in my closet, and the colours in the house. I compared the 3 lists and noted they had but one colour in common – rich dark burgundy, so named for the red wines of Burgundy (region of France). I guess this must be my favourite colour!

Now apparently, one’s favourite colour says something about one’s disposition; for example, people who like blue are reputed to be reliable, responsible, honest and loyal. Those who favour green are supposedly generous, good listeners, and possess good judgement. But I could find no descriptions of people whose favourite colour is burgundy.

If you’ve read my posts on colour theory you know that burgundy is actually a very dark red, and according to colour psychology, people who like red are passionate, strong-willed, extroverted and confident. They are also controlling, quick-tempered, easily bored and impulsive. Honey, does this sound like me? Well, maybe when I was younger.

But my favourite colour isn’t red; it’s burgundy – not ordinary red, but very dark red. Perhaps I’m everything a red personality is – but darker?  Yikes, how sinister! Upon further research I eventually found a number of references describing the ‘burgundy personality’. Burgundy is, apparently, a well-disciplined red. A mature, sophisticated red. Like red wine, I guess we get better with age….

Beautiful, bodacious burgundy - my favourite colour. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Beautiful, bodacious burgundy – my favourite colour. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Today is Valentine’s Day, an appropriate day to talk about red – and a fine time to savour a glass of Burgundy with someone you love. So in the spirit of Valentine’s Day and all things lovey-dovey, I leave you with this little piece of wisdom:

“Love does not consist in gazing at each other.....

“Love does not consist in gazing at each other…..

but in looking outward together in the same direction” ~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery ~

…but in looking outward together in the same direction” ~Antoine de Saint-Exupery

A really good smooch works too. Mourning Dove photos: Pat Gaviller

A really good smooch works too. Mourning Dove photos: Pat Gaviller

 
Happy Valentine’s Day,
Sue

 

Colouring Your Garden – Part 9: Colour Schemes

Have you ever had the experience of driving along on a summer day and somewhere in your peripheral vision, you catch sight of a gorgeous garden? Slamming on the brakes, you stop and stare, momentarily transfixed.

What is it about this ‘living picture’ that has you so enchanted that the rules of the road are temporarily ignored? Perhaps what you find so captivating is the use of colour. How beautifully the colours work in concert! Is this happenstance – or was it planned?

Good use of colour in the garden – even if informal – usually does involve planning. Indeed sometimes the difference between an average composition and a head-turner, is an effective colour scheme. For many gardeners though, purposefully employing a garden colour scheme just doesn’t cross their minds. Or they may dismiss the notion as too restrictive, preferring instead the more random use of colour.

Utilizing a colour scheme doesn’t have to be restrictive if we think rather in terms of a hue scheme. Looking to the Munsell Book of Colour, we find that for each hue, there are many permutations of value and saturation all arranged on an individual page. So if we want to work with a scheme which includes red, we have a whole hue page to choose from  just for red! The other hues in our scheme afford us the same broad selection of colours. A little less restrictive than you thought, right?

Colour Schemes

A colour scheme is a planned or logical combination of hues on a colour wheel. As we discussed in earlier posts, there is more than one colour wheel, but you’ll probably find the artist’s colour wheel to be the most user-friendly. You can then refer to Munsell hue pages (or reasonable facsimile) for guidance with the various colours that fall within that hue. I do sometimes utilize Munsell’s hue circle to work out colour schemes, but they aren’t always as straightforward. For ease of use then, I am mixing models here.

So how does one go about choosing a colour scheme for the garden? If your house or other backdrop is a particularly strong chromatic colour, then it’s most effective if you include that colour in your scheme. If on the other hand, your house is more neutral, then start with a colour you really like and build from there.

The colours used in this restaurant patio planting echo the muted red and yellow hues of the siding on the building. Photo: Sue Gaviller

A few things to consider as you ponder the possibilities. Remember that green will be a consistent presence in the garden – most plants have green foliage and the hue will predominate in the surrounding landscape. However, since the eye expects to always see green, it will largely ignore it, focusing instead on the other colour constituents. So you can think of green as your canvas, the backdrop for your colour scheme – neutral and thus ignored. Or it can be one of the hues in your colour scheme.

The presence of green also provides balance – cool hues should outweigh warm hues by approximately three to one, hence the prevalence of green in the garden ensures this proportion is always met.

Keep in mind too that you can vary the colour schemes from one part of the garden to another (particularly if you have a large canvas), and the scheme can also change or evolve as the season progresses. In my own garden I have numerous colourful foliage plants (eg. yellow-green, red-violet), so while the colour scheme changes from spring to summer to fall, those hues must always be part of the scheme. And there are times when there isn’t a colour scheme at all.

Realistically speaking, some scenarios don’t lend themselves to formal colour schemes (if only for the reason that the proprietor of a well established garden may not want to part with anything – just to incorporate a colour scheme). One can still play with colour schemes though; containers are a great way to experiment without committing to a particular composition.

So let’s have a look at what we can construct using the artist’s colour wheel and some Munsell hue pages.

Monochromatic colour schemes use various values and degrees of saturation of a single hue. Working with a single hue creates naturally harmonious colour compositions.

Monochromatic colour scheme using the hue of red-violet (5RP). Photo and graphics: Sue Gaviller

Complementary colour schemes contain two hues that are opposite each other on the colour wheel.

This is a high contrast colour combo, which means it can be loud and demand attention. So you’ll want to tame it by including numerous value/saturation variations of the pure hues – and of course lots of green.

Complementary Colour Scheme: Red-violet (5RP) and yellow-green (5GY). Photos: Top left – Pat Gaviller. Bottom and right – Sue Gaviller

Analogous colour schemes use two or three hues that are next to each other on the colour wheel.

Although this is a low contrast combination, analogous hues still benefit from utilizing variations in saturation and value of the chosen hues, thus introducing more variety. Remember if you choose warm hues, there will need to be significant green (foliage) in your composition to provide the necessary cool/warm balance.

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Analogous Colour Scheme: red-orange (10R), orange (5YR) and yellow-orange (2.5Y). Photos and graphics: Sue Gaviller

Counterpoint schemes consist of a hue and one of the hues on either side of its complement.

This too is a dynamic colour combo, but somewhat less so than complementary compositions – many people prefer this colour duo as it generates less visual conflict. Again the use of variations in value and saturation of the two hues will create both unity and variety.

Photos: Sue Gaviller

Counterpoint Colour Scheme: red (5R) and yellow-green (5GY). Photos and graphics: Sue Gaviller

Split-complementary schemes are three-hue combos that use one hue and the two hues on either side of its complement.

The split-complementary colour combo has all the dynamism of complementary and counterpoint, with the balancing addition of two hues that are closer together. A garden may transition from the aforementioned counterpoint theme to split-complementary as the growing season progresses and more plants (thus more colours) take the stage.

Split Complementary colour scheme - yellow, blue-violet and red-violet. Photos: Top left: Cathy Gaviller. Right: Jane Reksten

Split Complementary colour scheme: yellow (5Y), blue-violet (7.5PB) and red-violet (5RP). Photos: Top left – Cathy Gaviller. Right – Jane Reksten. Graphics: Sue Gaviller

Analogous-complementary schemes use two adjacent hues and the complement of one of those hues.

Similar in effect to split-complementary, analogous-complementary schemes are especially soothing if the analogous constituents are cool hues.

Analogous-Complementary Colour Scheme: violet (5P), red-violet (5RP) and yellow-green (5YG). Photos: Sue Gaviller

Analogous-complementary Colour Scheme: violet (5P), red-violet (5RP) and yellow-green (5GY). Photos: Top left – Pat Gaviller. Bottom left/right – Sue Gaviller. Graphics: Sue Gaviller

Double-complementary schemes use two adjacent colors and the complements of both of those hues.

Graphics: Sue Gaviller

This four-hue scheme brings both drama (from opposites) and subtlety (from analogues) to a garden composition, and can be a natural seasonal transition from analogous-complementary as more plants come into bloom.

Double-complementary Colour Scheme: violet (5P), red-violet (5RP), yellow (5Y) and yellow-green (5GY). Photo and graphics: Sue Gaviller

Diads are colour schemes that consist of two hues located two spaces apart on the colour wheel.

Though this colour duo provides more contrast than an analogous scheme, it is still a low-contrast theme and less dramatic than higher contrast combinations. More contrast can be introduced if one of the hues is warm and one is cool, for example red and purple.

Diadic Colour Scheme: red (5R) and violet (5P). Photos: top – Pat Gaviller. Bottom – Sue Gaviller. Graphics: Sue Gaviller

Triads use three hues that are equally spaced around the colour wheel.

Triadic schemes offer interesting colour combinations and are inherently balanced because the hues are all equidistant from each other.

Triadic Colour Scheme: Violet-blue (7.5PB), orange-red (10R), and yellow-green (5GY). Photos: Sue Gaviller

Triadic Colour Scheme: blue-violet (7.5PB), orange-red (10R), and yellow-green (5GY). Photos and graphics: Sue Gaviller

Tetrads are colour schemes using four hues that are consistently spaced on the colour wheel.

  • Square tetrad – 4 hues touched by the four corners of a square placed in the centre of the colour wheel.
  • Rectangular tetrad – 4 hues touched by the four corners of a rectangle placed in the centre of the colour wheel

Four-hue schemes provide considerable colour choice thus can be quite vibrant, especially when hues are at full saturation. They can be toned down somewhat with the addition of less saturated versions of the pure hues.

Tetradic Colour Scheme: red-violet (5RP), orange (5R), yellow-green (5GY) and blue (5B). Photos and graphics: Sue Gaviller

You can see that with all the variations in value and saturation for each hue, many different but related colours are available to you – even when using only a couple of hues. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have access to the Munsell Book of Color, but there are numerous apps and online tools that will provide more than enough visual info for application in the garden.

I highly recommend the Virtual Munsell Color Wheel. It’s very easy to use – just bear in mind that it includes all the intermediate hues that lie between the basic hues (totaling 40 hues), which you may find overwhelming. The digital ‘hue pages’ aren’t identical to those in the Munsell Book of Colour either (copyright and such). You’ll also note that, compared to the traditional RYB colour wheel, Munsell’s blue (5B) appears more green and his purple-blue (5PB) more blue – this is because he divided the circular colour spectrum differently. I wouldn’t get too carried away with detail or accuracy though. Just choose your colour scheme using the artist’s colour wheel and find the hues that most closely approximate them on the Virtual Wheel.

Finding foliage or flowers in exactly the right colour may be next to impossible anyway. But don’t get discouraged. Remember green foliage abounds in the garden, and with all that ‘green between’, you’ll find that almost-the-right-colour will be close enough.

So the next time the colour in some gorgeous garden catches your eye, you’ll know why – but that driver behind you probably won’t care. You’d better get moving before he leans on the horn again – head on home and create your own colour scheme. Now you know how!

‘Til next time,
Sue

 

 

 

Colouring Your Garden – Part 8; More Optical Illusions

 

Well that was a lot of work.

The whole summer I mean – and the fall. And the spring before the summer – and the winter before that.

When gardening season wrapped up last year, I promised myself I wouldn’t procrastinate on my winter design projects – which I didn’t. I vowed I would pace myself during the off season – which I did. I was determined not to let everything languish until late winter or early spring, requiring a huge push to get all my designs finished and ready for contractor quotes in time for the new season – which I didn’t.

As a result, I didn’t need to turn business away this year – which I often do when my work load gets too heavy. In fact, I was able to take on more clients than ever before. I was so busy that my husband started calling me Stranger, as in “Hi Stranger – come here often?” I was so busy I couldn’t keep up with the demands of my own garden, the irony of course being that when I got into this business, my monetary goal had simply been to make enough that I could spend more money on my own garden – and now I’m too busy to spend any time there.

The weeds began to proliferate – weeds I’d never seen before – and while they were mostly hidden beneath the canopy of shrub foliage (Hubbie referred to this as ‘the understory’), I knew they were there, taunting me and threatening to take over. So even when I did manage to find a few minutes to enjoy my garden, I couldn’t really enjoy it. All I could do was obsess about those foreign invaders and that I needed to get in there and annihilate them before they really did take over the garden. Imagine, a garden designer not wanting to spend time in her own garden!

So for the first time ever, I hired someone to weed my garden. My niece had been working for a landscape maintenance company for the summer and was happy to make some extra cash before heading back to school in the fall. She – like the rest of the women in our family – is a perfectionist and attacked the weeds with a vengeance, leaving no weed or stray blade of grass standing. Ha! Take that you evil green things!

Aahhh – I breathed a sigh of relief. At long last, I was able to sit in my garden (well not right in the garden) and enjoy my morning coffee without fear of transmogrified weeds pouncing on me. But not for long………..there were still last-minute designs to complete before season’s end, fall consults, fall clean-ups, winter container arrangements – like I said, I’ve been busy.

So now you understand why it’s been so long since my last post. In fact it’s only now that I can finally sip a glass of wine by the fire and do a little writing (you knew I’d get there didn’t you). Okay, okay I’m not sipping wine and I’m not sitting by the fire, but I am writing. If you’re still paying attention, I’m going to continue with my discussion of Colour Theory as it pertains to garden design.

In my last post we began exploring ways that our visual system distorts colour, by way of Simultaneous Contrast and Successive Contrast. In this post we’ll examine two other adjustments our eyes make; Colour Assimilation and Colour Separation.

Colour Assimilation

Previously we discovered that when a large area of one colour is adjacent to, or surrounded by, a large area of another colour, the colour differences seem more pronounced – Simultaneous Contrast at work. The reverse occurs when small areas of colour are interspersed with small areas of another colour, the resulting illusion being that the colours appear more alike. This effect is known as Colour Assimilation (also referred to as spreading effect or Von Bezold effect).

When small strips of red are interspersed with small strips of blue (bottom), the colours look more alike than they actually are (top). Assimilation causes the red to appear more blue and the blue to appear more red.

When small strips of red are interspersed with small strips of blue (bottom), the colours look more alike than they actually are (top). Colour Assimilation causes the red to appear more blue and the blue to appear more red.

value-assimilation-red-resize

Red stripes, when alternated with black stripes, appear darker (top) whereas when alternated with white stripes, appear lighter (bottom). The eye mixes the value of red with the values of the black and white respectively, thus darkening/lightening it.

We experience this often in the garden – it is most commonly observed in flowers with more than one colour (especially those with detailed colour patterns), or leaves with small variegations. For example, a flower that has petals of one colour, sepals of another, stamens of yet another, intricate veins, and contrasting eye zones – unless viewed up close, our visual system will interpret the colours as more alike and begin to blend them.

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The flower of Hemerocallis ‘Strawberry Candy’ presents numerous colours, the detail of which is mostly lost when seen from even a short distance away. The eye has mixed the various colours together and averaged their hue, value and saturation. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Another example – leaves that are striped green and white appear lighter because the eye mixes the medium value of the green with the high value of the white, thus producing the illusion of lighter green leaves.

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The striped foliage of Miscanthus sinensis ‘Variegatus’ appears soft pastel green when viewed from a few feet away. When viewed up close, the colour detail becomes apparent. Photos: Sue Gaviller

variegated-leaves

Photo: Pat Gaviller

Variegated leaves consisting of larger blocks of colour, say a green Hosta with white or cream coloured margins, won’t exhibit this effect because the larger area of colour allows the eye to accurately discern the edges and differentiate the colours.

The image on the left illustrates this – the Hosta at the bottom of the photo shows no colour blending, Euonymus at the top exhibits some, and Lamiastrum  in the centre shows considerable assimilation, such that the leaves appear very pale gray-green.

Colour Assimilation will be greater when plants are seen from a distance – as the eye fails to distinguish stripes, margins, veins, stamens, eyes, throats and other leaf or flower features, the colours will blend together, averaging the hue, value and saturation of each colour as the viewing distance lengthens. Recognizing how and when this happens can be helpful in editing our plant choices for maximum colour satisfaction.

spanish-lavender-resize

The inflorescence of Spanish Lavender (Lavandula stoechas) consists of light purple bracts atop darker purple flowers. Note how the dark coloured flowers begin to appear lighter and the light coloured  bracts begin to appear darker when observed from farther away. Eventually, with further distance, they appear as all one medium value purple. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Colour Separation

I used to have a flirty red dress which I would pair with equally flirty red suede pumps – they weren’t actually the same colour, but because they were separated by a considerable length of leg (I have long legs and the dress was kinda short) it still worked; shoes and dress appeared to match.

We can make use of this phenomenon in the garden scenario too – let’s say we have several kinds of flirty red flowers but they aren’t all exactly the same colour; we need only to separate them with lots of foliage greens and our eyes will be tricked into thinking they are the same(ish) colour. Indeed it’s the oldest trick in the book.

separated-colours

First impression of this composition is that the red Cannas, red Begonias and red Salvia are all the same hue of red, but closer inspection reveals they are not. The large Canna flowers are slightly orange-red, the Begonias at the bottom are coral-red and the Salvia on the right are true red.
Photo: Sue Gaviller

Of course flirty red dresses and flirty red flowers aren’t the only examples this useful little illusion addresses. It will be similarly helpful when working with any colours that are almost-but-not-quite the same.

separated-colours-2

In my late spring garden, several Heuchera cultivars, Iris, Lilac and Barberry all present some variation of red-violet, but due to their separation the eye reads them as the same colour.
Photo: Sue Gaviller

Understanding these four Optical illusions (Simultaneous Contrast, Successive Contrast, Colour Assimilation and Colour Separation) can help us compensate for their effects in the garden – allowing them to work in our favour rather than against us.

Well my friends, this long series of posts on Colour Theory is finally drawing to a close; I have one more topic to cover, that being the use of colour schemes in the garden – join me for my next post as I utilize the colour wheel and Munsell’s hue pages to fashion pleasing colour combos for your garden. See you then!

Now where did I put that red dress…?

Merry Christmas Y’all,
Sue

 

Colouring Your Garden, Part 7 – You Can’t Believe Everything You See

It’s the last week of March and it’s again been more than five months since I last posted to this blog. I just don’t know where the time goes. I’m as busy as I’ve ever been, and yet I feel like I’m accomplishing less. Perhaps it’s a function of age – everything seems to take longer the older I get. Or maybe it’s a function of the increasingly higher standards I set for myself. For example, last month I gave two  lectures to the current class of Master Gardener students. One of these was a full day design presentation – a talk I’d given (in some form or another) dozens of times and to a variety of audiences. It gets tweaked each time – compressed or expanded depending on the audience, but this time I ended up rebuilding the whole damn thing! Why? Well, as I reviewed my PowerPoint slides I found myself scoffing at everything; the photos looked unprofessional, the font was dated, the animation amateurish… and so a ‘tweak’ became a major reconstruction.

I was relatively happy with the finished product, but I don’t know if it was worth the several all-nighters I pulled to get it done (staying up all night was way easier, and waaaay more fun, in my twenties than in my fifties). And in the end, did I actually impart any more, or any better information to the students? Who knows? I do know though, that perfectionism isn’t always in one’s best interest. Because now I am sick. Not deathly ill, but miserable enough that I don’t feel like doing much of anything. So loyal readers, it seems my misfortune is your good fortune since the one thing I do feel up to, is writing. In fact it just might make me feel better.

If you remember my last post (it was so long ago, I barely remember) we examined the relationship between colour and various aspects of human perception – more specifically, how the former can impact the latter. Continuing with this exploration then, let’s look at some of the ways our visual perception can in turn affect and distort colour.

Understanding various visual mechanisms – ways our vision adapts and adjusts – is a key piece of the garden colour puzzle. For the most part, our eyes successfully adapt to ever-changing visual data, allowing us to maintain a stable and consistent interpretation of the world around us. We know that an object appearing smaller from across a room is the same size regardless of where we view it from, or that the darker colour created by a shadow doesn’t change the actual colour of an object. We know these things without even thinking about them – unless we are trying to draw or paint said objects. Sometimes though, this ‘constancy apparatus’ fails and our eyes make erroneous adjustments. Four such adjustments are commonly experienced; Simultaneous Contrast, Successive Contrast, Colour Assimilation and Colour Separation. Today we’ll look at the first two of these visual phenomena.

Simultaneous Contrast

Adjacent colours interact with one another other in a most curious way – actually changing the appearance of each other; an effect known as Simultaneous Contrast. Of course this phenomenon isn’t due to any magical properties the colours possess; rather the adjustments are taking place within our own visual system as it attempts to decipher and differentiate that which it sees by accentuating colour differences. All three colour attributes can be influenced by neighbouring colours, the effect being most noticeable when one colour is completely surrounded by another.

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Simultaneous Contrast of Hue. An identical magenta-coloured circle is placed all around the Artist’s Wheel illustrating how a hue can differ dramatically in appearance depending on the background hue. Graphics: Sue Gaviller

So what is actually happening here? Are our eyes just playing tricks on us? Well yes in fact they are. As I mentioned before, one of the ways our eyes recognize and discriminate between adjacent colours is by accentuating their differences, and in so doing, imbues each colour with traits of the other colour’s opposite. Yikes, that was a mouthful wasn’t it? Maybe I can better explain with some examples.

In the first example below, a magenta-coloured square is surrounded by a green square on the left and an orange square on the right – we can all agree it doesn’t look like the same magenta, right? (I assure you it is though). Our eyes acknowledge the green then ‘over-differentiate’ and induce green’s opposite hue, red, which then mixes with the magenta, making it appear warmer – hot pink even. The orange square on the other hand stimulates our eyes to add its opposite, blue, thus creating a cooler looking purple-pink. Another way to think of it is that colours will shift in hue, value and saturation away from those of the surrounding colour. Because the magenta square is smaller and completely enveloped in another colour it has little effect on those surrounding colours.

Graphics: Sue Gaviller

Simultaneous Contrast of Hue – note how the hue of the smaller square appears different depending on the background colour. Graphics: Sue Gaviller.

The next example shows Simultaneous Contrast as it relates to Value alone. On the left a medium gray square is enclosed on a background of darker charcoal gray, and on the right the same medium gray is surrounded by lighter gray. Again our vision discriminates between the darker gray and the medium gray by overstating the lightness of the medium gray (left). Likewise our eyes discriminate between the lighter gray and the medium gray by overstating the darkness of the medium gray (right).

Graphics: Sue Gaviller

Simultaneous Contrast of Value – a medium gray square looks markedly different surrounded by darker gray than by the lighter gray. Graphics: Sue Gaviller

In the third example the smaller square is a red of medium to low saturation, but its saturation seems to strengthen as its background colour weakens.

Graphics: Sue Gaviller

Simultaneous Contrast of Chroma/Saturation. All of the above squares are the same hue (5R or Red) but vary in saturation (colour content). The smaller square is weakly saturated but appears even less so in contrast to the fully saturated square on the left. However when contrasted with the almost-gray square on the right, it appears to have much richer colour content.  Graphics: Sue Gaviller

It is difficult to illustrate this effect with garden photographs – photos can deceive, particularly where colour is concerned. Perceived hue differences (or lack thereof) could thus be the fault of the photo and not a real representation of what is happening in the garden. And the degree to which Simultaneous Contrast is seen in the garden is less than one might think – there are many other factors at play, for example; weather changes, seasonal changes, daily sun movements, and even the amount of particulate matter in the air, can all affect lighting conditions, which in turn affect the colours we observe. Colour is reflected from other objects and surfaces too, thus altering hue perception, and the constant presence of unifying green can mitigate various colour illusions.

Nevertheless we do witness Simultaneous Contrast in our gardens and landscapes, though it is more subtle than squares of colour on a computer monitor. The effect, especially where hue is concerned, is most noticeable when two adjacent hues present as solid blocks of uninterrupted colour. Of course plants don’t always present this way since foliage, flower petals, stamens etc. are often different colours, which means colours will intermingle (this can produce yet another effect, one I will look at in my next post). Tertiary or intermediate colours (red-violet, blue-green, etc.) will be influenced to a greater degree by their surroundings than basic or primary hues because their make-up is more complex.

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Liatris spicata is a medium to high value red-violet – when contrasted with bright yellow Heliopsis helianthoides, it appears slightly blue-ish. However, next to Helictotrichon sempervirens, it looks somewhat pinker. Photos: Sue Gaviller

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Juniperus horizontalis ‘Blue Chip’ is a widely spreading evergreen groundcover – note how its blue-green hue shifts from slightly mauve-ish on the left to dull green on the right. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photos: Sue Gaviller

Echinops ritro ‘Veitch’s Blue’ (left) looks a rich saturated purple-blue when paired with very desaturated Eryngium (right). Photos: Sue Gaviller

Photos: Sue Gaviller

The same Echinops would appear somewhat less saturated if situated beside the very rich-hued Gentian on the right Photos: Sue Gaviller

Simultaneous Contrast is the reason two complementary colours, when used together, create such a forceful pairing – they increase the intensity of each other. Think about it; each colour bestows upon the other, the traits of its own opposite – which is the other colour. A double dose of each!

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This complementary pairing of red-violet Iris germanica against a backdrop of yellow-green Spiraea japonica ‘Goldmound’ creates an intense vignette. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Red-orange and blue-green succulents bounce dazzling colour off each other because they are a complementary pairing. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Successive Contrast

Another visual effect related to Simultaneous Contrast is Successive Contrast – the best way to demonstrate this effect is to try the following: stare at the coloured circle below for 30 to 60 seconds, then immediately turn your gaze to a blank piece of white paper. What do you see? If you don’t see anything, try again. And if you have any serious eye condition or disease, you might want to avoid this exercise altogether.

green circle 2

 

When you look at the white paper after staring at the green circle,  you should see a circle of the same size in a light reddish pink colour – this is called an afterimage. Let’s try another one. Stare at the orange circle below for half-a-minute or so then look at the white piece of paper again.

orange circle

 

So what colour did y’all see this time? Light bluish right? We see this afterimage because the eye’s receptors for a particular color become desensitized to it, or more accurately, the receptors for the other colours become more sensitive – hence we see the perceptual complement of the colour we’ve just been staring at. The afterimage will dissipate shortly, its duration proportionate to the length of time you viewed the original colour and the intensity (saturation) of that colour.

Now try looking at each of the circles again, but this time when you avert your gaze, instead of focusing on the white paper, look towards a different coloured background. What do you notice? The colour of the afterimage should now blend with the new colour you are looking at. You can see where this might come into play in the garden – look at the following garden image for at least 30 seconds then at the white paper again. Do you experience the same effect?

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

How about this one?

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

The two previous images should produce afterimages the same size and shape as the photo images, in colours opposite to the predominant colour in the photos. Now see what happens when you look at one of them for a bit, then the other right after – how do they affect each other. What about the next image – how does staring at each of the previous two photos affect the way you see the colour of the Rudbeckia in the following photo?

Photo: Pat Gaviller

Photo: Pat Gaviller

The effect here will likely be muted – in fact you may have to do this exercise a few times before you recognize it. And because the effect is fleeting, its implications in the garden environs are limited. Large swaths of colour are more likely to produce afterimage effect because you will look at them for longer – all in all the experience of afterimages distorting the visual experience of successive plant colours, will at most be intermittent.

However, learning to recognize this phenomenon, as well as Simultaneous Contrast, affords the gardener one more advantage in working with colour in the garden. We’ll look at two more interesting colour effects in my next post.

Well whaddya know? I feel much better. Now if only pretty plants and pretty colours could heal our hurting world….

’Til next time,
Sue

 

 

Colouring Your Garden – Part 6; Putting Colour to Work

Greetings loyal readers. It seems I haven’t published a post in more than 5 months. I guess time flies when you’re having fun… or when you’re really busy. And a very busy summer it has been, both personally and professionally. Thanks to all who keep visiting here despite the lack of new content.

So to get back to where we were a loooong time ago, let’s continue with our study of colour in the garden. It’s time to take all that technical stuff about Hue, Value & Saturation and put it to work for you.

The interaction between colour and human perception is two-way – colour can influence perception, and perception can influence how we see colour. Today we’ll look at a couple of ways colour can affect perception and how this might be utilized in our gardens.

According to Encarta Dictionary, the psychological definition of perception is “any neurological process of acquiring and mentally interpreting information from the senses.” It is the interpreting of this information that makes colour a useful tool.

Temperature Perception

Looking out my window one morning last week, I saw blue-grey haze. Acrid smoke from distant forest fires filled the air, prompting air quality advisories and recommending folks stay inside. When I did venture outside briefly, I was surprised at how warm it was – the smoky, blue-grey light made it appear much cooler. Later that same day, as increasingly more smoke particles refracted what light could pierce the smoke, a reddish-orange light was cast over everything – I stepped outside again, this time anticipating oppressive heat, but it wasn’t as warm as I’d expected.

Both scenarios came about because my brain incorrectly interpreted the information my eyes had gathered – I expected coolness when the light wavelengths were in a cooler range, and warmth when longer wavelengths prevailed. Indeed we may actually feel cooler in the presence of cool colours, and warmer in the presence of warm colours. Those of you who live in colder climates have no doubt had the experience of looking out the window on a frigid winter day and feeling warmed to the core at the sight of a bright yellow sun.

This phenomenon can be exploited in the garden – perhaps you look out your window on a too-cool spring day and your whole being longs for the warmth of summer. Your eyes look toward your garden and espy drifts of orange tulips, yellow primrose and warm pink azalea – and you feel instantly warm. Or maybe you are sitting in your garden on a smoldering hot summer afternoon and note the swaths of soft mauve Russian sage, cool blue Delphinium and violet-blue globe thistle – how cool it feels.

warm spring colours

Warm hues make cool spring days feel balmy and bright.
Top
– Photos: Pat Gaviller. Bottom – Photos: Sue Gaviller

cool summer colours

Summertime blues provide cool respite from the heat. Photos: Sue Gaviller

On the other hand, maybe you like the coolness of spring and choose to accentuate this with the use of cool springtime hues – bright blue forget-me-nots, lilac-pink rock cress, mauve tulips and rich purple dwarf iris. And for those who like it hot, summer’s heat can be turned up a notch by using plants that bloom warm colours in midsummer – bright golden Rudbeckia, mahogany-red Helenium, warm pink Echinacea, and a sprinkling of hot lime-green foliage. Remember though, that abundant warm colours in the garden still require lots of green – enough to balance and counteract the bright reds, oranges and yellows.

cool spring colours 4 resize

Cool spring colours highlight cool spring weather. Photos: Sue Gaviller

warm summer colours -resize

The heat is on – warm colours sizzle in the summer heat. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Depth/Distance Perception

Visual design often involves a bit of trickery – ways of deceiving the eye to see something that isn’t altogether accurate. For example, in the urban setting many of us reside, yards are often small and disproportionately shaped. The designer’s challenge is to create a sense of spaciousness and pleasing proportion. Understanding the nuances of colour and using it effectively is one way we can achieve this.

If you recall from earlier posts in this series, warm colours appear closer than they really are, as do high value colours and those that are highly saturated. Likewise, cool colours, as well as those of low value and/or low saturation, appear further away. This optical illusion can be used to elongate a short flat space or shorten a long narrow space.

Since all three colour attributes come into play here, it isn’t always possible to predict how the eye will perceive a particular colour. For example, cool colours tend to recede and high value colours appear to advance – so a pastel mauve might do either depending on the colours that surround it. In the image below – one of many Joseph Alber’s paintings paying homage to ‘the square’ – the black central area at first appears to recede. The mauve area however, appears to alternately approach and retreat, thus bringing the black square forward then back.

For any given colour to provide the desired depth illusion, you must consider its context, i.e. its relationship to other nearby colours. A warm hue will appear closer to the viewer when contrasted with a cool hue of equal or lower value and saturation, but further away when contrasted with another warm hue of greater saturation and/or higher value. And although cool colours usually appear to recede, a cool colour that is high value will advance if contrasted with a low value colour of the same hue and equal or less saturation.

squares resize

The central hot pink square appears to advance toward us when set against the cooler, darker and less saturated purple square, whereas it recedes when contrasted with the warmer, lighter and more saturated orange. It also appears to be a different colour – a phenomenon I’ll discuss in my next post. Graphics: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Lilium ‘Loretto’ and Berberis thunbergii both present very warm colouring. However, the lower value and weaker saturation of the barberry make it appear to recede, in contrast to the higher value and richer saturation of the lily, which appears to ‘pop right out’ at the camera. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo and graphics: Sue Gaviller

While cool colours often appear to recede from the observer, this cool mauve does the opposite when seen against a darker, less saturated version of the same hue. Note how the high-value, cool coloured tulips in the foreground jump out at us visually and the dark ones retreat further into the background. Photo and graphics: Sue Gaviller

So how do we use all of this to our benefit in the garden? If the colour of an object causes it to appear further away, placing this colour at the far end of a short flat space might serve to visually elongate the space – additionally, by contrasting this with the use of advancing colours on the side borders, the disproportionate width may appear compressed. Likewise, a long narrow space can be shortened and widened by placing advancing colours at the far end and receding colours on the lateral boundaries. The effect is subtle – colour is by no means the primary cue whereby we perceive depth – but when combined with other forms of ‘forced perspective’, a strong impression of distance or closeness can be implied.

In this well done rectilinear landscape, the designer has created a space that is longer in one direction than the other. Photo: Pat Gaviller

orange daylilies resize

A photoshopped version of the same photo – note the wall of warm, high value, fully saturated orange daylilies appears to advance, thus shortening the space. The junipers, now slightly darker, appear to recede thus widening the space somewhat. Photo: Pat Gaviller. Retouch: Sue Gaviller

long narrow yard reversed resize

Viewing the two images side by side, the effect is more obvious, albeit still subtle.

Do You See What I See?

The perception that some colours advance and others recede, isn’t an experience shared by everyone, particularly the warm vs. cool dichotomy – indeed there are those who don’t experience this phenomenon at all, as well as those who actually see the reverse of what most people see. It can also vary within the same individual, dependent on numerous factors; for example, the effect is much less apparent if the two contrasting colours (warm and cool) are viewed against a very light background. Age too, can dictate how colour affects our perception.

It’s all about the physics of vision. Yawn. Physics – I had the dullest, most boring, uninspiring, high school physics teacher ever. Last period of the day. Double yawn. But I digress. To put it in simplest terms, it has to do with light rays of differing wavelengths and where they refract and converge on our retinas.

Regardless, one thing is certain; colour – with its countless combinations of warm or cool, light or dark, and muted or vibrant – affects us all in subtle ways we aren’t even aware of. In my next post I’ll look at how our perception, in turn, affects the way we see colour.

’Til then,
Sue

Fifty Shades of Gray ~ Colouring Your Garden; Part 5

Ha! You thought this post was going be about the tawdry exploits of Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey didn’t you? Tsk, tsk, naughty gardeners. Sorry all you lusty ladies, but this post is literally about the (more than) fifty shades of gray… and brown.

Gray and brown; the dull drab colours of a lifeless winter landscape. Haven’t we seen enough of those – do we really need to discuss them on the pages of this usually-colourful blog? Well yes I’m afraid we do – for a number of reasons. While true achromatic grays are rarely seen, if at all, in plant life (more likely gray-green or blue-gray), we do see browns and beiges – in tree bark and branches, seed heads, dying foliage, ornamental grasses and sedges, and even a few flowers.

Garden Grays - aren't really gray; they are very desaturated blues and greens. Clockwise from top left: Elaeagnus angustifolia, Santolina chamaecyparissus, Salix salicola, Artemisia schmidtiana. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Garden Grays – aren’t really gray; they are very desaturated blues and greens. Clockwise from top left: Elaeagnus angustifolia, Santolina chamaecyparissus, Salix salicola, Artemisia schmidtiana. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Garden browns, clockwise from top left: brown container with Heuchera ‘Pinot Gris’ and Carex ‘Toffee Twist’, frosted leaf of Sorbus aucuparia, Phormium tenax ‘Atropurpureum’, Malus sp., Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’, Ulmus pumila buds. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Grays and browns comprise much of the background colour our gardens are seen against – soil, mulch, concrete, stone, wood etc. Our homes too, are backdrop to the garden and are often finished with siding, stucco or stone in some version of gray or brown. While it may seem outside the purview of a garden designer to comment on house colour, it’s actually an important consideration in the overall appeal of a garden. Case in point – our house was once painted white and contributed enormously to the midday washed-out appearance of my sun-drenched front garden. After painting the house a soft warm cafe-au-lait, the garden appears much richer, and colours hold up far better in full sun.

House colour is of course a very personal choice – my intent here is merely to arm you with a little understanding of browns, beiges and grays to help you make that choice. These colours are what paint companies and fashionistas call ‘neutral’. However, a true neutral is a colour that is entirely without hue – it is achromatic (i.e. white, gray or black). To avoid confusion then, I’ll avoid the use of the word altogether.

Many Shades of Gray

As we learned in my last post, colours that are completely desaturated – those at the centre of Munsell’s Color Space, have no hue content at all. These grays differ from each other only in value. However, many of the colours we call gray actually still contain trace amounts of hue. This is why it’s so difficult to match grays (white or black for that matter too) – if they have even a little hue and the parent hues are different, the eye will perceive this discrepancy.

Munsell's Grays: each of these colour chips if seen on it's own, would appear gray – seen together though it becomes obvious that they aren't true grays. In fact they represent the first step of saturation for 20 hues at 8 different values.

Munsell’s Grays: each of these colour chips if seen on its own, might appear gray – seen together though it becomes obvious that they aren’t true grays. In fact they represent the first step of saturation for 20 hues at 8 different values.

For example, the two grays below aren’t the same – they have the same value but each has enough hue that we can see they are different; different enough that if my husband wore pants in the warmer gray and a shirt in the cooler gray, I would gently advise, ‘Honey those don’t match.’

2 Grays

Both of these grays have a value of 5, but the cool gray on the left has its base in a violet hue whereas the warm gray on the right has a parent hue of orange.

If on the other hand the grays are of the same hue but different values, the eye will intuitively perceive the consistent underlying hue and experience a unified pairing – the difference will be noted but seen as effective contrast rather than awkward clash.

The above grays have the same parent hue – the medium-low value gray on the left and the medium-high on the right are united by this unchanging hue.

The above grays have the same parent hue – the medium-low value gray on the left and the medium-high on the right are united by this unchanging hue.

It’s clear then, that choosing paint colours to accompany that gray vinyl siding on your house, may not be as straightforward as dark gray and lighter gray. If you want contrasting grays, it’s better to maintain a consistent hue and introduce contrast by changing only the value or saturation – otherwise, because the gray has minimal hue content, the eye won’t see colour contrast so much as it will see colour conflict.

Left: Gray siding and gray painted stucco have the same hue hence present a cohesive combination. Right: Gray siding and stucco have different underlying hues thus appear less connected.

Left: Gray siding and gray painted stucco have the same hue hence present a cohesive combination.
Right: Gray siding and stucco have different underlying hues thus appear less connected.

Stone siding, because it has both warm and cool underlying hues, is more forgiving of its accompanying colours – while the warmer gray is still a better match, the cool gray does work.

Stone siding, because it has both warm and cool underlying hues, is more forgiving of its accompanying colours – while the warmer gray is still a better match, the cool gray does work.

This isn’t to say hue contrast shouldn’t be employed when choosing house colours; indeed it is a common design strategy, but it will be more effectively achieved by the addition of a stronger, somewhat more saturated colour – saturated enough that the eye can perceive it as purposeful contrast rather than ‘oops that’s the wrong colour’.

gray siding contrast 2 resample

The rusty-brown of cedar shakes and patio pavers, though not fully saturated, has sufficient colour content to provide effective contrast for the warm gray.

Keep in mind though, that the stronger the colour the more it will impact your choice of garden colour scheme. A weakly saturated beige or gray requires little consideration here, but a coppery brown, as pictured above, has enough hue content that it must be taken into account when deciding on colours for your garden.

The copper-brown shakes present enough colour saturation that the wrong plant choices could look awkward – good plant choices, like the shrubs on the right, pick up on both the stronger copper-brown and the grays. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Some may think me too conservative in my approach to exterior colour, but my comments on the subject are really only as it pertains to grays and browns (since that is the focus of this post). While we all have our own individual tastes, the more we explore and study colour, the better we are able to discern its subtleties and the nuances that contribute to a colour palette we’re happy with – or unhappy with.

Browns, Beiges, Tans and Taupes

Warm grays with a little more hue content, are browns and beiges, the parent hues being red, orange, yellow and sometimes green-yellow or red-violet. Despite their slightly increased saturation, it can still be difficult to discern an underlying hue – choosing the appropriate brown or beige can thus be a challenge. And because they have a bit more colour content, they are also affected more by light conditions. The first day after painting our house that attractive cafe-au-lait colour (the actual name I believe was Beige-Gray), I returned home just before dusk as the last rays of sun were dispersing. To my dismay, as I turned the corner and caught a glimpse of our newly painted house I saw pink – blech!

“OMG what have we done?” I thought, then resigned myself to the fact that I’d have to tell hubby to repaint (like that was going to happen). The next day however, it didn’t look so bad – in fact it was exactly how I’d envisioned it when we chose the colour. Relieved, I assumed the paint must’ve just needed to ‘cure’ before presenting its real colour. Of course I know now that the more likely explanation had to do with the colour of the ambient light – evening and early morning light is pink or reddish compared to other times of day when it may be more yellow, white or blue.

So how do we choose the right brown or beige? As with grays, maintaining a consistent hue is still the safest choice and therefore my best advice. Easier said than done; since the hues that underlie these colours may not be immediately discernible.

Let’s look at a few examples. Below are three different browns, each with a different parent hue – can you determine what the underlying hues are? Click on each one for the answer.


Small wonder that there are so many mismatched browns, beiges, tans and taupes – especially in older neighbourhoods where the original exterior colours have long since been covered by the respective paint choices of successive homeowners. A better understanding of why these mismatches occur will help you avoid making the same mistakes. The images below represent 2 different scenarios for house colours and materials. Which one do you think produces a more unified picture? Why?

brown house x 2

The answer is of course the colour combination on the right in which all colours have the same parent hue. In the image on the left the colours are based in several different hues which results in disunity.

All colours and materials are based in the same orange-yellow hue – Munsell’s 10YR.

And what about the garden – need we consider the undertones in the beige or brown colour of our home to make colour choices for the garden? As I mentioned previously, the stronger the colour of one’s house, the more it will factor into the garden colour scheme. However, with weakly saturated browns and beiges, you don’t really need to – they have such low hue content that you can get away with pretty much any colour scheme. But you certainly could – by bringing the same underlying hue from the house into the garden, a deep yet subtle sense of unity is achieved, though the untrained eye may not recognize it, only intuit it.

Since the underlying hue of the house colour(s) is a yellowish-orange, including this hue in the garden colour scheme provides subtle unity. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Paint companies don’t always make it easy for us find the right hue – while some organize their paint swatches into strips of 4 or 5 colours in the same hue family, others mix several similar hues within the same strip, leaving you guessing. And even those that use single hue strips, only a small sample of the possible colours within that hue are included. For these reasons I find the hue pages in the Munsell Book of Color to be a most helpful tool – but at $1000.00+ for the book, the cost is prohibitive for most.

Feeling a little frustrated now because ‘Hey how the heck am I supposed to figure all this out without those expensive Munsell colour charts at my disposal?’ Well here’s something for you:

Cool Tools (Yup there’s an App for that)

Since most of us don’t have 1000.00 dollars to spend on Munsell’s Book of Color, but we’d still like the benefit of comprehensive hue charts, check these out:

David Briggs’ Dimensions of Colour: Hue, Value and Chroma – scroll down to the third image, Figure 1.1.3. (wait a few seconds for it to load). Click on the thumbnail of any hue page and it will enlarge. All 40 Munsell hue pages are accessible for your viewing and reference.

Classical Lab has developed a Munsell App for iPad and iPhone called MunsellDG.  Note: the hue pages differ from the actual Munsell Book of Color due to copyright, but for the purposes of the average gardener or garden designer this is more than enough to help you determine ‘what hue is this?’, ‘what goes with this?’, etc. – and you can take it with you wherever you go.

Munsell Color Studies and Art – an interactive website with exercises to test and hone your colour skills.

Grays and browns may seem lifeless, especially when spring is so close and an explosion of colour is just around the corner, but understanding these understated colours and learning to see what lies beneath them is one more step towards ‘colouring your garden’ with confidence.

It takes practice to see colour in this new way – and I’m not done yet….

’Til next time,
Sue

Colouring Your Garden – Part 4; Saturated Solutions

A week or so ago, while out for a walk with my sister in her inner-city neighbourhood, I heard the familiar sound of Robin chirps. It took me a minute to realize that the sound was out of place on this mid-February afternoon. Indeed my sister doubted me initially, but then she heard it too. “Holy $#!+.” she said.  According to local bird experts a few robins do spend the winter here, but neither of us had ever seen one this early in the year.

Several blocks later I happened to look up and espied what appeared to be pussy willows. At first I thought it might be water droplets on the branches reflecting the late day sun – but then I reached up and felt the fat fuzzy protuberances. Yep, those are pussy willows. While there are many species of willow that produce the downy catkins, a few as early as February,  Salix discolor, the true North American pussy willow doesn’t usually bloom here until mid March – this was February 12th! I didn’t know whether to be elated or alarmed. Either spring is coming really early or the birds and the trees are in for a cold, snowy, nasty surprise in the weeks to come – despite a mild winter from a moderate El Nino effect, this is still zone 3 Calgary and the early bird rarely gets the worm. Only time will tell I guess, but my vote is for an early spring. In the meantime fellow gardeners, we have more to learn about colour.

Over the last few months I’ve been discussing colour theory as it relates to garden design. We’ve looked at two of the three attributes of colour (Hue and Value) and today we’ll examine the third; Saturation, or what Munsell called Chroma.

Saturation is the strength or concentration of a colour and is determined by how much of a particular hue is present in that colour. Think high school science for a moment and consider the amount of solute in a solution – in the scientific sense, saturation occurs when a liquid has reached its capacity to absorb a dissolved substance. Brine for example, is a solution of water and salt – if we start with pure water, then add salt until the water can’t absorb any more, we have a saturated solution. Similarly with colour, if we start with gray then add a particular hue until maximum hue content (i.e the pure hue) is reached, then we have full colour saturation.

High Saturation

A highly saturated colour reflects a great deal of light from one specific part of the spectrum, and very little light from anywhere else on the spectrum; for example, the pure hue of red reflects most light from the end of the visible spectrum where red is located, and yellow reflects most light from near the middle of the spectrum.

The pure hues (i.e. Munsell’s 10 basic hues around the outer edge of the Munsell Colour Space, or the 12 hues on the Artist’s Colour Wheel) are considered fully saturated. These are the vibrant colours some gardeners adore and others abhor; they are intense and flamboyant, and employed effectively are stunning additions to a garden composition. Used indiscriminately however, they’re sure to create garden chaos.

Photos and Graphics: Sue Gaviller

Full saturation. Photos and Graphics: Sue Gaviller

Saturated hues hold up well under full sun with very little colour washout, and like warm hues and high value colours, appear closer than they really are. They are thus highly conspicuous in the landscape, perfect for creating emphasis or accenting an area you want to draw attention to; an approach or a destination.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Planting bright saturated colours in entryway container arrangements as this gardener has done, effectively draws the eye to the front entrance, creating a welcoming focal point. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Public gardens and parks often use abundant saturated colours in their annual display gardens – while this style of planting design isn’t one I’m likely to adopt, the plethora of intense colour certainly does what it’s intended to do; attract attention.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Massed annuals in strong spicy hues draw the eye directly to the Tea House, advertising its presence and inviting visitors in. Note how the saturated reds and yellows hold their colour without fading in the bright sunlight. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Fullest saturation is experienced when hues are used individually rather than together – if two highly saturated colours are in close proximity to each other, the effect will be to decrease the intensity of both. This isn’t to say you should never use more than one saturated colour in a composition – you certainly can – but any given colour will be seen at its purist if there aren’t other equally intense, and therefore competing, colours close by (remember the design principle Unity by Dominance). The exception to this is complementary hues, which will both be intensified by their nearness to one another.

Photo: Pat Gaviller

Lime green Hosta, violet-red Paeonia, golden Hemerocallis and yellow Sedum all present very saturated colour – while it’s an attractive composition, the strong colours do compete somewhat meaning none of them can take centre stage. Photo: Pat Gaviller

Photo: Pat Gaviller

The same photo, now cropped to isolate the peony from the other intense colours, illustrates how a saturated colour on its own has stronger colour presentation than numerous competing colours together. Photo: Pat Gaviller

The eye perceives large areas of colour as more saturated than smaller areas; hence fine textured plants (small leaves and/or flowers) don’t appear as saturated as those with coarse texture (large leaves and/or flowers). This is particularly apparent when seen from a distance, so fullest possible saturation will only be experienced up close – distance tends to mute or desaturate colour. I learned this quite by accident in my own garden in my pre-designer years. I’d wanted a hefty shot of hot pink in a particular spot in the garden and chose Anthony Waterer spirea for its long-blooming bright fuchsia flowers. I thought I was happy with the choice, since it was just the right colour and bloomed continuously. However, I soon realized that unless I was right up at the edge of the garden, the fine-textured umbels of hot pink blooms looked dull an unimpressive, if seen at all. Needless to say I removed it – at some point I figured out that I needed a bigger, bolder flower to anchor the spot. I have since planted Purple Pavement rose, its large velvety, red-violet blooms showing strong colour even from far away.

Viewed from very close, coarse-textured Iris and fine-textured Salvia both present saturated Blue-Violet colouring. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Viewed from very close, coarse-textured Iris and fine-textured Salvia both present saturated Blue-Violet colouring. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Viewed from a few feet away, the big bold Iris blooms maintain almost full colour content and still appear richly-hued, whereas the finer-textured Salvia flowers appear somewhat desaturated. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Viewed from a few feet away, the big bold Iris blooms maintain almost-full colour content and still appear richly-hued, whereas the finer-textured Salvia flowers appear somewhat desaturated. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Low Saturation

Colours become less and less saturated the closer they are to the central neutral axis of Munsell’s Colour Space. The neutrals have no hue content whatsoever – they are the achromatic colours of white, black and numerous shades of gray in between. Colours that have some hue content but are relatively low in saturation, have a dull or muted appearance compared to their more highly saturated counterparts; hence they attract much less attention. We see this in some foliage, especially evergreen foliage, ornamental grasses, fading flowers and seed heads.

Low saturation plants 2

Low or weak saturation. Photos and graphics: Sue Gaviller

These muted colours are a nice foil or contrast to brighter flowers and foliage, affording the appearance of fuller saturation to neighbouring plants, even those that may be less than fully saturated.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Spent flowers of purple smoke bush appear like billowy wisps of copper-rose smoke. The colour is actually a red of only medium saturation, but looks more intensely coloured next to the much less saturated inflorescence of the ornamental grasses. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

The muted blue-green of weeping blue cedar provides a soft backdrop allowing rich crimson barberry to really stand out. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Colours that have low or weak saturation appear to recede from the viewer thus seem farther away than they actually are. As mentioned earlier in this post, distance desaturates colour, as does bright sun and fine texture – any of these scenarios will lead to further desaturation of already dullish colours.

fescue sun

fescue shadeLeft: Fine-textured Festuca glauca (foreground) appears almost colourless under the glare of mid day sun. Right: the same blue fescue grasses, now in shade, display much higher colour content. Photos: Pat Gaviller

Unlike highly saturated colours, less saturated colours allow for the use of many hues within the same composition – without the garish results.

muted colours 4

Muted hues of red, orange, yellow, green, and red-violet are present in this composition but due to their low colour content, don’t overwhelm. Note that the one very saturated colour, the yellow-green cypress in the centre of the photo, is more prominent than any other colour. Photo: Sue Gaviller

 Saturation Contrast

Contrasting saturation levels of a single hue creates subtle unity as the eye recognizes the underlying hue and connects the elements.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Terra cotta is a weakly saturated (and higher value) red-orange and provides elegant contrast to the highly saturated red-orange of the begonia. Photo: Sue Gaviller

You may recall from my last post that the pure hues don’t have equal native values – neither do they have equal hue content or saturation. The pure hue of Red for example has the highest degree of saturation, twice that of the lowest, which is Blue-Green. This means there are twice as many steps from neutral to pure red, than there are from neutral to pure Blue-Green.

An image from Munsell's Atlas of Color showing the scale of Chromas (Saturation) for Red and Blue-Green.

An image from Munsell’s Atlas of Color showing the scale of Chromas (Saturation) for Red and Blue-Green. Note that from the central neutral (gray) axis, there are 10 steps outward to fully saturated Red, and only 5 steps to fully saturated Blue-Green

When combining these colours, in order  to achieve a balanced composition, you’ll need at least twice as much Blue-Green as Red. Alternatively you could use a Red that is less saturated so it approximates the saturation of the Blue-Green.

Photo and graphics: Sue Gaviller

One way to balance Red and Blue-Green is to use a less saturated Red that is closer to the more weakly saturated Blue-Green. Photo and graphics: Sue Gaviller

Of course gardeners can’t be expected to know or remember the precise chroma or saturation of any given hue – but with a little colour knowledge we can be confident that if a colour seems very strong or intense, it probably is, and we can use it accordingly (i.e. sparingly). Likewise if a colour appears to be more subtle or muted, we can be pretty sure that it is less saturated and we can use a little more of it to balance out the more saturated colours.

Maintaining colour balance in the garden is another reason for using plenty of – you guessed it: green. And I don’t mean yellow-green, blue-green, gray-green or variegated green; I mean the basic hue of green – think lilac foliage or kinnickinnick, daylily, Russian cypress, peony or pine. These foliage greens have medium value and medium saturation – which means they can balance and bring together the stronger and weaker colours. Are you starting to get the picture now?

Foliage examples of basic green. Clockwise from top: common lilac, kinnickinnick, daylily, Russian cypress, Itoh peony and dwarf mugo pine. Photos: Sue Gaviller

The basic hue of green has medium value and medium saturation. Clockwise from top: common lilac, kinnickinnick, daylily, Russian cypress, Itoh peony and dwarf mugo pine. Photos: Sue Gaviller

During the long months of winter, weak desaturated colours abound (dead grass, naked bark, dull evergreen foliage, mud, gravel, etc.), especially evident in mild winters when there is no snow to brighten the landscape – we long for the full, rich colours of spring and summer. My friends I think it’s not far off – I’m anticipating a very early spring.

However, despite the robins and willows fuelling my hopes, a good friend and client has cautioned me, “Don’t you dare, dare to hope for such an early spring – February is WAYYYYY too early!” she jokingly admonished.

Hey girl, don’t rain on my parade.

’Til next time,
Sue