Colour – the Absence of White

My back yard was still covered in snow as of yesterday – or to be more accurate, my back yard was covered in snow again as of yesterday. Spring had teased us with some warm-ish weather for a week or so;  enough that the snow had melted, leaving in its wake swaths of pallid yellow-brown turf and dull grey-brown soil – colour so de-saturated it could hardly be called colour at all. But at least it wasn’t white. Then a weekend of snow and below-freezing temperatures, and the ground was again blanketed in white – I might have called it pretty had we not already had 6 months of it.

Today the spring weather has returned and the snow has all but receded, this time exposing green. Green – the colour of awakening life. It warms us to the core – indeed it’s all the colour we need right now. It signals the beginning of another long-awaited gardening season.

But as the season progresses, gardeners are no longer as enamoured of plain old green; we want bigger colour, brighter colour, and zealously apply it to our gardens without understanding its impact – for good or for bad. What is there to understand you ask? Why is colour any different for gardeners than anybody else? Well, it’s not really – it’s just that we face some unique challenges when employing it.

Working with colour is different for a gardener than for example, a painter.  A painter works with paints and pigments, mixing them in various proportions until the desired colour is attained. A gardener on the other hand, has only what Mother Nature (or the hybridizer) offers. While there are plenty of colours to choose from, it can be a challenge to find a plant in the exact colour we want, have it grow and thrive in the exact location we want and have it bloom at the exact time we want.  And even a novice gardener quickly learns that a flower described as ‘blue’ is rarely blue, but more purple-blue or mauve-pink, and supposedly purple foliage isn’t really purple but rather a dark wine colour.

As well, we can’t control the existing colours in the larger landscape; the colour of our neighbour’s house for example. What if it’s red, or bright blue or yellow? How does one work with that as a backdrop for your garden?

And what about the impact of light? Outside under full sun, light shines at an intensity of 100,000 lux. Inside, directly in front of a sunny window, light intensity is about half that – 50,000 lux, and once you are a few feet further into the interior of a building, light intensity diminishes to as little as 1000 lux. Due to the sheer intensity of it, light has a greater potential to impact colour outdoors than it does indoors.

A garden isn’t a static reality either; it is a dynamic interplay of living, growing things – a vision in flux. So a garden that looks fresh and full of promise in the spring might be an overgrown mess come midsummer. Individual plants also change over the course of a season, or even a day or two – for example the lilac flower shown below is made up of many little florets, each with their own life span; the buds and newly opened florets are rich violet-red, whereas older florets are somewhat faded and will eventually turn brown. As more florets age and fade, the colour of the whole panicle is affected and eventually the appearance of the whole shrub.

Syringa 'Ludwig Spaeth'

So, now that we recognize some of the unique challenges gardeners face when working with colour, let’s see if we can’t find a way of understanding it so we can respond to those challenges.

Over the spring and summer months I’ll be discussing colour theory specifically as it relates to garden design – hope you can join me.

Until next time,

9 comments on “Colour – the Absence of White

  1. akismet-cc86e69a13119f6a42f5deab97c402e6 says:

    It is that hard! Worth struggling with though….

    • Yes it can be a challenge to make colour work for us in the garden rather than against us – hopefully my upcoming posts on colour theory will give gardeners some tools to work with. Thanks for reading.


  2. Amy Saab says:

    Oh, my favorite! A beautiful photograph to show them at their best advantage. I just wish your photo was scratch & sniff. ~amy

    • Hi Amy,

      Glad you like the photo – it would be awesome indeed if a camera could capture not only sights, but smells and sounds too? Thanks for stopping by.


      • Amy Saab says:

        I think, Sue, in some of us…we can remember the smells & sounds. Only the best photographers can have that effect. 🙂 ~amy

      • It’ true, some photographers manage to get the viewer to experience even the tactile sensation of something with their photos; the velvety smoothness of a rose petal or the silky softness of puppy fur – it makes you want to reach out and touch it!

      • Amy Saab says:

        Well said. I think photographs that have that feeling, it came from the photographers own feelings & it shows. I hope that my photographs show how I feel about what i love the most. ~amy

  3. Just checking for new posts, but see I missed your late snowfall. Sometimes we get snow in May, but not this year – even though the winter was long and snowy. I find a painting has more emotional response than photos generally speaking, but it is because a painter creates on his canvas that which can be anything in any place or time. A photographer has greater limitations.

    • Yes but my point was that in terms of working with colour, a gardener has more limitations than a painter, a photographer or any other artist that uses colour – in future posts I hope to provide the home gardener with some colour theory basics to help manage these limitations.


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