Colouring Your Garden

It’s baaaaaack – the white stuff that is.

Earlier this year I began a discussion on garden colour with a post entitled: Colour – the Absence of White. The title was a play on words of sorts – both a twist on the artist’s definition of white (the absence of colour) and the fact that the snow, that dreaded white stuff, was finally gone, revealing the colours of spring. I had hoped to follow up with a series of posts on colour, but was so busy over the summer trying to get caught up with my design work, that it just never happened. Now the snow has returned, our northern gardens are all tucked in for their long winter’s nap, and I have a little time on my hands. It seems appropriate then, that I pick up where I left off back in May. In that introductory post, I presented and discussed the challenges and complexities of colouring our gardens – a finite colour palette, variable bloom times, harsh sunlight, existing colours in the surrounding landscape, the life cycle of a plant or garden – to name a few.

So how do we as gardeners, mitigate and manage these inevitabilities?  To begin with we might ask ourselves, ‘What is colour?’ I thought it would be interesting to see how a ‘regular Joe’ might answer this question – so I asked my sons (one of whom happens to be named Joe, but nothing regular about him). “The frequency of the light waves bouncing off an object,” he replied – not bad, but it only describes one aspect of colour.  The other son smirked and pointing at his brother quipped, “Yeah… what he said” –  always the class clown. I then asked my husband, a bit of a renaissance man with a love of both art and science. He thought for a moment, “Colour occupies the space between black and white,” was his response – trust him to wax philosophical. A text-book definition might read something like, ‘Colour is the property of an object that remains when all other properties (size, shape, texture etc.) are eliminated’, or ‘Color is that perception by which we can differentiate otherwise identical objects… blah blah blah’ .

Interesting perspectives y’all but in fact, colour isn’t a single attribute. Albert Munsell, an early 20th century American artist, was one of the first colour theorists to propose that an individual colour is actually comprised of three different attributes:

  • Hue, which Munsell defined as: “the quality by which we distinguish one color from another, as a red from a yellow, a green, a blue or a purple.” It is represented by the hue circle.
  • Value, which according to Munsell is: “the quality by which we distinguish a light color from a dark one,” and is represented by the value scale.
  • Chroma, which Munsell defined as: “the degree of departure of a colour from the neutral color of the same value,” and it is represented by the Chroma scale.
Munsell's 3 attributes of colour. Graphics: Sue Gaviller

Munsell’s 3 attributes of colour. Graphics: Sue Gaviller

Confused yet? Well bear with me – it should become clearer. Munsell arranged these three attributes into a three-dimensional figure known as the Munsell Colour Space. Hue is displayed circumferentially, value is placed along the vertical axis, with darkest at the bottom and lightest at the top, and chroma radiates horizontally from the centre, moving from neutral outward to full chroma.

Munsell Colour Space showing Hue, Value and Chroma. Graphics: Sue Gaviller (adapted from Hue, Value and Chroma Chart, applepainter.com)

Munsell Colour Space showing Hue, Value and Chroma.
Graphics: Sue Gaviller (adapted from Hue, Value and Chroma Chart, applepainter.com)

The above image represents only one horizontal segment – the entire 3D figure, called the Munsell Colour Solid, looks more like a warped sphere (image below left). The sphere is warped because colours don’t all behave the same way – individual hues have differing chromatic intensity and reach full chroma at varying value levels. But I’m getting ahead of myself here – I’ll elaborate on each of the three attributes in subsequent posts.

Munsell Color Solid - insde

A look inside the Munsell Color Solid, from: A Grammar of Color, A.H. Munsell, 1921

All colours are contained within the Munsell color solid. Image courtesy of Munsell ColorImage courtesy of Munsell Color

All colours are contained within the Munsell color solid. Image courtesy of Munsell Color

Looking inside the sphere (above right), we see that the colours get lighter from bottom to top, and brighter or less gray, from the centre to the outer rim. A vertical cross-section through the centre of the solid would produce a 2D image such as this:

Graphics: Sue Gaviller

Graphics: Sue Gaviller

or this….

Graphics: Sue Gaviller

Graphics: Sue Gaviller

If we were to segment the 3D figure like an orange, then each segment (1/2 of a vertical slice) is a page in the Munsell Book of Colour. Each page is of a single hue with all the chroma and value permutations of that hue.

 Munsell Colour books. Photo Credit: Mark Fairchild

Several editions of the Munsell Book of Color, as well as the Atlas of the Munsell Color System.
Photo Credit: Mark Fairchild

Value and Chroma levels are all numbered so any colour can be given a precise numerical description; for example, the colour circled below is a red (5R, which I’ll explain later), with a Value of 5 and Chroma of 4, hence it would be called 5R 5/4.

Munsell numerical description of muted red, 5R 5/4. Graphics: Sue Gaviller (adapted from Hue, Value and Chroma Chart, applepainter.com)

Munsell’s system allows for numerical expression of colour using exact Hue, Value and Chroma measurements. Here we see a dusty rose colour belonging to the hue of red (5R), with medium value and medium-low chroma, thus is designated 5R 5/4.
Graphics: Sue Gaviller (adapted from Hue, Value and Chroma Chart, applepainter.com)

poppy 5R 5 4

Photo: The Garden Color Book, Paul Williams.

The Munsell Color Classification System is an accepted method, worldwide, for describing colors numerically – it is used by artists, soil scientists, brewmasters, gemologists or anyone who requires a precise way of expressing colour. So what does all this mean for us? Surely I don’t intend for you to assign letters and numbers to all your plants – do I? Of course not silly gardener. That kind of precision would be of no practical use. Rather, my aim is to provide you with a framework for working with colour – the colour of the poppy above for instance – so you can approximate what hue family it belongs to (red), how it relates to other colours, and how to use it accordingly.

This planting of red, coral and pink poppies is unified by the common hue of red; the two inset photos provide further examples of colours in the same family.

This planting of red, coral and pink poppies is unified by the common hue of red; the two inset photos provide further examples of colours in the same family.

Still confused? Don’t give up just yet. Over the next few months I’ll be exploring each aspect of colour individually, focusing on the relevance to garden design.

So to help brighten the dreary days of winter, stop by once in a while and warm up with a shot of colour. Next post I’ll take a closer look at the first attribute of colour; Hue. Hope hue, uh you, can join me!

’Til then,
Sue

 

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,
Sue