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

Colouring Your Garden, Part 2 – Hue’s the Thing

 

Happy New Year y’all!

If you overindulged in last night’s new year’s celebrations and are currently paying the price, you might want to leave this post for another day – it contains lots of words and numbers and bright colours; perhaps more than your pickled brain can take in at the moment. Go nurse your hangover and come back later. For those of you who were better behaved last night, read on….

In my last post I presented an overview of Munsell’s Colour Classification System – I know it seems an overly complex approach to colour, especially as it relates to garden design, but understanding the concepts of Hue, Value and Chroma is key to effective use of colour in the garden.

Munsell’s three-attribute system is the basis for numerous colour models; for example, the Royal Horticultural Society uses a similar numeric system, employing the terms Hue, Brightness (Munsell’s Value) and Saturation (Munsell’s Chroma). Other models use such terms as Hue/Luminance/Saturation, Hue/Lightness/Saturation or Hue/Value/Saturation. In this post and in general, I use the latter; Hue, Value and Saturation – but in a Munsell framework. A purist might say I’m mixing modalities, arguing that chroma and saturation are not quite the same, but for our purposes they are close enough (I am simplifying things considerably). Today then, I’ll take a closer look at Hue.

Technically speaking, Hue refers to position on the spectrum. That ‘regular Joe’ I spoke of in my last post, was actually defining the attribute of hue – it is the response of colour receptors in our eyes (cones) to light absorbed by and reflected back from an object. The frequency and wavelength of that light determines its colour, red being the longest wavelength and violet the shortest.

Visible spectrum of light – violet light has the shortest wavelength and red the longest. Graphics: Sue Gaviller

Visible spectrum of light – violet light has the shortest wavelength and red the longest.
Graphics: Sue Gaviller

Hue is also the attribute that provides the emotional impact – red is passionate; the colour of anger or cupid’s arrow, yellow is happy and optimistic. It should be noted here that the human response to a particular hue isn’t universal – it’s determined largely by our culture, and by personal experience. The colour red in China symbolizes good luck and prosperity, in India it means purity, and in Hebrew tradition it represents sacrifice and sin. Blue may feel cool and calm to most, but if an individual experienced something traumatic in a room painted blue, that colour may forever trigger negative emotions. Case in point; many people experience bright yellow as a cheerful colour – I find it nauseating. When I was in my mid twenties I took up knitting (for whatever reason knitting had become a fad among young women at the time). I’d been working on a bright yellow mohair sweater (what can I say, it was the eighties and we all wore big hair, big shoulders and big colour). I stayed up late one night trying to finish this furry fright, and after hours of focusing on the gaudy garment, I went to sleep still visualizing bright yellow – indeed the colour permeated my dreams. I awoke several hours later feeling quite nauseous (apparently I’d come down with a nasty gastrointestinal bug). As I drifted in and out of near-delirious, nausea-interrupted sleep, I was still dreaming yellow. Once an association is made between a visual stimuli (or any stimuli) and an emotional or physical response, it may be with us for a lifetime. To this day bright yellow can still make me queasy.

butchart gardens red bridge 2

The colour red has great significance in Japanese culture, symbolizing among other things, that which is sacred – hence the red bridge or ‘Guzei’ in the Japanese Garden represents the path to salvation or redemption. Photo: Pat Gaviller

Primary Hues

Perhaps you’ve heard conflicting information as to which hues are the primaries – are they red, green and blue? Cyan, magenta and yellow? Red, yellow and blue? The correct answer is… all of them – it just depends which model you’re considering. The additive colour system, or RGB (red, green, blue) model, refers to the combining of red, green and blue light to produce a broad range of perceived colours – your computer monitor, television screen, and that awesome light show accompanying your favourite rock band in concert, utilize this model.  The subtractive model, or CMYK is used in ink colorant systems, your inkjet printer for example – cyan, magenta and yellow are the primaries in this model.

The RYB (red, yellow, blue) model was the original subtractive model, predating colour science – it was replaced by CMYK since it is believed that more colours can be produced using the primaries of cyan, magenta and yellow than with red, yellow and blue. Nonetheless, RYB is still used by artists, especially painters. It is also an effective illustrative model which I too utilize and will discuss later in this post.

So what does all this have to with us? As gardeners, we manipulate neither light for digital media application, nor pigment for printing or painting. However, we do manipulate plants, the colour of which comes from pigments, and the light that shines on them – an understanding of the applicable colour models is therefore beneficial.

To complicate things further, the human eye blends colours differently again, in a phenomenon called optical mixing. Ever have the experience of trying to match a print fabric skirt or shirt with a solid colour blouse or tie? You may have perfectly matched one of the colours in the print, but when you view the pairing from a few feet away, the colours appear to clash. The eye has blended together the various colours in the print to make an entirely different colour – this optical mixing is especially evident with small patterns, less so with larger blocks of colour. As we continue our exploration of colour properties, you will see that this comes into play often in the garden.

mixing models

Left: Additive mixing – primaries are Red, Green and Blue. Middle: Subtractive mixing – primaries are Cyan, Magenta and Yellow. Note that the secondary colours of one system are the primaries of the other. Right: Optical Mixing – Colour mixing according to the human eye. Graphics: Sue Gaviller

Munsell’s aim was to develop an approach to colour that approximated the way the eye perceives it. Like his predecessors, beginning with Isaac Newton, he conceptualized the visible spectrum of light as a circle of hues. This was of much more use to artists and designers than the linear spectrum – by placing red next to violet it allowed for red-violet combinations and also provided a better tool for visualizing colour relationships, e.g. opposites or complements.

The Basic Hues

Munsell organized hues into a circle of five major hues (Red, Yellow, Green, Blue and Purple) and five minor hues (Yellow-Red, Green-Yellow, Blue-Green, Purple-Blue and Red-Purple). Together these comprise the Basic Hues and these basic hues are the colours which are most pure or saturated.

Graphics and Photos: Sue Gaviller

Graphics and Photos: Sue Gaviller

Intermediate Hues

The transition from one hue to another is a gradual one with many hues in between, so the spaces between the basic hues he divided further, allowing for intermediate hues. All the basic hues begin with 5, 5R being the basic hue of red, 5YR is yellow-red, 5Y is yellow etc. The intermediate hues all begin with 10 – 10R, 10YR, 10Y and so on around the circle.

Munsell Wheel resampleConsider the hues between 10RP and 10R; all are designated R – 2.5R is nearer to Red-Purple so will contain more of that hue, 5R is basic or pure red,  7.5R and 10R will contain increasing amounts of Yellow-Red (orange).

Numbers then begin at 2.5 again – 2.5YR has more red in it, 5YR is the basic hue of Yellow-Red and the hues 7.5YR and 10YR become increasingly more Yellow.

Munsell’s Basic and Intermediate hues. Graphics: Sue Gaviller

Each of these 40 numerically designated hues, has a corresponding page in the Munsell Book of Color. Each hue is a ‘family’ of colours with numerous value and chroma variations making up the page – below are some examples. Note that as the hues progress from one to another, the changes are subtle but still evident.

R & YR

Eight different hue pages as they might appear in the Munsell book of colour. Graphics: Sue Gaviller

The Artist’s Wheel

Okay enough of all this technical stuff – let’s look at the more familiar Standard Artist’s Wheel, the RYB model we all learned in grade school. It differs from Munsell’s hue circle in a number of ways; instead of five major hues and five minor hues, there are three primary colours (Red, Yellow and Blue), three secondary colours (orange, green and violet), and six tertiary colours (red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-violet, and red-violet).

Artist's Colour Wheel. Graphics: Sue Gaviller

Artist’s Wheel. Graphics: Sue Gaviller

Munsell Hue Circle. Graphics: Sue Gaviller

Munsell Hue Circle. Graphics: Sue Gaviller

As well, some of the colours are named differently; violet instead of purple, orange instead of yellow-red, yellow-green instead of green-yellow etc.. More significantly, Munsell’s circle contains ten basic hues whereas the Artist’s wheel has 12. This means that the complementary pairs will differ as well – red & green vs. red & blue-green, red-violet & yellow-green vs. red-purple & green. The only exception is blue and orange (Munsell’s Yellow-Red) which are the same on both wheels. Munsell used the term opposite rather than complementary and he believed that in order for two colours to be truly opposite, they had to completely neutralize each other when mixed together, hence producing grey. This was how he arrived at the ten basic hues.

So which of these circular representations of hues is most useful to us? Well either… or both – some would argue that Munsell’s opposites are less jarring when used together than the traditional complements. The Artists wheel, on the other hand, works out colour schemes better because 12 colours can be divided more ways than 10.  I use both, but always with Munsell’s basic premises in mind.

Contrasting Hues

Pairing hues that are distant from each other on the colour wheel (e.g. opposites or complements) creates high contrast. These dynamic colour combinations really draw the eye, thus overuse can cause visual fatigue or appear garish.

Photo: Pat Gaviller

This vignette from an area in my front garden demonstrates the highly contrasting hue combination of red-violet and yellow-green. A lovely combo, but too much of such intense contrast could easily overwhelm a composition. Photo: Pat Gaviller

Hues that are close to or beside each other on the colour wheel result in low contrast when used together. This causes less visual tension and is therefore more restful.

Blues and purples are near to each other on the colour wheel resulting in a lower contrast composition that is visually softer than high contrast scenarios. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Blues and purples are near to each other on the colour wheel resulting in a low contrast composition that is visually softer than high contrast scenarios. Photo: Jane Reksten

Of course too little contrast can also end up creating monotony, so be sure to use some areas of high contrast and some areas of lower contrast. I also recommend that you limit the number of hues in your design. This is less constricting than you may think – remember each hue has a whole family of colours associated with it, with varying value and saturation levels, meaning many different but related colours.

Warm Hues

warm hues 2

Warm hues. Graphics: Sue Gaviller

Hues are described as either warm or cool – warm hues are those on the right side of the spectrum and cool hues are those on the left. Red-violet, though it doesn’t exist on the spectrum, can be considered warm or cool because it has both red and violet in it.

Warm hues are lively and vibrant and create the optical illusion of advancing toward the viewer, which means they appear closer than they actually are. For these reasons they are real attention-grabbers, especially at full saturation – gardeners make the mistake of overusing these eye-catching hues thereby overpowering all other aspects of the garden. Warm is dominant and little is needed to make a powerful statement.

Warm colours like red and yellow require on;y a few splashes to be seen and appreciated. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Kendall Jackson winery, Sonoma County CA. Splashes of warm reds and yellows are all that’s needed to provide sufficient visual punch without overshadowing other important elements of the design: line, form and texture. Photo: Sue Gaviller.

Cool Hues

cool hues

Cool hues. Graphics: Sue Gaviller

Cool hues are subtle and restrained, therefore won’t overwhelm a garden design. Optically they recede from the observer, appearing further away – best to situate them up close where they are most visible.

As I mentioned earlier, there may be personal and cultural associations that come into play regarding our emotional response to various colours, but there is in fact a physiological reason for our ocular response. The eye focuses on distant objects in much the same way it focuses on green or blue, and on near objects much the same way as on red. Since the eye is more at rest when viewing objects in the distance, it perceives cool blues and greens as more restful.

 

Photo: Sue Gaviller

A peaceful composition of cool greens, blue-green, blue, and soft violet in an Oregon shade garden. Photo: Sue Gaviller

When contrasting warm and cool hues, cool should outweigh warm by at least three to one. If you follow the rule of thumb that green should be the predominant hue in your garden, this ratio will be easy to satisfy. Unfortunately, in our attempt to create season long colour, we include too many brightly coloured foliage plants, sometimes to the near-exclusion of green. Fellow gardeners please remember, green is good. Green is to the gardener as a canvas to the artist – it is the backdrop against which all other hues are set.

warm hues garden resamplewarm hues + green resample

The image on the left contains too many warm colours without enough green. The image on the right has been been photoshopped to illustrate the balancing effect of green. Photo: Sue Gaviller

 

Well my friends you are one step closer to painting your garden masterpiece, but there’s still more to learn – next post I’ll explore the colour attribute of Value.

’Til then,
Sue