I have a complete fascination with colour. Gardening seems to have intensified that fascination because there are endless variations in colour in nature. Add changing light and shadow, the interaction of one colour against another, or the texture of a particular petal, a little bit of iridescence, and you have infinite variety.
We are all drawn to particular colours. I am very drawn to very bright and very deep, rich colours. I love deepest purple and sultry plums.
I love all shades of red, from those with a hint of pink, as in coral and cherry, those that are suffused with purple or blue, as in crimson and magenta, to those that are pure scarlet, or those that leach into vermillion and copper. To accompany these favourites, I like a flash of gold.
I like brightest blue, or freshest lime green or bright green. I love indigo and violet, and purple that is verging on black. I like colours that are clear as Indian ink.
I also have a fondness for the softer tones. A cottage garden filled with big blowsy roses and peonies, penstemons and hollyhocks. A dappled mingling of pure white, soft apricot and peach, blush pink through to rich pink, lilac, icy blue…balanced with the deeper tones of burgundy-black and inky purple.
You see how rich and fascinating this world of colour in the garden is?
Does it help to analyse colour? To use the colour wheel?
Primary, Seconday and Tertiary Colours
There are the primary colours: red, blue and yellow (we’re talking pigment rather than light here). If you look at the colour wheel below, the three primary colours are a third of the way apart from one another. I will come back to this!
If the primary colours are mixed then we get secondary colours: orange, purple and green. These are half-way between the primary colours on the wheel, and are also a third of the distance apart from one another.
Then if we mix the secondary colours, we have tertiary colours: red-orange, blue-purple, and so on. You can get even more subtle variations on this to make red-red-orange, and so on.
The colour wheel can teach us how to use colours for particular effects.
Hot and Cold Colours
There are hot colours: red, orange, yellow, and there are cool colours: green, blue and purple. In my last garden my front garden made use of the hot colours (along with green) to pick up the evening sun. Colours vary in the degree of hotness and coolness, and this is subjective to an extent. Is green hot or cold? How about plum? They are at the boundary between hot and cold. We generally perceive pastel colours (those with white mixed in) to be cooler than fully saturated colours. Is this because we know light colours are cooler to wear? A certain amount of synaesthesia kicks in here!
Contrasting and Harmonising Colours
Colours that are opposite or near opposite one another on the colour wheel create striking contrasts: red with green, purple with orange or blue with yellow. By combining these colours, they intensify one another: blue makes yellow more yellow; yellow makes blue more blue.
You can see this with red and green here:
And with purple and orange here:
The primary, secondary and tertiary colours can be fully saturated, as in the bright colours, or they might be paler, as in the pastels. So from red, we get pink, from orange we get apricot, from yellow we get buttermilk, and so on. There are infinite gradations in between.
Here is another colour contrast with lilac Geranium ‘Orion’ and apricot Rosa ‘Roald Dahl’. Lilac and apricot have mid-range colour saturation (as opposed to deep purple and bright orange, which are deeply saturated), so they balance one another out.
The colour wheel also shows us where one colour bleeds into another.
Planting similar colours that are close together on the wheel will give a more harmonious, relaxing effect, for example purples with blues, greens with yellows.
This is a harmonising combination of rich pink Rosa ‘Thomas a Beckett’ with lilac Geranium ‘Brookside’ and magenta Lychnis coronaria. They are all found between the red and blue third of the colour wheel, and putting them together encourages us to appreciate the subtle changes in tone.
I have mentioned thirds quite a few times. If you combine two colours which a are third of the way apart, I think you get a pleasing effect. The colours aren’t yelling at each other; nor are they making one another insipid.
This is easiest to see on our simple colour wheel.
Colours that are a third of the way apart on the wheel are mid-way between a contrast and a harmony. A good example that nature has found is the humble forget-me-not, with its sky blue and sunshine yellow.
And here is another favourite combination of chartreuse green Alchemilla mollis with soft purple Geranium magnificum. These are also colours that are a third of the way apart from one another on the colour wheel.
But these rules don’t explain everything about colour. We all process colour differently and have personal associations. Colour is there to be played with.
There are some combinations that I just find incredibly pleasing. One is magenta-purple and red. They are next to one another on the colour wheel, but feel very different. More different than green and yellow, say.
Another combination I play with over and over is purple with orange. The purple can vary from deepest indigo through to magenta, and even dusky pink. The orange can be vermillion through tangerine, or it can be lightened to apricot. But I love these hues together.
Here an interesting combination of Lychnis coronaria and Rosa ‘Summer Song’. Magenta and burnt orange are in the same quarter of the colour wheel, but it is difficult to say whether they harmonise or contrast. Perhaps because the Lychnis has a greater colour saturation than the slightly creamy orange of the rose. I love the unsettling effect where you are not sure if they clash.
Maybe the combination above works for me because there is green to balance it out. Green is about opposite to the midway point between the magenta and the orange. Or is it that green just looks good with everything?
Here is another intriguing one. This is Erysimum ‘Apricot Twist’. There is a metallic purple tinge to the buds, contrasted with the apricot-orange open flowers. But it is even more complex than that. the purple is tinged with turquoise, and the apricot tinged with coppery-purple. This is why I love colour. It is never straightforward.
If I see a combination like this that has been designed by nature, I will often copy it in my borders. Sometimes it is conscious, sometimes unconscious.
Here is Euphorbia griffithii ‘Fireglow’ showing me that bright green with orange, gold and red is a zinging combination.
And here is Euphorbia martinii playing with deepest colour saturation of burgundy, with light and airy chartreuse. This is another combination which floats my boat.
This post might just be the start of a little series on colour, texture and form. Because I spend a lot of time pondering these things!
Do you use the colour-wheel when planning the garden, or other projects? Do you make use of harmonising or contrasting colours? Do you mix darks and lights to get different effects? What are your favourite combinations?
My aim on this site is to share the sense of wonder I get from gardening and being outdoors.
If you would like to join the joy, click on the ‘Follow’ button at the end of this post. You will receive an email each time I post a little pop of wonder.