Guide-Color Theory in Landscape Design

Understanding something about color theory is indispensable to any introduction to landscape design. Meanwhile, for the practical application of color theory, flower photos are immeasurably helpful. I provide both in the present article: on the first two pages, a brief look at color theory, and on Page 3, links to flower photos that will give you ideas for using reds, pinks (a tint of red), yellows, blues, purples, lavenders (a tint of purple) oranges, whites and silvers in your landscape designs.

Tertiary colors in a simple color wheel.
Tertiary colors in a simple color wheel.
David Beaulieu

Color, along with form, line, texture and scale, is one of the basic elements of landscape design, while proportion, transition and unity are some of the principles that rely on those elements.

Your choice of colors to be used in the yard should not be considered in isolation. Rather, always keep in mind how color interplays with the other basic elements, with the principles of landscape design, and with the overall objectives of your plan.

Examples of the Application of Color Theory

The spectrum of colors is often divided into 4 categories:

  • Primary: reds, yellows and blues.
  • Secondary: greens, violets (purples) and oranges.
  • Tertiary: Blends of the primary and secondary categories.
  • Neutral: White, grays and silvers. Gray is an unusual color for blooms or berries, but you can view an example by clicking on the color wheel picture (above right), which opens a mini-photo gallery.

The secondary colors can be thought of as an even blending of two primary colors. Thus red and yellow produce orange, yellow and blue produce green, and red and blue yield purple.

Foliage contrast.
Don't forget the foliage! A nice contrast between castor bean's purple foliage and lighter foliages.
David Beaulieu

The blends known as "tertiary colors" add a further element of complexity to the color wheel. I have numbered them on the illustration to your right. The numbered colors are as follows: 1.yellow-green, 2.blue-green, 3.blue-violet, 4.red-violet, 5.red-orange and 6.orange-yellow.

Using color theory as your guide, you can match the colors you use in your landscaping so that they "go together." The tertiary colors can serve as transitional colors to this end. For instance, let's say you want a color scheme using reds and violets. If you can find a plant that has a red-violet color, it will help bridge the gulf between your red plants and your violet (purple) plants. The addition of the third plant in such a case makes the difference between a slightly jarring effect (i.e., with just reds and violets) versus a smoother, more harmonious ensemble.

Bayberry shrubs for winter landscape
The berries of bayberry shrub provide an unusual color: gray.
David Beaulieu

Color can also alter mood and perception, allowing you to:

  • Create a relaxing corner in your yard where you can meditate.
  • Make small spaces seem larger.
  • Attract attention to a particular area.
  • Tie different areas of the yard together.
Proper use of color can influence mood and perception. For instance, red, yellow and orange are considered "warm colors" and may excite the viewer. Blue, purple and green are considered "cool colors" and are more likely to relax you. Thus for a meditation garden, blue and/or purple flowers would be a logical choice.

If you're landscaping in a small space, you can alter the viewer's perception by using cool colors instead of others. Blue and the other cool colors can make a small space appear larger. The reverse is also true. With warm colors like red, you may perceive large spaces to be more intimate. The warm colors appear to come forward in the landscape, and seem closer than they are in reality -- thereby scaling down the whole landscape in the process.

The warm colors are born attention-grabbers, since they bring a mood that does not relax, but rather rouses the viewer.

If you wish to draw visitors into a space, create a focal point there using red and/or yellow and/or orange.

Another application of color theory can be seen in the use of color to create either unity or contrast. Landscapers may stay within the warm-colors group or the cool-colors group in order to provide unity, be it within one planting bed or throughout the yard. In the latter case, different parts of the yard are thereby tied together to form a harmonious unit.

PJM Rhododendron Picture
PJM Rhododendron
David Beaulieu

Alternatively, landscapers may deliberately juxtapose warm colors and cool colors within a planting bed to produce a contrast. An example of a maximum in contrast is yellow and purple. The other pairs that are directly across from each other on the color wheel also afford maximal contrast. Perhaps you've heard such pairs referred to as "complementary colors," which is jargon from color theory. You may well wonder, "If they're complementary, how can they contrast with each other?" But don't be fooled by the terminology: for the purposes of landscape design, what you need to know is that using these pairs provides striking contrast.

No other plant says "fall" like Chrysant
No other plant says "fall" like Chrysanthemums.
David Beaulieu

Neutrals allow for transition between stronger hues. Neutrals can also be used to soften the effect of loud color schemes or stand on their own in a monochromatic scheme (e.g., all-white gardens).

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