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Colour Theory


By AndrewR


Have you ever wondered why some colours look right together and others don’t? This blog attempts to explain colour theory and help you understand what is going on (with apologies to any artists reading this who can explain it all much better than me).

Within the retina of the eye are three types of cells which are responsive to three different colours – red, yellow and blue – these are known as the primary colours and everything we see is made from a mix of these. In the absence of any yellow or blue, we see red. Start adding yellow and the red changes through scarlet and vermillion to orange (see how many words we have to describe the multitude of colours we can see). From orange, the red content diminishes until we have pure yellow remaining. Next we start adding blue and pass through lime green to reach green itself, then the yellow falls away as we head towards blue. From blue, we start to add red again, moving to purple and finally, take out the blue and move back to red. This progression can be painted in a circle and is known as the colour wheel.

Although not part of the colour wheel, black and white also need to be considered. Adding black to any of the colours makes them progressively darker until they disappear completely; white makes them lighter and paler. Add black to red and we get crimson and claret; add white and we get varying shades of pink.

The three colours orange (red and yellow), green (yellow and blue) and purple (blue and red) are known as the secondary colours. If we take two colours adjacent to each other in the colour wheel (for example orange and yellow), the eye sees mostly yellow with some red and the colours are in harmony. But if we put orange (which contains red and yellow) with blue (which has neither red nor yellow), we get a contrast and one balances the other.

So should we use harmonies or contrasts? The answer is both. There was a fashion some twenty years ago to use just pale pink, light blue and white flowers in a garden – all very tasteful and restful (I call this the ‘Posh Lady Gardener syndrome’). While it is easy on the eye, you somehow feel let down, there is something missing – there is no contrast.

On the other hand, visit a garden where all the colours are mixed together in large blocks and you leave feeling frazzled and tired – there is no harmony. One balances the other.

Cottage-style gardens (with lots of colours) ‘work’ because although there is lots of colour, there is a lot of green between them and green is the most restful colour on the eye. In fact all the colours around blue – from green to purple – are restful are these are called ‘cold’ colours. On the opposite side of the colour wheel are the hot colours – red, orange and yellow. Clashes occur when we start mixing hot and cold colours indiscriminately. This explains why we sometimes find a red and a pink flower don’t look right together. The red of the bottlebrush contains yellow (a hot colour) while the pink dierama contains a lot of blue (a cold colour).

But put the dierama against a blue mallow and they sit comfortably.

Once you start to understand the principles behind colour theory, you are in a better position to experiment and break the rules if you want to. The late Christopher Lloyd at Great Dixter was one for doing this but to my mind, he went too far and removed the necessary areas of harmony to contrast with his explosive mix of colour.

Colour in the garden is not simple. Very few flowers consist of a single uniform shade. Light at different times of day causes colour to appear differently as do different weather conditions. Spring and autumn sunlight is different from that of high summer. We are constantly striving to create pleasing combinations in changing conditions – no wonder gardening is such a challenge.

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Great blog Andrew!! Fascinating and nice examples :o)

5 Jul, 2008


I did a short gardening courde a few years ago and the teacher used a colour wheel. He photocopied one and gave it black and white! He was actually a fantastic teacher if a little eccentric and what he taught has stayed with me ( I got my own colour wheel from the decorating section at B & Q!) Interesting blog Andrew.

5 Jul, 2008


Great. I enjoyed reading this.
I seem to prefer cool colours myself. ( I like to call them "cool" and "warm" colours - somehow it seems less harsh to me), and I seem to be able to live better with colour harmonies rather than contrasts in my own garden. Well I suppose it's a matter of personal taste.
I also like the way the light changes through the day and the seasons, as you say Andrew colours appear diferently at diferent times. I find pale colours look best in the evening after the sun has gone down, or in a shady area.
I liked the way Christopher Lloyd experimented. I think if we don't try something diferent sometimes we'll get stuck in a rut, but in my small garden I don't have the room for much experimenting.
Can I also say Andrew that I like the explanations you put with your photos. They're very informative.

5 Jul, 2008


Maybe that's why I decided to choose purple, gold and white for the back garden - plenty of contrast there! I wanted a complete change from the rest of the garden. Blodyn is right - it is all too easy to get in a rut. It was definitely an experiment but I like it and I'm the one who gets to see it most! (husband likes it too...)

5 Jul, 2008


Great Blog Andrew.
Ive always maintained that part of gardening is about painting with plants. With my background in art I really enjoy pushing the boundaries and use colour pattern texture and form.

5 Jul, 2008


I think I suffer from "posh lady gardener" syndrome but I love it's restfulness .lol I love cool colours so clearly it's easy to suffer .As long as there is plenty of lush green I'm happy.

10 Jul, 2008


Just found this blog, Andrew. Very neatly put.
Christopher Lloyd was one of my heroes just because he used such startling combinations - I'm sure it was done for the "stop you dead in your tracks" effect more than his love of violent floral clashes! Any controversy that made people stop and think about gardens and colour was grist to his mill.
For years I could not abide yellow next to a pink with any hint of blue in it - now in my dotage I have been guilty of putting them together deliberately, but with something else, foliage or white, to calm it down a bit!

15 Sep, 2008


This has helped me loads Andrewr Cant wait now2do my Front Spring Garden Display :) Now i wonder if il go for more Orange than Yellow? Oh well im sure i make my mind up b4 i buy the Plants :)

15 Sep, 2008


Thanks for this blog.
Very informative. :o)

10 Oct, 2008

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