'Natural Order' of Color Harmony

swanoir(Zone 5)April 26, 2010

I was curious what people think of this statement by Tracy Disabato-Aust in "The Well-Designed Mixed Garden" concerning coordinating color in one's landscape or garden. She uses it to explain, for example, why light blue and dark orange flowers do not work well together:

"A simple rule of color harmony: keep lights light, and darks dark. It is more pleasing to combine tints of lighter colors with shades of darker colors than shades of lighter colors with tints of darker colors. Yellow is the lightest color and has the highest value; colors darken, becoming increasingly lower in value, through orange, green, red, and blue (in that order), finishing with violet, the darkest color and the lowest value.

Penelope Hob-house (1985) is a fan of sticking to this "natural order": "The deepest yellow will look 'wrong' with a pink, lavender, or pale blue (all tints of darker spectral hues) if it becomes higher in value  and competes with the normally more luminous yellow." The color police have been telling us forever that pink and orange mustn't be used together - now we know why they don't usually work.

Effective combinations can also be made by either darkening (lowering the value) or lightening (increasing the value) of all the colors that are used. The mutual link would then be either all tints (pastels) or all shades. To balance colors, you generally need more of a darker color than a lighter color, if both are at full intensity."

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In the words of Captain Jack Sparrow, rules are "guidelines". As with all guidelines, if you stick to them things go smoothly, but if you find ways to overcome the stresses of straying, you may be able to do interesting and pleasing things - it is more difficult and more things can go wrong along the way.

It is not that you can break rules, just that many can be overcome. The question is how much effort and trial and error do you want to do in order to find out whether you can overcome them.

Color alone can make or break a composition or not. The difficulty is that we have to study all of these design elements individually in order to understand them, but they all work in a dynamic way with each other. The dynamic shifts the degree of importance of each of them as they are combined.

Study each, but never forget about the rest of them when you put a composition together. Often people have posted here after reading a book or article focused on one element. They try to put a composition together based on that one aspect and can't figure out why it failed miserably because it "followed the rule".

I think it is good to start by sticking to fundamentals until you have complete comfort within the rules. Then go forward with pushing what you can get away with and understanding why you are getting away with it when you do.

Most people want to experiment with going against the grain before they understand what the grain is. The biggest problem is not arogance, but simply that they just don't realize what they don't know. Nowhere is that more apparent than a first year college landscape architecture planting design class. I would have been a great example of being a nonbeliever in needing the baby steps as someone involvled in landscaping from a very young age.

My "aha moment" came the following July when I was landscaping on my summer break and compared the "rule breaking" landscapes that I was working on with the "nonsense" they were teaching me in school. That is when I started to notice that when some rules were somewhat broken, others were very strong which mitigated the breaks in other rules. In other words, I became much more aware of the dynamics because I understood the individual rules. It could not happen without first understanding the pieces.

    Bookmark   April 26, 2010 at 10:47PM
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swanoir(Zone 5)

Thank you, Andrew, for your thoughtful and insightful response... as per usual.

    Bookmark   April 27, 2010 at 11:55AM
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I'm completely new to the world of landscape, so feel free to humor me. :O)

I think the quote you posted is actually a simplified version of some of Birren's color principles, so in that way, they do make sense. If you aren't familiar with him, Faber Birren was a master in the field of the science of color as pertaining to practical perception in the 1930's through the 1960's.

One of his principles, boiled down to a few words, states that humans achieve more pleasure out of colors they can easily define. Meaning pink, of course a mixture of white and red, is more pleasing than a pinky-lavender (white, red, plus purple).

Another states, again in a nutshell, that two colors will be most pleasing if they have an easily discernable difference in hue and shade. Our mind attempts to define and rationalize color so clarity is comforting.

It all sounds so elementary in my words, but it really becomes quite thought provoking when he delves into the science and psychology. He even explains how to achieve effects like luminosity, iridescence, and luster.

If it sounds like something you are interested in, start with Birren's Principles of Color. It is a concise 96 pages, but is a great book to dip your toes in.

    Bookmark   April 27, 2010 at 3:05PM
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Uh oh! I had better move the daffodils away from the PJM's, as they are breaking the yellow/pink rule. Or maybe because their surroundings are dull hues of tan, black, and dehydated grass green that they can work together?

    Bookmark   April 27, 2010 at 3:12PM
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The variability of flower colour and time of blooming makes strict adherence to an 'on paper' combination virtually impossible. Make a careful combination of colours that bloom at different times and all is futile. Like laag says, use any advice (including this) as a guideline only, suck it and see is my advice. Take a delicate flower (babies breath lets say) and combine it with something like a camellia or hibiscus and there is more to take into account than the individual flower colour. From the other end of the garden the camellia will be a stand out and the babies breath invisible.

Disclaimer: I realise babies breath is not the best example but I am shooting from the hip.

    Bookmark   April 27, 2010 at 4:20PM
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leafy02(6 Central Kentucky)

I don't put much stock in those rules, though I understand a little color principle and do agree that some color combinations are jarring, I also know that just as I would never wear only pastels, I don't want to see only pastels in my landscape. Lovely for others, but they're just not me. And scale is an important consideration.

Previous homeowners planted a purple sand cherry and at 7 feet tall, it's the largest plant in our landscape. As far as I'm concerned, it rules out the orange-blooming azaleas I'd love to have, because the particular purple of the cherry just isn't attractive with orange.

At the same time, I'm happy to mix orange and vivid purple flowers in my backyard where the sand cherry is not, and for the one brief season that my red-orange geum bloomed, it looked lovely with the blue and purple flowers blooming around it.

    Bookmark   April 28, 2010 at 12:05AM
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Not only does bloom time wreck the strict science of the nuances of color, but plant performance and variables in light does as well. My opinion is that we can't get too deep in detail of color wheel application for that reason. Certainly the generalities are something that can be understood and applied.

Plant foliage isreally difficult because there are so many pigments making up just the various greens that we perceive. Just try putting what you see as very different shades of green in front of each other at a nursery and see which melt into each other and which pop.It can really take you by surprise (my father used to make me do that). You might be as amazed as I was to watch a red cutleaf japanese maple get completely absorbed by a totally green plant.

    Bookmark   April 28, 2010 at 7:11AM
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