Garden Designers Roundtable: Color Conversations

I love color and write about it frequently both here and at Designers on Design. I’ve explored single hues for inspiration such as grey, turquoise and even white, but color in the garden should actually be more of a complex conversation than a single statement.

In my mind there are two common mistakes when using color in gardens–first we let the bloom be the talkers and relegate other elements to the background and second we don’t consider the how the color of  an inanimate object of is going to affect the whole.  For my purposes today I’m ignoring the bloom issues.  Planting design is another topic entirely.

One of the great modern masters of color, the artist Josef Albers, spent much of his career exploring and teaching how colors ‘talk’ to each other in context. If you look at the paintings below, you will see that each carefully considered hue stands on its own yet also works as part of the whole.  These hues are like wonderful conversationalists at a dinner party–each speaks eloquently on its own but listens to the one next to it.

Atuned, 1958 - Josef Albers

This first example has no green in it so it might be difficult to imagine it as a garden.  So look at the next.

Untitled, 1969 - Josef Albers

Now visualize this painting as a simple garden design.  (Actually it could be a really cool contemporary garden design…but back to the idea of color conversations.)  Most people will think in the context of plants–perhaps hedging on the outside and other plants in each nested square.  What happens when other garden elements are added to the plants?  All too often that’s when the trouble starts and we start to loose the thread of the conversation.  It’s like being distracted in a group when a new member arrives, some side conversations start,  and when the introductions are done the subject has completely changed from what it was before.

Nested Squares

In the garden above by James Doyle Design Associates, color has been as carefully considered as the geometry and the scale.  Each element is an equal player in the whole composition.  It is formal, traditional and deceiving in its simplicity–just like Albers’ squares inside of squares.

Blue Wall

Now consider this more challenging garden by Topher Delaney.  The blue wall is the only color in a sea of neutrals.  There are almost no plants.  Even though there is a huge contrast in the colors used, there is a unified statement with each carefully chosen and placed element working together creating a single visual statement–a conversation between equals if you will.

Unless you are trying to make an exclamatory statement, the trick is to think about the whole instead of each individual part when trying to start a color conversation in the garden.  Next time you come home from the garden center with that lemon yellow or vivid orange pot –  if it screams its name then take it back or create a visual conversation around it–let it talk to its neighbors.

See what the other Roundtable designers are saying in their conversations about color by clicking on any of the links below.

Andrew Keys : Garden Smackdown : Boston, MA »
Christina Salwitz : Personal Garden Coach : Renton, WA »
Douglas Owens-Pike : Energyscapes : Minneapolis, MN »
Genevieve Schmidt : North Coast Gardening : Arcata, CA »
Ivette Soler : The Germinatrix : Los Angeles, CA »
Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO »
Rebecca Sweet : Gossip in the Garden : Los Altos, CA »
Rochelle Greayer : Studio “G” : Boston, MA »
Scott Hokunson : Blue Heron Landscapes : Granby, CT »

20 thoughts on “Garden Designers Roundtable: Color Conversations

  1. Lovely piece!
    The whole conversation thing is great.
    I do life drawing class each week and our guru uses the ‘Chat to’ concept quite often.

    Isn’t that what we really do, Robert? Create a visual dialog? Conversation just seems much more friendly than dialog!

  2. Oh I love it, not only do you make the point of considering the individual elements as part of a bigger conversation, you encourage them to “talk” to their neighbors. A good analogy Susan. (Which came first the Albers paintings or the squared, fountain photo?)

    Actually the college I attended had two large and glorious Albers painted directly on the walls in the main reception area. I fell in love then and there. The square garden came about 35 years later!

  3. thanks for bring together such a great group of garden design bloggers…I thoroughly enjoyed all the posts….but even more enjoyed the vastly different perspectives we all took…so interesting and fun.

    It’s great to have a group of people to share ideas with, kind of like being in a studio critque…happy to have you here!

  4. I love your concept of a “color conversation” and also the idea of using fine art as a muse for color choices/proportions in the garden. Thank you for such a thought-full post today.

    Thanks, Jocelyn. Making my way from seeing my first Albers (back in 1971) to here has been quite a journey. Funny how random things stick with you for life.

  5. Susan, you have a wonderful grasp on the use of color. I am inspired to learn more on its use, as this is not one of my strongest points.

    Thanks, Scott. My true belief is that in the right proportions, all colors look good together. Don’t stress out about it.

  6. Susan,

    Like everyone else I enjoyed your comparison of colors in the garden to a conversation and how introducing a new voice takes the conversation to a new topic and sometimes the new topic is more interesting than the original and other times it’s not. The fun part is sticking around long enough to figure out which option is true. Thanks for sharing your unique insight into color.

    It’s the sticking around enough part that’s tough. My advice is have a cocktail – the conversation always gets better after one of those!

  7. What an interesting take on color, Miss Rumphius! Excellent point about looking at color as a whole, and I love the way you’ve illustrated your points with such bold designs and photos. What a pleasure to read.

    You know, I didn’t really think about it, but wouldn’t it be fun to go to a great party in either of these gardens. I bet the conversation would be wonderful! Thanks, Genevieve.

  8. Susan,
    Thoroughly enjoyed your intellectualization of color theory in the garden and especially appreciated the Albers color studies.
    What would have been even more telling is if you had access to the full range of Albers series and could find one where he used the same color in different charrettes.
    This is extremely telling.
    By showing the same color ‘green’ and placing next to an analogous or a complimentary color that same “green’ changes the color perception in the way we view the color.
    Color theory is a fascinating subject. One that I loved when in school.
    Another great color master was Goethe, though I enjoyed Joseph Albers color experiments a lot more .
    You must of had a box of ColorAid when you were in college.
    I still have bits and pieces of mine.
    Great read. Thank you !

    Michelle- I did indeed have a box of ColorAid. Many years later I’m happy to report that it’s still a required art school supply although the paper is 1/2 the size and the price more than twice! Color theory for gardens is so complex because its not fixed in time. Someone should write a book about it….not me though.-S

  9. I remember Albers from art history way back, and LOVE the idea of his concepts in the context of garden design. Great gardens, to me, are all about conversations between so many elements, but especially color. Perfect Albers association.

    Thanks, Andrew. I agree about the many conversations, too. The problem is when you get the screamers in there!

  10. Hi Susan, We too like the conversation analogy. Sometime we use the expression talking to one another to explain to clients or builders many relationships in the garden whether color, shapes or structures. Conversations and relationships are at the essence of design. Your comment about the complexity of color in the garden is an important point. The Albers examples are great but like the old ColorAid projects in art school, are much less affected by their surrounding environment than a garden space is. They are flat and meant to be viewed in a standard light. Garden environments as you well know are not paintings but 3-D sculptures with undergoing constant daily, seasonal and longer term changes. That makes for a very challenging and interesting ColorAid project!

    You aren’t the first one to mention ColorAid paper! Of course design is much more complex than the analogy that I use here. The color of every element in the garden is part of the conversation!

  11. As an artist and a garden designer I so appreciate your use of fine art as for choices in the garden. The most beloved painter of our time – Monet, planted his gardens with that just in mind to paint it. He declared that if he hadn’t been a gardener first he would’ve never been a painter.

    Wonderful post !

  12. The only drawback to the art/garden color analogy is that the color of even inanimate objects changes throughout the day and throughout the seasons with the changing of the light. Sometimes, the object needs to be viewed in situ over time to see whether it will converse politely with its neighbors, or will act the prima donna.

    You are so right about that. I was trying to be more basic…add light to the mix and even Monet had to paint his subjects many, many times to catch the subtle changes. Thanks for stopping by!

  13. Susan, I’m trying to shift my plantsperson tendencies from the specific to the abstract; from collectaholism to design. What you’re talking about, as I understand it, is the very basis of design, which is to create unity… in this case, using colour. Do I have that right? Sometimes, I think, the most creative solutions evolve out of the constraints. So if you say: for this solution, what if I only considered colour? It’s a way of abstracting the overall impact of a space. Then I get to choose the plants.

    Exactly! Of course gardens, like people, shift and change over time, but what if you did narrow down the perameters to one or two ideas? Say color, scale and repetition. You’d have a wow!

  14. thank you for bringing the conversation of color to a much broader scale. the comparison to albers’ work reminds us that gardens can be reduced to simple color and line relationships, yet when carefully selected and considered, can result in complex visual experiences.

    And thank you, Andrea for ‘getting’ it!

  15. Susan your posts are always so thoughtful! You really have a gift for stepping back and looking at the big picture.

    You nailed me! I am soooooo big picture. Thanks for the props, Susan.

  16. Ha! Whenever I’m designing my colleagues laugh at me because I’m always describing this plant “talking to” that one, or these two “shouting at” each other from across the patio – color conversations are important! A good grasp of color theory is essential when grappling with what a garden does over time – and I loved the way you described it. And you brought in Albers! Perfect!
    btw, my friend, artist Pae White, makes enormous Color-Aid paper ‘gardens’ that have hung from the ceilings of many museums and galleries … you’d really like her work!
    Miss Rumphius RULES

    Thanks Germi. I’m going to check out Pae White. It’s usually the conversations that make a party interesting anyway isn’t it…why not a garden party!

  17. Susan – what a great post – totally different from anyone else’s (not an easy thing to do, either). I SO enjoyed reading your color theory coupled with your visual aids..very educational to many, I’m sure. And I love the idea of plants talking versus shouting at each other, or being interrupted and having side conversations starting…great analogy!

    Rebecca–Thanks for the education props…I was a design professor for 20 years. History, theory and studio–old habits die hard I guess. Glad you stopped by!

  18. You’ve hit on my weakness – and not for lack of trying, but you’ve also given me some tips. Thanks. I’ll keep trying.

    Just keep them conversing and you’ll be fine. Color like math takes practice!

  19. As a proffesional color consultant I often use the term with my clients as we select colors ‘They play nice together’ ie no one single color dominates the “conversation” but each gives other equal respect for its place in the mix.
    Thank you, I enjoyed this article. Nancy

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