Let’s Talk About Color

– Posted in: Design

Precisely describing the subtle variations in flower color is a challenge for me, so one fine June morning as we were sitting on the front porch, I asked my eldest daughter whether she would describe that rose (‘Darcey Bussell’, pictured above) as crimson, or a red leaning towards purple. She looked at me like I’d grown two heads and said, “It’s pink.”

Pink? Scarcely believing my ears, I turned to my youngest daughter and asked the same question. Almost apologetically, she said it looked pink to her, too.

“So, then, you probably can’t see how the color of this rose plays off the other colors in the bed, can you?”

“Frankly, Mom, I can’t see much rhyme or reason to the plants you grow around the porch.” I started to despair. The hours I’ve spent looking at these borders from every angle, walking around with a plant in my hand, carefully considering where it would be most effective–but to her–and how many other people?–it just looks like a hot mess? Then I remembered the time my middle daughter had told me she really appreciated the interplay of color and texture I had created in the front borders. I had floated on the pleasure of that compliment for the rest of the day. It reassured me that at least one person could see what I’m trying to achieve.

But I want everyone to see my garden the way I see it!

The idea that some people didn’t see my garden the way I did was disturbing, and I wanted to fix it. But do any two people see colors the same? How would we even know? Surely there is a range of color perception from color blindness to the visual equivalent of perfect pitch? And who gets to decide what the “correct” perception of a color is? Furthermore, how did my eldest daughter get a different understanding of color than me? I taught her the names of colors. “Do you want the pink cupcake or the white one?” I taught her what pink looked like. We used the same box of crayons. But now pink means something different to her than it does to me. How did that happen?

I eventually realized there is no fix to this. My garden is lovely to some people, and to others it’s not. So be it. Of course, the best gardens are about a lot more than color: form, texture, space, leading the eye, creating mood. Yet there must be some consensus about color, otherwise how would certain gardens become well-known for their use of it?

Will the real ‘Darcey Bussell’ please stand up?

Further complicating this issue, the same flower changes color depending on the time of day, or with more or less cloud cover. This is the same ‘Darcey Russell’ rose as above, photographed at various times of day and different seasons. Even I will admit this rose looks pink in certain pictures, but the photo at the top is what I consider its true color.

A garden well-known for its use of color

Later on that summer, I visited Buffalo, NY for the Garden Writers Association annual symposium. We toured the garden of Joe Hopkins, which was noteworthy for its use of brilliant color. Some would say there was too much color, because Joe relied more heavily on high-contrast complementary colors than analogous ones. (Complementary colors are directly across from each other on the color wheel; analogous colors are next to each other on the color wheel.)

High contrast color garden

The chartreuse foliage massed on the right complements the hot pink alliums floating above it. The purple sage flowers complement the orange-red coleus at the bottom of the photo.

The dark purple foliage serves as a buffer to rest the eye. The orange-red coleus relates to the similarly-hued begonia in the center, and the birdhouse on the left echoes the color as well. Those echoes help add structure to the riot of color.
high color contrast garden in Buffalo

In this photo of the same seating arrangement taken from a different angle, you can see some of the plantings echo the colors of the umbrella and the garage door.

The color in this garden was so intense it was almost palpable. It worked for me because there was just enough color echo and dark purple foliage to keep it from being overwhelming, and the design of the garden was structured so that you couldn’t see it all at once. It was a nice place to visit, but it would be too much for me to live there. The most interesting thing about this garden was only revealed at the end:
color blind gardener

I am certain I didn’t perceive the colors in this garden the way the owner did!

If a color-blind man can create a garden worthy of mention in several local publications and the Martha Stewart Living radio blog, I guess I shouldn’t worry that my sense of color doesn’t precisely line up with how the rest of my family sees color. Or the rest of the world.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

What differentiates a bulb from a perennial plant is that the nourishment for the flower is stored within the bulb itself.…There is something miraculous about the way that a little grenade of dried up tissue can explode into a complete flower.

~Monty Don in The Complete Gardener pp. 142

Comments on this entry are closed.

Annabelle March 2, 2018, 6:13 pm

Never thought about this…I never realized how many perceptions of one color in my gorgeous flowers on my lawn.

Ashley Johnson March 2, 2018, 8:38 am

When I look at the colors of flowers, I see what I want to see. I sometimes argue with my sister when looking at my yard whether the flowers are teal or light blue. There are so many different shades and we all see different shades on the same flower. This was a good read.

Sam Smith March 2, 2018, 12:05 am

This is awesome 🙂 I really love colors, it can really change the mood of a garden.

Lynn February 26, 2018, 4:27 pm

Great article, Kathy. I tend to plant by color and have found that reds and purples in the garden change color the most, and our perception of their color is affected by the colors they are planted with. I once moved a cream daylily with a dark red eye (while in full bloom) to a different bed that had a lot of true purple in it – it suddenly looked pale yellow with a purple eye. Even the before and after photos revealed the difference – I’m guessing that all flowers are made of complex layers of colors rather than just one color. And our language for color seems totally inadequate to the task of describing the color of plants!

Ian Lumsden February 26, 2018, 3:49 pm

Plants and flowers change their colours not only in different gardens but also different seasons. I featured some yellow snowdrops on my blog last year that had seeded themselves and were stunning. This year the same blighters are simply green and white. Nice but ….
I was intending to write something on my blog today but it is snowing. Weather and conspiracies.

BARDEAU KAREN February 26, 2018, 11:40 am

A few years ago, I had a cataract in my right eye that was bothersome enough that I had the operation. The one in my left eye was not giving me much grief and so I did nothing about that one. When I got home from the operation, I immediately noticed that the colours in my front garden looked much different! The reds definitely had a blue cast where I had planted what I had thought were foliage and flower plants with an orange cast to match the brick of my house. I rushed inside to look at my newly renovated kitchen, fearing that my colour combinations there were no longer working. Long story short. they were fine, but if I close the eye that has not had the cataract removed, the colours are exactly what I had chosen. If I close the eye that had a new lens put in, then I see colours that tend more toward bluish grey than toward slightly taupe grey.
Covering my left eye, the one that still has a cataract, I see your rose as having bluish mauve running to pink at the edges. Covering my right eye, my other eye, which still has its cataract, sees your rose as being bluish mauve running to yellowish red at the edges. If I were painting a watercolour of your rose, I would have to decide which eye to cover when choosing paint. 🙂

Kathy Purdy February 26, 2018, 12:13 pm

Karen, thank you for sharing your experience. That is fascinating!

Carol February 26, 2018, 11:25 am

Color is in the eye of the beholder!

Donna@GardensEyeView February 26, 2018, 10:02 am

I love the way people mix colors in their gardens….I am not sure I have accomplished as much with color as many but I keep trying. And I have given up having people seeing my garden as I do. I guess I have learned much from their views too.

Kathy February 26, 2018, 8:36 am

When I paint I often pull color out of the things I paint so in looking at your rose, I see blue undertones (the red leaning more towards purple) and some might be surprised if I painted blue in the rose, which I would. So there you have it, more confusion.

Mary Schier February 26, 2018, 7:03 am

To me, the top image looks purple, though I can see the pink tones on the edges of the petals. Color is so changeable throughout the day, as you say, so it could well look pink in some lights. Color perception on computer screens can also be way off. I’ve learned that the hard way working in print media. What you see on screen is not always what you get. Interesting post!

Lisa at Greenbow February 26, 2018, 6:46 am

I had a chuckle when you were describing how your daughter saw color different than you. Oh how true that is here. Not only color but the way my daughter see how to use space different.
I have never thought about how someone who is color blind gardens. I had a boss one time that could see only two colors, blue and brown. Wouldn’t that be odd or if he was a gardener it might be magnificent. Who would know??? Clearly Mr Hopkins can see more than two colors but probably fewer than we can see. Amazing how he pulled together this garden. Lovely.

Leslie February 25, 2018, 9:45 pm

I have had more than one ‘color conversation’ with my good friend. We definitely see color very differently. This is a thought provoking post!