Thoughts About Color

A while ago I was talking on the phone with a friend who is a distinguished garden designer and nurserywoman. We got onto the subject of color, and her enthusiasm quickly reached the boiling point. “I live for color!” she burst out.

I know what she means. For those of us besotted with color, gardening is an inexhaustible well of delight. If it’s the intensity of pure hue that gets your blood racing, you can bathe in the spectrum red of your favorite rose or poppy, or plunge into the blue pools of delphiniums or gentians. If subtler pleasures are more to your taste, there are the smoky browns and purples of fritillaries, the impossible-to-name colors of hellebores, the infinite gradations of green in foliage.

Not surprisingly, there are plenty of self-styled experts ready to tell you how you should go about arranging the colors in your garden, and ready to whack you with a big stick labeled “Color Theory” if you should stray from the approved path. I thought it might be instructive, therefore, to take a closer look at color theory to see what really is, or isn’t, there. Well, after slogging through the combined 665 pages of Color and Culture and Color and Meaning, by John Gage (perhaps the foremost academic authority on color theory), and giving the matter much careful thought, I’m prepared to say that color theory is a lot of hooey. Let me qualify that a bit: anyone who claims that there is a theoretically correct way to approach color is full of hooey. As Gage points out, color theory, over the centuries, has been so profoundly shaped by extraneous cultural influences that it can be invoked to support almost any point of view. Three primary colors? The Nobel Prize–winning chemist Wilhelm Ostwald claimed there were four. Seven hues in the spectrum? Only because Isaac Newton had an occult belief that the spectrum had to correspond with the seven tones of the musical octave; he added indigo so that the number would come out right. But the biggest fiction of all is the color wheel, that tired, utterly artificial arrangement that gets trotted out in book after book to “prove” various assertions about which colors “go” together.

Our experience of color in the garden confirms the arbitrariness of much of what passes for scientific theory. Follow the strictures of the theorists, and what do you wind up with? A big yawn, that’s what. Take, for example, the widely repeated exhortation to pair true blue with pale yellow. I tried that in my garden one year, and the whole thing wound up being about as exciting as the Swedish flag on a windless day. The blues didn’t come alive until I added some oranges, apricots, and coppery browns.

So, where to turn for inspiration? Try looking hard at paintings—after all, what you’re doing in the garden, essentially, is composing a pointillist scene on a green canvas. But don’t choose comfortable, easy paintings, like Monet landscapes; pick the wildest of the Fauves, the most deranged of the Abstract Expressionists. Or—shocking thought—try emulating nature, which doesn’t flinch from juxtaposing scarlet and magenta, or orange and purple. Above all, throw away that damned color wheel. Trust your eye, and your gut. To paraphrase Duke Ellington, if it looks good, it is good.

A version of this article first appeared in Horticulture magazine, vol. 101, no. 4 (July/August 2004).

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