COLOR THEORY IN THE GARDEN

"Color directly influences the soul. Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another purposively, to cause vibrations in the soul."

--Wassily KandinskyConcerning the Spiritual in Art

Kandinsky, "Autumn in Bavaria" 1908; Oil on cardboard, 33x45cm; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 

Kandinsky, "Autumn in Bavaria" 1908; Oil on cardboard, 33x45cm; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 

Kandinsky, "Composition IX" 1936 Oil on canvas, 113.5 x 195 cm; Musee National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris

Kandinsky, "Composition IX" 1936 Oil on canvas, 113.5 x 195 cm; Musee National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris

In describing “pictorial composition” in Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky advocates for disharmonious combinations of colors and forms in a new harmony for painting. He explains that the effect of any particular color is influenced by the colors and forms with which it is juxtaposed and asserts that “the incompatibility of certain forms and certain colors should be regarded not as something ‘disharmonious,’ but conversely, as offering new possibilities – a new form of harmony.

“Kandinsky uses color as a tool to add depth, dimension, and complexity to a two-dimensional composition.” (Reds and oranges to bring things in closer or blues and purples to add distance.) ”This is a prime example of just how color can tease the eye. He proposed that color, like sound, evokes emotions. Along with other formal elements, such as line, shape, and form, color (like music) is a language that communicates to all. The main focus of his exploration of color was how it could be employed as an expression of the spiritual, he imagined it to act as a kind of intermediary between the viewer and the spiritual world.”1

Years ago Horticulture Magazine published a color wheel for gardening

Years ago Horticulture Magazine published a color wheel for gardening

The most common theory of color harmony is based on the mixture of pigments. This is of assistance to the landscape designer, but it does not take into consideration the visual aspects of color. Another theory based on the spectrum and the length of light waves is less applicable to the garden, where color must be considered in relation to environment. The "psychological theory" of Faber Birren is related to gardening. It is based on the effect or sensation of color on the eye.

“Faber Birren (1900-1988) was a leading authority on the effects of color on humans. Birren believed that color's influence extended beyond simply being a source of mere pleasing perception to having a fundamental influence on artwork, human psychology and the workplace experience. He believed that color was a primary tool of expression, communication and self-identification. In his introduction to "The Elements of Color," Birren wrote that "Expression should come from within," albeit from a conscious, informed perspective. 

Birren links the human perception of color to the emotional response it evokes in the viewer. He explains, in his 1961 publication, "Creative Color: An Approach for Artists and Designers," that people associate color with other senses. He writes, "Good smelling colors are pink, lilac, orchid, cool green, aqua blue," and goes on to describe the associations of other colors with corresponding senses. Use of this theory can easily be applied to many garden design ideas, The association of one sense with another is known as synaesthesia. In "Color Psychology and Color Therapy," Birren observes that introverts tend to be unresponsive to color, and that emotionally responsive people react more readily to color.”

Faber Birren's Color Wheel. For a more detailed discussion of this see Birren's Color Dimensions, Color Equation, and the comprehensive color charts in The American Colorist.

If the effect of color is largely psychological, and since it is influenced, as it appears in the garden, by light, shadow, climate, and humidity, it is nearly impossible to lay down rule for its use.

Christopher Lloyd was considered to be an inspiration to gardeners. He was famous for his bold gardening with strong use of shapes and colors that gave interest all year. To him, colors work with and against each other, and must be viewed as relationships. Colors strike powerful emotional chords and Lloyd knew how to wring the most out them in his planting design. “Christo” as he was affectionately called, stated, “plants grown close to one another, need to help one another.”

A visit to his gardens is an emotional experience, an overload of the senses, a magical drug-induced trip of color that sends one wondering if they have been transported to Oz.  Blogger Margaret Roach writes ….. "No garden in the world ever WOWED me like Great Dixter."

He debunks color wheel and other theories. “Limitations imposed by rules are a safe haven.” So to the adventurous garden designer, colorist and weekend gardener, he advocates breaking them!

1. -Kandinsky's dissonance and a Schoenbergian view of Composition VI

Shannon M. Annis University of South Florida, -2008

2. –Cynthia Reeser, ehow.com