Jim Thorleifson

Since the beginning of my gardening activity, some 30 years ago, I have thought of it as being both a craft and an art. I certainly knew next to nothing about the craft side of it at the outset but knew, subconsciously at least, that I wanted a certain ‘look’ in my garden. Even if I didn’t realize it at the time, that quest for a ‘look’ was the beginning of an artistic expression that persists to this day. It can sound somewhat pretentious to talk about your ‘art’ in the garden but if one compares our plantings to the work of a visual artist it would have to be admitted that both gardeners and artists have to deal with the same compositional challenges and that we use essentially the same bag of tricks to overcome these problems and to fool the viewer’s eye into believing that what he or she is seeing is indeed that which is in front of them. Often, it is not.

A list of the design elements used by both schools in this subterfuge is long. We use perspective to fool the eye – in the case of the gardener, it is often to make our gardens appear larger. The use of converging lines is usually employed for this purpose, as well as the relative size of plants and their placement in the foreground or background. But colour can also come into play; some colours, usually the lighter ones, seem to extend themselves into the distance while others, usually dark colours, approach the viewer and, in drawing nearer, will make a space, or a part of a larger space, seem smaller and closer. Blue seems to be a colour that can break the lighter/darker rule, all rules being made to be broken.

An understanding of the colour wheel can help us, as it does artists, to deal with the complexities of placing different colours near to each other without quarreling, and in reconciling warring colours by introducing a third colour to mediate or distract. A primary colour associated with its complementary secondary colour, as well as with the intermediate colours immediately to either side of the secondary, will always look right and restful to the eye. Colours can also be broken down into cool and warm categories and the saturation of any given colour can have unexpected effects in different parts of the garden, depending upon its neighbours.

Part of the answer to dealing with colour is to think of black and white as not being true colours. White is all of the colours while black is none of the colours – any combination of the two is a shade of gray. That leaves you free to consider the main ‘colours’ of the rainbow in isolation – of course you can use white in the garden, and to a lesser extent, black, to bridge other colours – both black and white will associate well with all other colours and can be used to tone down inharmonious colour combinations.

Because of the way that nature uses her pigments, red presents a special complication to colour associations in the garden. Red, in flowers, usually seems to be ‘tinted’ with either blue or yellow, both primary colours, and we should know if we are dealing with a blue-red or yellow-red before planning adjacent colour associations. To my eye it is difficult so see the difference at times, and the best idea I have seen to solve the problem is to have colour card samples of both true primary blue and yellow, and to hold them up, in turn, to the red – the card that it seems most comfortable with will tell you if it is a blue-red or a yellow-red.

It is worth noting that both gardeners and artists live by the constraints of natural light from the sun – portrait painters working in a studio insist on natural light of a controlled intensity when they are working indoors. This sets both apart from interior decorators who have to be more concerned with the effects of artificial light generated by a variety of different technologies – from candlelight to halogen. The Elements of Color by Johannes Itten (1888–1967) is a book that I highly recommend to start to understand colour theory; I say start as I have read through it a few times and it is taking it’s own sweet time to sink in. At the end of this article is a copy of his Twelve-Part Color Circle which is invaluable for understanding colour theory.

Perhaps the first garden designer to elevate the consideration of colour in the garden to an art-form was Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932), most famously in her book Colour Schemes For The Flower Garden. She liked to plan her borders along a colour gradient that began with gray foliage at the beginning, shifting to yellows and progressing to the hotter colours in the middle before toning down towards the other end with purples and back into the grays. Her main border, however, was about two hundred feet long and fourteen feet wide on a parcel of about 15 acres so she had considerable latitude to employ gradients in her use of colour – latitude that is not always available to us in our much smaller modern gardens. Nonetheless, her colour advice is still valuable (colours haven’t changed) and can still be applied on a smaller scale.

When I started to lay out my present garden I decided that the best way would be to invite all the colours to the party, then find ways to use them in the same small space and still, somehow, find sufficient harmony. This makes life a little more challenging, yet all the more satisfying, if successful. After all – is there such a thing as an ugly colour? Colour is, without doubt, the most complicated of issues relating to art, both visual and horticultural, and I think that the thought, imagination and concentration that we are required to bring to its use make it the most satisfying when it works for us. It is equally satisfying when unplanned accidents happen to work well – just don’t tell anyone that your marvelous colour combination was a surprise.

There are other similarities between artists and gardeners, We are often advised to use foliage texture to soothe the design effect of adjacent plantings and texture is just another tool in the artist’s toolbox. The use of negative and positive space is another common tool. I remember when my basic garden design was more or less complete – the beds were laid out and all that remained was to dig up the lawn and replace it with paving stones. When the garden was looked at broadly, the lawn area seemed like a positive space, too much like the greenery of the beds (which it overpowered) and I felt that paving stones would change the paved area to a negative space. I proceeded with the change and, indeed, the paving immediately receded and calmed the eye and drew it to the beds and their contents. When seen at a glance, all that had changed was the colour of the lawn/paved space but the change was fundamental and altered the design completely.

I tend to look at all these design elements, colour, texture, perspective, tall vs. low growing specimens, etc, as being either negative or positive – i.e. complementary colour associations are positive, while clashing colour combinations would be negative. A garden composed entirely of harmonious colour combinations, for example, would become boring while including a completely different, and inharmonious, colour association here and there would liven up the ‘picture’ as Miss Jekyll called it. I think that it is important to have a mix of both positive and negative to maintain balance. The same dichotomy would apply to the other design elements, tall vs. short, rough vs. smooth, etc., and can be a mix of the design elements themselves, played out against each other to seek balance in the overall sum of negative and positive elements throughout the garden.

Positive/negative associations mixed from among the various elements can be effective; a positive (restful) colour association could be livened up with the addition of a negative texture association, e.g. thin, grass like foliage growing next to a broad leaved plant. By mixing both positive with negative from the various design elements a very large number of combinations becomes available for use in the garden to balance harmony with tension. Many of these associations become subconscious but none the less functional to the viewer, particularly when seen with peripheral vision.

These positive/negative associations would be cumulative too; a positive association would be balanced by a nearby negative association, then unbalanced again by another positive, and so on, to maintain both restful as well as stimulating impressions, the negative association usually drawing the eye and acting as a feature point in that particular area of the garden. Distribution of positive/negative becomes an issue. As a design element, colour is stronger than the others, and should be weighted against the weaker elements in your design.

Finally, it is interesting to compare the intense thought and effort that goes into the design of our gardens with the method employed by Mother Nature. She essentially spreads seeds around from whatever plants happen to be growing in a particular area and she spreads them entirely randomly, yet somehow this system inevitably results in a landscape that is undeniably beautiful, one which gardeners everywhere try to emulate. Indeed, nature’s creations are the very foundation of our human conception of beauty. One need only look around at the beautiful ‘pictures’ created by nature in her wild state with her random associations to marvel at the beauty of the designs created by this mysterious method. If only we could do the same, garden design would be a much easier exercise.

Johannes Itten’s colour wheel; various squares, rectangles & triangles can be superimposed on the colour points of the wheel to identify colours that associate well with each other. He also developed a colour sphere with further associations. Other colour diagrams in his book deal with a variety of the qualities of colour that can be used in design. I have a copy of the book available to lend to members who are interested in colour theory.