Just Toss Color Theory Out the Window!
Color theory was developed for the visual arts to guide painters in mixing colors in an effort to create certain visual effects. Apparently it works, at least to a certain degree. However, many landscapers have adopted the same theory and tried to impose it in the world of garden design. After all, you have to teach something about color combinations in landscaping school! I’ve struggled to understand color theory and how it relates to garden design for years and years and have come to the conclusion that… it doesn’t!
Let’s start with the famous color wheel. This circle and the theory that goes with it was stolen directly from visual arts. Somehow, therefore, this circle, with its primary and secondary colors, is supposed to help you choose the colors in your garden. You’ll learn things like the following: colors that are adjacent on the circle, such as red and orange, are considered harmonious and go well together. The colors that are located opposite are contrasting colors and also go well together. But many real-life colors are not on the simple circle: white, pink, gray, silver, black, etc. More and more complex color wheels were developed to include a few more of them, but still, color wheels are incredibly hard to apply in an actual garden context. That’s why colorists created additional theories to explain the use of color. Try reading on the subject and you’ll see: the text will go on for pages and pages. Now, try applying all you’ve learned and you’ll discover almost nothing actually works. What a waste of time!
It is not even useful trying to copy a striking combination of colors you saw in another garden. The colors of leaves and flowers are constantly changing. This is partly because of the changing light, so depending on the time of day and the light quality of the moment, colors will vary. It is obvious even to a neophyte that some combinations are more striking in certain lights than in others: the combination that you looked so stunning at 10 am on a foggy day is much less special to 1 pm in bright sunlight. And as evening comes on, even the most exciting combination pretty much becomes shades of gray.
But also, the color of many flowers changes quite literally, sometimes over days, but often between dawn and dusk. Some hibiscus flowers are yellow in the morning, orange at noon and red by evening. For other flowers, the difference is usually much more subtle, but it is nonetheless real.
You won’t have any better luck copying color combinations seen in a photo taken from a gardening magazine or a book. To start with, no photo exactly reproduces the original colors. The photographer will try to adjust the colors (to his or her taste) before sending the shot on to the magazine or book editor, but that’s yet another step further from reality. And printing colors is other step entirely, with even more adjustments. Therefore the stunning combination you “borrowed” from that magazine never really existed. No wonder it just doesn’t look the way you thought it would when you try it in your garden.
Add to all this the fact that the human brain perceives color differently depending on context. A flower that looks fuchsia on a white background may seem almost purple on a another background and pink on yet another. For all these reasons, trying to plan beautiful color combinations in your head before planting is very frustrating indeed!
My suggestion? Forget about color theory and choose plants with colors that please you! Then plant them in combinations that you find enjoyable. You will, I am sure, be very pleased with the results and no brain-wracking theory is needed!