FROM BLACK & WHITE TO COLOR

I take photographs of every property I’m about to design, and I take them in black and white. Deprived of color, my eye focuses strictly on shape; I see flow, and form. Color adds dimension and emotion, but it is important first to visualize the space, to understand how it moves, how it feels.

By the time you design the space, the graphic, black-and-white portion of the plan, the color will all but select itself. In the case of the client with the bluestone walkway (see From Image to Idea), there was only one possible choice. Bluestone is formal; the client is formal. The most formal color? white. In addition, the client works seventy hours a week; the only time he’s really going to see this garden is late into the evening. The color most visible in low light? white. What looks great with white? blue. What looks great with bluestone? blue. What color was made for sunlight? blue. The client has a blue and white garden.

With a slightly darker bluestone, the one with that smoky plum tone, I’d have ditched the blue altogether and done saffron, with shades of ivory, and linen, and cream. I’d have spiked it with chartreuse, with Annabelle hydrangea and Lady’s Mantle, along with Hidcote lavender, as much for the gray-green foliage as for the flower. I’d still have strong lines and graceful arcs; I’d still have contrasting texture in the willowy grasses and the great, fat heads of peonies. The garden would have the same style, but a slightly different tone. Just for a moment, take a tour of the two gardens I’ve described, the one real and the one imaginary. What does each color palette make you feel?

Color is intimate, emotional. Blue is serene; it’s the sound of your child laughing as you play at the water’s edge. White is a radiant seaside Victorian, painted wicker on a veranda luminous in the moonlight. Orange is a bonfire at the rim of a frozen pond, cold cheeks and hot embers. Red is scarlet lipstick against pale skin all in black; it’s Bogart and Bacall and killer dialogue. Green is the branch of a tree dipping into the river as you drift downstream, the paddle stilled for a moment as you reach up to draw your hand along the leaves. Lavender is a sun-drenched field in the south of France, earthy bread and heady wine. Purple is the final reflection of rimrock at twilight, coyotes howling in the distance as you make love in the warm desert wind.

I had a student last year who struck me as one of the quietest people on the planet. She came to class with no idea what she wanted to do with her landscape, but she was adamant (quietly) that it should include Oriental poppies. They were her grandmother’s favorite flower and she was bound to have them. This told me everything I needed to know about the woman: somewhere beneath that reserved exterior was a wild, orange streak waiting to get out. We’re not talking some sweet little Creamsicle version of the color, either; we’re talking full-throttle orange. We’re talking tangerine, and coral, and Mandarin silk. We’re talking sexy, throaty orange with a deeply mysterious black center. We’re talking about a very private woman with a rich fantasy life; naturally, I encouraged her to play that out in the garden.

Just as the selection of bluestone effectively determined the color scheme for my client’s garden, this student’s choice of orange set her palette, as well. She could go monochromatic, she could choose the opposing color, or she could choose a range of colors within that family. The last option tends to be the most sophisticated. When I have planted in that style I have kept the range of hues short, like pink to magenta, and skipped contrast altogether, allowing the colors to flow each into the other.

I’ve done this in linear fashion, from pale to deep, or throughout the space at random, with the same success. The eye sees all of this as one; with this scheme, we’re really just playing with different saturations of the same color. Riskier, but a great deal of fun, is a planting that runs the gamut of all hot, or all cool colors. This style requires a great deal of space to be effective, because the stroke must be bold for the impact to be appreciated.

The second option, that of opposing colors, needn’t be taken too literally if you find that you positively hate the combination. I regularly pair orange with purple, though its true opposite is blue. Purple and orange sends me; blue and orange just looks like a Mets uniform. The fact that they were my ex-husband’s favorite baseball team may have a tiny little something to do with it. Hey, I told you color was emotional. Get a color wheel from your local art supply store, and decide for yourself.

Though I never do the same design, or the same color scheme, twice, I tend to limit color selection within the confines of each garden space. I do this primarily because it makes the space look larger. Continuity of color allows the eye to take in the garden as a whole, without interruption. I can punch a monochromatic scheme here and there with its color contrast, and still have a unified field. I can remove the contrast if I up the ante in foliage, and still have visual interest. From a practical standpoint, it’s a great system for people who tend to lose track of precisely what they plant, and especially handy for a plant you adore. You can use all the color varieties of the plant repeatedly, throughout the landscape, and never be bored.

And if you’re in love with black and white, there are whites galore, and more plants every year that are so intensely purple or so deeply red they are considered black. If you do a garden out of those, I want pictures!
c.2004

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