Whether you’re planning your outdoor living area from scratch or renovating a well-worn space, there are two color wheels that can help you bring dynamic color to your garden and patio design. The basic color wheel can help you learn which colors traditionally “go together,” and the paint chip color wheel can help you fine-tune your selections.
Unlike the fashion industry, which dreams up a new “neutral color” for each fall collection in an attempt to get you to replace your entire wardrobe (Since when is fire engine red or chartreuse or amethyst a neutral color?), the neutral colors of nature remain constant. Nature’s greens, tans and blues (think sky and ocean), dominate the landscape season after season. They provide us with a canvass upon which to create our outdoor fantasies using flowers and furnishings as accent colors. But it’s easy to keep our outdoor living areas trapped in these neutral colors, using only a few containers and flowers to brighten the patio or balcony. Not only can we incorporate much more color into our outdoor rooms, but we have the option to change our minds with splashes of accent colors that we can easily swap on a whim.
The Basic Color Wheel
When inspiration is nowhere to be found, we can turn to the basic color wheel for help. Sir Isaac Newton’s studies of colors led to the first color wheel, which he created in the late 1660s. We’ve all seen today’s color wheel, but we may not know exactly how to use it to create harmonious color combinations.
The use of accent colors in outdoor living areas is just as important as it is in planning interior design; this same use of color can be applied to the garden as well. While you can plan color in the garden, nature doesn’t really abide by the color wheel or purposefully create harmonious color combinations. Every conceivable color combination is found in nature—just think of fields of wildflowers. Use the information here as a guide when you need some additional ideas for your outdoor living space, but go with whatever makes you happy in the garden, even if it leaves the color wheel in the dust.
Color wheel organization
When you study the color wheel, you’ll soon notice that the primary colors, red, yellow and blue, when connected, form a triangle. Each secondary color is a combination of two primary colors. Purple is created by combining red and blue, orange is a combination of red and yellow, and green is a combination of blue and yellow.
Secondary colors, when connected, also create a triangle. Tertiary colors are colors that are created by combining a primary color and a secondary color. For example, if you mix blue (primary) and green (secondary), you get teal (tertiary). Each of these colors provides us with a limitless selection of hues.
Harmonious color combinations
Harmonious colors are simply colors that work well together, and there are a number of methods to combine colors in harmony, some of which may come as a surprise until you see them in action. Based on the color wheel, there are three basic methods of combining colors, but again, this is just a starting point and not the final word.
Complementary color combinations – Placing complementary color combinations together creates an instant winner. Complementary colors fall opposite each other on the color wheel and include red and green, yellow and violet, and orange and blue. If you want to place similar plants together, consider combining groups using complementary colors—for example, cone flowers and zinnias with complementary colored blooms. Pansies often contain yellow and violet in their blooms—complementary colors.
Analogous color combinations – Analogous colors are three colors that fall together on the color wheel. For example, orange, yellow orange and yellow are analogous colors. We see these colors in a sunset. A good use of analogous colors can be found in drifts of daffodils made up of yellow daffodils interspersed with yellow orange daffodils with orange centers.
Monochromatic color combinations – Color combinations relying on shades of the same color are monochromatic. Think about the ocean or the sea. It never looks like one flat color but contains lots of shades of green and blue. You can use this same approach in the garden and on the patio.
If you limit yourself to the basic color wheel combinations explained above, you’ll overlook some interesting combinations. For example, I was looking through a recent issue of a national magazine, and I ran across an outdoor living area that used a cool brown tone as the neutral color for the furniture and added accents of pale seafoam green and lavender. The market umbrella was a pale seafoam and scattered around the patio were a few ceramic lavender side tables. The seating area featured pillows with splashes of orange in near-terracotta hues that picked up the terracotta in the planters. None of the color wheel combinations would have led you to these colors, but it works when you see it. That’s why you want to turn to the color wheel when you lack inspiration, not to verify a color scheme that really tickles your fancy.
The Paint Chip Color Wheel
If you’ve ever worked with an interior designer, you know that one of their first techniques in determining what colors a client likes is to throw down a huge paint color wheel and say, “What do you like?” The color wheel chip contains thousands of colors in every imaginable hue, tint, shade and tone.
Hue – bold, pure colors such as primary colors
Tints – pastels or colors toned down by adding white to the hue
Shades – the opposite of tints made by adding black to the hue
Tones – muted colors created by adding both black and white (which is gray)
The paint chip color wheel can be used as a starting point, but it can also be used to nail down that perfect color for paint or accents. Suppose that you have a patio wall that needs painting. Once you’ve determined the basic color that you need, you hold the chips up to the wall, and narrow your selection, chip by chip. If you’re renovating your entire living space, create a board with fabrics and paint chips that represent the entire “palette” of colors and tweak until you’re happy with the overall look.
Active vs. passive colors
There’s one more design rule that you should keep in mind as you plan your outdoor space: active vs. passive colors. Active colors advance, popping out at you. Passive colors recede into the background. Warm colors (red, orange, yellow) advance, while cool colors (green, blue, violet) recede. If you place red at the top of the color wheel, strong, advancing colors fall on the left, and weaker, receding colors fall on the right. If you want a feature to blend into the background, use a passive color. If you want a feature to stand out, use an active color.
You may have noticed that nature doesn’t abide by any particular color choices. You’ll find all sorts of color combinations in wild, natural areas. By selecting colors that work well together in the garden and the patio, you’re not opposing nature—you’re working with nature in a small area to please nature’s inhabitants—wildlife and humans.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
MJ Plaster has been a professional writer for more than two decades, originally an instructional designer and trainer, more recently specializing in lifestyle topics. She also serves as managing editor of the Florida Turf Digest. A former master gardener, when she’s not writing, she’s practicing alchemy in her gardens or helping friends to design and plant their gardens.