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Sensitivity to colour in the garden

By garden designer John Frater. The question of colour in the garden is a perennial one that causes a lot of confusion, and stress, amongst many gardeners and even some of the pros. I've just returned from a painting holiday in the Scottish Highlands where my eyes were opened to a new way of relating to colour.

The artist who led the painting (Lesley Burr) mainly paints landscapes in a style that I find difficult to pigeonhole. Certainly she is inspired by abstract and almost abstract painters, such as Hockney, Rothko and Bonnard to name a few.

Moon vision at the sound of jura

During the week Lesley led us through various exercises, but what struck me most was how she dealt with colour. We did look at the colour wheel briefly, but only as a means of teaching how to mix paints. However, what she did ask us to do again and again was to reflect on how we respond to colour emotionally. Colour affects us - we just had to become more aware of how.

Moonlight trees

It started to get really interesting when we looked at colour combinations and the way different colours relate to each other. Rothko is a master at this sort of thing. His colours are laid over and next to each other on a large scale to give the viewer what he called 'a total colour experience'. I found that if I was in a receptive mood I could notice the effect of his different colour combinations. They would subtly affect my experience in different ways - perhaps a faint echo of how Rothko felt when he painted them. It reminded me of music, the effects of which are perhaps more tangible; think of the difference between frenetic discordant jazz and the sublime heights of classical symphonies.

When we looked at someone like Bonnard we learnt how an artist composes the scene using form and colour. The eye is often led around a painting by colour, it links various parts together to form a harmonious whole, and little details are given more significance through being a certain colour.

So I came away inspired by the artists use of colour, particularly the more abstract artists, including Lesley's own work. As a result I couldn't help thinking about how colour is used in the garden. Of course working with colour in the garden isn't as immediate as working with paint on canvass. However, colour in the garden is essentially having the same effect on us. Possibly colour in the garden can have a greater effect on us as we enter into a three dimensional space filled with colour.

This summer I'm going to make sure I spend time just looking at my borders. Looking and noticing the effect of the colours and the juxtapositions - noticing how I respond to the colours. 'Good' colour theory is so often rammed down our throats. We are told what works and what doesn't and can apply these theories in our own gardens with little pause for reflection. However, colours do affect us and can be very moving. Colour can touch us is a way that is mysterious and deeply personal. No manual can guide us in such experiments with colour; we have to go our own way, guided by our intuition. Colour schemes may follow the received wisdom to the letter but are we happy with the effect they have on us? Or do they express what we wanted to express. So this year I'm going to take a fresh look at my colour schemes and no doubt plan some changes.

When making changes, or planning a new border, one very practical element from looking at artists' work stands out; often they stick to a very limited palette of colours. In a painting there may only be three colours used. These may be mixed to create one or two more but the restricted palette means that the paintings were simplified, strong and somehow very satisfying. This doesn't necessarily mean all out harmony, just an uncomplicated relationship of colours. This is a top tip from the world of painting that could well be applied in our gardens. This approach was seen to great effect, for example, in many of the Chelsea gardens this year.

There is a sensitivity to colour that can easily be cultivated by just looking, looking patiently and noticing how we respond. Following this approach will mean that colour becomes less about what the trend setters tell us, and our gardens will become more unique, imaginative and personal expressions. Working in this way, I think, will take much of the stress out of gardening with colour.


By John Frater

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