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Beyond Design Basics:
Taking Off the Training Wheel

by Vanessa Gardner Nagel, APLD

It’s the middle of autumn, and deciduous plants are doing a slow striptease of their dazzling plumage.  (Or in the case of my lusty cherry trees, they disrobed in nearly one day.)  While I’ve never considered myself voyeuristic, I can’t help but stare out my window at the kaleidoscope of colors. In fact, they can tempt us to combine colors we wouldn’t otherwise have considered.

If I had not seen the magenta berries of beautyberry mixed with the muted, russet tones of the changing leaves of redbud, maple and tree peony, I might have thought that color combination would clash.  Not only do they go swell together, but also look fabulous with the limey-yellow leaves of nearby bamboos.  This was not only an inspirational, albeit ephemeral, outdoor color combination, but a provocation to discuss some new – or nearly new – ideas about combining colors for indoors.

The first time I read that a designer didn’t believe in the color wheel concept (as I discussed in a color article nearly two years ago), I thought “Sacré bleu!”  Since French isn’t my native language, I must have been shocked.  The color wheel concept has been around for a long time.  I began to wonder - can we really get along without the color wheel and still produce a cohesive color palette?  Should the color wheel be used only as training wheels for those terrified beyond white? 

For those adventurous souls out there ready to roll on 2 wheels, going beyond the basic color wheel can be liberating.  The color wheel would describe the colors magenta, russet and lime as a split-complementary color scheme.  The color wheel is primarily based upon the theory of color after-images. That is if you stare at red for a long time and look away, your color after-image will be green.  What the color wheel doesn’t exhibit is anything beyond basic hues.  It’s limited. We need to consider other factors.  If we set aside our decorating safety net we can successfully combine many colors without ever glancing at a color wheel.  How do we do that? 

First, we uphold a balance of shades, tones and values.  This means we consider the intensity or strength of colors in addition to how dark or light it is.  Second, we need to maintain colors in either a yellow-tinted family or a red-tinted family.  If your eyes glazed over when I mentioned yellow- or red-tinted colors, my dear spouse has had that same “deer in the headlights” look when discussing color.  Once I showed him two blues, explaining that one had more yellow in it while the other had more red.  He failed to comprehend the difference.  I’ll admit it takes practice, because the first time my college design instructor said that to me my eyes rolled up into my head.  Essentially it’s a contrast of the warmth or coolness of a color, respectively due to more yellow or more red.  This doesn’t refer to the hue of a color, like russet versus magenta. 

Every color has a cool side and a warm side – even blacks and whites.  Clashing a warm vivid orange with a cool intense pink is an extreme example of a combination of the two color types and is considered to be psychedelic.  Many people have no problem looking at two colors and noticing they clash, but they may not be able to explain why.  Often the simple answer is that one is a cool color (like cool beige) and the other is a warm color (like warm khaki).  In the case of combining two colors that are usually seen as warm colors, like lime and russet, with what can be a very cool color – magenta – the magenta would have to be one on the warmer side to successfully complement the other two.  Or as a designer might say “It needs more yellow.”  If you look out your window you’re likely to notice that Mother Nature doesn’t use a color wheel, so maybe we can get by without one, too. 

Taking Off-1Still in leaf, beautyberry cavorts amiably with Forest Pansy Redbud.


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