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Ideas about Landscape, Design and Life

The Trouble with Colour – and how to get it right

“Can you come by and look at these paint chips?”, a friend said to me recently. His summer project was to paint the house. Picking paint colours is something I enjoy, however I am by no means immune to the uncertainty that can overshadow the process. “I am thinking of going green.” We stood in his garden admiring a variety of test patches on both his house and garage. With our sunglasses on, the colour he had chosen was a lovely pale green, but it looked minty blue when we took them off. Hmmm… “Let’s look at it at the front of the house,” I said. There, it was definitely blue… no trace of green whatsoever. That, in a nutshell, is the trouble with colour. Not only is there an infinite amount of choice, but colours today have such depth and change drastically in response to sunlight, time of day and surroundings. Choosing the right colour can be a real conundrum.

I have observed that North Americans tend to be conservative about colour. In Vancouver, one of the most rainy cities in the world, we have a habit of painting our houses grey to match the cloudy skies. Why? We might be worried about being different, or about what our neighbours will think. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against grey; in fact, neutral colours like grey are essential compliments to brighter colours. However, I do think Vancouver could benefit from a lesson from the Europeans and be less hesitant to make a statement. One of the most memorable streets in the world is Copenhagen’s Nyhavn (shown below). It is lined with 17th and 18th century apartments that are all painted in stunning bold colours that give the street a unique sense of place. I will speculate that Nyhavn would not be so famous if all the buildings were painted grey.

Nyhavn, Copenhagen

Two summers ago, I put my own house to the test. I’ll admit, I did paint most of the house grey (Benjamin Moore’s ‘Overcoat’), but it is complemented with a large section of ‘Electric Orange’ on the front facade. The reactions in my neighbourhood have been interesting. Some people think I’m a little crazy. Our house has been called “The Halloween House” and our orange compared to A&W restaurant, but we have also had a lot of compliments about our departure from the norm. What people think doesn’t worry me too much. When you do something different, everyone has an opinion, good or bad. My house is memorable, it gets people thinking about colour and I see that as a success.

Here is a basic colour wheel and some steps to help get it right:

  1. Survey your surroundings. Look at what you already have that you know won’t change (eg: your garden, furniture, art work) and identify the dominant colour in the space.
  2. Become familiar with a basic colour wheel like the one shown above. Complimentary colours appear across from each other and analogous colours are beside each other.
  3. Identify both the compliments and analogous colours to your dominant context colour. For example if you have teak or rosewood furniture in the room (red and orange tones), the compliments will be blues or greens, their opposites on the colour wheel. This immediately gives you 2 colour options – one from the complimentary range and one from the analogous range. Don’t be afraid to pick bold and bright colours for your accent colour – it is fun to imagine all the possibilities upfront and narrow it down later.
  4. If you are using a neutral in combination with an accent, now is the time to choose it. Put simply, warm greys have more red tones in them and will be complimentary to greens; cool greys have more blues and will be complimentary to oranges. Pair a couple of options with the accent colours you chose in step 3. You have now narrowed down your choices from thousands to a few ranges of colour that will work in context and with each other.
  5. Look at your choices at different times of the day. Larger test patches are necessary.
  6. Be confident with your final choice and go for it!

I am happy to report that my friend did end up going with the sometimes green and sometimes blue colour. It looks beautiful against the white and black trim on his house and in the end, it also works because it fits with its surroundings. The pale blue compliments the red and orange tones in a Japanese Maple that sits in front of the house. One more thing – don’t worry about what your neighbours think… it’s your house!

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