Saturday, September 17, 2011

What is color?

Not long ago I read the article "In Quest of Pink," written by Steve Poole and published in IRISES, the Bulletin of the American Iris Society. It described in a comprehensive way the search for the very best pink irises. The piece brought up several questions like, "what is pink?" "How intense of a pink iris do I like? Do I really have a real pink iris? And, most importantly the following question: What is color?

While, researching for this post I came across an infinite number of websites dedicated to COLOR. Some were very scientific while others assumed a lighter, more fun approach to the subject. I will try to expose both.

'Coffee Trader' (Barry Blyth, R. 2004)

For example, the website Color Vision & Art explains that "we perceive color just as we perceive taste. When we eat, our taste buds sense four attributes: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Similarly, when we look at a scene, our visual nerves register color in terms of the attributes of color: the amount of green-or-red; the amount of blue-or-yellow; and the brightness." (To see how colors are registered in terms of the attributes of color, go to the website and point at the painting by Renoir.)

Yet another website, DevX, calls it this way: "Color is the byproduct of the spectrum of light, as it is reflected or absorbed, as received by the human eye and processed by the human brain."

Being non-artistic and also color-challenged, my impressions of color have always been based in my association colors with everyday-life items. Green as in plants, brown like the earth, sky blue, yellow as the sun, orange as in the fruit, pink like baby stuff, black and white. Any deviation from these colors have always represented a challenge.

'Timescape' (Ben Hager, R. 1989)

A colleague of mine told me, "when deciding your garden color scheme, choose from a three-color palette. If you do that, you can't go wrong and you'll have a sure winning design" I said, "I can't do that, I like all colors."

And yet, another friend said to me, "my partner is crazy, he wants to make a white and green garden only -- no other colors." And, I totally agreed with the crazy part.

19th century physiologist Karl Ewald Konstantin Hering (August 5, 1834 – January 26, 1918) devised the first theory of color vision. Hering  believed that the visual system worked based on a system of color opponency. He said that there were six primary colors, coupled in three pairs: red–green, yellow–blue and white–black. So far so good, I can understand this and follow the meaning correctly.

So, beyond the scientific understanding of color, what makes us chose different colors for our garden? Is it understanding of color combinations? Is it the appreciation of how color affects our mood? Is it having or not having coffee in the morning?

Dykes Medal Winner 'Dauntless' (Clarence Phillips Connell, R. 1929) 
Border Bearded iris 'Ensign' (Eric Tankesley-Clarke, R. 1992)

I remember reading the first few descriptions of iris colors and how they were so tough for me to follow, and thinking, "what do they mean?" Here are a few examples:

"The standards are light purple paling to yellow tan rim and the falls are white ground, purple luminata wash. The beards are yellow with rust hair tips.

Standards lilac mauve; falls smooth coffee-rose, slightly lighter area at tangerine orange beard.

Standards rusty mahogany; style arms brass; falls bright violet, mahogany edges, brass shoulders; beards gold.

S. fluted golden yellow; F. deep orchid violet, sharp brown rim on edge; yellow orange beard at base, turning into fuzzy violet horn.

Standards white; falls chartreuse, radiating white ray pattern over 3/4 of petal; beards white, hairs faintly tipped tangerine; pronounced sweet fragrance."

Am I the only to be challenged by these descriptions? I don't have a tip for you on how to best read these, I am merely exposing my shortcoming. Over time though, I learned to read these descriptions S-L-O-W-L-Y, one word at the time - visualize that; then one full complete sentence, and visualize that; and then the entire paragraph. "Standards are...;" then, "Falls are...;" and, "Beards are..." OK, now I can visualize the entire flower. Do you have a tip for reading iris color descriptions and connecting to the visual image of it?

Spuria iris 'White Heron' (Milliken 1948)

In any case, I do love a variety of color in the garden, so while In the midst of color research, I found some fun tools. Did you know that there's such color names as: 
  • Acapulco
  • Magic Mint
  • Blue Romance
  • Everglade
  • Powder Ash
And, these just in the green hue? These are many other colors waiting to be found In the website Name that Color. Chirag Mehta created a tool to show us how to locate color names such as the ones above. Hope you like playing with it as much as I did.


  1. The made-up color names flower hybridizers use make me crazy. I wish they would just use Crayola names or come up with something like the Munsell Color Chart. And don't get me started on paint companies...

  2. I wanted to let you know your post was
    so beautiful that it is featured on
    WebGarden today. Our readers enjoy
    getting ideas and inspiration. I hope
    many will follow your blog after visiting.
    Thanks for sharing your gardening talents!
    ~Brooke (CreativeCountryMom)
    Here is the link to see your post....

  3. Thank you so much for your comment and kind words, Brooke.


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