The Use of Colour in Flower Arranging

The colour in flowers can be a lifetime’s inspiration to the artistic instinct hidden away in each one of us. Yet people write to me from all over the country to say ‘But I never seem to have any new ideas for my arrangements—how do you think of colour schemes ?’

The answer is simple: I look at flowers.

Do you know the rose Josephine Bruce? I have a bloom of it before me as I write. Here, in this one flower, are a dozen or more shades of colour which can be seen when one studies it carefully.

In bud, it is nearly black. At its most beautiful stage, when the outer petals begin to unfurl, it assumes the red-black richness of old velvet, with plum-red highlights. As the flower unfolds the gold stamens are seen. The new leaves, to my eye, have a lime green tint. This is my favourite red rose.

I arranged blooms of it once at the National Rose Society’s big annual show in London. The class was for an arrangement of seven blooms with their own foliage, drapes allowed. I used Josephine Bruce, choosing my flowers in various stages of development, from bud to fully opened bloom. 1 decided on an antique brass candlestick in which to arrange them, and this picked up the stamen colour exactly. My drape was just a little paler than the foliage. Perfect colour harmony was achieved and I won a first.

That is one way to build up a colour scheme with only


one variety of flower. An arrangement of fruit can be handled similarly. Just think of a peach; its green-yellow skin flushes orange-pink and then to deep rose. Now consider it when arranged with not-quite-ripe lemons, yellow plums, green pears, and apples streaked with pink. Visualise it lying on a ribbed and yellowing leaf from a garden cabbage (this, too, blushes pink sometimes) and peach and leaf complement each other in both colour and texture.

1 love to experiment with this placing of colour on colour, texture on interesting texture. How absolutely right acid-yellow lemons look on shining dark green laurel leaves, or pale pink roses on wine-red beetroot foliage. Try them!

Mixed Arrangements

In working out the colours of good mixed flower arrangements the same rules apply. Decide, when you walk round the florist’s shop or your garden, what is to be the focal point of your arrangement. It may be, say, pink hydrangea flowerheads; most pink hydrangeas tend to be blue-pink, so you can successfully use soft blue, blue-pink, or even blue-red flowers with them. Larkspur, foxgloves, delphiniums, and roses come to mind. The immature hydrangea flowers are often a thick creamy colour, so cream flowers of other kinds will look well in the arrangement.

An autumn arrangement conceived around deep golden heleniums with brown centres might have gaillardias, sunny-toned snapdragons, orange-yellow zinnias or dahlias, fiery red hot pokers, warm chrysanthemums, and shoe-polish-brown iris seedheads, as well as browning dock spikes to emphasise and link up with the centres of the heleniums.

It is how you see and interpret the range of colours in a



single flower which can lead you to a perfectly blended mixture. Even the colour of the stamens can be echoed in the container, leaves, or other flowers.

Only a Few Flowers

If, like me, you have only a small garden, with lots of different varieties of plants, it is usually impossible to go out and pick, say, two dozen pink roses for a large arrangement, so a good effect has to come from nearly as many different mixed flowers.

This is, in fact, a blessing in disguise, for in time you develop a special skill in blending diverse shapes and colours. When this is successfully achieved the finished effect looks far more accomplished (as, indeed, it is) than the carefully arranged dozen of all one kind and colour.

Blend Colours Gently

When arranging a mixed bunch of flowers try not to include too many. Allow the various colours to flow together gently, with no hard edges, rather in the way you blend rouge into your skin colouring. Let the different tones and hues come together delicately, not harshly, so that the whole thing looks subtly planned, not as though it has come together by chance.

This technique of colour blending is difficult to put into words, for a great deal of it depends on personal preference. Some folk hate pink, others dislike white flowers, and so on, but I feel it is well to try to break down one’s prejudices, and to keep trying something new. I used to dislike what I call ‘autumn tints,’ but 1 now quite like them after having made myself work with them. So much so that someone said to me the other day ‘I always associate your arrangements with warm orange and peach colours.’


Which shows just how far these exercises in flower arrangement can take you, for these colours certainly wouldn’t fit in with any of the decorations in my home.

Not all flowers marry happily from the colour point of view. This is true even in the garden. I was talking once to the head gardener of a ‘great house’ which was open to the public for a day. He and I soon began to talk of flowers and their colours. He interested me by saying ‘If two flower colours clash in the border I usually find that one or both is a modern hybrid. The old roses, the common wild flowers, and the older varieties of garden flowers always blend well together.’

I have found that this truth often applies in flower arranging. The traditional cottage-garden flowers are generally softer in colour, both in leaf and blossom, their shades, tints, and hues quietly blending with each other no matter how mixed a bunch you pick.

Colour Is Exciting

Colour is such an important and delightful part of doing the flowers that it’s worth spending a bit of time to get it as near perfect as possible. You can lift your arrangements right out of the rut by applying colour in an exciting way. Use it softly to convey mood, perhaps a cool impression with white and yellow daisies on dark polished wood for an overwhelmingly hot day. Orange-coloured berries, golden roses, or rich flame-coloured carnations bring something of their warmth to a dark autumn day.

With imagination you can almost make flowers speak to an observant audience. Talk about your arrangements to people who come into your home. Women in particular will find it fascinating to discuss exactly what effect you intended with a certain arrangement, and indirectly you may learn something new.


Of course, as you practise and get a sure touch in blending flowers you become better able to put colourful opposites together without discord. Some people find a colour wheel useful. This is a device which shows at a glance the colours that complement each other and those which are opposites. It is a scientific approach which leaves me cold; however, those who would like to experiment with it might get a book on painting in oils or water colours from the public library, since many such books include colour wheels.

Don’t Forget Foliage

Foliage may be merely a background for flowers, or it can take a place of equal importance with them. When arranged on their own, leaves can be used exactly like flowers—colourfully. Pick leaves of any shade, tint, or hue that you please, and work them up into a colour harmony. When you really look at leaves, in the garden or in the countryside, you will be amazed at the rich variety of colour not only between one leaf and another but at different times of the year.

Use leaves with every arrangement, no matter what it is. Every flower needs foliage for a foil, and arrangements without leaves are strangely bare and unfinished.

Indoor plants, often grown mainly or only for their spectacular foliage, give us leaves which are real treasures in producing varied and striking effects. They introduce colours and shapes not usually found in garden or hedgerow foliage, and are especially useful in the winter. (For more information on this subject, see Indoor Plants by Leslie Johns in Collins Nutshell series.)

Flower arrangers are often heard to say that they would rather be short of flowers than leaves, so high a value is placed on foliage. I once heard Constance Spry


describe leaves as ‘zones of quiet among the flowers’—an apt description.

Always Something To Learn

One goes on learning about colour. It is never static. Some seasons bring different leaf colours, for example. I have seen my pink hydrangea turn its leaves mahogany red very early in a dry summer, sometimes even while the flower bracts were still in their immature blush-cream tint. Then I have cut both flowers and leaves and used them together, and people have asked me the name of the foliage! It’s always fun to be able to add a touch of the unexpected to an arrangement.

As children we learn that leaves are green, except in the autumn, and some people go on believing this. Not the flower arranger; her senses are alert to those ‘green’ leaves which in reality include yellow, near-blue, grey, tan, dull red, and so on. With all these colours in her palette, she can paint pictures which leave the less observant full of amazement.

It’s worth remembering that the young growth of early spring produces leaves which are paler in tone than later in the summer. Some young foliage, on the other hand (as from an oak tree which has been lopped), is as gay and colourful as bunting. All kinds of trees and shrubs throw occasional sprays of leaves which are quite out of character with the rest. From a variegated holly tree, to give an example, you will sometimes get odd sprigs in which the leaves are a magnificent splash of delicate yellow.

Looking around my local nursery I found in one of the greenhouses a bit which had been broken off a grey-green succulent. I bought it for sixpence. It pleased me because it showed just a trace of pink in one part. I was able to make it take root, and as it grew the soft creamy pink


developed and took over the green completely. I now have a most unusual plant which I shall use sometime when 1 need just that colour for a special arrangement. (After use it will simply be rooted again.)

So always be on the lookout for these extra colour treats which Nature sends from time to time. Something a little different keeps one’s inspiration flowing.

Colour-Sense Can Be Learned

The more subtlety you can get into the colour scheme of a flower arrangement, the better. Even a tiny graduation of colouring in a couple of leaves can make that important difference between an ordinarily competent flower design and a real work of art. Colour-sense is something which can be learned—by observation.

It’s surprising how many people are blind to just one colour, which they do not see true. They can still enjoy flower arranging, however, by avoiding their blind spot colour.

If you find colour a real problem in your flower arranging, begin arranging flowers of one colour only, with their own foliage or with contrasting leaves. I used to think it safe to blend not more than three different colours in one arrangement, with ‘neutral’ unobtrusive background leaves, and I would advise beginners to adopt this rule. It soon becomes easier to fit in additional hues while still maintaining a pleasing and satisfying harmony.

Taking part in shows and exhibitions is a great help towards a good colour-sense, because one always goes to a little extra trouble to seek out a leaf or flower of exactly the right colour and tone. And, seeing what other people are doing with their material is always instructive.

But try not to copy—it shouldn’t be necessary, anyway,


for there are so many gradations and delicacies of colour in everything that grows.

A Tonic to the Spirit

Colour can be a tonic to the spirit. Everyone knows how exhilarating is the first arrangement of golden daffodils. When you’re having a blue day mix yourself a good, strong, vibrant flower arrangement for the house. See how it helps.

For such an arrangement, take bold chances with the colours. Crash together pinks, reds, scarlets of any shade and tint. Or bring together orange, coral, yellow and gold in another dramatic splash. When the sun is shining and the house is very bright, on the other hand, use colour more sparingly. But never get into a rut.

Don’t be afraid to ring the changes. Have a go at an arrangement of bright blue flowers with olive green and tan foliage in a light-coloured wooden container, just for the fun of it. Or try the effect of tan-coloured and grey-green leaves with flowers of terra-cotta colour in a matt black container. Play around with soft pink blooms against pale yellow foliage in well-polished silver.

How Artists Do It

The advanced flower arranger often prefers to gently underplay colour rather than overstress it, and will offset any bright colour with one which is quieter. As mastery of the art is achieved an appreciation of pastel and off-beat colourings is invariably born.

Study pictures, any kind of pictures. As a flower arranger you make your pictures with flowers not oil paints, but you can learn a great deal about colour by looking at paintings. See how some artists use little touches of many colours to make up a satisfying whole, while others get their effects by using only one or two


colours but many tones. Note, too, how some landscape paintings which seem to be all the green of countryside and the blue of sky are actually full of other colours, subtly worked in so that the eye is deceived yet delighted. The eye is, indeed, constantly tricked and pleased by colour. Artists know that blues tend to recede from the eye (see how they use blues near the horizon in a landscape, to give the effect of distance), while reds come forward. A touch of red makes greens come alive, and warm colours are set off against cold ones. The warm colours are the reds, browns, oranges, and sunny yellows; cold colours are the greens and blues. To express it another way, any colour which is near to red is warm, any which is tending towards blue is cold.

Containers and Colours

Containers should always be chosen with careful thought as to their suitability of colour and texture, as well as shape. On starting an arrangement, take out a couple of different containers and hold them against your bunch of flowers. Is, say, a white urn going to be better than a copper bowl ? When you see containers and material together it is not too hard to make the right choice. Not until you are sure that the flowers and the container are made for each other should you get down to arranging.

Why Texture is Important

Everyone understands that various fabrics have distinctive textures, and we make use of this in furnishing and decoration. In just the same way, we make use of the contrasting textures of flowers and leaves. All kinds of finesse in design is possible when you place satin-smooth petals against the contrast of rough-textured leaves, feathery flowers against smooth foliage, or a heavily


ribbed leaf against a plain one. The qualities of each are intensified and the finished arrangement has added interest and that wonderful extra touch of magic and mystery.

Containers have differing textures, too, and this should be taken into account just like colour and shape. In show and exhibition work, the nice balance and interplay of textures is important, particularly with regard to drapes and bases for interpretive classes.

The various do’s and dont’s cannot always be rigidly applied—making a flower arrangement is not like following a knitting pattern. Don’t hesitate to experiment; you will have your favourite tints, shades and textures, but it’s good to get away from them every now and then. This is the way to develop a real all-round understanding of colour which will greatly add to your command of flower arranging—and to your decorating and dress sense, too.

Sorry, comments are closed for this post.