Basics of Color Theory in Floral Design

Out of all the design principles in floral design, color tops the list. It’s such an important element in a design and will set the tone and the mood for any occasion, even if it’s just a vase of flowers for the home. I’ve been studying the art of flower arranging for over 20 years, and in this guide, I’ll run through everything you need to know about color theory in floral design.

Color Theory in Floral Design

The Color Wheel

The basics of color start with a color wheel divided into primary, secondary, and tertiary colors. These form the basis for understanding how color works and how to achieve impactful arrangements.

Credit: Wendy Moulton – Petal Republic

Primary Colors

The cornerstone colors are red, yellow, and blue, which form a triangle on the color wheel. Artists use these colors as the basic paint colors from which they can mix any other color with a little black or white. These are the bold colors that are bright and vibrant. In a flower arrangement, they can work together as a happy, high-contrast grouping.

Credit: Wendy Moulton – Petal Republic
Credit: Wendy Moulton – Petal Republic
Credit: Wendy Moulton – Petal Republic

Secondary Colors

These are the next set of colors that form a triangle on the color wheel and would be the opposite to the primary colors. Green, orange, and violet (or purple) mix with the primary colors in paint to form tertiary colors. Secondary colors are less often used than primary colors making them an exciting combination and a bit different. Plus, you have the green in this grouping, so the choice of plant material is vast.

Credit: Wendy Moulton – Petal Republic

Tertiary Colors

Tertiary colors are the rest of the basic colors on the wheel, a mix of the two colors on either side. There are some good bold colors in this group, which tend to be a bit more sophisticated than the playroom primary colors.

Credit: Wendy Moulton – Petal Republic

Tips from Nature

Credit: Wendy Moulton – Petal Republic

A florist’s trick is to use nature to inspire color in a design. Nature goes a long way in deciding what colors go together. In one single flower, you may find many other colors within that flower to place together in a harmonious arrangement. Take for example this anthurium. It has a soft lilac-pink tone, but if you look carefully, you can see cream on the spadix, light green on the tip, and green stems. We can then mix tones of purple, add some cream and green and you have a harmonious grouping of colors. 

Credit: Wendy Moulton – Petal Republic

The snapdragons had a bit of contradiction with the purple-pink underneath the blooms to complement the grouping but with red on top for a little drama. Layering darker and lighter tones of your color grouping also works well to create balance.

Color Schemes

Using the color wheel can achieve a different effect and mood depending on where the colors sit on the wheel. These are the basics but do not be afraid to mix different colors that you feel in your mind work, because most of the time, they will.

Complementary colors

Credit: Wendy Moulton – Petal Republic

For high contrast and high impact choose the opposite color on the wheel. As the name suggests, complementary colors, complement each other, making each other brighter and more present in the design. If you just consider the standard red and green in a festive arrangement, you will see just how well they go together. Complementary colors are chosen to be bold, bright, and impactful. 

Analogous colors

Credit: Wendy Moulton – Petal Republic

On the other end of the scale, from complementary colors, you get analogous colors for a calm and soothing effect. By using colors that are next to each other on the color wheel, you are using similar tones. They match and create a cohesive grouping – think about orange, yellow, and gold together as an example.

Triadic colors

Credit: Wendy Moulton – Petal Republic

Triadic colors are similar to complementary in contrast but they are less bold. They form a triangle on the color wheel and can produce bright color combinations. What is interesting about this set of colors is that by adjusting the tones and saturation of flowers, you can tone down the color palette to something a bit softer and moodier. A more pleasing version may be found in the pastel shades of these colors.

Split-complementary 

Credit: Wendy Moulton – Petal Republic

The split-complementary style takes one color in the wheel and pairs it with two colors on either side of the opposite color to form an impactful combination with more depth than a straight complementary selection. An arrangement with this selection will still be bold and have an impact but also a bit more variation and richness.

Monochromatic Colors

Drama and style can be created using one base color and adding lighter and darker shades of the same color to form an arrangement. You may think that this monochromatic system would be a bit dull, but in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Harmonious designs and plenty of intrigue can be created using different hues of one color, including white.

The Role of Neutral and Accent Colors in Arrangements

Understanding the role of neutrals in design and how to add accents will take color use to another level.

Neutrals

Neutral colors are those that create a calming effect on a design. They are considered classic and sophisticated when paired together. They are the subtle colors that lack the vibrancy of the color wheel colors. Often, they are the glue that blends colors – an example would be the greys and cool greens of foliage. Neutral colors include white, cream, beige, grey, and all the pastel shades, and the more statement neutrals like black, navy, and brown. 

Credit: Wendy Moulton – Petal Republic

Accent Colors

While in most cases combining neutrals is a complete success as long as various tones are used, it can become a bit boring. That’s where an accent color comes in. Just like in interior design, an accent wall can lift and enhance a room, and so can an accent color enhance a flower arrangement or bouquet. I always have at the back of my mind that every arrangement needs a ‘contradiction’ to give it that last boost of harmony – an accent color can do this job.

To choose an accent color, look at colors that contrast with a neutral palette. Primary and secondary colors are good examples, but choose a color you feel fits well. Then get the balance right.

Interior design tips can come in handy when designing with florals, after all, it’s all design in the end. Designers use a formula to get the balance right with neutrals – the 60-30-10 rule. This color distribution says that 60% should be your neutral color, 30% should be a secondary neutral color and only 10% should be the accent color. In this way, balance and harmony are achieved. 

Unlike interior designers, once you have a color and it doesn’t work, it’s easy enough to discard it and choose another – better than repainting a wall.

Color and Mood or Sentiment

Color evokes a mood or sentiment on its own or in a group. It stands to reason then, that if you want to impart a specific ambiance or feeling, you can choose the color that reflects that. These are a few of the moods that can be addressed using color:

  • Playful, friendly, happy, sparkling – use complementary or triadic colors that are bright, bold, and saturated. To make it sparkle add some white, cream, or grey and even some silver or gold bling.
  • Sophisticated, rich, luxurious, lush – use darker tones of rich colors like reds, blues, purples, dark green, and black, and use texture to create a balance – think regal velvet.
  • Dreamy, romantic, antique, tranquil – use a lot of neutral tones like white, cream, grey, and any pastel shades. Darker shades can work as well but use only one or two or as an accent color and balance with neutrals.
  • Bold, dramatic, exotic, vibrant – lots of foliage can create this mood very well and then add rich saturated complementary and triadic colors in the primary and secondary categories.

When working with color, it’s important not to forget that color will change in a specific setting with the variations in light. Having an idea of what the lighting will be for the final arrangement may help with color selection. For instance, a darker corner may need more white and cream colors added to give it a natural light on its own. Also, remember to include texture and choose containers that will enhance the arrangement and not distract from it. As with all flower arranging, have fun with it and experiment using different colors.

Further Reading:

Senior Contributing Editor | wendy@petalrepublic.com | Full Bio

Wendy brings over 20 years of senior leadership experience in gardening magazine publishing. Today, she is the features editor for The Gardener magazine and Grow to Eat magazine. She is also the senior editor for Let’s Braai and Open Gardens of South Africa magazines, published annually by Lonehill Media.

Wendy has been involved in many aspects of the industry, including managing editorial and creative teams, writing and producing expert guides and articles on many gardening subjects, magazine design and photography, and developing recipes for publishing.

Wendy’s interests are very much in the arts – writing, design, cookery, and floral art. She also loves to spend time growing flowers on her small flower farm.

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