More on Garden Tones–and Bones, in Black and White

– Posted in: Garden Design

I’d like to add a coda to Nan’s most excellent post on using black and white photography to evaluate the role of tone, or value, as an element in creating pleasing combinations. I’ve got a whole other diagnostic use for black and white, but more about that in a moment.

First I’d like to try to shed some light on the whole tone notion by referring to my color mentor, Sydney Eddison. She and I spent a couple years working on a book about color, ”the Gardener’s Palette: Creating Color in the Garden,” (look for it in the GGW bookshop) and I can tell you it was a treat to work with someone who’s been studying color formally and informally for nigh on 50 years, and who shares her knowledge so readily. While Sydney would agree with Andrew Lawson that tone is a color dulled by the addition of gray, she puts a finer point on the topic. In addition to tone, she recognizes a shade, a color darkened by the addition of black (think ‘Queen of the Night’ tulips, Canna ‘Australia’, or even a purple smokebush (Cotinus coggygria ’Purple Robe’) and a tint, a color brightened by the addition of white (think pink, Creamsicle orange, or pale blue forget-me-nots). So we have shades at the dark end of the black-to-white spectrum, tints at the light end, and tones covering the vast swath that lies between.

To get maximal tonal contrast, you can pit shades against tints. Or anchor a planting with shades, and accent it with tones. I think that helps explain why dark, “black” leafed plants make superlative backdrops for almost any companion, like the Japanese maple does for the verbascum in the scene above from Sydney’s garden. And all those stunning gold foliage-based combos Nan shows, well, those golds are really tints—there’s no gray or black in those chartreusey or lemony colors—and tints jump out against tones (or shades). So when considering tonal contrasts, or harmonies, it may help to keep in mind these three separate provinces of any individual color. Now, on to my coda.

Black and white photography is great for assessing the tonal range of a planting. And it is even better at offering what I think of as an X-ray view of the garden. No other technique or trick I’ve ever seen or heard about is as effective at revealing the “bones”, or structural elements of a garden. And all gardens need bones. They are the essential component for providing year-round interest. I’ve seen lots of gardens, and heard lots of gardeners complain that they know something is wrong with their garden, but they don’t know what. I’ve found, 99 times out of 100, that structure is the missing piece. Either there’s none at all or, perhaps, not enough, or maybe what’s there is assembled weakly, or is not prominent enough.

A black and white photo reveals any lack in an instant. Black and white photography, as opposed to color, is much more about shape. B&W photos live or die by the expert juxtaposition of shape and texture, heightened by light. Color photos are all about…color! Which tends to be very distracting if you’re looking for something besides color. If you look at a colorless image, the shape and texture become the dominant elements. So does the idea of line-you can judge for yourself if the edge of bed or border creates a pleasingly sinuous shape, or is as rigorously, crisply formal as you’d like.

When you look at a color photo of your garden you see…all those colors! And don’t they look neat! But when you remove the color, you see shape and texture and line. Structure. Here are two obvious examples, the first from Sydney’s garden. Yes, those big, billowy plants create a lovely color scene, one that seems just about overripe with potential.

But when that view is simplified to black and white, the beauty of the structural composition emerges. See how all those shapes and textures combine in pleasing proportions? See how the ornamental grass plays a crucial role in this combination? To me this is an effective garden vignette, even in B&W.

Now let’s take a view from a garden near Sydney’s house. Lots of color, looks pretty good with all those black eyed-Susans.

But now the black and white version. As it makes clear, there is virtually no structure here at all. As soon as those black-eyed Susans go by, that garden is over. Mush. No bones about it, so to speak. Which is fine–if you’re designing a peak bloom garden that shines brightly for a few weeks and is then over and done. But most of us want more lasting effects. So we build in bones.

So if you feel the urge to get out and X-ray parts of your own garden, here a few simple tips to make the process easier. First, to get B&W images, follow the simple steps Nan included in her post. That’s the easy part. Now, when you’re actually out in the garden taking pictures, shoot wider views that allow you to analyze big bites of the landscape. Of course you can micro-manage too, and examine aspects of varied combinations as Nan did, but with an eye toward structure this time around. Most importantly take you pictures on an overcast or rainy day, or toward dawn or dusk. You won’t want lots of harsh shadows mucking up the picture. That can make it hard to see the bones. I need to shout out to my Nashville buddy, gardener and plantsman extraordinaire J. Paul Moore, who first showed me just how useful black and white photography can be for assessing garden designs. Thanks, Paul!

Steve Silk

Steve Silk

Steve Silk

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6 Comments… add one

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wayne December 28, 2008, 1:37 pm

I will have to try this with some of my garden photos. thanks for passing along the idea.

Give it a whirl, Wayne, and you may be surprised at what you see.–Steve

Amy December 28, 2008, 2:21 pm

I’m just beginning to try to get tints, tones, and shades straight. I had never thought before about how this knowledge of colour could be used in my gardening. So far it’s been a lot of buy what I like, get it in the ground, and move it around later if I don’t like the way things look 🙂

This tip about black and white photography is so great. I would love to try this in the late spring/early summer.

Amy–Plants are made to be moved, the only one I haven’t moved yet is going to a new home the day the soil defrosts in spring. Kidding, but it’s not far from the truth. Try the photo trick once everything has leafed out for a good look-see.–Steve

Helen/patientgardener December 28, 2008, 4:23 pm

I love the contrast in the first photo

Thanks Helen–Those shade-influenced colors make dynamic backgrounds.–Steve

Lucy Corrander December 28, 2008, 4:51 pm

I don’t think I’ve visited your blog before. I wish I had.

This is a brilliant post. Rivetingly interesting and informative. I love black and white photography. In many ways I see the world in terms of shape and texture rather than content and this post will inform my viewing from now on. It tells me why I see things as I do – and I appreciate it.

Apologies if this comment seems a bit over the top. I imagine what you explain here is commonplace to you – but it is new to me. Thanks.



Wow! Thanks, Lucy. Glad you stopped by. It was all new to me once too, and it took a while to take root in my brain. The best thing about those black and white techniques is that they teach you to see for yourself-I no longer need the camera to take a garden x-ray.–Steve

Angela (Cottage Magpie) December 30, 2008, 2:57 pm

Love this! I knew about color theory and tints/tones, but it never occurred to me to use B&W photos to evaluate my own garden. Great idea!
~Angela 🙂

Hi Angela–And it’s such an easy way to do it, either to evaluate tints, tones and all, or to view your garden’s structure.–Steve

susan (garden-chick) December 30, 2008, 8:30 pm

Very interesting posts. I have Sandra Austin’s “Color in the Garden”, but have never been able to slog through more than a few pages. Your post and Nan’s make this info more accessible, although it is still a lot to digest. This also helps explain my love affair with black phormiums and chartreuse foliage.

Of couse I immediately starting grayscaling plant pictures in Photoshop! I may post some before and afters on my own blog – it’s a fun exercise. Thanks for sharing!

Thanks Susan–That color book is tough sledding, I know. I worked at Fine Gardening when it came out (same publisher for FG and that book) and remember thinking wow, very thorough, but not sure it makes the subject accessible. Anyways, glad you got something out of Nan’s and my posts. Learning to “see” with the black and white will quickly train your eye so you’ll no longer need photo interpretations. I Know what you’re saying about the phormiums-I used to like doing those with a skirt of chartreuse leaved pelargoniums.–Steve

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