As the incoming Director for the Northwest Region, I guess I need to introduce myself. Some of you may know my husband, Ralph Thurston, who was the Northwest Director just prior to Pat Zweifel. Together, Ralph and I run Bindweed Farm, five acres of cuts in the cold (zone 4-5) high desert of Southeast Idaho. He’s in charge of function, I’m in charge of form.            

For me it is all about color. Obviously, seeing in color but also tasting in color and smelling in color, too. I even see basic numbers in color; unfortunately for me the corresponding colors don’t add up like mathematical sums so it is better if Ralph does the taxes. I am a watercolorist because I delight in creating puddles of luminous color. In part it may have been my love of color that got us into this crazy business. One year Ralph scattered flower seeds to supplement a poor alfalfa crop for his leaf-cutter bees. Having inspired pollen production and a painting, the next year he planted a few rows of everlastings that I turned into arrangements to sell along with my artwork. The next year we planted more with farmers’ market sales in mind and thus began the snowball that rolled us out of bees and into five acres of fresh-cut flowers.                    

Even after teaching art for years it wasn’t until working with Ralph and our daughter, Jerica, I realized that organizing color is not a genetic predisposition. We would haul out all of the flowers and I would pre-sort them into colors and textures to create bouquets. After weeks of puzzled looks and strange comments I began to understand that not everyone orders their universe in color. Jerica grew up in my studio attending nearly every class I taught so working with color came easily to her, but Ralph didn’t understand why I had to change bouquet strategies when I ran out of cosmos, a cool pink flower, and switched to Centranthus ruber, a warm pink flower. We relegated him to the end of the line—banding, trimming, sleeves. It became apparent that a lesson in color was needed when we ordered flowers for the next season.                    

Here’s the lesson.             

We start with color basics—the primary colors. All color comes from light; when you bend sunlight with a prism you create a rainbow, the color spectrum. If you painted that rainbow you would be creating every color the human eye can perceive. An artist can create all colors from the primary colors—red, yellow and blue. If you arrange these colors at equidistance in a circle you have the beginnings of a color wheel. These three colors are the parents of all others, and by mixing various combinations of them a skilled colorist, like nature, can produce any color. Unfortunately, a flower grower can’t combine a blue delphinium and a sunflower to make bells of Ireland but by understanding how colors “go together” can not only create better floral designs if they are making bouquets, but can better communicate with their clients AND with their suppliers.                    

When you mix equal amounts of any two primary colors you create a secondary color. Equal amounts of red and yellow make orange, combining yellow with blue makes green, while blue and red make violet. Hence the secondary colors are orange, green and violet. Placing these secondary colors directly between the two primary colors that create them comprises the second level of the color wheel.                

The third level, tertiary colors, is created by combining equal amounts of a primary color and a secondary color, combining red and orange makes red-orange, a warm rich orange that is more red than orange. Combining orange and yellow creates orange-yellow that is a brighter, more yellow orange than orange, and so on around the wheel.                

Color temperature is not designated by your zone but by the position of a color on the color wheel. Red, orange and yellow and any color created from these colors is considered a warm color—the colors of fire, a sunset or the Utah desert. Blue, green and violet and any colors created by combinations of these colors are cool colors—colors of a moonlit winterscape, the rain forest, and ocean scenes. Each color on the color wheel can have a warm or a cool temperature. For example, red with a touch of orange is called vermillion, a very warm red like Maltese cross. The same primary red with a touch of violet is called crimson, a cool red like that in ‘QIS Red’ scabiosa (and if you say “which red scabiosa”, you’ll understand just how hard it is to convey color over the phone or in words). It is the difference in color temperature that makes these two reds incompatible—even though both come from the red in Superman’s cape—forcing a palette switch, unless you are making a monochromatic “red” composition. But that is for the next article.                 

Bindweed Farm is a team effort—Ralph grows, I sell, he cultivates, I deliver, he selects appropriate varieties, I choose the colors—the perfect partnering until he has to describe the “red” zinnia seed we need or clarify which “red” peony we want. When a client calls needing something red, kind of crimson but not too magenta, a deep scarlet but not too vermillion, he just hands the phone to me. Understanding color and being able to work with color has direct benefits. Communicating color clearly prevents floral disasters like the day one of our clients called, desperate for anything orange to camouflage the yellow calla lilies they were spray painting to get the particular color the bride requested. You can avoid similar encounters with “bride-zilla” by paying attention to the color wheel.