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The Importance of Watershaping's Color Palette

JudithCoronaInterview by Lenny Giteck

Judith Corona has a keen eye for color -- plus a rare ability to teach people how it works and how to use it to greatest effect.

Corona is an Adjunct Associate Professor of Art at Otis College of Art and Design, in Los Angeles, and is on the faculty of UCLA Extension in the Architecture, Interior Design & Landscape Architecture Department. In addition, she teaches a 20-hour "Color Theory and Design Application" course for the Genesis 3 Design Group. An accomplished artist, her paintings have been exhibited in the U.S. and Europe.

We spoke with Corona about the role of color in watershape design.

One of the main subjects you teach is color theory. What exactly is that?

In a nutshell, color theory is the way different colors interact with each other and with light.

In your experience working with the watershaping industry, do watershape designers pay adequate attention to color and color theory?

Some do and some don't. My observation is that many of those who don't are afraid of it - and they often get in a great deal of trouble because they don't know anything about it. Both pool design and landscape design are dependent on composition, and color is a major element in that. If you don't know color theory and you don't understand how colors interact, it's going to be difficult for you to be a good communicator.

A communicator?

You're not going to be able to communicate well with your clients, and what you design may not communicate what your clients want it to.

You say a lack of knowledge about color often lands watershape designers in hot water. What are you referring to?

Here's what tends to happen: If they design an installation's color palette in a piecemeal way and decide, "Oh, I like this color and I also like that color," they're not really thinking through the design holistically. They're doing it in sort of an ad hoc fashion without seeing the big picture.

As a result, designers often wind up doing whatever is tried-and-true for them, which usually means something that's pretty bland. On the other hand, when people have some education in color theory, they're generally more aware of the nuances of color and are more willing to be adventuresome.

Obviously, it's important to get a sense of what your clients like in the way of color.

It's critical. One of the things I suggest is that designers ask their clients to look through magazines and tear out images they like, colors they like, finishes they like, plantings they like, furniture they like, and so forth. Perhaps equally important is to ask clients to tear out photos of things they really don't like, because knowing what turns them off can be extremely helpful as well.

What if the colors and color combinations your clients like are awful?

Then you have to educate them. You have to tell them why a particular color or color combination isn't going to work - again, which is the reason having a basis in color theory is so important. If you don't have that foundation, you're kind of at a loss how to explain what the problem is.

Designing a watershape isn't about creating a chaotic situation. You shouldn't just use whichever colors the clients say they want, no matter what. And the truth is, many clients don't really know what they want, so it has to be a collaborative endeavor.

Should color be the starting point of your discussion with clients?

Even before the subject of color arises, you want to find out whether they're looking for an environment that's exciting, tranquil, dramatic, luxurious, playful - whatever. And you need to know what colors to use to create each of those. If your clients want an extremely tranquil environment, for example, you probably would use a lot of greens and not introduce too much contrast as far as colors go.

Have you witnessed changing trends in watershape colors over the years?

One shift I've seen in the last decade has been that a lot of pool bodies have gone from white plaster - which gives the water a kind of sparking aqua color - to more green-nuanced tones. White plaster creates a very Miami Beach feel, whereas nuanced green tones tend to be more soothing, more in tune with nature.

Based on your clients' feedback, a fundamental question you have to ask yourself when you begin designing a project is whether it should blend with nature or be in opposition to nature in order to create tension.

What factors can affect the choice of colors?

Color is quite physically dependent in that it is changed by the available light. This is very important for pool designers to understand. Most designers are aware that light changes throughout the day, but many don't think much about how that shift will affect the color of the pool water and adjacent colors.

What other factors influence color choice?

In addition to being physically dependent, color is culturally dependent. Colors and color combinations that may work in one culture may not work in another. Think about the Mexican aesthetic versus the Japanese aesthetic - they're not even in the same ballpark.

Another example I give is that when a young woman gets married in Western culture, she's apt to wear a white dress. If she wore a red dress to her wedding, everyone would think she's a tramp. But in Asian culture, a woman wearing a red dress to her wedding means something entirely different: good fortune.

Considering that we live in an increasingly multicultural society...

It's definitely something watershape designers should keep in mind. They should also understand that colors are highly geographically dependent. What I mean is that colors that are popular in southern climes - say in Palm Springs and Miami Beach - may not work in northern climes.

In the southern tier of the United States, the colors people like tend to be far more vibrant and saturated and exuberant. More "colorful." Whereas in places like Connecticut and Minnesota, people tend to be much more traditional and conservative in their color choices.

Is that because the light is different in the two areas?

The light is very different, as is the climate in general. There is more rain in the North, so there's more green in the environment to influence the design.

Any other factors to consider?

Sometimes what clients want is age-dependent: When people get older, they tend to prefer more conservative colors. It can also be gender-dependent: Men and women often have different color preferences. And it can be economically dependent: People in higher socioeconomic brackets tend to prefer colors that are more complex, more subtle, more nuanced.

Do we understand why different colors affect mood in different ways? For example, why do people find red exciting, whereas blues and greens are calming?

It's a physiological thing - but it is not entirely clear whether it's a cognitive response, meaning a learned response, or it's a straightforward biological or physiological response. For instance, when we see the color red, our brain synapses may tell us red/fire/danger. So that would be a cognitive response. But it also could trigger a physiological response. In all the research that scientists have done on color, it's never quite clear if we're talking about nature or nurture.

Assuming that not every watershape designer will be able to take one of your classes, are there other ways people can learn about color?

People can take color classes through colleges and universities in their own communities. The classes won't be tied in specifically to watershapes, which is what I do, but you could get a smattering of what you need to know. Then you could do some research on your own.

There must be books about color theory.

Many. The book I have my students use is Contemporary Color by Steven Bleicher. I like it because it's relatively easy to understand. I have to say, however, that it's pretty hard to learn color theory from a book or from having someone yammering at you. You truly need to experience it.

One of the most important things I do in my class is to have the students mix the color wheel from the three primary colors. That's when the "aha!" moment happens. That's when the light bulb goes on, when they really begin to gain a fundamental understanding of how color works. It doesn't mean they never make mistakes: They certainly do. But now they know how to fix them!

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