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Color Techniques for Landscape Design

Gunda Luss

Description/ Purpose:

Illustration by Gunda Luss
Illustration by Gunda Luss
Adding color to a landscape design makes a plan come alive! It also communicates depth, texture and interest to a plan, and helps the viewer to better visualize the finished landscape. The following report reviews color palettes, explains various media available to the designer, and presents tips for improving technique for using color in landscape designs.

Design Considerations:
The best method for adding color is to use a simple color palette for each project and emphasize only the essential elements within the design, leaving details to the imagination. Overuse of color may result in a gaudy plan that is too busy and detracts from the design itself. While surfaces in the foreground need to be correctly rendered, in the distance, these same materials will appear only as values. Even highly textured surfaces will appear white in bright sunlight. An eraser can become the best tool in eliminating extraneous details and adding highlights.

Definitions of coloring terms:

Primary Colors Red (carmine), yellow and blue (phthalocyanine) from which all other colors may be mixed.
Secondary Colors Orange, green and purple, made by mixing adjacent primary colors on the color wheel.
Tertiary Colors Colors located between primary and secondary colors on the color wheel, created by mixing any adjacent primary and secondary color.
Hue The clearest form of any color, without the addition of black, white or its complement.
Chroma The intensity, strength or saturation of a color. The intensity of a hue can be reduced by its complementary. For instance, the intensity of green can be reduced by adding red -- the eventual result being a neutral gray.
Value The lightness or darkness of a color, E.g. light or dark blue.
Shade A color darkened by adding black.
Tint A color lightened by adding white.
Complementary Color Colors opposite each other on the color wheel. Mixing complementary colors will produce gray.
Monochromatic A color scheme using values of only one color. Sepia (reddish-brown) is a common choice in illustration.
Analogous A scheme using two or three adjacent colors on the color wheel. Example: yellow, yellow-green, green or blue, purple, violet. This scheme is equally useful in creating a simple palette for an illustration or a garden design.
Warm colors Generally thought of as yellow, orange and red, which seem to advance toward the viewer. However this distinction may also be made of blues and greens. Example: ultramarine blue is 'warmer' than cobalt blue. Willow green is 'warmer' than sage and Cadmium red is 'warmer' than carmine.
Cool Colors Generally, blues, greens and violets, which appear to recede.

Sources: Architectural Drawing & Light Construction, Third edition by Edward J. Muller, and Color in Architectural Illustration by Richard Rochon and Harold Linton.

The Color Wheel: Fig 1 Color Wheel
Figure 1: The Color Wheel

Relationships between colors are described by the color wheel. Used by artists of various expertise, the color wheel introduces primary, secondary and tertiary colors as well as color complements. The primary colors are red, blue and yellow, and cannot be created by mixing other elements. However, any two primary colors mixed together will yield a secondary color - orange, green or purple. Tertiary colors are created by mixing a secondary color with a primary color. For example, yellow-green is made by mixing the secondary color green with the primary color, yellow.

Color Complements are color opposites and contract each other, creating a vibrant, active color palette. They are located on opposite sides of the color wheel from each. An example of a pair of complementary colors is purple and yellow.

Color Palettes:
Depending on time and design requirements the palette used may vary from monochrome to complex. Outlined below in increasing levels of complexity are some options. The simplest palette is monochromatic, that is, using tints of one color for the entire drawing. Sepia tone is a classic example, although this may create a retrospective appearance.

Figure 2
Figure 2: Plan illustrated with sepia tone colors. Design and illustration by Gunda Luss.

An analogous color palette uses colors adjacent on the color wheel.

Examples of analogous palettes:
  • Yellow, Yellow-green, Green
  • Green, Blue-green, Blue
  • Blue, Purple, Violet
  • Yellow-orange, yellow, chartreuse
      Figure 3 Figure 3:
Analogous color

Figure 4
Figure 4: A plan view using an analogous color palette. (Design and illustration by Gunda Luss)

A combination palette starts with an analogous palette and add a complementary color(s) for more visual excitement. Some examples using Prismacolor® markers as suggested by McGarry and Madsen in Marker Magic are:

Fig 5a
Lime green, Spring green Nile green, Dark green Fathom blue, Grape
Fig 5b
Malachite, Teal blue Fathom blue, Grayed lavender, Hot pink
Fig 5c
Non-photo blue, Light blue, True blue Teal blue, Lime green, Flesh
Fig 5d
Cream, Warm gray 30%, Warm gray 60% + Non-photo blue, True blue
Figure 5: Combination color palette. Source: Marker Magic, pp. 80-81


Figure 6
Figure 6: Illustration using colored pencils. (Illustration by Gunda Luss)
Although the following comments are by individual media, These can be mixed. Pencils work well with markers or pastels. Markers and watercolor are relatively transparent while pencil and pastel are not. Test the desired effect on scrap paper first. In Step by Step Process Including Tools & Equipment, author Mike Lin has some of the best technical suggestions. The following is a summary of some Lin's key points plus added observations:

Colored Pencil


  • user friendly
  • blends easily
  • easy to control
  • can create light or value changes quickly.
  • wax based and thus do not reflect light as well
  • resists moisture and fading.
  • fairly inexpensive
  • time-consuming to use because of the fine point
  • a beginner may have difficulty creating smooth, even color. On vellum, this effect is mitigated by coloring on the backside of the sheet and by using a the colorless 'blender pencil'
For best strokes, color at a 45°, forward or back depending on whether you are right or left handed.

Tips for coloring
  1. Work from top to bottom;
  2. Work from dark values to light;
  3. Work from large areas to small;
  4. Work from soft elements to hard;
  5. Color trees before buildings to avoid a hard edge;
  6. Draw repetitive items serially for maximum consistency;
  7. Work from coarse to fine.
Source: AIA Architectural Illustration by Paul Stevenson Oles

According to Paul Stevenson Oles, the following colors comprise a good basic palette (listed in order of importance):

1. Burnt umber
2. Indigo blue
3. Ultramarine
4. Canary yellow
5. Dark green
6. Non-photo blue
7. Scarlet
8. Black
9. White
10. Sienna
11. Dark brown
12. Sepia
13. Raw Ochre
14. Sand
15. Flesh
16. Vermillion
17. Terra cotta
18. Yellow ochre
19. Slate gray
20. Warm gray light
21. Warm gray medium
22. Apple green
23. Olive green
24. Grass green
25. Light green

Note: Colors above are based on Prismacolor® product names.

A colorless blender 'pencil', which may be used to minimize undesired texture, is also available under several different brand names. The blender works equally well on plain paper and on vellum but it will not blend as thoroughly as the marker blender.


Figure 7
Figure 7: Using markers for a pond illustration. (Illustration by Gunda Luss)
The large nib and free-flowing color of markers make them the quickest way to add some sparkle to a plan, elevation or photo view. When using them on vellum, as with pencil, it is best to apply to the back side of the sheet. This produces a softer more even tone and prevents the smearing of inked lines.

There a number of marker brands but they all have some limitations in a good selection of green tones. Using a blender marker, that has no color of its own, is a useful way to increase the range of the markers available. The blender does not have any effect on marks made on plain paper. Use it only on vellum and clean the tip on scrap paper between colors.

In rendering a 'photo' view it is best to have three tones in rendering foliage: the base color, the highlight and the shadow. It is possible to effectively render an object with the base color, a blender for highlights and a dark gray for shadows.

Figure 8
Figure 8: Pencil illustration showing 3 shades of green (left) compared to green, dark gray, and using a blender. (Illustration by Gunda Luss)

Ink- Dyes
Most often used for separate illustrations on illustration board, this technique could also be done on a small piece of watercolor paper and 'cut into' a vellum sheet for a photo view. Inks and dyes produce a brilliant color but are not light-fast and will fade so, not good if you plan to keep it for years. Use the watercolor technique and materials noted below.

Water Color

Figure 9
Figure 9: Example of using watercolors to illustrate a landscape design. (Illustration by Gunda Luss)
Using watercolors to illustrate a design requires a bit of practice and the largest up-front expenditure of time and money. Good brushes are expensive as is good paper; however, it is worthwhile to use good tools because it makes the job easier. Better paper, such as Strathmore® or Arches® is much more forgiving and will take more working over than cheaper kinds. Watercolor paper needs to be 'sized' before use. This means taping the edges to a board with masking tape and wetting the entire surface with water. Let it dry and then proceed. Draw the view lightly in pencil, put in the color washes next and finally add the detail with your favorite ink pen or marker.

To inset a photo view, done on watercolor paper, into a vellum sheet, cut both at the same time with a sharp Xacto® blade and metal straight edge to get a perfect alignment. Tape in place from the back.

This medium is harder to control than other media but offers clear brilliant color. It can be used to create an impressionistic 'photo view' or used to add color where you would normally use a marker. Apply the color on the back side of a drawing on vellum by shaving off a small amount and rubbing with a finger. Spray illustrations with a fixative to prevent smearing.

Other useful techniques

  • Transferring
    • Tracing
    • Carbon paper
    Use a fine point pencil or a ballpoint pen with or without ink as a stylus. Attach the top edges securely to keep in register and to allow for peek at the progress. Or make your own by blackening the back the back of your rough drawing with a soft black pencil.

  • Edgers: It is hard to control the length of a stroke. If it necessary to have a clean edge in the illustration or around the edges, the following items may be helpful: Drafting (not masking) tape, a simple card, an eraser shield, a triangle, a clear scale or a ruler.

  • Negative pencil. An electric eraser can be a handy tool for removing pencil marks from larger areas, but if a white line is needed to indicate mullions, flagpoles, masts, or cables against a dark background, a useful method is scoring. On thin paper a resilient underlay may be necessary to prevent buckling. The stylus may be a leather tool or an empty ballpoint pen. Simply draw wherever the white lines are needed. Then carefully stroke across the surface - the indented lines will remain white.
Figure 10
Figure 10: Example of using a stylus to 'draw' white lines and illustrate hard features such as walls and patios. (Illustration by Gunda Luss)


Albers, Josef, Interaction of Color, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1971

Lin, Mike, Drawing and Design with Confidence. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. New York, 1993

McGarry-Madsen, Magic Marker, The Rendering Problem Solver for Designers. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, 1993

Muller, Edward J. Architectural Drawing & Light Construction, Third edition. Prentice Hall, NJ, 1985

Oles, Paul Stevenson Oles, AIA Architectural Illustration, Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, New York, 1979

Rochon, Richard and Linton, Harold, Color in Architectural Illustration, Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, New York, 1989

Paul Stevenson, Drawing the Future, Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, New York, 1988

Shen, Janet and Walker, Theodore D., Sketching and Rendering, Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, 1992

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