How to Balance Color in Pool Design
By Lori Conner
We are surrounded by color. We intrinsically know what appeals to us and what does not, and studies show that we make decisions based upon the emotional reaction we have to a hue or tone. Appreciating how colors work in tandem with each other and with our personalities is important to understand because color is the quickest way to illustrate a feeling or to craft a desired effect. When creating a design, the impact of color on the final product must be taken into account—especially in a swimming pool design, where every facet of a poolscape and its setting influences how the final piece will appear.
Fine swimming pool designers, like all fine artists, combine and balance colors, use color wheels to show relationships, and exploit subtle distinctions to make a swimming pool design come to life. Denise Cawley, a color expert who teaches at design schools and museums and author of Color Confidence, believes that “utilizing many hues, tones, and shades within a palette of five to seven colors can be a good thing. Our brains can take in millions of distinctions. This gives your eye different points to fall on, and to get comfortable in.”
Nature takes the same tact—enlarging a photograph of a leaf on a computer screen will reveal thousands of different-colored pixels. Designers also use this method to discern new color palettes and select base, dominant, and accent colors. “Nature always does color right,” says Cawley. “I take images from nature, and pull pixels to show how much color is there, and how to work with it. For instance, red won’t look great without that nick of green. Proportion—that’s what makes a space sing!”
The bottom line with color, however, is our perception of it, generated from a combination of physiology, culture, history, geography, and even age. “In the United States, a woman wearing a red dress to her wedding makes a statement about herself, and you’d get it, but in China, red means good fortune,” explains Judith Corona, a consultant and UCLA extension art instructor who teaches private color classes to designers.
“Most of the time, the biggest color inspiration for swimming pools is nature,” continues Corona. “You can decide to work with or against it, however,” she says. “Beautiful solid volumes of color can work in a very sculptural way, in opposition to nature. You just have to understand why you’re doing it. Are you trying to generate excitement? Tranquility? Drama? Luxury? I live [in a home] overlooking the Pacific Ocean,” she explains, “with everything oriented towards the water, so the terrace and floors look like extensions of the sand.”
Color Balance in Swimming Pools
Skip Phillips, president of Questar Pools and Spas, Escondido, CA, is fascinated with color combinations, as well as how light and reflectance influence our perception of color. He believes that cohesion among a home, pool, and formal garden must be maintained. As an example, he points to a swimming pool project he finished at an estate with a French theme in Rancho Santa Fe. He took care to use an outdoor limestone tile color that matched the home’s interior flooring, and he used color theory to obtain just the right shade of aqua for the swimming pool water. “With beige pebbles, the blue reflection of sky and depth of the water creates green,” he explains. “If the pebbles had been blue, the pool would have looked inky and completely contrived.”
Another designer who builds upon color relationships is Chris Smith, a partner and landscape architect with Texas-based Marquise Pools. He always uses color to visually tie an estate’s elements together. On a recent project, he applied this technique to a red-hued brick home decorated in a rustic European style. By replacing the swimming pool’s blue tile with red travertine brick, and placing three large red vases in the background, he created a strong focal point that also blends with the casual elegance of the home. The drama increases at night, when submersible lights anchored inside the vases make them glow. Separate uplights highlight the tall copper wind sculptures just beyond, showing off the size of the lakefront to full advantage.
Swimming pool designers also use color to establish a mood. Phillips turned to a dark palette when working with a couple to create a sophisticated space for entertaining around an infinity-edge pool. He constructed the swimming pool bottom with black marble to make the vessel highly reflective and to give it a mysterious quality. A hint of rich gold in the tile surround is picked up in Kangaroo Paw plantings, which then lead the eye gracefully through the property.
Smith recreated the feel of a private lagoon in Maui for a client in Houston’s luxury community, The Woodlands. He chose three pebble mixes to recreate the transition from light, to royal, to deep teal blue. “The deeper the water, the deeper the color of the aggregate,” Smith explains, adding that each aggregate actually had not just one, but about 15 colors for a more natural look. Glass tile on the vanishing edge recalls iridescent abalone, and sparkles in the light. At night, colored prisms recreate the effect of the moon on that Maui beach, which appears dark blue because of the black grains in the sand.
Whatever a homeowner’s vision for the backyard is, however, all personalities—the setting’s, the homeowner’s, and the color’s—must be interconnected if the overall project is to succeed. Providing a comprehensive example of this, Roger Soares II, president of HydroScapes, LLC, Fountain Hills, AZ, explains how he was contracted to build a swimming pool that needed to be both light and dark. The husband wanted to keep things elegant and subdued while the wife preferred a lighter hue. Soares mixed a combination of colors that not only solved the dilemma, but also achieved a cohesive, contemporary style that is in harmony with the home. He used antique gold travertine throughout the site, including for the deck and the fireplace, and by using a custom blend of Sicis tile, Soares kept the swimming pool crisp and light in color.
To obtain the desired darker tones, he rimmed the pool in a black granite edge. According to the time of day, the pool appears to be different shades of blue, and at night, when the lighting dims, the pool water takes on a mysterious vibe. To add even more drama, in-pool lighting is used to alter the water to any color of the rainbow. The end result? The pool reflects both the owners’ and the home’s personas.
Color Theory 101
Putting a color palette together can get tricky, because what we pair with a color can completely change our experience of it—an effect known as color relativity. Brown, for example, looks completely different with yellow than it does with navy blue.
The key is to remember that there are no bad color combinations, only bad proportions! To prove this, color expert Judith Corona has students pick six random colors from a box to create a design. They often feel faint at first, but by the end of the exercise each has created a pleasing design. She says that learning to mix color is also a helpful way to understand which colors will work well together.
“Mixing color is a revelation for students,” she says. “By breaking it down, you see it has a little green, blue, or brown, and then you can use materials that express those colors in your design. You begin to understand nuance, and then you can pair materials for more sophisticated choices.”
Generally speaking, greens, blues, and violets—the colors of water and sky at one side of the color wheel—tend to make us feel relaxed. In the United States, blue is often equated with trust and well-being, and green is associated with fertility and friendship. Purple is connected with royalty and prestige; reds, oranges, and yellows are dominant colors that command attention and generate excitement. Orange brings to mind spontaneity and creativity, while yellow inspires optimism and energy.
Corona reminds us that while we’re wired to seek repetition, we’re also wired for novelty. A little unpredictability can ultimately be very satisfying.
Photo courtesy of HydroScapes, LLC, Fountain Hills, AZ
Lori Conner writes about architecture and design for a variety of luxury and lifestyle magazines. Lori is based in Madison, WI., but her bylines span the globe.