Color by numbers

Learn how to use subtle changes in hue and temperature to improve your landscape lighting design.
The words "color by numbers" over an illuminated residential landscape.
(Photo: EmeryAllen)

After investing considerable time and effort into landscape design, plant material and installation, a new landscape needs to really stand out. Choosing the right lighting is one key step in highlighting a landscape’s intricacies and beauty, and in drawing attention to the focal point of the design. But how do you choose the best lighting for the job? How can color enhance a landscape’s design? These tips from a lighting expert will shed some light on those questions.

“Adding the right type of lighting will complement the color of the architecture and the plants around it,” says Tom Garber, president of EmeryAllen in Charleston, South Carolina. “If you use the wrong color, it just won’t look right. You would never wear blue lipstick with a red dress because they just don’t go well together. A good blend of color makes all the difference in the world.”

Color temperature refers to the warm or cool color characteristics of a light source, and it is measured in degrees of Kelvin. While you might expect that a higher Kelvin value translates to a warmer light, the opposite is true. Light with a higher Kelvin value has a cool blue hue, while warmer light, with a yellow hue, is designated by a lower Kelvin value. Kelvin values over 5,000 are considered cool, while anything below 5,000 K projects a warmer, yellowish light.

As LED technology has rapidly advanced, making LED bulbs more available and more cost-effective, the options for color choice have also expanded, allowing lighting contractors more flexibility in using color in landscaping.

“Back in the day, people had an option for halogen lights only,” Garber says. “They’re somewhere around 2,800 K. That’s what they had, and that was it. Now with LEDs, we are manufacturing artificial light. You could go warmer, a little cooler or a lot cooler. With LEDs, you just have so many options to do so many things.”

Which color is right?

Brighter, cooler bulbs over 5,000 K project a feeling of sterility and are ideal for indoor locations like office spaces, classrooms and other areas where light is needed to complete tasks. Harsh, cool light isn’t well-suited for cozy, intimate spaces. Similarly, it also isn’t the best choice to enhance the leaves of a delicate tree or to highlight blooming shrubbery. But, if you’re looking for hard-and-fast guidelines for what color light to use in each situation, they simply don’t exist.

While there are certainly some best practices and rules of thumb to use as a starting point, color preference is extremely subjective. “The crazy thing about color temperature is that it is very, very regional,” Garber says. “If you go out to California, based on the demographic and the style of a lot of the homes, they are very much 3,000 K. If you move east to the mountainous states, they’re 2,700 K. It’s like that across the U.S. Each section prefers a different color temperature.”

So what are some of the key factors to consider when determining which color temperature will best enhance a landscape?

Architecture

According to Garber, the architecture of a home, building or other structure is one factor that should influence color choice.

“If you have a more contemporary house with whites or grays, people will generally go with a brighter, whiter light,” he says. “3,000 K is probably OK, while 2,700 K will look dead. Some people might even go whiter than 3,000 K. For more traditional homes, people generally lean towards 2,700 K. If you have a red brick house and light it up with 3,000 K, it washes out the color.”

Color temperatures are measured in degrees of Kelvin. Light with a higher Kelvin value has a cooler blue hue, while lower values have a warm yellow hue. (Photo: EmeryAllen)

With that in mind, it’s also important to scan the neighborhood at dusk or after dark. While the ultimate goal of lighting is to highlight landscaping or architectural features, you’ll also want to take stock of what the surrounding neighbors are doing. While you may be working to illuminate the front of a more traditional home, a home highlighted with a warmer, 2,700 K light will be lost among a sea of homes illuminated in a brighter, crisper 3,000 K light.

“Take a look at the neighborhood, take a look at what the neighbors are doing, and take it from there,” Garber says. “There is no rule in this game.”

As you plan for lighting, it’s also important to take note of ambient light from streetlights, parking lot lights or light post lanterns. While these lights aren’t part of the lighting plan you’re creating, they will ultimately cast light onto the space and figure into the lighting equation.

“Streetlights are typically 4,000 to 5,000 K, and you don’t want to compete with that,” Garber says. “You won’t want 2,700 K to try to overpower that. Try to stay away from doing any type of illuminating around those streetlights because you’re not going to beat those out.”

Though he acknowledges that it isn’t always feasible, Garber recommends meeting with the homeowner or property owners at dusk or after dark to get a holistic view of a property’s existing lighting.

Plant material

Landscape lighting is used to create a focal point, to highlight architectural details and to bring out the beauty of a landscape design. The right kind of light will complement both the color of the architecture and the plant material around it.

For a new build or a renovation, understanding the plant material will be helpful in deciding where to place fixtures.

“I would want to be in there before the shrubbery so we can talk about how big it is going to get and how far away it will be from the structure,” Garber says. “You want to find out how the plant material will grow and how it will be trimmed. You don’t want a shrub to grow over your fixture and lose the light.”

It’s also important to determine what effect you’re aiming to achieve. Are you aiming to light up the architecture? Do you want to highlight the shrubbery? Are you trying to silhouette a tree or shrub against the wall of a building? There’s a lighting application for each of those options.

“Some plants or shrubbery have leaves that are some shade of green, but the underside are silvery or white, and you can uplight those types of trees so it shows the underside of the leaf,” Garber says. “You would use a 4,000 K light to reflect off the underside of that leaf. That type of effect takes more experience and time to develop.”

Common lighting mistakes

While choosing the correct color temperature is fairly subjective, Garber cautions that there is one big mistake to avoid.

“The number one mistake that I see all the time is using way too much light,” Garber says. “Less is best in landscape lighting.”

Lighting should be used selectively to highlight features of a landscape. Lighting every 6-8 feet is not only unnecessary, it’s unsightly, as it ultimately washes out the elements you aim to feature.

“You don’t want to wash out any of the elements of the architecture of the building or the plant material,” Garber says. “If you have something so bright that you can’t see there are mortar lines in the brick, it’s aimed the wrong direction or you’re using too much light. If you’re uplighting a tree, you wouldn’t want to use three lights on a 4-foot tree.”

Finding balance through trial and error

Mastering landscape lighting is the same as mastering any other challenge, says Garber. It’s simply a matter of honing the craft through practice.

“No beginner can go in there and hit it out of the park the very first time,” he says. “Practice. Get out there and do practice installations in your own backyard, in your neighbor’s backyard. Get out there and practice before you do your installations.”

Even experienced lighting designers will go back to a job after dark and tweak the installation by moving a fixture over or switching out a bulb or two.

“Go back and fine-tune when everything is installed and make sure the colors are right,” Garber says. “You can add or subtract fixtures or change the placement to get the right look.”

In addition to hands-on practice, Garber also recommends learning from more experienced contractors.

“Join an organization, get involved, get a mentor, talk to people, get other people’s opinions and practice everything,” he says. “Don’t operate in a vacuum. Join an organization that can help you with your skills.”

Because color preferences are subjective and based on factors including surrounding homes or buildings, ambient light and personal preference, there are few hard-and-fast rules or requirements. But Garber does offer one piece of advice for contractors who are tasked with selecting a color for landscape lighting.

“As long as you stay away from 4,000 and 5,000 K color temperatures, you’re probably doing OK,” Garber says. “Something in the 2,700 K to 3,000 K range is great.”

Lauren Sable Freiman is a freelance writer based in Cleveland and can be reached via email.

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