Color characteristics of the natural environment: a case study

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Virginia Tech

Color is an element of the natural environment that contributes to the identity of places. Different regions exhibit different colors according to their unique physiographic characteristics, such as vegetation, topography, climate, and soils. When designing places, it is important to consider the characteristic colors of the larger natural context because the perception of color is affected by the colors surrounding (Chevreul, 1839), and humans have a psychological need to orient and identify with the environment or, in short, experience the environment as meaningful (Norburg-Schulz, 1980).

The purpose of this study is to describe the existing natural color characteristics of a place in order to develop a better understanding of regional color characteristics, and to suggest ways that this information could be used by designers to create meaningful places. Catawba Valley, in Montgomery County, Virginia, was the site from which views were selected for study. Colors were sampled from these views three times a day, once a week between July 1991 and July 1992. Data was analyzed to determine the occurrence, distribution, and dominance of hue, value, and chroma in each view. Conclusions were drawn regarding: which physical characteristics of the landscape affect color characteristics; considerations in predicting the color characteristics of a place; and how the colors in each view are related according to color harmony theory. This study ends with a demonstration of how the color characteristics of a place can be considered in designing with color.