We can analyze the composition of a garden’s design like we study a painting. This allows us to understand how a garden is put together, and from that comes the ability to make educated design decisions in our own gardens.
I recently heard a well-respected garden writer comment on Dan Pearson’s naturalistic garden at Chelsea 2015, saying that “Real works of art are not something that can be analyzed or copied.” While I understand the sentiment that is referring to this specific garden as art (something of which I profoundly approve), the concept that ‘art’ is so high that only the creator has access to how and why a particular piece came about is misguided in the extreme.
As a garden designer from an art background, the concept that you cannot analyze art is just plain wrong. Worse than that, it implies that those who are not experts have no hope of elevating their own art, or gardens, because the creativity required is ‘god-given’ rather than coming about as a result of study and learning. In fact, it is only by studying, and analyzing, specific works of art that we are able to understand how they were put together, and from that that comes the ability to make educated design decisions. All art students learn by studying historic works of art, in order to understand both the composition and the techniques used. Modern technology allows us to analyze paintings in great detail, from viewing infrared images which show earlier marks beneath the finished painting, i.e. changes in composition as the painting progresses, to knowing exactly which pigments have been used in the creation of the ground and base layers.
Relating this to gardens, we too can analyze both the composition and the techniques used and we can study specific plants and their color, textural and seasonal combinations as we can study how a painter uses their palette. In creating a work of art, the artist begins the process by making decisions relating to composition and the mood that they wish to create.
The principles of art determine the composition, while the elements of art allow us to make deliberate choices as to how it will feel – all these decisions are taken before any marks are made on a canvas. While some gardens have been designed from scratch, many gardens are inherited or have evolved with different owners and needs, and design integrity is either non-existent or has been diluted. Analyzing such spaces using the principles and elements of art allows garden owners to understand why their garden may not work as they wish and to have an insight into how to remedy this, while new garden creators can use the knowledge to create more successful and beautiful gardens by intent, rather than by happy accident.
The principles of art, covering compositional themes, include ideas of proportion, focus, balance, rhythm and unity. Added to this in garden terms are symbolism (or conceptualism) and – most importantly – context. All gardens should bear some relationship with their immediate environment, whether this is landscape, architecture or both, in order to achieve a sense of place. While proportion, focus and unity are often talked about in garden terms, less so are ideas of balance and rhythm. The question of balance is interesting as it determines how dynamic the garden space is. A symmetrical balance will create a space which is very calming, but if not handled well can be boring and lacking in engagement, so extra thought needs to be given to other elements of composition to create a successful space.
The Villa Medici, in Fiesole, uses symmetrical balance to create a calming space with a central pool and steps leading to a pergola planted with Rosa banksii. While the space is completely symmetrical, the shape of the pool and the strongly directional lines of pergola and steps ensure that the eye doesn’t leave the garden, but instead directs the composition to draw the eye to the pool.
This second garden, at Rockcliffe in the Cotswolds (UK), uses many of the same compositional principles as the Villa Medici, but here the elements of line together with the shape of the pool, take you out of the garden and, despite the seat, the engagement is lost.
An asymmetrical balance, on the other hand, creates something much more dynamic. The multiple hedges in Luciano Giubbilei’s 2009 Chelsea garden create an exciting space despite a very limited palette of plant and hard materials. It is much easier to engage with this garden, and to want to explore, even in a such a small space, than had a static, symmetrical design been used. Rhythm can be used to direct the eye around or out of the garden, or to create harmony within certain garden areas. Broadly speaking, a regular rhythm of a single element repeated, such as this line of box balls leading to a gate in a private Dan Pearson garden, will draw the eye gently into the next space. A random rhythm uses the same elements repeated but without an obvious order; this will create harmony and unity and can be used to link otherwise disparate garden elements.
Perhaps the most interesting of the rhythms though is a progressive rhythm – a bit like a theme and variations in music – where a subtly evolving rhythm can be used to enhance the context of a garden. One of the best examples of this is at La Louve in Provence, created by designer Nicole de Vesian when she retired from the fashion house Hermes and moved to the south of France.
Widely regarded as one of the most successful gardens in capturing a sense of place, the garden of La Louve uses a progressive rhythm in the repetition of varyingly spherical shapes. Naturally mounded shrubs, such as the Euphorbia charachias, are set against clipped forms of plants found in the landscape beyond, creating a direct link between the garden and its setting, while distracting from what is a dizzyingly steep drop beyond. Using line, the three clipped cypress create the link between the two.
This leads me to the elements of art, which are the ingredients that bring the chosen composition to life, through providing the mood and atmosphere. These elements include line and form (shape), and also color, value and texture. As seen above, line is a useful tool to move the eye around the garden, and horizontals and verticals can be used to create a strong rhythm within the garden space. However, in planting design, form is the most important consideration. Many plants have very little distinct shape, and many leaf shapes are similar, meaning that, as we ‘read’ a border from left to right, with nothing to hold our gaze along the way, we quickly lose interest.
The effect of some pretty flowers is not enough to create a successful border, as seen in the photograph above; it just becomes messy. The aim should rather be to create a beautiful tapestry of form and foliage, viewing the flowers as a seasonal bonus. This will keep the emphasis on the long term design, rather than the fleeting nature of flowers, and is shown to great effect early in the season at the Lurie garden, where the patterns of the emerging perennial plants are just as engaging as later in the season when their other attributes come to the fore. The creator of these wonderful plantings is Dutchman Piet Oudolf, who’s work has often been described as painterly, and for good reason. His planting designs use all of the elements of art in a deliberate and insightful way to create living paintings that change with the seasons.
While some art, and some gardens, might be created intuitively, creating a consistent quality of work is never an accident. Instead, it is the result of intelligent decisions based on sound knowledge, and understanding the principles and elements of art in the context of creating a garden is the first step to gaining that knowledge. Deciding on what ‘to say’ before you begin is key, then use the principles to form the composition, and the elements to express it with emotion.
As an artist, one of the issues I find frustrating within the garden design business is that we don’t critique, we simply say it’s all ‘lovely’. Without critique, and with comments such as from our esteemed journalist, how are we to learn to understand how a garden space is created, so that we can make our own small spaces more beautiful, more relevant and above all, more rewarding? “A man paints with his brains, and not with his hands.” (Michelangelo)
Amanda Patton is a Registered Member of the Society of Garden Designers, with a practice that was set up at the beginning of 2000. Prior to this, she worked as an illustrator for many years, having had an art college training. She is currently working on a number of domestic projects, including the property that was the last home of actress Vivien Leigh, as well as designing a garden for Chelsea 2018. You can learn more about Amanda on her website and follow her on Twitter.