Does art reflect life? Or life reflect art? It’s a topic with philosophical musings that go back centuries, to the days of Aristotle. But you don’t have to wax poetic to appreciate the artistic beauty in landscape design!
Known in some circles as “the mother of all arts”, landscape design shares many of the same creative design principles as other artistic disciplines, including painting.
If you still think of “landscaping” as planting a bunch of flowers and shrubs (with a patio or koi pond thrown in for good measure) then come along as we delve into what true landscape artistry means, why it matters to you, and how it can transform a mere “yard” into a four-season outdoor living room.
It may seem obvious to say that space is important when designing a landscape, but it’s more than what it appears to be at face value.
In a painting, artists must create space through their use of color, scale and other techniques like perspective. A two-dimensional space is given life and depth through the artist’s creative vision.
Landscape design isn’t very different, with the exception that we start with a three-dimensional space. But what we do with that space is what matters! The same way that painters draw the eye in by creating depth, landscape artists use color, height, and even lighting to the same ends.
Warmer colors in the foreground with cooler ones behind can successfully create the illusion of depth in a flower garden. And if you’re working with a small space, using a bold color as a focal point in the foreground can make the rest recede, making your space appear magically larger. Those are important tricks if space is at a premium.
Whatever size your yard, you have an advantage that a painter does not: vertical space! Through stacking, trellises, pergolas, walls, and more, even the “space above your space” becomes part of the design.
Lighting is a powerful tool for creating depth and defining space, too. It can be used to outline entertaining areas on a patio, or to highlight certain spots in a yard while allowing the rest to recede. It can be installed high up to create the illusion of moonlight from the sky above, or beneath steps, benches and underwater in ponds and waterfalls to completely transform a space with added depth and perspective.
The “rule of thirds” and the Golden Ratio are principles followed by many artists (including landscape photographers!) to create pleasing proportions in space. It’s why many nesting pots come in three sizes, often at a specific scale.
Whichever rule an artist follows, or even breaks, the goal is to create proportions that work using principles of good design. Just think of how jarring an oversized fountain would seem surrounded by a miniature garden, or how lost a small one would feel amid towering trees. The scale of the elements in a space are just as important as the elements themselves.
Design rules, however, are more challenging for the landscape artist, who not only has to create space, but contend with what’s already there. Slope and pitch, existing elements like an old-growth tree, weather impact, soil quality, and overall dimensions are just a few of the considerations that affect how space is used.
But with creativity, artistry, and yes, even a bit of science, a landscape architect will turn the blank canvas of your yard into a space that you can live in.
In a two-dimensional painting, there is no movement. The artist must create the illusion through use of lines, patterns, repetition and other techniques.
Landscape architects are fortunate to be able to use what Mother Nature has provided to create actual movement. But movement doesn’t happen by accident. There are many ways to design it into your landscape for a a year-round sensory experience.
Water is one of the best ways to create movement, whether in the form of a pond with koi darting playfully under a glittering summer sun, or as a waterfall flowing over natural stone. Movement can be extended to evening hours with underwater lighting so that your pond continues to feel vibrant and alive.
Movement can also be achieved through the creative selection of plants and grasses. Tall, ornamental grasses will dance in even the slightest breeze and can bring movement as well as much-needed winter interest to your landscape.
And don’t overlook the importance of wildlife as movement. Hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies are excellent pollinators as well as a source of movement and seasonal enjoyment. With the right selection of plants and the right offerings of water and shelter, you can attract motion right to you.
Emphasis in a painting is simply that which the artist uses to draws the eye. It’s another way of describing a focal point. Think of a golden moon painted into a nighttime scene where the dark blue sky is nearly the same color as the lake below it. Your eye is naturally drawn to that moon, which is almost certainly what the artist intended.
It’s exactly the same for landscape design.
A focal point in your landscape is anything that you pay attention to above everything else. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s pleasing to look at, either. An ugly utility box can be a focal point as easily as a gorgeous water bubbler.
Landscape artistry consists of creating a focal point while deemphasizing something you’d rather not notice. It may mean hiding an eyesore behind plantings, or covering it with a decorative touch. Doing that is an art in itself, because you can imagine how sticking a pot on top of that utility box in an attempt to hide it will just make it seem more obvious!
Focal points in your outdoor space can be natural, like a favorite tree or large stone, or it can be man-made, like an arbor or a bit of garden art. It can be achieved with color, like that golden moon, and even with texture.
You don’t necessarily need a focal point, but if your space seems a bit bland, then adding one can create a sense of surprise and visual interest.
4. Harmony And Variety
Harmony and variety are flips sides of the same coin. A harmonious painting, much like a harmonious landscape, contains elements that fit together pleasantly and comfortably. But too much harmony can create a bland, monotonous scene.
Variety is variation in color, shape and texture to create visual interest and energy. But too much variety and you end up with chaos.
The trick is balance. You need enough harmony to ensure that the elements of your landscape work together, and enough variety so it doesn’t become boring. That’s where art comes in!
In fact, a good focal point is an example of the balance you need. It wakes you up visually, while the surrounding area gives your eye a chance to rest. It’s interesting, without being jarring.
But you don’t need a focal point to create visual harmony. Harmony is achieved through different elements – in both painting and landscape design.
Harmony can be achieved through use of color, sometimes by choosing a complementary color palette (those opposite each other on the color wheel, like yellow and purple) or analogous colors (those next to each other on the color wheel, like blue and purple). There are other pleasing combinations across the color wheel, which is where the artist’s eye comes in. Choosing the right hue, the right contrast and the right combination of foreground and background colors are all part of the art.
It can also be achieved through use of texture. Consider contrasting textures, like smooth green foliage against rough, curling bark. But just as with color, it can be overdone. Too much textural variety will just seem messy.
Harmony and variety are especially important in naturalistic landscape design, which is sometimes – erroneously – considered chaotic and wild. Naturalistic design should be anything but! At its best, it fuses truly “wild” surroundings, like woodlands, streams and natural lakes seamlessly with your landscape. Doing that requires the careful selection and strategic placement of everything from plantings to hardscapes, water features and other elements.
Painters are challenged to create colors that mimic life. The subtle shades and variations, the way sunlight reflects or moonlight darkens. On the other hand, landscape artists have the whole of Mother Nature’s bounty in front of them.
Creating color is only one part of the challenge. The other lies in how to use color. We already discussed how color can create harmony, contrast, visual interest and variety. But color can do so much more.
Color has an emotional impact that’s independent of the subject matter. What does that mean? Imagine a painting of a sad, lonely person sitting isolated in a room. What colors would you imagine dominate the scene? You probably thought immediately of blues or grays. But what if the artist chose to paint the scene in bright reds? How might that affect your feelings toward the painting?
Chances are, you would respond emotionally to the color before the actual subject. Without getting too philosophical, it’s been scientifically shown that color affects mood. The important thing to understand is *how*. Reds, yellows and oranges can create a sense of energy and excitement, where blues and purples will have a more calming effect. If you want your back yard to represent a party hub or a zen retreat, color choice plays a big role in achieving that.
It’s not always obvious which colors will create which moods. White, for example, may seem like a wholly calming color, but a white flower placed beside a brightly colored one can seem exceptionally harsh. Color choice, as well as color combinations, will elicit the mood you desire.
As we mentioned, color also plays a role in how large or small a space appears. Monochromatic colors can make spaces appear larger, as do cooler colors, both of which are allies in a small yard. Warm colors make a space feel closer, which can create a sense of coziness or serve as a framing device to create multiple smaller areas out of a larger one.
Landscape design is as much of an art as painting, drawing or sculpting. The medium has changed, but the principles remain the same. Great art elicits emotion, creates an atmosphere and appeals to the viewer. It is a unique and personal experience, which means that the art you appreciate is not necessarily the art your friends or neighbors appreciate. That’s why it’s important to have a landscape architect who understands you – not just how you want to use your space, but how you want to feel about it.
If you’d like to explore turning your landscape into a work of art that you can enjoy throughout all four seasons, get in touch with us for a consultation. We’ll work with you to create a vision and to match your landscape design with your unique personality and needs.