Seeing Landscape As a Work of Art

Hello everyone! Brit Blevins here. I’m originally from Colorado, but I’ve lived in West Virginia for most of my adult life and love it. You all weren’t kidding when you called it wild and wonderful. I’ve found no shortage of unique events or fun celebrations to occupy my time.

I attended one such event a few months ago with my fiance: the West Virginia Nursery & Landscape Association’s Winter Symposium. I’d never been before and didn’t know what to expect, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself. It was educational, fun and the food was delicious.

The association holds this symposium in Charleston every year in January for its members and any other garden enthusiasts. Whether you’re a hobbyist or a seasoned landscaper, I highly recommend checking it out next year.

My favorite speaker was Allan Summers, a talented landscape architect with the Wilmington, Delaware, firm Robinson, Anderson and Summers.

He discussed garden and landscape design in terms of composition and drawing from the land for inspiration. What resonated most was his comparison of garden design to art. Most would agree garden design is art, but I was new to the idea.

Summers began by discussing the poetry of place, how a garden in Pennsylvania should absolutely look and feel different from a garden in, say, Ireland. Those places have their own history, their own climate, their own rhythm.

I loved this idea, and as he flicked through pictures of landscapes he’d designed while discussing his inspiration, I had a thought. I began inspecting and comparing his work to notable paintings I’d learned about in college.

Drawing from my studies in art and composition, I found striking similarities between an artist’s approach to painting and a designer’s approach to landscaping.

Summers, like many talented designers, whether consciously or unconsciously, follows a set of compositional design rules that closely mirror that of compositional rules in painting.

Some rules in play include those of proportion, color theory and texture. The parallels really start to pile up when you consider composition as a whole.

An artist’s job is to give the eye direction. He or she must tell the eye where to start in a painting, and then guide it through every facet before offering an exit, ultimately giving the viewer a sense of completion.

Every rule can be broken, so you will find artists who intentionally ignore this one to evoke specific emotions. However, on the whole, most notable works adhere to this wisdom.

I never imagined this rule would be used in gardens, but it is. Even if it isn’t done consciously, designers must give you a destination, a focal point. Gardens are meant to draw you in, make you feel something and then eventually let you go.

I found another similarity in Summers’ use of foreground and framing. Of course every garden has tall plants in back and short plants in front, but that barely scratches the surface of what a good designer can accomplish with this concept.

I’ve walked into gardens feeling uninspired and even bored, only to find myself pleasantly surprised on a closer look. Gardens are layered, complex, living things. They unravel and lay themselves bare as you venture into them.

No garden deserves a cursory viewing, just as no painting should be taken in with a single glance. These works need to be absorbed, unwrapped, even.

For every artist, there is an artistic style. This gives life to art, which is why five people can paint the same bowl of fruit and come away with five distinct paintings.

We see this in landscaping, as well. Some designers use broad, colorful strokes, while others dot their canvasses delicately, demanding you appreciate the subtleties.

With thoughts like these, I don’t believe I can ever again see a garden as just a garden. Evaluating landscapes with the same eye for detail and intent that I bring to art museums has opened a whole new layer of understanding. There is so much to appreciate, even about the smallest or simplest gardens.

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