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Garden design lessons from ‘Old Master’ landscape painters

‘Old Masters’ were landscape painters in the period 1600 to 1800. Painting landscapes was a pan-European art movement, in part motivated by the longing for idyllic, pastoral landscapes of ancient Athens and ancient Rome (which were pure fantasy landscapes and bore no resemblance to reality), and in other part motivated by the longing of wealthy landowners to capture their land holdings in oil paint in a canvas that could be hung prominently in a public part of their house, like a central hall. Think of Downton Abbley's great hall.

It is no coincidence that the design principles used in landscape painting by ‘Old Masters’ can be deconstructed and applied to garden design. Design principles on a two dimensional canvas or a three-dimensional real garden are very similar.

Composition, or garden design, is the art combining all these into a pleasing whole, using live plant material:

Horizon – Outdoors, the first division of space is the horizon, where the Earth meets the sky. Frequently, in tightly packed subdivisions, you cannot see the horizon, but it is there. In fact, in nature the horizontal predominates. There are horizontals everywhere: a tilled field, spreading meadow, tree tops, more tree tops, and a wide sky.

Background – This is the area surrounding your garden. It’s not where the main action happens, but it could be what the Japanese have re-named ‘borrowed background.’ In other words, it could be the neighbour’s trees, hedge, or most likely in subdivisions, the fence line. If you’re lucky and your property backs on a woodlot or a ravine, you have a borrowed forest.

Mid-ground – ‘Old Masters’ successfully used the mid-ground to keep adding layers of interest to their paintings. In garden design, mid-ground can be used in exactly the same way. Resist the temptation to plop material at the back of your garden and keep the middle open. Landscapes are interesting precisely because they have so many layers of visual interest.

Foreground – Yet another layer of visual interest in garden design. The foreground could be the garden beds closest to the house, or even the foundation planting.

Focal point – In both an ‘Old Master’ painting and a well-designed garden, the focal point is what the eye is immediately drawn to. Movement – Many 'Old Master' landscape painters used the 'S' curve of a slow moving river to add movement and to draw the eye from the focal point to the background and back again.

Dramatic tension – By definition, a landscape is horizontal: the horizon, background, mid-ground, and foreground. What matters in landscape design is how we add drama to a predominantly horizontal composition. What makes a landscape interesting are the verticals. Think of verticals as the punctuation marks in a horizontal composition. No drama is possible in a landscape design without verticals.

Verticals can be specimen trees, a grouping of upright junipers or cedars, arbours, trellises, obelisks, or a vertical garden sculpture.

Asymmetrical composition – Asymmetrical composition is infinitely more interesting than symmetrical composition. Asymmetrical composition makes the eye work harder to understand the garden design. Symmetrical, or formal garden design, is actually less interesting visually because the human brain figures out the first half very quickly and then superimposes the design on the second half of the garden without thinking. The human brain ‘fills in’ the second half automatically. The easiest way to achieve an asymmetrical garden design is to divide the garden space into thirds.


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