Pretty as a Picture

September 17, 2007

in Articles, General Interest

“Originality is very overrated as an artistic measure of quality.” Grayson Perry, RSA Journal Autumn 2008

A series of three pieces by Peter Osborne, artist and creator of Clearbeck, addressing some of the problematic aspects of reviewing/criticising gardens and a response by Bridget Rosewell

Part 2

That’s what they often say about a garden: ‘pretty as a picture’; and that, essentially is what the visitor sees – a series of pictures. Also our knowledge of gardens which we have not visited comes from pictures of particular views, carefully chosen by the photographer.  Not only this, but the early years of the English Garden were much influenced by paintings: Claude, Rosa and Gaspard Poussin.

We have an established critical vocabulary for art which should then be applicable to each of these garden pictures, given that we do, at the same time, note the differences between garden and picture: life, 3-dimensions and our own movement.  We must return later to this last and to ways in which the garden sets up our series of pictures as we move around.

The section of formal language which is partly known, though too little applied, is colour.  We have HUE as spectrum colour (only!), TONE as lightness or darkness, and SATURATION as closeness to hue.  Each hue has its own tonal level (eg violet darkest, yellow lightest, and red or green mid-tone) and each hue in turn can be lightened by white, TINT; darkened by black, SHADE, or NEUTRALISED by grey.  Examples, in order, would be pink, maroon and olive.  Hues can be arranged around a circle and then the closer ones are ANALOGOUS while opposites are COMPLEMENTARY.  Complementaries, such as blue v orange, enhance each other’s saturation.  Pairs or sets of colours with the natural tone relationships of their hues altered are DISCORDANT.  Discords vary in their visual and psychological impact depending on whether their tone is LIGHT (eg pink v yellow) and rather sickly; MID-TONE (eg red v green), which tends to greater vibrancy; or DARK (eg brown v violet), which has mysterious qualities.

Words such as ‘bright’ are ambiguous: does it mean light in tone or saturated?  Sets of colours which all have something in common, such as discord, complementariness or likeness (‘analogous’) are known as harmonies.  Colours or tones CONTRAST with each other to a greater or lesser degree: HIGH or LOW CONTRAST.  But in a garden as opposed to a picture by far the greater tone contrasts are created by LIGHT v DARKNESS as opposed to the inherent tone or colour of things, which is called LOCAL colour or tone.  High contrast in tone/ light mutually enhances the opposites.

SHAPE may be describes as geometrical or organic, simple or complex and it may have a HARD EDGE or a SOFT EDGE.  It can be FLAT or TEXTURED and it has a given size or SCALE.  Hard edge, flatness, simplicity and greater scale all increase its contrast with background, but the opposites decrease it.  Shape on the ground is normally seen in PERSPECTIVE, and, though this still enables us to understand the shape, it has less impact than when seen from at or near the perpendicular (90 degrees).

Shape, which is 2D, is distinguished from FORM which is 3D, though the latter is perceived more as shape the more it is silhouetted and contrasted.  All the contrast features given above for shape can be applied to form, and both can be described by normal geometric terms or by obvious comparisons, eg fish-shaped.  Either have ORIENTATION, ie they are a particular way up or round, if they are not centralised, and this may suggest a DIRECTION.

Contrast/likeness also applies to different TEXTURES or PATTERNS.  Generally patterns have a geometric REPETITION of larger shapes, whereas in texture individual shapes or forms are so small as to normally imperceptible.  This can be a form of optical mixture which can also occur in tiny touches of tone or colour.  Texture may have greater or lesser DEPTH, or extent of three-dimensionality, whereas pattern, although it may encompass forms, eg box hedges in knot gardens, depends on their two-dimensional geometry.

LINE has length and width but ceases to be linear when its length is not significantly greater than its width.  Generally in this, as in all perception, the eye and mind prefer certainty and borderline distinction is disturbing.  But line also has to be wide enough to tell; the box hedges in the long renaissance-type garden at San Quirico d’Orcia are doubled for this reason.  Line may be CONTINUOUS or BROKEN, has direction and MOVEMENT, and has other contrasting qualities, such as straight/curved/angled, simplicity or complexity etc.  EDGE of shape has some linear effect.

As well as pattern there can be other sorts of repetition such as sequence or RHYTHM, in which there are degrees of FREQUENCY, REGULARITY, and VARIETY of contrasting elements.  This may aid a perception of three-dimensional SPACE, which can be defined by its dimensions such as far/near, high/low, wide/narrow.  Space is shaped or formed by its surroundings and may be deep or shallow, continuous or broken/interrupted.    Farness or DEPTH can be enhanced by continuity (haha!), sequences, rhythms, etc and especially by perspective which is either AERIAL, being an aspect of colour, or LINEAR which is an exaggeration of DIMINUTION into distance.  Colour space is increased by coolness and neutrality (greyness).  Cooler colours are those towards blue and warm colours towards red/orange.  Warm colours, as well as light tone, strong shape, etc come closer and attract attention to form a FOCUS.

This formal vocabulary, together with garden-specific terms in any good glossary, is sufficiently objective and well-established to provide an analytical basis for garden criticism, but is not an evaluative language.  Of course it may indicate self-contradictions, such as a colour misplaced in a harmony without reason.  Or it can show lack of coherence which suggests lack of thought about planning.  Given however that the garden has been planned, we need to ask further what coherence is intended and how visual elements contribute to it.

Peter Osbourne – artist and creator of the garden at Clearbeck, Lancashire

Clearbeck website

Read the first article – Some thoughts towards a critical language for gardens

Read the third article – A Joy Forever?

Read Bridget Rosewell’s response to the series

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