Art and the Gardener: Fine Painting as Inspiration for Garden Design

Last year, when I was doing some research for a gallery talk on the connection between artists and landscape design at the Cleveland Museum of Art, I purchased a copy of this book written by Gordon Hayward, a prolific author and landscape designer. The dominant theme of this book is that both painting and landscape design are visual arts that depend on the ability to really see. A fascinating fact is that many artists are also gardeners.

Using the principles of art and design (they are the same), painters express on canvas what they see, either actually or imaginatively. Landscape designers need to know what and how to express their client’s goals while adding another dimension, that of time. Hayward believes that studying paintings will help us identify the styles and principles that each epitomizes. He lists and explains each term in ways that are eye openers. He also interprets each painting or photo in this language and it is very helpful to read these analyses while glancing back at the images. Also helpful was the juxtaposition of a painting and then a photo that illustrated the same principles. Then we can go into our own gardens or visualize our designs and evaluate them using the same visual language.

I appreciated his analysis of the impressionist painters of the nineteenth century as being about the fact that light is the subject, showing us how to see in a different way. When these artists painted flowers, we do not necessarily recognize them. More important than their identity was the way in which light reflected on or off of them and the way in which their colors interacted I was fascinated by his analysis of cubism and the landscape designs of James Rose who never used pure geometric shapes but instead, unified interrelated shapes with mostly green plantings.

It would never have occurred to me to relate minimalism to classical or oriental design but Hayward demonstrates that relationship with a Mondrian painting and a landscape design by Anthony Paul, an English designer for the past thirty years. The antithesis of minimalism (paring down to the essentials and little regard for color) is abstract expressionism, defined as raw emotion shown in interrelated free-form shapes of different colors. This school of painting is exemplified by a painting of a contemporary American painter, Emily Mason. It is paired with a photo of garden full of vivid color. I had no idea that there is a school of pattern and decoration, an American art movement of the 1970’s and 1980’s. It is a blend of a structural grid complemented by rich color and texture. Hayward shows both a painting and a garden design by Roger Sandes. I loved both and spent a long time examining the lines, colors, and forms in the garden design.

Another set of paintings illustrates the different relationships between house and landscape. Then the author moves on to the process of composition, analogizing the parts of a painting to the parts of a garden. A conversation with an artist who lives in Vermont led Hayward to realize that he and the artist start their designs the same way, with the journey or path that is the way in (to either the painting or the garden).

An interesting chapter discusses the role of trees in the landscape. They provide a vertical element in an otherwise horizontal setting, depth to an otherwise shallow setting, intimacy by enclosing a space, framing and possibly compression of a space, and indicate positive and negative space.

A short but insightful chapter concentrates on color contrast and color harmony. Inspiration comes from many sources and looking at one of the photos gave me an idea for a plant combination I would never have thought of: combining Alstroemeria with Monarda for color echo and contrasting flower shapes. The last but short chapter sums up the thrust of the book in a discourse on the art and gardens of Claude Monet who said, “My garden is my most beautiful masterpiece.” 

Art and the Gardener is an education for the eye. As landscape designers, we must do more than look; we must see.

Hayward, Gordon, Art and the Gardener: Fine Painting as Inspiration for Garden Design, Gibbs Smith, Salt Lake City, 2008, $40 (out of print – only available from online sources at much lower price).