Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Theory corner – negative space – why where you don’t put flowers is also important.

This is part of my series of articles on how you can apply visual composition theory to Garden Design. 

Negative space is the part of a picture that doesn’t contain an object. So, if your picture is of an apple... everything else is the negative space.

Many people don’t understand how important this is to classical artists.

Seeing negative space is difficult at first. Look at your thumb and first finger. Make an OK shape. The thumb and finger is a positive shape. But inside that space, there is another shape, which is called the negative shape in art.

And that shape is the key to composition for a lot of art.

If you look at any great picture, one of the things that make it interesting are the balance of shapes around the object. The objects are often subordinated to larger compositional design. Sometimes it is so funny... you can literally draw arrows on the picture, it is so blatant.

But, as art came into the renaissance, the importance of the space around objects became more recognised. This is where the golden mean comes in. By placing centres of interest at certain places in the picture, you are almost guaranteed interesting negative shapes.

For a better discussion on art theory and negative shapes, have a look at http://johnkstuff.blogspot.com/2010/05/design-balance-fitting-one-characters.html .

This has implications on garden design that are barely thought about. To make a really gorgeous garden it is not just important where you put your plants. You must also consider where you do not put the plants, if you are going to make empty space into interesting shapes from a particular viewpoint.

Of course, people won’t know what you are doing. But they will sense it.

This is less relevant when designing a garden as a whole than a picture, but when designing the view from a particular bench, you can use the same mental processes.

What can you do to make the negative shapes more interesting? One thing that is immediately obvious is not to centre objects. Place them either side of the centre. You should have a variety of heights, as well. Try to check not just where you are planting a flower, but have a look at the space around the flower to see if by changing the location you can create any interesting shapes.

Negative space is a hard concept to understand, but once you do so it gives you the ability to understand more of the design of a garden.

Actually, once you look for negative space you find that in the best gardens interesting negative shapes are always with us.  Great designers often play with negative shapes without being that conscious of it.

There are some other artistic concepts that people should consider when analysing the negative shapes of the garden – balance, unity and contrast are the most obvious ones. Every positive shape... bush or tree ... should be balanced by a negative shape in your design. 

What I mean by that is that if you have a large tree, there should be a corresponding empty place where your eye can rest. Or if you have a busy space filled with colour or detail, a negative space that is quiet will act as a contrast making the noisy part stand out more.

Unity in negative spaces is a very difficult concept to grasp, but the positive spaces should all be related to each other... for example if you have a tree, it shouldn’t be planted alone, but you should plant it so that it forms a larger feature... and orchard or border... or simply a larger positive shape... and if the garden is planted according to this understanding of hierarchy in garden design you will find that over time unity will develop naturally. The garden will be more than the sum of its parts.  

Contrast is another thing that should come naturally, but you can check for. Look at the empty spaces and make sure that some are larger than others, they form a lot of different shapes, and they are not boring. 

People might be wondering about whether visual art is a good guidance for designing gardens. Well, artists simplify the world in a way that gardeners can’t. But, when designing a garden, we can control things to an extent. By selecting certain points in the garden where we will view the garden from, we can use the principals of great picture design to inform out gardening. Rather like a sculptor will often decide where his sculpture will be seen from.

Of course, picture design is only a small part of the puzzle. I think my next theory article will go onto something completely different...  the theory of magic as applied to garden design. But before that I will write a more practical post.

Och. Too much thought. Must... do... weeding.

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