Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Inspiration....Garden Designers Roundtable

I am fortunate that as a landscape designer I’m never without inspiration. Unlike a fine artist that is typically working from an inner, personal calling to create, I always have a set of parameters that help jump-start my designs. Each new client is unique, as is their property. As I gather information about their needs and desires, and the realities of the existing site, the wheels in my brain start churning to the tune of “What if we did this?” “How would that work?” “Is this the best solution?”, and I’m off and running. My designs always start as a “form follows function” process of problem solving.  Working to satisfy my clients and develop the best possible outdoor environments for each of them has kept me interested and inspired as a designer for thirty years now!

However, once in a while I get stuck. Here are a few things I do that inspire me and keep my eyes and mind tuned to good design:

Look at fine art:  Although I like many genres of art, I find that color field painting, a school of abstract expressionism, suits my innate preference for minimalism. Take a quick look at this batch of images, I’ll wait. Cool, huh? Those huge, simplified shapes of paint wash (or stains, as they’re sometimes called) say a lot about positive and negative space, proportion, and balance.  This is the kind of visual information that I can learn from and translate into ground plane designs – planting beds, paths, patios, lawn areas, etc. Most color field paintings are also very large, and when viewed in person tend to envelope and absorb the viewer. That’s how I want my clients to feel in their gardens, like they’re part of a very special place.

A gardener's garden, Denver

Look at patterned graphics in paper and textiles: Whereas paintings of the abstract expressionist school can appear very chaotic, i.e. Jackson Pollock, printed patterns have a clearly defined structure and rhythm. This design stability allows me to really focus in on the use of color. Specifically, how various hues – sometimes quite numerous and diverse - are combined, and in what proportions. I apply this inspiration to the design of lush flower gardens, mixed borders and container gardens (read more about that here). Complex printed patterns reinforce my belief that complex plantings belong in a fairly structured and simple framework.
Colorful cottage style garden for a Denver client

Look at the natural world: When I’m walking through open space, hiking in the foothills, or driving through a larger landscape I try to identify which aspects appeal to me, and why. Is it open, or enclosed? What is the light quality? How does it make me feel – peaceful, calm, free, tense, cool, hot, etc? What materials make up the “hardscape”? What are the specific plant materials, or their overall effect? I keep this information in my visual bank of memories so that later I can recall it and apply it to specific design situations. The challenge is in creating a comparable setting within a small, built environment.

Naturalized grasses at a local park
small scale meadow garden

Look at the work of other designers: I am always looking for new ways to think through and solve problems.  When I talk shop with other landscape professionals – like we’re doing here today – I get new insights into materials, plants, maintenance techniques and other trends that I might be completely unaware of. I also look at interior and architectural design to get a fresh perspective on how other experts are working with color, texture, proportions and balance in creating three dimensional spaces.

  Kendrick Lake Park, Lakewood, Colorado  Designer: Greg Foreman
These are all things that you can do, too.  Visit art museums, art galleries, and your local library. Go on garden, home, and architectural tours. Take an art appreciation or design class. Choose a design based hobby to pursue, like photography, ceramics, woodworking, printmaking, etc. Mine is textiles:

Chilvers' garden and fiber wall hanging, Xylem and Phloem

Pull out the crayons! It’s all about training your mind to see, understand, and interpret what you’re looking at.
Have fun!

For more insights on finding – and cultivating – inspiration, click on these links to read more from members of the Garden Designers Roundtable:


Laguna Dirt said...

i love all your sources of inspiration! it's all about looking and trying to "see," whether it's in a painting or in the landscape. patterns, texture, light, color, hope, joy, excitement, peace and all that good stuff!

Jocelyn H. Chilvers said...

Janine, I like your emphasis on the emotions that we can create and inspire through our gardens. Good thinking!

Robert Webber said...

Your clients are very lucky to have you design for them I think. You are so responsive to them and to the site but you bring a whole heap of inate artistry which you have fed and developed to the fine tuned instrument it is! Now your head is twice its size I will go!
Love the textile hanging by the way.
Best Wishes

Pam/Digging said...

Great advice, Jocelyn. I'm definitely seeing a common denominator in our posts about looking to nature for inspiration. Immersing myself in color field paintings is a tactic I haven't tried but will.

Jocelyn H. Chilvers said...

Thank you, Robert! Creativity must be fed, indeed!

Pam, I agree - it seam that Mother Nature never fails to inspire. Glad if I've given you a new idea to try!

rebecca sweet said...

I love your natural meadow vs. man-made meadow photo (you and I think alike!)…beautiful post with beautiful images. And I really enjoyed the color field paintings, too (especially the first one - very inspiring, indeed!)

Andrew at Garden Smackdown said...

I love the idea of field color painting as inspiration for landscape design! It reminds me a little of what Rebecca was saying about simplified color palettes too. Paring things down to the simplicity of fields does sort of make you go "Ahhhhh... NOW I see it."

BTW, there's a pic of a broad named Lorraine Sunshine in my post just for you. ;-) For what it's worth, I was not dazzled by her performance in the garden...

Jocelyn H. Chilvers said...

Rebecca, there is something about meadows that is so appealing---almost in a universal way, although I can't quite put my finger on it...Also, "Tin Lizzie Green" is my favorite painting, too. It's very large, and when seen in person it's very absorbing.

Andrew,simplicity brings clarity---pare things down first,you can always build the complexity back up.
Will look for Lorraine sunshine!

susan morrison said...

A garden that envelopes and enfolds the viewer. What a wonderful concept.

Susan aka Miss R said...

Color field painting...love. I did look at the NY Times slide show. You were worried that this would be abstract when you were so absolutely clear in your explanations. Great job!

Jocelyn H. Chilvers said...

Yes,Susan M, no gardens as static views here!

Susan C, the slide show images represented a few of the artworks featured in a major traveling exhibit I viewed here (multiple times!) at the Denver Art Museum. Obviously made a lasting impression!

Debbie/GardenofPossibilities said...


It's taken me a long time to read all the GDRT posts this month but I guess 'better late than never'. You bring up so many great points about keeping your mind open to sources of inspiration. It's so true that talking with other designers is such a great way to jump start a stuck design. I love the fact that, as a profession, we are so open to sharing and collaborating with each other. Just like you've done in this post. Thanks for sharing!