Archive for the ‘Design Principles’ Category

lamp and zen garden

Harmony by Likeness - Click to enlarge

I show this image elsewhere but it is easier to see in this post and this setting. Both the lamp and the Zen garden have been combined to create a pleasant little scene and they work well together.

Of course it’s easy to see why these two items harmonize – the somewhat oriental look to both elements, the stone in both, the shared textures and colors and shapes – all working together to create a fairly dynamic Unity.

Our emotional perception relates these two elements, the lamp and garden by their shared attributes, as mentioned above. We don’t just see, we feel the correspondence, as that is what emotional perception does – perceives relationships. The same process is behind the formation of our human relationships.

I mention this because this is one of the best ways I have found for developing emotional perception – actively looking for and contemplating relationships – of all kinds.

Consider your neighboring couples, for example. Looking at the individuals, taking them in we come to some basic understandings of them as people – He’s kind of serious, not at all frivolous or fun seeking – she is also serious but more open to people, more gregarious … that sort of thing. By intentionally looking at elements, people, pets, already in some kind of relationship we can see (feel, really) what it is about them that is in relation  – and what isn’t. It requires our emotional intelligence to do this and by using it, we develop it. Try it. I think you’ll find yourself at the threshold of a whole new world.


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Harmony in Design


Harmonious Elements

I brought home this stone lamp from a craft show and inadvertently placed it next to a zen garden with rocks. Jackie walked by and said “Look how nice the lamp looks next to the Zen garden.

She was right – the two harmonize nicely through the shared element of the stones, as well as the colors and textures of  the sand, stones and the shade. A nice little lesson in harmony.

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We are often not aware of balance when we encounter it as we encounter it often but we are viscerally affected by imbalance. The reason we like balance is because we don’t like imbalance. This stems, probably, from being physical creatures built upon a bilaterally symmetrical design and to whom balance is essential to health, well-being and to movement. What is not balanced is not stable, not reliable and potentially threatening, in one way or another.

When one area or item in a landscape is visibly, and considerably more or less weighted than the rest of the space or elements, it creates within us a visceral sense of discomfort. The over weighted area or element seems too strong or heavy and makes the other areas or elements seem weak. This does not mean that all aspects or areas of a garden need to have the same ‘weight’. It means that when one is more heavily weighted it should be balanced by another weighted area or element or a group of elements.

principles of design - balance

Does the planting balance with the house?

This sort of out of scale, or imbalanced landscaping  is actually quite common in newer, upscale neighborhoods where the houses are quite large.

Normally builders do the landscaping and it generally consists of sadly small shrubs along a straight walk. Notice the two large evergreens towards the ends of the house and how they begin to bring balance to the massive structure.

principles of design - balance

A tree would have helped

In the image to the right, the two sets of stone steps and the brick and stone retaining wall help in balancing against the rather massive and monolithic home. A tree in the foreground, either in the grass to the left or the bed to the right would have created a greater degree of balance. A more substantial grouping of several shrubs in the curve of the walk, even only to about six feet high would also have created a more satisfying balance and either or both of these approaches would have helped integrate the house with the property.

Balance is one of the least contested principles of design and is applicable to every medium. Look at this image, for example, of a light hanging in my dinning room. I originally had only two hooks from which the chain was suspended but then added another – in the wrong place. The little loop on the right is too small for the larger loop.

If I were to move the middle hook to about a third of the way toward the hook from which the lamp is suspended,  the whole would look quite good. As it is, it looks out of balance.

principles of design - balance

The smaller loop looks weak in relation to the larger

I’ll do that for another post.

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One of the principles all art forms work with is embodied in the concept of harmony and contrast (which in music is harmony and counterpoint or dissonance).

Just what is a harmony and what a contrast? Of course we all know these when we see or hear them but knowing what constitutes a definite harmony or contrast can be a considerable aid in intentionally employing these concepts to good effect. In our dress we use this principle without thinking about it but in many of the arts it is intentionally employed. In flower arranging for example and even in cooking.

So what exactly are harmony and contrast? Two things are said to be in harmony when they share some important characteristic- when they have some significant property in common, when they are related to each other by some intrinsic attribute. (If they have every attribute in common then they are not in harmony, they are identical). Two lines – that of a curving wall and of a planting bed at its base, for example, which mirror each other in some portions of their lengths, are in those portions in harmony. Shades of color; some shades of pink and red, for example, harmonize because they share certain color values through which they blend into one another.

contrasts and harmonies

Photo by Steve Silk

A contrast occurs when two or more elements, or portions of  the elements differ to the extent of appearing opposite, or nearly so. Smooth and rough, light and dark, red and green and so on. Contrasts can be as enjoyable as harmonies. Two contrasting elements highlight the opposing qualities in one another, thus exciting our appreciation of their specific attributes.

In garden creation and especially evident in plant combinations the application of this principle is vital.  Look, for example, at this flower grouping.

It is quite pleasing and it seems fairly obvious why.The blossom colors are exact opposites (contrast) on the color wheel and their forms are in clear contrast to one another as well. The spiky foxtail highlights the globe shape of the Allium and vice versa. So there is both color and form contrast between the two plants.

There is more to this relationship however. The leaves of the Foxtail, in which the blossoms of the allium are embedded, harmonize with its own blossom in shape and the stem of the Allium does likewise, creating a unity, weaving a harmonious substructure above which the striking contrasts have their interplay. Even more subtly, each of the blossoms is composed of  tiny, individual florets and each floret transforms into little seed capsules on both plants, which creates another harmony. Thus, there is a layering of relationships in this grouping. They are in relationship to one another. There is an overall harmony which supports the striking contrasts. This is something we feel because it is something we emotionally perceive. More on this faculty in other posts.

Let’s consider this principle within the realm of painting.

Is it possible to perceive relationships of harmonies and contrasts in this “Portrart of a Girl Reading” by the plein air painter, George Van Hook, and if so, are they integral to the success of the work or merely arbitrary?

van hook painting

Girl reading in a garden

Notice the line of the girl and the line of the several types of flowers to the right of her in the painting. They mirror each other, creating a harmony of line from her knees through her head, from the red geraniums through the yellow roses.

Still regarding line, notice the bowl of sunflowers as they lean to our right and the yellow roses as they lean as if to meet the sunflowers. Together they form an arc over the girl which our eye completes, (with the help of the background planting ) so, though they are leaning in opposite directions, they form a harmony by combining together to create a definite form.

Another harmony of form (and color) is created between the pots on the table, both among themselves and with the watering can in the lower right. These are the only such forms in the painting and they help bind the middle left with the lower right through form and help bring the girl to focus between them. They also create a distinct contrast through their textures and simple shapes to the soft textures and complex forms of the foliage and flowers throughout the painting while harmonizing in color with both the background and the foreground plantings.

Notice too that the graceful, enclosing arc of the blossoms in the foreground, beginning with the red geraniums at the girls knees, sweeping through the purple iris and yellow roses, is picked up in the background with the purple-pink flowering shrubs to the upper-right. Together they create a wonderfully harmonious sweep that encompasses the peaceful girl, embracing her in an arc of blossom, repeating her own form, while the bowl of sunflowers sits opposite and points into the center of this arc, as counterpoint, or contrast.

Several other harmonies and contrasts are evinced in the various colors – purple and yellow—purple and blue—pink and purple—lavender and green, etc. This painting would not be what it is without these harmonies and contrasts. It’s success depends upon them, as well of course as upon other principles of design which we address later on

The point of all this is the demonstration of principles which are essential to the success of any work of art. Of course, this isn’t news. Principles of design are taught everywhere art is taught. But somehow there seems to be a gap or disconnect between the teaching of those principles and the creation of successful works of art. There are billions of meaningless and unenjoyable plant combinations and a world of failed painters who were never able to create anything beautiful. Why? Is it talent? and What is that?

In a future post I’ll speak of the mechanism by which we perceive these relationships of contrast, harmony and all the other attributes that comprise a work of art. It involves emotional perception – an unknown phenomena and ability we all possess and utilize all the time without knowing it.

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Any design needs to be appropriate for he, she or they for whom it is intended and for the purpose it is to serve. It should also be appropriate, or suitable to its environment. This is true for all the arts and can be verified in all aspects of life. A musical composition meant for a Jazz club would not play well at a traditional wedding and an Opera would fail miserably at a strip joint.

If you chose to design yourself in a swimsuit for a Congressional Ball, chances are you wouldn’t be let in and if you wore a Tux to a pool party you’d  be quite the fool. Probably woudn’t enjoy the pool much either. Your personal design would be unsuitable.

The new Meditation Gardens for the Monks of New Skete is another case in point. Previous to the redesign there was nowhere outside for visitors to enjoy the beautiful natural surroundings.

Monks of New Skete - Before

Monks of New Skete - Before

Monks of New Skete Gardens

Monks of New Skete - After

Terracing the previously useless slope provided ample areas for visitors to meander through and in which to sit and enjoy the beautiful surroundings and natural mountainscape.

But it was not only the fact of terracing – so frequently an appropriate choice for a hillside,  but as well how it was done which contributed to the suitability of the design.

This is a rustic setting with wood buildings  surrounded by 400 acres of mountain forest with nothing but natural materials and an abundance of stone all around. A tame, contemporary design approach with artificial materials would have been all wrong. Instead, giant boulders found back in the woods only hundreds of yards away were used to create the terraces, which follow gracefully arching lines as they delineate the various spaces.

The overall effect is both inspiring and calming. (They call this their Meditation and Welcome Gardens). It is in harmony with the spire-topped buildings and overall intent of the Monastery and is yet powerfully bound to the land and environment on which it is built.

To see more of this project, click here.

An example of an inappropriate design might be an oriental front yard in a Long Island suburban neighborhood. It might be beautifully done and when looked at in isolation would seem to work beautifully. But the moment you step back and see the garden in the context of its environment, which is how it would be seen, it would loose all credability. It would seem very contrived and, in fact, unsuitable. Suitability is a very real principle designers in all arts apply to their work.

Beautifully designed home

This home is beautifully designed for its location. Imagine a two story brick home here.

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When you see a person coming toward you down the street who appears from thirty feet or so to be attractive, continue looking as he or she nears.  You will find, in perhaps ninety nine cases out of a hundred that as the person comes close enough for you to see more details of the face the attractiveness diminishes.  In some cases the distantly apparent beauty will vanish altogether, in others merely lessen significantly.  You can prove this phenomena to yourself easily enough, but do you know why it happens so?  The answer is a key to understanding what beauty is.

Beauty & Art

Gentlewoman, by Da'Vinci

From a distance we see the approaching visage only generally. The head will be seen to be in a particular relation to the rest of the body, the general divisions of the face, i.e., the forehead, eye area, nose and mouth area will be somewhat clear but none of the particulars of the eyes or nose or mouth and face will at first be apparent.  The approaching beautiful person has a generally pleasing composition of visage elements.  There is a harmony there.  As the person comes close enough for you to take in the details you find that although the nose is well positioned on the face, it is itself, not well formed.  It is too narrow  for the size of the nose, or the it is too short or too long for the face.  The mouth will be too large for the face, or the lips too thin for the mouth, the chin too deeply cleft in relation to the surrounding area and so on. (Naturally, these various values are culture-dependent, but the principle applies.

What is happening here expresses the principle of Unity.  Everything hung together from a distance and seemed a unified whole. But on closer inspection, that same unity was lacking.

This experience is, in fact, quite common. The reverse, on the other hand,  is not. Only rarely we will look at someone who seems attractive, we are moved to look more closely and we find her even more pleasing. We focus in further, find the same level of beautiful relationship at that level of detail, in the eye itself, the lids and lashes and we look still closer and are astonished at the beauty we find, involving all the particulars and details. The harmony apparent in the general outline is carried through the relation of each element to every other element and through each element in itself. The eyes not only relate beautifully to the nose and mouth but are themselves wonderfully formed, all perfectly placed on the face and so on. The person is truly beautiful because of an excellence of relationships that carries through the entire composition creating a unified whole.

All this says nothing about the inner person, only the outer but what this tells us is how essential is unity to beauty. But how do we make these perceptions of relationships because we certainly don’t go through the intellectual process I went through to express all this. In fact, it happens in seconds – we see, we feel and we understand.

Tomorrow I will begin an exposition on the Mind of the Artist – the role of Emotional Perception in Life and Art. – That might sound a bit presumptions – but I ask you to  suspend judgment. I will be speaking of that phenomenal perceptive faculty we all  have in us and always have had but simply were not aware of as a the  intelligent perceptive faculty it is and which can be utilized and developed. I refer of course, to our emotional mind, the mind of the artist.

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