Beauty, Art & the Home

As a landscape designer I have long been aware of principles by which a garden can be rendered beautiful. I discerned them, not through the creation of gardens but by the analysis, after the fact, of what worked and what didn’t.  This was necessary for and took place during the writing of my books on landscape design.

Though the application of those principles is almost always an emotional or intuitive process, rather than an intellectual one, when attempting to carryover the same goals (creating beauty) into another medium, knowing specific principles can be very helpful. For example, in working with home decor.

Several other posts on this site speak of design principles – harmony and contrast, unity, balance and so on and all those principles apply equally to the creation of a beautiful room or setting within a room.

One, very simple concept, very prevalent in garden design is that of having a focal point, the purposes for which can be several. This is a very serviceable notion in home decor as well as in garden design.

A focal point can add interest, it can help establish direction and help direct attention. It can be fun to see or the focal item can be beautiful in its own right as well as contribute to the surroundings about. It can serve to anchor the attention, especially important in a room with a lot going on – a place to which our attention returns before sallying forth to further encounter the various elements of the space. Indoor Fountains, also called tabletop fountains, I have found, can do all of this.

indoor fountain

Long before I began making fountains I was using them in my home. That, in fact,is why I started making them. I liked them so much and had my own ideas of what I wanted that the only reasonable course for me was to find how to make them myself.

This ceramic fountain, above, is, in my view anyway, beautiful in itself. There are lovely harmonies, in colors and form, as well as pleasing contrasts in textures and an overall sense of unity to the piece.

Because it has moving water which is both visual as well as aural, it attracts attention and lends a grace to its surroundings. It makes a wonderful focal point in the room it occupies

ceramic tabletop fountain

Also interesting to realize is that a focal point doesn’t have to be just one thing. It can be several which combine to create a small area of interest.

This image below shows a grouping of three elements, each interesting in themselves but which combine to create a vignette, of limited, yet nevertheless, some success. What is missing is a picture on the wall.

indoor ceramic fountain

What makes a fountain such as this so dynamic a focal point, even when used alone is that it combines so many elements in one small space. There is the vessel itself, there is the moving water, the enameled, wrought copper, the shells in the water and stones in the planter and the plants. It takes up less than a cubic foot and provides a world of sensations and visual pleasures. Below are some more images of my fountains I use throughout my home.

indoor fountains

This fountain has enameled (glass on metal) wrought copper waterflowers. The water flows up the upper flower’s stem, into the flower and falls into the flower below it and then into the pool.

Water and plants are so natural together yet surprisingly few devices have been created which permit the two to be seen together inside the home. We see them combined in the garden frequently but when was the last time you saw plants and a body of water or a stream or flow of moving water together indoors? In fact, the only elements  I know of which combine plants and water are in my fountains with planters and a few others’ I’ve seen around. Yet aren’t they great together? I keep this fountain on my piano separating my dining from living rooms.

beautiful indoor fountains

Fountain with planter & enameled, wrought copper

I love the sound and the sight of it. My cat, it turns out, is fond of it too.

(These pictures don’t do justice.)

Making fountains became for me – well, more than a hobby, less than a passion. Let’s say an ongoing

indoor fountain with planter

Ceramic fountain with planter and wrought, enameled copper

pursuit of beauty through the mediums of of clay, copper and enamel. You can see some of my creations in my store, Garden Home Art.

So much for showcasing my work. Here is another look at this subject, through the medium of  interior design. A hall that absolutely requires a focal point, but of what nature?

In this image we have a marvelous display of basic harmonies (notice all the light surfaces and the dark lines) and contrasts (notice all the dark lines and light surfaces). The setting is of a piece. It is unified and impactful, yet also somewhat tranquil. What makes this so?

At the end of this little vignette is something to anchor the entire scene – a display of something, all pretty much of a piece, which we will only completely discover when we arrive there, yet which has its impact and effect immediately . But notice how harmonious it all is in terms of light and dark. Quite sublime.

How about this next scene? What has changed? Yes, there is now an orange vase where there were several dark vessels and a dark picture. But how has this changed the setting? How does it affect us differently? (Notice too that some of the lines on the walls have also changed.

How do you feel the difference? (In terms of harmony, contrast, unity, etc.) My own responses later.

And here they are. I digitally altered the picture, adding the orange vase and changing some of the colors in the picture and on the walls. The effect is less effective than in the original –  less unified. This is because in the original the entire scene was comprised simply of light and dark and was unified by those two elements. Though in the altered scene I brought both a degree of unity and harmony to the setting by adding orange elements to the picture above the vase and to the frames on the wall, there is now more diversity, less overall unity to the scene. It is still pleasant, it seems to me and possibly a little richer but less sublime – less ‘of-a-piece’.  This helps point up the importance of that principle ‘Unity’, to me, the queen of all attributes in a work of art.


Beauty and the Nude

Is this art? Is it beauty? Certainly it is, and is meant to be, erotic, but is it beautiful?


beauty and the nude1

Do women find this beautiful? And if it possesses beauty, what is it? The curves, the healthy form and skin, the delicate yet lush, expansive femininity, the positive swellings and negative hollows and the interplay between them? Or is it simply that man finds and has always found beauty in the female form, (excepting of course that time of the early 20th century when art was hijacked by misogynist gay male intellectuals).

What about the thong? Do they contribute or detract?  By classical standards, I suspect, they are completely out of place and relegate the otherwise attractive image to the realm of pornography. But what of this picture, a painting by Boucher of a nude woman.

I’ve taken this from the 20th century’s most accessible and most respected  art critic, Kenneth Clark’s book, The Nude. Surely there is no more lewd a painting in all of ‘classical’ art, yet this has found its way into the most esteemed art galleries of the world. Lord Clark tells us that Boucher has painted this in such a way that we may enjoy her with as little shame as she seems to have  enjoying herself. But is this beautiful? And is the photo of the nude woman above beautiful?

I am inclined to think that the photo is better for not showing the woman’s face, which would have made it all to personal, to subjective and for this same reason, the underwear make the photo less beautiful. It could have been classically beautiful simply by the form and lighting itself. I am also inclined to think Boucher’s painting is not beautiful, but decorative (and erotic, as we contemplate Miss O’Murphy’s opened legs).

And what is all this leading to? Nothing. It’s Design & Wine time and I’m just thinking out loud.  And enjoying these images of woman naked. In my view the highest life form on the planet is woman. A marked improvement on man. More subtle, delicate, sublime and sensible. The history of man is the history of war, conquest, suffering, destruction. Had women been in charge I suspect it would have been a history of bridges, bonds and nourished relations. Idealistic? Probably. I’d be very interested to know what women think about all this.

This is Titian’s Venus. Titian, I’m sure you know, was a high-water mark of the Italian Renaissance and in my view, a great and noble man. Mark Twain, for whom I’ve never cared and in fact, positively dislike, couldn’t denigrate this painting enough. He called it “the foulest, vilest, obscenest picture the world possesses”. He particularly seems to dislike what she is doing with her hand. Giorgione did a painting of Venus in the exact same posture, only with closed eyes. So much for Mark Twain. I doubt he’ll be remembered 500 years from now. I sure hope not. Will we ever get over our stupidity about glorious sex and the glorious body? Not in America. Not in the next hundred years or so. Here’s a self portrait of Titian. Look pretty randy to you?

Below is another image, not intended, I’m sure, as art. I wonder what Twain would have said of this.

This isn’t intended as art, it is intended as sexual stimulation for men, and I suppose, gay women. The idea here is, come and get me.  She isn’t even really attractive – bleached hair, breasts too large, and kind of seedy looking. Pretty, in a hard way.  Ah well. I’m sure she’s a nice lady to know. Not my cuppa.

Nice combination, yes? A lovely harmony between the gold, white and beige and a soft contrast with the green. But if we look closely we see that there is also a harmony between the green and the beige and the green and the gold. There is a little bit of each in each.

How about with the addition of the purple, below?

Pure contrast, I am inclined to say, but I wonder. Purple and green are opposites but there seems to be some kind of harmony there too, between the two.

What is it? Actually, the harmony seems to involve the sofa, the green cushion and the purple cushion. What could it be?

Texture. There is a velvety texture in all three, which makes a subtle but pleasant contrast with the gold and white cloth which has a ‘harder’ surface.

The white piping on the green cushion helps the whole scene too by carrying over the sofa and gold and white cloth to that area but especially, it seems to me, by preventing the green and purple from becoming a muddy blend where they meet. The white gives the two ‘pop’ and that bit of separation between the green and purple allows the contrast between the two colors to be more vivid.

It is when there are these combinations of harmonies and contrasts that we derive the most pleasure from a scene or work. The relationships are richer, more satisfying, and that is, after, what we are perceiving – relationships – and we are making those perceptions through our emotional faculties. That is why we feel pleasure looking at such things.

Music & Time

In all the visual arts we are able to perceive the entire work at once so it is the relationships between all the components, isolated in a single moment of time that works upon us and determines our response to the whole. For painting, photography, sculpture, interior design, architecture and every other art which involves the creation of a physical entity this is true. This is not true for music.

Yes, a given chord or combination of sounds in a given moment, C, E and G, for example, played simultaneously, will affect us and in a particular way that differs from, say, B, E & G, but the great impact music has upon us is in the succession of sounds – how a sound we are now hearing relates to the sounds we just heard. This involves all manner of psychological experiences including anticipation, recognition, distress, appreciation, resolution and so on. It also involves, it is ardently to be hoped, the experience of beauty, in time, by the relationships created by hearing the sounds through time.

Take Greensleeves, or Pachelbel’s Cannon in D, for example. How one note moves to the next and to the next until it completes its phrase and leaves us with an experience of the whole, experienced through time with the aid of memory is what brings to us the experience of beauty and pleasure and happiness.

Which to me seems to indicate that music occupies a different plane or dimension than the other arts, though what this difference is I cannot at this time begin to know. I have long believed that music is the language of emotion and emotion is the perceptive faculty by which we perceive all relationships, and consequently, the faculty by which we apprehend and appreciate all art. Music speaks directly to our emotional (artistic) intelligence without interpretation from other faculties, such as the left hemisphere of our brain.

It must be that the music we create reflects the natural functioning of our memory – our music matches our capacity to relate through time or the duration of our ability to hold in mind one sound no longer sounding while attending to a related sound we are now hearing. Probably, were we possessed of more durable memories – minds that could hold something no longer present vividly for longer durations our music would be extremely more complex.

Which reminds me of the all-night ragas of Indian music. Total appreciation of these highly structured yet highly improvised musical concerts builds over hours as earlier developments of the music transform into utterly unforeseen expressions (for both performers and audience) relating quite specifically to the earlier expressions yet ‘saying’ something more or different yet completely related, much like the sorts of intellectual conversations we are capable of and at times enjoy in the West only through that other faculty more developed, possibly, in the Indian culture – emotional perception.

To put this a little differently, a Sitar and a Tabla player can carry on a very long conversation, ‘speaking’ to one another through their instruments and music much as we carry on long discussions on certain topics.

Anyway, this is design and wine time and my glass is empty.

Evolution of a Design

In all previous indoor fountains I have the enameled copper waterflowers arching in toward the center from opposite sides of the fountain. In this they curve around and in toward the center.

indoor fountains

ceramic indoor fountain

Personally, I like this a lot and think it offers a lot of promise. Hard to see in this picture but there is a graceful curve to both waterflowers, with the top spilling into the bottom and into the fountain. The fountain is running now in my living room (it lives on the corner of my piano which I am in the process of learning how to play) and is quite delightful, both visually and audibly.

Some while back I asked for suggestions for fountain designs and said I would reward anyone who offered me a suggestion that I use a free fountain.  Barbara Pearce  suggested a two piece fountain and below is what I made.

indoor fountain

2 piece indoor fountain

Barbara is now the happy owner of this fountain and these are her words:

“Thank you for the opportunity of owning one of your creations.

It is actually much more beautiful, than the photo.”
Barbara Pearce

Thank you Barbara. I plan to make more like this as well as other new designs.

Colors in Colors

Seeing this yellow house with greenish brown shutters was the first time I realized that two colors could both harmonize and contrast at the same time.  It was a revelation for me.

The shutters have enough of the yellow in them to quite visibly harmonize – that is they obviously share attributes (yellow)  but at the same time, the shade of the color is dark enough to create a contrast. Remarkable. And if this is true of colors, it is no doubt true of everything; line, form, textures and all the attributes we physically perceive.

On the Creative Processes

I make fountains and miniature gardens. I am also a landscape designer and have been involved in the creative process most of my life – which is to say – decades.

You might think that the process of creating fountains or miniature gardens is the same as creating landscapes or painting a landscape or photographing a landscape, but in fact, they are all different, all require a different approach and different talents and skill sets.

For example, when I create a landscape design, I begin with nothing of my own. I do not have any idea, generally, when I begin, where it will take me. I don’t know what the design will be in the least. I allow my take on the existing site and on the clients to direct the design and I search, first for a starting point – a sort of theme or concept that can then influence and lead the creative development of the design. Slowly, usually, sometimes quite quickly, a design emerges, takes on form, I try elements out, discard them, keep some and the design grows, finally into a complete, cohesive design plan that eliminates what was undesirable about the site, develops the positive attributes, is in keeping with the clients aesthetics and satisfies they’re needs.

Creating a miniature garden is similar, but different. I begin with a vessel – lets call that the ‘site’. It is of a certain shape and color so I look through my many miniature plants I keep growing in my little greenhouse until I find one that really goes with the vessel – that evinces some of the same qualities – like graceful, or bold, say, as the vessel.

That plant determines the next plant – looking for harmonies and contrasts between the plants, preferably both, as both harmonies and contrasts create a relationship, or relationships between the plants. This is what makes them enjoyable to see.

I also consider whether structure, like the placement of rocks, will contribute and if so, I place these, often using rocks to allow elevations to be added as the rocks can be used to retain the soil, creating higher planting areas. I continue on in this way, rejecting a great many plants that might have worked, but just didn’t, until I have a rich, complex garden in miniature with each element contributing to the whole – to the overall feeling and aesthetic of the scene.

In this process of creating a miniature garden, like creating a landscape, nothing is preconceived. Unlike creating a landscape, I do not need to allow for usage, for living spaces so am more attuned to nature and natural, exotic, wild, serene, or whatever, atmospheres, created by the placement of plants and stone, sometimes wood, and so on. I am not designing in response to a given aesthetic (such as that of a client) bur strictly in response to the creation itself.

Creating a fountain is a completely different process. Here I conceive of the shape of the vessel I want, to begin with and I start with a concept for the type of fountain I’m going to make. For example, a fountain that is going to have waterflowers with water falling one or more into a bowl I need to allow enough space to insure there is no splash out. The curve of the bowl is important as I want to pick up that curve with the stems of the waterflowers and so on. The point here is that first comes the concept, a mental image of the desired product, then I attempt to bring it into being.

Art photography is yet another process. As an author of landscape design books photography has been an adjunct to my design and writing professions for many years, and naturally enough I attempt art photography of natural settings and the surrounding countryside. Here is another, completely different process, which is led by the eye – the capacity to see existing beauty and capture it.

Art photography of the natural world or countryside – rivers, mountains, fields, what-have-you, does not begin with any preconception nor does it require that you ‘create’ something from existing elements or elements you create. The beauty is already there and it is a matter of framing, isolating and eliminating anything that detracts from what it is you are seeing. Really great photographers know how to see and find within their vision all and only that which contributes to the beauty they have discovered. They also understand light and work with the illumination of what it is they wish to capture. This is a very different skill set than those required in the previously mentioned arts.

Painting, landscape painting, at least, is something of a combination of these other processes. A Pleine Aire painter, (someone who paints outdoor scenes in the out-of-doors, not from a photograph), must first find a scene worthy of painting. She uses her eye, as an artist, to find some beautiful or somehow moving scent. She then uses her talents as a designer to alter her painting in whatever manner she chooses, so that it partially represents what she is seeing, but not necessarily exactly. She exercises a sort of ‘poetic license’ in her work.

All these creative processes are linked, and all are different, requiring different talents, which overlap, and different skill sets, which may or not overlap. For myself, it is the designing a landscape – a garden –  I find the most intriguing because in that process I become totally subservient to the creation itself. I do not, actually, create it, I discover it, through a process of searching while being guided by intangibles such as the ‘feel” or ‘nature’ of the site itself, as well as by non-rational understanding of my clients. I am particularly good at this (whereas, for example, I am not a very good photographer), and this may be why I find it the most compelling of the art forms I practice.

Perhaps the reason I like this sense of being subservient to a process is that it puts me in a proper relationship to my very existence. After all, I didn’t create myself, nor any aspect of the world around me. Designing a landscape requires a quality of humility that may be fitting for a mortal being who did not create himself. Yet the process results in an elevated state.