There are plenty of ways to think about white. If you take red, blue and yellow light and mix them up in equal amounts, the result is white light. White snow or dense fog on a sunny day appears blindingly white, as they reflects all every color, and appear devoid of any color. Devoid of color is one way of talking about white. This snow looks gray, as it was photographed on a cloudly sullen day-no light making for white white. Scientific discussion about exactly what constitutes the nature of white-there are lots of theories. No designer needs to understand the physics or chemistry of white as much as they need to observe what white does in a composition.
I never think about white without thinking about light. Water is transparent, or colorless, it transmits any color behind it. The water in the air from this Italian fountain is reflecting all the colors of the light spectrum. This clear water appears white- in bright light. “White water”, or churning airborne water, looks just like snow. If you squint at this picture, so all the individual details drop out, the white will seem close to your eye, and grab your attention. The green seems to recede, and hang back. A landscape is very much about the creation of a sense of depth. There are actual spaces, with dimensions you can measure. A physical space that is very shallow can visually appear to be quite spatial. How you use back and white, or light and dark, is key to this. White has strong emotional connotations-as any color does. Imagine how you would feel arriving at a hospital for surgery where everyone was dressed in black? Or red? Or anything but white? White looks pure, fresh, crisp and clean. This white annual phlox brings all of the above to mind.
Pairing white with some sharply defined geometry can be clean and contemporary, and on the edge of glaring. My main objection to contemporary landscape design has to do with the lack of any attendant and contrasting softness. Mid century modern design does so well expressing a contemporary point of view, without being pitilessly stark. How this container gets planted will be key to its visual success.
White furniture in the landscape is cool and inviting, not cold. This black and white furniture, set on a bluestone and concrete aggregate terrace draws the eye, and invites company to gather. The attendant landscape is softer and looser, without being messy or disorganized. The invitation to sit is the most important visual element here; the landscape follows up with the suggestion of soft enclosure. But the invitation issued in white reads first.
Many antique garden ornaments, whether stone, iron, or concrete, have been painted white. Perhaps the origin of this practice has to do with an effort to make those ornaments stand out. Vintage white paint on an object has a feeling that enchants those who love classical gardens, as well as those who love cottage gardens. In one of my lives, I would like a house with white limed floors, white walls, and white everywhere. How serene and beautiful this would be.
Though the only thing on my mind come spring is some color, I do love white tulips. These Maureen tulips, paired with the black blooming Queen of the Night tiulip, is a different sort of spring display; stately and formal, I would say. Though white flowers attract visual attention from afar, and can light an evening garden, I like what white does to direct your attention to the form. A white tulip will permit you to see more about the shape of a tulip than any other color. Color can be a distraction. Sometimes if ideas seem scarce when I am designing a landscape, I print all my study photos in black and white.
My life is all about the white now. Far from being a stock color, the character of white is so influenced by whatever light I might have delivered to my door in the morning. I especially appreciate how it defines, and then blurs the shapes of everything outdoors. I like how it makes me see big forms and shapes in clean relief. This makes me understand how a gardener could be very keen for a white garden.
My relationship with white in the garden might be described as always, and forever changing-with the push and pull, the hot and cold, the off and the on that characterizes most good relationships.
Any person who has ever had a mind to cultivate a garden has a love for all of nature’s creatures. Even the aphids I squish, and the Japanese beetles I whisk into bags for the trash, the rabbits, the white flies on my dahlias that enrage me, the bloody slugs-I still have a tough time not welcoming any of nature’s creatures to my garden. I might as well put up a sign: Any natural transient welcome: room and board available at no charge and please, stay as long as you like. No wonder that sculptures of bugs, birds, dogs, are every bit as interesting to gardeners as sculptures of the human sort.
Gardeners understand that people don’t own the planet, they are but one species among a whole planet of species. My shop has always been friendly to all manner of fauna. The corgis have been here every day for the last four years, and MCat maybe 7 years; these three came during the reign of Hoppy the toad, Jojo the cat and Jack and Libby, the mini schnauzers. Who knows who or how another creature might be added to the current Corgi administration; anything can change. The place would not seem right without them; many people know them by name, bring treats, or pitch the ball down the driveway for them. These astonishing cast and wrought iron armatures are all that remain of a pair of eagle sculptures from France, some several hundred years old. Though made of iron, they have an unmistakeable air of power and vitality. The little faux crows-we like these too.
Troy’s sculptures of birds and animals speak much to his respect and love of nature. His work has great appeal, for good reason. I so love how directly he sculpts. Some garden sculpture is more about the technique of the sculptor, rather than the feeling of the sculpture itself. People readily sort this out, and gravitate towards that which strikes a chord for them. Whether it be for fun, or in memory of something or someone, an appreciation for art in a garden comes naturally.
Mary Hode is an English sculptor of formidable talent. Her husband fashions garden pots I treasure. But her stoneware sculptures of cats are so beautiful, I would be confident asking any person to consider adding her work to their collection-whether for inside or out. Their faces have a distinctly human look about them; I understand this. I do believe my Corgis are people in dog costumes.
No lion lives in my zone, but the lion is a very popular motif in garden sculpture. They are on duty every day, holding court, standing watch. This English cast stone lion has a very British culture feeling to it.
This finely detailed lead hare comes from the English lead ornament company known as Crowther and Sons. What gardener in my zone has not shared their garden with the rabbits? I do love the expression-you think he ate the lilies??
This handmade Italian terra cotta sculpture of a dove is beautifully rendered. I like small terra cotta sculptures like this, keeping my pots company over the summer. I have spots for them indoors, for the winter.
This Belgian concrete terrier circa 1930 has a sassy terrier expression, indeed. I gave him a rope collar for the winter. I never had much interest in the doll thing, but I do like dressing my sculpture for an occasion. Just for fun.
This concrete poodle got a very stylish holiday wreath hat made from red wood shavings. This dignified little dog, suffering the indignity of this silly hat, got plenty of attention until one gardener found him impossible to resist, and took him home. I like this part of gardening-most everything about it is irresistible.
The history of figurative sculpture in the landscape is long, varied, and certainly well documented. That history is part of the attraction for me; any object in any garden has the potential to organize a planted space, create a mood, or strike a chord. Antique garden ornament makes much of the aura that comes from age; what is preserved from one generation speaks to its value. My house is eighty years old-I like that, and I like that I am doing my part to maintain it properly. However figures in the landscape need not be old to strongly resonate with a viewer. Any human face, whether from another time, that place, or right next door, engages me. It seems a lot like preaching to the choir to say that what comes from contact with people is personal, but bear with me. �
To my mind, a landscape or garden that does not personally engage the viewer, or provide opportunities for people to engage each other, lacks soul. A figurative sculpture or bust in a garden will immediately attract and hold the eye. When I buy them, I am first and foremost interested in the expression on the face. An assessment of the condition, the surface, the material, size and price are all secondary considerations. I like faces with complicated, mysterious, or striking expressions-some signs of life. This is easy-what face do you know that is not full of contradictions?
Though I see lots figurative sculpture whose faces I find beautiful and interesting, there are not so many I would want to live with – nothing surprising here. Any face in my garden needs be a face I would want to see every day-whatever my reasons. I have lots of objects in my shop that appeal to numbers of different people. The faces are different; the purchase very personal. Some people look many times, before making a decision. This antique French carved stone face has a very strong and compelling expression. Though not so many expressed interest in it, the person to whom it now belongs likes it a lot.
I have some clients who come to the shop multiple times; they say they miss seeing things in a single visit. But it is easy to spot a face, no matter how busy the background. From a design standpoint, placing a figure in a landscape will guarantee visual attention. A very shady garden spot, an area requiring a very strong focal point, an unexpected placement that rewards a viewer with surprise or delight can be vastly more effective given the right sculpture.
This very fine Austin and Healy sculpture dates from the late nineteenth century in England. Her expression is serene, the sculpting is fluid, the age of the piece greatly adds to its cache. I would read her expression differently any time I took the trouble to really look. Though for obvious reasons I would call this a classical sculpture, I would bet the person who purchased this piece sees her very differently than I. This is why I encourage my clients to consider sculpture in a garden. Sculpture makes a landscape a personal landscape.
This concrete reproduction of the classic fisher girl was not expensive. The casting was not detailed-but the expression was good. I have a very strong memory of the garden in which she was placed. The client spent more than a few moments talking to me about her garden, where she hoped to go with it, and how this sculpture was going to help her get there.
This fresh face belongs to one of a pair of nineteenth century American hermes I purchased some years ago. Hermes, sometimes known as terms, were commonly placed to mark the end, or terminus in a garden. Who is she? This figure of a young woman, who recalls the vitality that is nature, or spring, or youth, has such a strong and engaging expression. I doubt I would ever tire of wondering.
Her counterpart-who is he? An aging and world weary faun or bacchus, pained by the assault on his beard by a baby? His wordly expression is in great contrast to hers.
I imagine these two figures once faced each other, at opposite ends of a garden. From her eyes to his, and his eyes to her- I would never tire of these people in my garden-would you?
Deborah Silver is a landscape and garden designer whose firm, Deborah Silver and Co Inc, opened its doors in 1986. She opened Detroit Garden Works, a retail store devoted to fine and unusual garden ornament and specialty plants, in 1996. In 2004, she opened the Branch studio, a subsidiary of the landscape company which designs and manufactures garden ornament in a variety of media. Though her formal education is in English literature and biology, she worked as a fine artist in watercolor and pastel from 1972-1983. A job in a nursery, to help support herself as an artist in the early 80′s evolved into a career in landscape and garden design. Her landscape design and installation projects combine a thorough knowledge of horticulture with an artist’s eye for design. Her three companies provide a wide range of products and services to the serious gardener. She has been writing this journal style blog since April of 2009.