Art and the Garden, Part II: Learning to See

La Siesta, by P. Picasso

All children are artists.  The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.

Pablo Picasso

One of the more frustrating aspects of teaching school is being party to a system that drives the joy out of learning for probably nine out of ten students.  By the time students get to high school, they have had their “skills drilled” and their “proficiencies assessed” so often it’s no wonder they finish out their secondary education in a cynical haze so thick that neither my most inspired lessons nor my most intimidating deathstare can penetrate it. 

In American classrooms today, there is so little opportunity for personal expression and genuine exploration it is almost laughable.

Except it’s not.  It’s tragic. 

I’m not sure whose fault all this is, and I promised myself I wouldn’t use my blog to rant about the system which provides my living, but shoot, it was bound to come out sooner or later. 

Anyway, I bring all this up because yesterday I related the Tragedy of the Green Ceramic Beaver, in which my authoritarian 8th grade art teacher managed to sour me on art for about two decades.  And I feel that, had Picasso been present in my classroom that day, he would have rapped Mrs. Hill on the knuckles with a paintbrush.  (Or maybe he would have flown into a rage at the sight of my little sculpture and smashed it to pieces.  Not sure.) 

But Picasso’s point about children inevitably losing their innate creativity is right on.  Unless young people are given time, encouragement, and proper instruction in any artistic pursuit, the vast majority will come to see themselves as “talentless”, “non-artistic”, or “soooooo not creative”, and will simply stop participating. 

So it was for me when it came to art.  When Mrs. Hill’s class was over, the set of sketching pencils and pastels I’d eagerly purchased the summer before was shoved into the bottom drawer of my desk.

Many years later, in 2008, I signed up for my first Landscape Design class at GW.  One of the recommended books listed on the syllabus was Betty Edwards’ classic Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.  Warily, I ordered the book and began going through the exercises to brush up my drawing skills for the class.

To my great surprise, I discovered it was a sheer pleasure to sit at my desk late at night and draw.  Except for list-making and essay-editing, I hadn’t really put pencil to paper in years.  Shapes!  Curves!  Texture!  Shading!  It was fun. 

Not only that, but I was fascinated by Edwards’ discussion of children’s developmental stages with regard to drawing.  Like most people, I believed that drawing talent was genetic, that by the time you entered adolescence either the gene had revealed itself or it had not.  Mine had not, so I stopped drawing.  But Edwards asserts that drawing is simply a skill — like playing the piano or throwing a strike — that can be learned with good instruction and consistent practice.  Not everybody will be a Durer or a da Vinci of course, but most adults could be far more skilled at drawing if they’d ever been taught how to see

Before and After self-portraits by one of Betty Edwards’ students, drawn within a few days of each other — Before and After the student was “taught to see.”

According to Edwards, it is during the “tween” years, a time when kids have a strong urge to make realistic drawings, that they lose interest in art.  They will draw the same princess or rocket ship over and over again, but when their drawing does not match their perceived reality of the object, they become frustrated and quit.  Edwards argues that this is a time for teachers to scrap their lessons on abstract art and simply start teaching kids how to see.

This idea of “learning how to see” is a gift that my study of landscape design has given back to me.  Had I not begun to study design, I would have quite happily kept gardening away; however, my study of design has brought a whole new dimension and level of excitement to the way I garden and the way I see landscape.

While I don’t believe it’s necessary for a garden designer to create gorgeous drawings, I do believe that the act of drawing and sketching keeps the designer (or gardener) sensitive to the visual world and better able to execute the landscapes they “see” in their mind’s eye. 

And though I learned plenty of practical stuff in my GW classes (calculating slope, properties of different construction materials, etc.) I feel that re- learning how to see was my most valuable take-away from the program. 

 Alongside all of the nitty-gritty plans and perspectives we were required to draw, we got to practice our ability to see by doing stuff like this:  

This assignment involved selecting a well-known abstract painting (in this case, “Bleu II” by Joan Miro, shown in the center) and then re-interpreting the painting through a collection of landscape elements.  How fun!  I’ll be honest, I had never even heard of Joan Miro before doing this assignment.  I still have no idea what “style” or “school” he is identified with or what this painting “means.”  But it was relatively easy to get into the spirit of the painting and re-imagine it in terms of colors, shapes, textures, mass and void, etc.  This was a great visual exercise, it was gratifying, it didn’t require any specialized knowledge or technique other than using a glue stick, and it made me appreciate a painting that I may have just walked right past in an art gallery.

Monet was famous for saying that his garden at Giverny was his finest work of art, but I am also enamored by the idea of using art to inspire garden design.   This symbiotic relationship between gardens and art can be a boundless source of inspiration for both amateur and professional designers. 

More on this relationship in my next post!

23 thoughts on “Art and the Garden, Part II: Learning to See

  1. I had a similar experience in school and adult art epiphany. My art teacher in 5-6th grades was bitter, old and well past the point she should have retired. Could not control the class and never “taught” anything. There was no way after that I was taking any art-related electived in junior or senior high or even college. As a newly working aduly though something called me to learn to draw and I enrolled in a Learning Annex/First Class “how to draw” lesson. Most of the class was based on the book you mention and I could finally “see” — what a revelation! Such a waste of 2 decades! WHY is this not mandatory in public school art class? Not just once, but annually until it sinks in and the students “get it.”

    • Here’s to Continuing Education! I agree that drawing skills could be taught right alongside reading and writing and math. Besides the fact that it would be fun, I think that exercising the right brain, as Betty Edwards proposes, would make kids stronger students overall and help them approach the 3 R’s with new eyes.

  2. I am working on a certificate in garden design at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Right now I’m taking the second in a series of two classes on garden history. One of the themes is that gardens and paintings have shaped each other going back at least to the Renaissance. Paintings created expectations of what landscapes were supposed to look like, or inspired ideas of what they could be like. And, of course, painters also translated what they saw around them onto paint and canvass. I’ve always been much more into plants than into desigh, but maybe I’ll get hold of that book by Edwards.

  3. Great post…and, amazingly right after I was waxing poetic about the influence my art classes in High School & College had on my gardens later in life. I find that the basics of design & color translate well from one medium to the next. I was always particularly influenced by Monet (so fitting that he was an avid gardener), and spent hours paging through book from our local library about his garden. I think he, in particular, gave me an appreciation for light and atmosphere…which are invaluable (to me). I’ve been thinking of doing a post about his influence for a while now 🙂

    • I hope you do, Scott! I recently read a book from the library about Giverny as well…fascinating. I had no idea that Money started losing his vision later in life. Doesn’t seem fair, does it?

  4. Mary, just wanted to let you know I nominated you for the One Lovely Blog Award. I really do enjoy your blog, the writing is exceptional and you have a great sense of humor. To find out what’s involved if you want to accept the nomination (it’s a bit ponzi-esque, to tell the truth), take a look at my post at

    • Wow! Thank you so much. I will try to pass this on to seven other bloggers, but if I don’t, will sudden death come to me and my family? Ha-ha. Seriously, I am flattered, and by the way, you have a gorgeous garden. I would kill to have that many flowers!

    • Your passion for art is very apparent, Carolyn, and I love your shares on Facebook. I was going to include a great quote by Marco Polo Stefano, about how fine art is the single most valuable thing a garden designer can study….but my post was already too long and getting weighed down by quotes.

  5. Pingback: Art and Sculpture in the Garden! « Garden Designers Roundtable

  6. Pingback: Garden Designers Roundtable: Sculpture in the Garden — Gossip in the Garden

  7. Then there are those of us who rail against the system almost from kindergarten. What’s truly unfortunate is that our system of education is that it is tailored to one track and one only. So few who need to learn and express themselves differently are allowed to flourish. What’s more is the over scheduling of children into regimented activities outside of school instead of letting them explore the world through their own innate curiosity. I have to stop now or I will go on a rant as long as your post…which by the way is a great starting point.

    • Amen, Susan. I think I need to start a separate blog for all I have to say about the problems with education. Probably not a good idea since I’m still teaching. In the meantime I’ll just let my frustrations build up and then write a scathing tell-all when I retire. Ha!

  8. I’ll admit I’m one of these artistic victims, dreading a blank easel as I do the drought. Actually that’s not true – I feel like I can work my way around a drought, but create a realistic portrait? Shudder….. Such an enlightening post, and one that I’ve re-read twice now. I’m thinking I might just take the plunge and try my hand at learning to ‘see’ again and will most definitely start with Edwards’ book.

  9. Pingback: Digging » Garden Designers Roundtable: Harmonize art and sculpture with your garden

  10. Cool take on the Roundtable subject of art in the garden, Mary! Your posts are always thought-provoking. BTW, the other Roundtable links are available now, if you have time to add them to your post, so that your readers can find the other members’ posts.

  11. I recently saw a little sign that resonates with me: “Creativity is not a hobby, it’s a way of life.” Free time to sketch, doodle, and play is important at any age, but an ABSOLUTE for children. Thanks for this thoughtful essay — looking forward to the next installment!

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