In the second chapter of his superb book, From Art To Landscape: Unleashing Creativity in Garden Design, W. Gary Smith discusses the benefits of building a visual vocabulary. A large part of the book is about training yourself to see. In Chapter 2 he discusses the shapes, forms and patterns that have come together in his own work, “over years of observation and reflection”. He asks, can the world be broken down to the circle, triangle and square? Or in a three-dimensional format: the sphere, the cone and the cube? Smith thinks it is an extremely valuable approach to learn to do what artists who create abstract art do, which is pare a subject down to it’s essence—its essential form.
Technically abstract art, or abstraction, is something that doesn’t exist in the natural world. It is non-representational and non- objective. In painting, for instance, a subject is represented by color and form.
My theory along these thought lines are that there are four or five shapes inherently true for each of us, shapes that we see again and again in the world and use in our work. If I look back over my 17 years of notebooks, flipping through them I will ultimately begin to discern four or five shapes that appear in my sketchbooks again and again. These are my shapes—shapes that are permanently part of my nature and essential shapes for me. As an artist I’ve learned to pay attention to that and to use it.
In teaching drawing and studio classes, I talk to students about the need to build a visual vocabulary. This is also true of landscape designers who need a visual, tactile and living language.