Making Picturesque Public Spaces: The Lorrain Technique

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‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, buy more about it is often said. Yet, whilst there might be something in this phrase, we shouldn’t ignore that many Old Masters ceaselessly experimented to find techniques that would reliably delight viewers. Some landscape artists, for example, took this experimentation so seriously that they explicitly considered themselves scientists: John Constable declared that “Painting is a science and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature. Why, then, may not landscape painting be considered as a branch of natural philosophy [the then current name for science], of which pictures are but the experiments?” His contemporary JMW Turner added the suffix ‘P.P.’, short for ‘Professor of Perspective’ to the signature on many of his paintings. That landscape artists today do not speak in similar terms is partly due to centuries of experimentation having led to the development of a series of reliable techniques for creating pleasing pictures. Their very ease and teachability led many artists to consider the possibilities of landscape painting exhausted, and consequently to move into more untamed, challenging fields of art. A reliable body of techniques therefore exist to create pleasing landscapes, and there is surely no reason why planners of today should not apply these tried-and-tested techniques to make, quite literally, ‘picturesque’ places. This post attempts to apply one such technique to landscaping a public space.

The Lorrain Technique

The following technique is often called the ‘Lorrain technique’, in honour of an undisputed master of picturesque landscapes, the painter Claude Lorrain. It takes advantage of the way that we, or at least those of us who read from left to right, tend to begin scanning scenes in the matching direction. In the left-hand foreground the painter following this technique will put a tall structure such as a tree, which is designed to be the first centre of attention; beside this and towards the middle of the foreground he’ll put a bright area with elements of interest that carries the attention towards the other side of the canvas. From there, the eye will successively be led to separated planes both ‘deeper’ into the scene and on the opposite side, before the eye is eventually led into the sky. In order to demonstrate this principle in action, here are three paintings by some of the greats: Constable, Turner and Lorrain himself. Beneath each painting is a smaller painting indicating the suggested routes the eye is led along, with explanatory text. Please note that, although the ‘eye-routes’ are depicted with straight lines, as we try to make sense of the painting our eyes will naturally make discontinuous jumps known as saccadic movements. I merely suggest that the eyes will be inclined to jump to points roughly along these lines, and in the suggested order.

Constable, Salisbury Cathedral from across the Meadow

The most obvious starting point for the eyes is the leaning foreground tree. Following the lean of the tree leads you to the cart, and following the implied direction of movement takes the eye to the other side of the canvas, where it is halted by the tree stump. The eye is led ‘deeper’ into the scene along the curve of the riverbank, the continuation of which is artfully concealed by shrubbery. This concealment encourages the eye to jump straight to the nearest point of interest in the same direction, which happens to be the cathedral frontage. The glinting light on this frontage further encourages this movement. The eye is then led along the cathedral body and up the tower through attracting contrasts of light, before the eye slides down the rainbow to the ground.

 Turner, Crossing the Brook

The starting point of this painting is the tall tree in the left foreground; the eye is then led towards the bright central foreground and across to the tree on the opposite side before going down the diagonal of the treetops to the other side of the canvas. The bridge is ‘crossed’ by the eyes before they follow the curve of the hillside back towards the left. After following the line of a plain towards the right the eye, finding little of interest in the hazy distance, is drawn up into the sky. The curves of the clouds artfully lead the eye back towards its starting point.

Lorrain, Pastoral Landscape

The starting point here is the monumental classical building, before the eyes cross the bright foreground to the slanting tree. After a brief detour to the luxuriant tree the eyes follow the slope down and across to the other side The positioning of a tree just behind the classical building discourages the eyes from returning to the building, leading to attention shifting across the canvas along the hillside and out into the distance.

Place

The space in question is a few metres east of the village of Kilcreggan, on the Rosneath Peninsula near Glasgow, Britain. Currently the site is a blank, flat grassland that, despite its awkward shape and size, hosts a solitary football goal. On one side of this site lies the old boatyard, and, just beyond it, the main strip of shops. On the other side lies the community woodland, a popular area for strolls, dog-walking and enjoying nature.

Concept and Execution

My concept was to establish a transition from the built environment to the natural so as to encourage use of the woodland. The theme of Nature slowly gaining dominance over the man-made environment is prefigured by the brick wall being surmounted by a single tree. The positioning of the wall in the foreground and at the leftmost extremity is intended to encourage the eye to begin its scanning of the scene there, in accordance with Lorrain’s technique. The wall is emblazoned with the text ‘Kilcreggan Community Woodland’, both further attracting attention to this strategic point whilst somewhat concealing the primary reasons for the wall’s location here.

A landscaped slope from the top of the wall to grade over the course of ten yards or so leads the eye rightwards whilst partially concealing a duckpond. This partial concealment encourages the viewer to walk rightwards along the path so as to discover the remainder of the pond. In an assertion of the man-made over the natural, the pond and its island are geometrical (oval) shapes, whilst this is undermined by the river-like meander of the path past a raised bank surmounted by trees that has the effect of ‘closing’ the scene and encouraging the eye to move back to the left. This movement is further encouraged by the placing of a streetlight on the other side of the viewable space, and the movement is slowed down by the inclusion of benches that, when occupied, will serve as points of interest.

The path reverses direction somewhat before entering an avenue lined with regularly-spaced, imposing trees that create a powerful rhythm in a final assertion of human control over nature, before the rhythm breaks down and the lines of trees peter out, leaving the walker in a completely natural environment.

Although the width of the website severely constrains the size of the image, I hope its usage of the Lorrain technique is still very evident.

It remains to be said that the Lorrain technique is best applied to places where there is only one through path, so as to more reliably control the views, and it is considerably easier to do when only one end of the path needs to be landscaped. However, I have tried to make several points along the path also attractive, in the hope that not only the entrance looks inviting but also the journey.

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