The Elements of Perspective

The use of perspective is essential in any landscape design. Careful planning and thoughtful selection of plants and materials can cleverly and subtly influence the viewer’s perception of a garden landscape.

View Positions

These are the particular spots from which the landscape is customarily seen. One view position might be from a window at the kitchen table, where you sit each morning and evening. Others might be a patio looking west and south, and the front walkway leading to the door. Most landscapes have many view positions. To make them easier to identify, the vantage points of these positions can be grouped into three categories.

The View from Above As a child, you may have spied out of a second-story window onto the garden below and felt in command of the situation, able to see things that eluded the people on the ground. The view from a tree house or a hillside deck can provide a similar sense of exhilaration. This perspective also creates a feeling of space, detachment, and perhaps insecurity.

The Level View The world is most often viewed from a level position. When experienced on the horizontal plane, the scale of the objects in the landscape and the shadows they cast are the most familiar. The level view is secure, less exciting than others, but it is the most common one in garden landscapes.

The View from Below This position exists, for example, when a house is situated in a canyon or a patio is built on the lower slope of a hill. Viewing the landscape from below may provide feelings of security or enclosure, or it may feel oppressive. Being aware of the potentials and drawbacks of this position will help you to decide if it has a place in your garden landscape.

Foreground, Midground, and Background

When you stand in one place in a garden, what are the relationships among the things that you see? Generally, objects in the foreground are more detailed than those in the background. The midground has greater clarity than the background, but not as much as the foreground. Notice how these perspectives change from different locations in the landscape. Try identifying these three primary fields of view from different positions. Determine why you prefer particular perspectives and consider how they may be incorporated and strengthened in the design of the garden.

Forcing Perspective

The way a garden is viewed may be manipulated by working with the various fields of vision. Forcing perspective can cause the viewer to perceive objects as being farther away than they actually are. This may be achieved by using exaggerated contrasts in size and texture: arranging small, finely textured plantings in the background and large, coarsely textured ones in the foreground. Because the finer-textured plantings appear more distant than the coarse ones, the viewer has an impression of greater depth than actually exists in the garden.

If a yard is wide and shallow, it can be made to appear deeper by tapering planting beds or walkways so that they are narrower toward the rear of the garden. If beds or walkways are widened toward the rear of the garden, the space will look shallower.

The Cone of Sight

At any given time, the viewer in an outdoor space sees a roughly cone-shaped area about 8 feet in diameter, called the cone of sight. When the view within this zone is interrupted — by a deck railing, a fence, or another physical barrier — a feeling of enclosure is created. If the view is blocked by large objects or walls, the sense of enclosure may seem severe and oppressive.

It may be desirable to have both an enclosure and a distant view; for example, a deck on a steep hillside that requires a railing for security but which does not obstruct the view. A railing no more than 3-1/2 feet tall will lend a secure feeling but not block the viewer’s cone of sight.

Remember, if the deck is higher than 3 feet above ground, the federal Uniform Building Code requires that the railing be at least 36 inches high and not contain an opening greater than 9 inches. (This cede, which is intended to prevent children from falling off high decks, may vary from state to state, or from county to county.)

To fulfill safety requirements without producing the feeling of being caged in, make only part of the vertical enclosure solid. As one way to do this, leave about 3 inches along the bottom open in order to sweep away leaves and other debris, followed by a solid panel, 2 feet wide, that runs the entire perimeter of the deck. Above that, a simple capping of 2 by 6 lumber, leaving a 9-inch opening, will complete the height requirement.

Line of Sight

In about the middle of the cone of sight, the area of the horizontal view (seen from a standing or sitting position) between 3 and 6 feet above ground level is called the line of sight. This important zone represents the viewer’s primary area of vision. Obstructions to the view along the line of sight can be very discomforting, particularly if the view extends both below and above, as from a high deck. If the line of sight must be blocked for more than a few inches, consider obstructing it completely with a wall or fence.