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Sketchbook ~ One of the most exciting words in the English language?

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You might be able to tell from the title of this blogpost that if people utter the word “sketchbook” in my company I am highly likely to leap about with excitement. It’s not really the word – it is the concept, the history, the thrill of a new, unmarked sketchbook, the myriad possibilities and opportunities to fill it with colour. It is the chance to play.

Playing with colour, texture and shapes in a recent sketchbook

The association between sketchbooks and play started a long time ago. My parents encouraged my passion for art from the very start. Maybe the only time they could get any peace and quiet was when I had a pencil in hand and plenty of paper to make my marks. Sketchbooks were a big step up from the huge stack of scrap paper. They were more permanent. Any art produced within the sketchbook pages were taken much more seriously than the doodles on loose sheets. My masterpieces would not get mistakenly thrown away if they were in a sketchbook. Sketchbooks are things of substance and gravitas. It’s funny how this concept has reversed in later times. From GCSE years onwards, the sketchbook is where the ideas are developed and the stand alone piece (or pieces) that follow are considered the jewel in the crown.

Detail from a sketchbook dated 1999. I would have been 20 years old and doing a Fine Art BA Hons course in Cardiff when I was working in this small sketchbook

As I have alluded to in previous blogposts, the prospect of working with sketchbooks was the ultimate selling point for me when I was trying to decide whether to sign up for the Professional Garden Design Diploma at The Cotswold Gardening School. This was an opportunity for me to play again! I have filled at least one huge A2 sized sketchbook for each of the four project gardens that we have worked on. I was slightly concerned that I had gone a bit over the top at first but tutors really appreciate being able to see where every detail of a final design originated.

Lists of plants and printouts of digital and hand drawn sketches

Each sketchbook ends up being a combination of sketches, both freehand and printouts of digital sketches. I also include mood boards consisting of inspirational photos of other gardens and garden features and lots of text explaining what is going through my mind when I am adding to my sketchbooks. In addition there are loads of fabulous images that I have clipped out of my collection of gardening magazines or found online. There are lists of plants, lists of hard landscaping materials, sizes, costs, practicalities as well as flights of fancy and always colours, shapes and textures.

A mood board for a college garden design project

Today, for instance, I have been working at my drawing board on the final master layout plan for our fourth and final college project. This involves lots of research of measurements for details like the ultimate spread of the canopy of a particular tree or the width of brick edging for a path. Every time I had a query I would do my research online and note dimensions and any other useful details down in my sketchbook. It won’t be one of the more colourful pages but I will always be able to look back and see where and how that final design came about. I will also be able to use that information in future projects. Today was a practical, technical drawing sort of a day but I know that in a few day’s time I will be using my sketchbooks to look closely at colours of plants and how they relate to my original ‘big idea’ ~ see previous blogpost for an explanation of the ‘big idea’ concept

My new digital sketchbook
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Surveys and shape work ~ the foundation of the garden design process

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Before I took the plunge and started my garden design training, I was worried about two things: would I be any good at technical drawing and would I be a complete disaster at taking measurements? I need not have worried because, despite finding these two aspects the most challenging part of my training, they are so fundamental to the process that I have just had to grit my teeth and get on with it… and it turns out I am good enough! The site visit measurements were taken as a team and then at home we individually turned them into an accurate survey… a bit of a chore, but then the real fun can start. Shape work. Those two words that I would not previously have put together have become, possibly the most fascinating aspect of my garden design adventure.

Here I am experimenting with colour, shape and texture surrounded by Miranda Carter’s inspirational work at her studio

My current project has seen me taking inspiration from my friend, the artist Miranda Carter and her work. Specifically her recent work, which is directly influenced by open water swimming and the rhythms of nature that she finds herself immersed in when she is out in the lake or the sea. I have tried to capture her relaxed, semi abstract techniques and then I have examined them more closely to identify shapes, colours and textures. Looking and experimenting with shapes that relate to an idea that you have had for a specific garden can help free you up to create abstract art that you find pleasing. It is not a garden design at this point, but it is enormous fun!

Looking closely at my art inspired by Miranda’s work for patterns and shapes

Fellow students on the garden design course at The Cotswold Gardening School struggled with this concept initially. The idea of forgetting about the garden design aspect was hard to fathom for some. My art background, specifically the remarkably liberating and experimental year I spent doing an art foundation diploma at the age of 18 meant that I was willing to embrace this experiment fully and I have felt comfortable with it from the start. That doesn’t mean to say that I have found it easy, though. Maybe I’m just not afraid to try out lots of ideas and discard the majority of them. It is because I know that if I try hard enough, I will have an idea that will stand out as the one that I can take forward.

These shapes have combined well so I have superimposed them onto the site plan

When I have decided that some shapes inspired by my original ‘big idea’ ~ ~ have combined pleasingly, I can then place them on top of the site survey to see if they will work as an initial rough design. The shape work above will hopefully become a comprehensive garden design in time. I now need to take this 2D set of shapes and start thinking about them as a 3D garden. I need to think about differences in ground levels, about what the client wants to achieve with their garden and the features they want to include. I must also analyse the site and existing features and work out what it needs in order to be functional, comfortable, dynamic and, precisely what the client requires in a garden.

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Nicola Hope Horticulture & Design

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Fabulous horticulturalist Michael Perry, or Mr Plant Geek as he is more widely known on television and his social media platforms, has designed a T-shirt with the slogan ‘Please don’t ask me to design your garden’ across the front. It is aimed at horticulturalists and plants people who will inevitably… Read More »Nicola Hope Horticulture & Design