Design Critique Study #1

Award Winner 2020
Michael Gambino of Gambino Landscape Lighting
Simi Valley, CA, USA

This beautiful photo won two separate awards—one for the Intrigue category of Affective Lighting Design and one for the Public-Use Spaces of Landscape Lighting Design.

The ELLI Design Critique Study will discuss the photo in terms of what is captured by the photographer within the space or landscaped setting. The first part of this study will address the scene’s composition, as it relates to the lighting applications applied by the designer. The second part will address the ‘affective’ value of the setting—the “experience” or feel of the space.

Every landscape lighting scene should be evaluated by its compositional elements. This includes balance, contrast, emphasis, pattern & rhythm, unity, and movement. Each of this provides a form of measure to determine whether a design is good or not.

In the case of design, both the landscape design and the lighting design should work together to provide a sense of balance to the setting. Balance is the visual interpretation of gravity in the design. A balanced work is when the visual weight is distributed evenly across the composition.

As we look at this scene, we see the masonry wall at the back is spread from left to right. There are also an equal number of urns-pots. The pool separates the wall from the hardscaped deck and lawn—the wall and patio deck are hard elements…the pool and lawn are soft elements. There are strong horizontal lines in these elements, but they are countered by vertical elements, such as the trees/tree trunks, urns, and stonework design.

If we look at how the lighting applications work with the landscape features, then we find it pleasing as well. One of the key things about balance in lighting is providing about equal parts ‘light’ versus ‘dark’ or shadow. This lighting design is especially enhanced by not having the pool lights on, and this provides for a good balance in this space. Imagine how the magic or drama of this scene would have been diminished if this pool lighting were on—there would have been too much light and it would have ruined the experience.

Contrast can be viewed in two ways, the first by the arrangement of opposite elements (light and dark, rough and smooth, large and small, etc.), and the second by the difference in luminance or color, which makes an object distinguishable.

Viewing this scene, we can see several arrangements of opposites. Several of these were described in balance—we see horizontal vs. vertical, hard vs. soft, light vs. dark. However, there is a striking contrast between the backlit urns at the back wall. You can see this intensity between the dark silhouettes of the urns against the strong illumination of the wall.

Additionally, landscape lighting design usually addresses two types of contrast—light-dark contrast and cold-warm contrast. Both are present in this scene. You can see the warmth from the color of light against the yellowish tone of the wall, as well as in the red flowers in the foreground. The contrasting cold or cool colors are in the water, dark sky, and lawn.

A focal point is also known as the emphasis of a setting. It is an object or area that draws attention, as it is set apart against its surrounding. It’s pretty easy to identify the emphasis here, because it stands out and takes full attention—the silhouetted urns. I described this in contrast, but because of the striking contrast (light vs. dark) it commands the attention.

Pattern & Rhythm
This setting is of a smaller landscaped space, so you won’t find any extensive patterns or rhythm. However, there is a small pattern of shapes (urns), which are eye-catching. A pattern is a combination of elements or shapes repeated in a recurring and regular arrangement.

Rhythm is a strong, regular, repeated pattern, and it has a feeling of organized movement. Typically, a pattern can lead the eye towards a destination point. Ideally, it will lead to the emphasis or something of importance within the scene. In this case, we see the urns, equally arranged at the back, leading to the middle of this sequence at the sculpture mounted on the wall.

This pattern works very well within the setting. It captures the attention and leads the eye.

Unity occurs when the elements of the space work together in such a way that the resulting look is balanced and in ‘harmony’. Although there is not much to describe about unity, but you can tell when something is not harmonious or unified. Everything should feel comfortable and good, as seen visually.

As far as movement is concerned, it is the impression of action in one’s work. Visual movement is dependent on the other principles of composition, as well as the movement the viewer’s eye takes when experiencing the space.

Mike did a great job in capturing the attention to this space and its emphasis at the back wall. The eye immediately scans the setting…it sees the urns and follows them to the center, which is the emphasis. There is no distraction or cross-referencing back and forth to various elements or parts of the landscape.

This is the second part of this critique study, and in my opinion, the most important quality for a landscape lighting designer to achieve—the “experience”. Affect relates to emotion and what emotional state is evoked as the viewer experiences the space.

It should be noted that most lighting designers and those viewing one’s work will not get to experience the true feeling of the space they are looking at. So, if an emotional state is felt through looking at a photo, then that is great success. ELLI is the first entity to consider ‘affect’ as an important part of a lighting design—the ability to provoke emotion.

Mike successfully achieved this response and it related to the emotion of Intrigue. One must remember that there are a lot of emotions, whether they are pure or mixed, as they can be a combination of feelings. ELLI has established five of the most common and experienced emotions in landscape lighting design—joy, awe, contentment, intrigue, and fear. Intrigue is somewhat related to Interest, Curiosity, and even Mystery. These types are thought-provoking.

In reviewing what we experience in Mike’s work, I found it to be very captivating because of the distinct contrast, as mentioned earlier. I also experienced a sense of mystery because of the dark pool of water that acted as a mirror against the still surface. I found the scene fascinating and it made me curious to understand the “depth” felt in the lighting applications behind the urns. The lighting also felt warming against the walls.

I would like to note that everyone might experience things differently. Your feelings should be strong enough to pull you towards a specific emotion or feeling. By learning and understanding the various emotions, you become more aware of what you are seeing and/or experiencing through sight.

Lastly, being that this is the first of many Design Critique Studies, I want to express the importance of this process. If you can perform such an analysis on your own works, as well as others, then you can better advance your abilities to perform this specialized work.