Flowering Arranging: Making a Design

If you are icing a birthday cake, embroidering a cushion cover, or decorating a room you need to have a design in mind before starting the job. With a mental picture of the pattern, shape and colour scheme, icing sugars are mixed, silks chosen, or wallpapers bought. It’s just the same with flower arranging.

Try to keep the finished design in your mind’s eye while choosing the container, flowers, leaves, etc. In this way you are less likely to pick or buy too many flowers, and when you do the arrangement your hand is quicker and surer. In other words, know what you want to do—and do it!

The Basic Principles

Most people have the gift of being able to picture things in their heads, and when properly cultivated this faculty can be one of the most valuable things in the flower arranger’s equipment. When we arrange ornaments on a shelf, or carefully place the ingredients of a salad to look attractive in the bowl, we are simply using our built-in talent for design. The finished effect depends upon whether the design we had in mind was good or bad.

Well, what makes a good design? Whether it is a piece of furniture, a skyscraper, or a flower arrangement the basic principles are the same:

(1) Proportion—the relationship of length, breadth and height to each other. (2) Balance —a good design will not


only look right but will be practical and will not topple over through being lop-sided or top-heavy. (3) Colour— some colours go well together, others clash. (4) Suitability —is the design suitable for its purpose ? (5) Visual interest —the colours, shapes and the materials used must all harmonise into a whole which is pleasing and satisfying to the eye.

These, then, are the principles of good design, and in flower arranging they can be sub-divided many times. Yet flower arranging is an art, so there can be few hard and fast rules.

No Need to Worry

There are rules in painting, but gifted artists can break them and produce masterpieces. The same is true in flower arranging, and so the most anyone can do is teach you the essentials. The more fully you master these basic principles, the more you will be able to branch out and the more you will enjoy the hobby.

So many beginners worry about design, but really there’s no need. Let’s do a simple experiment.

Begin by picking three flowers—a bud, a perfect fully opened bloom, and one with partly opened petals. Add a few well-shaped leaves, and in your hand you hold the ingredients of a flower arrangement. First, look at each flower and leaf for a minute or two. Each will have its best and most beautiful side, each will be more interesting when seen from one angle than from another. Whenever you do a flower arrangement, no matter how small or how large it is to be, try to find time to really look at each piece of material before putting it into position.

For instance, the bud may be a perfect rosebud, a rose in embryo. It may be elegantly pointed, with perhaps a slight curve in its stalk, and it is these qualities in that



particular bud which one should try to make the most of.

Place the bud in position in the container, where its silhouette will be seen against the wall; i.e. on the outside of the arrangement, not hidden towards the centre where its shape would not be seen at its best. If the bud has some flaw, like one imperfect petal, position it in the design so that the imperfection is not seen. Then, perhaps, the curve of the stem could be accentuated if a few leaves were removed, or dramatised and shown to better effect by more careful placement of the rest of the material. The idea for a complete design could be inspired by studying that one bud.

The Focal Point

A nearly full-blown rose, just showing its heart, cries out to be placed right in the middle of the arrangement, where its fullness and beauty can be immediately seen and admired. Every arrangement must have such a centre of interest which irresistibly draws the eye; this is called the focal point. This is also the centre of balance, and from it everything else should appear to spring. To heighten the visual impact of the focal point flower, surround it with a few leaves, which provide a foil and set off the bloom to perfection.

The half-opened rose from your three should be placed somewhere between the focal point and the bud, so that the three are linked and at the same time form an interesting pattern.

So, when picking flowers, always take some in bud, some partly opened, and at least one in full bloom, and use these in the manner I have described—buds towards the outside edges of the arrangement, the focal point in the centre, and semi-opened flowers filling in between, to-


gether with leaves to act as a foil to the flowers and to help make the overall shape of the design.

Making the Outline

Every arrangement of flowers must have a clear-cut outline shape, or silhouette. When I first took up the hobby I was a long time in grasping this point about outline shape. I argued that by arranging flowers to fit in with some laid-down shape all individuality would be lost. I was talking through my hat!

Drop some three or four flowers haphazardly into a vase and they will assume some sort of outline shape. But the shape will be accidental, so it is not likely to be very interesting or pleasing. Now move the flowers around. The outline shape is being determined by you. The accumulated experience of countless flower arrangers through the years has proved that there are a number of basic shapes which are always pleasing.

As confidence and knowledge increase, you can perform many variations on these fundamental themes. Try to decide what shape you want before you begin the arrangement. The shape must always be determined by your material; work with your flowers and leaves, never try to impose unnatural formations on them.

The outlines, or silhouettes, of arrangements are usually made with buds or with flowers which are pointed in shape, such as gladioli, flowering dock, larkspur, red hot poker, golden rod, snapdragon. Light colours are usually better than dark for outlines, leafy branches and spear-shaped foliage (e.g. arum, iris, montbretia and hosta) are generally used. Also useful for making outlines are any fine, delicately-shaped things such as wheat, grasses, stems of winter jasmine, and so on.

When putting your outline stems into position, try to


make sure that the spaces between them are of pleasing proportions. Aim at an airy, well-balanced silhouette.

Tallest Stem First

In all types of arrangement the tallest or topmost stem is best placed in position first. It is usually the only one which is perpendicular; all other stems should be positioned at different angles. When this tallest stem has a curve, the tip of the curve should be immediately above the place where the focal point flower will eventually be placed; that is, over the centre lower front.

Every component of the arrangement should tend to draw the eye to the focal point, which is the heart of the arrangement. As you proceed, cut each stem a little shorter than the last, working inward from the outline to the focal point. It follows that the shortest stems will be those of the heaviest and most important blooms, used low down and in the centre of the design. (See fig 17.)

Deep Colours in the Centre

At the focal point you can safely position the deepest colours, the largest flowers, the most interesting leaves. To the eye, these are the heaviest things in the arrangement, and by placing this visual weight in this position you automatically give a feeling of balance and stability to the design. In other words, you avoid that top-heavy look. An arrangement must never look as though it is about to fall over. If it looks well-balanced it usually is well-balanced.

Filling in the Design

Still keeping in mind the idea of the three kinds of material

(bud, full flowers and semi-open blooms), fill in the design

between the outline shape and the focal point. Use partly-



open flowers, more leaves, and colours and shapes which help link up the focal point with the outline silhouette in an attractive way. With practice, all this becomes quite automatic—you start to place the material where it will look best, almost without thinking.

The Principal Shapes

The principal basic shapes are as follows: The triangle;

The assymetrical triangle; The S shape (sometimes called the Hogarlh

Curve or the Line of Beauty); The C shape (or crescent); The fan (or horizontal) shape; The flame or torch (vertical) shape. It is perhaps appropriate here to deal with a point which often puzzles beginners, the difference between mass and line arrangements.



Line Arrangements

A line arrangement is a restrained design which has a minimum of flowers and leaves, arranged in a clear-cut way with the emphasis on the linear shape. The line which the flowers follow is the all-important thing.

The line must, of course, be a graceful and interesting one. Often, when judging line arrangement classes at shows, I have found that beginners tend to produce very stiff, straight lines instead of an impression of free-flowing movement. Remember that Nature hardly ever produces a straight line.

Line arrangements often look well in low dish containers and on slices of board or log. Ultra-modern containers call out for this kind of design, which is acknowledged to be particularly well suited to the modern home furnished with light, angular furniture, bright colours, and modern paintings on the wall. However, line arrangements go with any sophisticated form of furnishing, antique or modern and look most effective with an Oriental-style decor. Generally speaking, the country cottage style of furnishing and decoration is a less suitable setting for a line arrangement.

As the flowers and leaves are few in number, each must be placed with particular care. Each must take its part in the development of the design. Thus, line designs can be used to show off to advantage a few choice flowers or a few simple blooms. When flowers are scarce, a line arrangement makes a few look lavish and impressive.

In the best line arrangements every detail of the material plays a part in the design—the tilt of a petal, the line of a leaf, the twist of a stem are used so effectively as part of the design that the visual impression of them is heightened. Looking at such an arrangement, one might be seeing all flowers, leaves and stems clearly and revealingly for the


very first time. When this feeling occurs you have undoubtedly created a work of art.

Mass Arrangements

A mass arrangement presents the eye with a fullness of shape, instead of the strongly linear emphasis of the line arrangement. Material is used in greater abundance, and many rich and varied effects can be achieved. A line arrangement has flowers of only one or two kinds, but the ‘mass’ can employ the mixed bunches so beloved by British women.

The mass style fits happily with the decor of all homes, except perhaps the most strikingly ultra-modern. Depending upon the choice of container, it can slip contentedly in with fine antique furniture or complement the contemporary furnishings of to-day. When decorating churches, large halls, or rooms, for public functions the mass arrangement really comes into its own, for it is colourful, eyecatching, and understood by all.

Mass arrangements can be quite sophisticated or perfectly homely and simple. As with line designs, you can take advantage of the subtle personalities of flowers and leaves, their textures, shapes, and colours, to build up beautiful and satisfying designs.

I believe all flower arrangers can become proficient at both line and mass arrangements, though few succeed equally well with both types. This, I think, is because people usually develop a fondness for one or the other, and do their best work with it.

‘Mass-line’ Designs

Our traditional love of massed flowers sometimes makes it hard for arrangers to tackle successfully the true line arrangement, with its few flowers but high degree of



subtlety and skill. In summer, when the garden is lavishing flowers upon me, I personally feel reluctant to produce genuine line arrangements, so I sometimes compromise with a mass-line design. As the name suggests, this is a combination of the two forms; it has a stronger linear pattern than an ordinary mass, while using more flowers, and with greater freedom, than a true line.

Now let us look more closely at the basic shapes which I mentioned briefly earlier in this post.

The Triangle

The basic triangle shape is understandably popular with flower arrangers. To begin with, a triangle is a form which is satisfying to the eye. Its firm base line gives it security and balance, and it can never be top-heavy. (See fig 18.)

The first step in making a triangle arrangement is to establish the height. This is done by cutting a tall branch or stem approximately one-and-a-half times the height of the container. If, however, the container is a very shallow bowl or dish, the tallest stem should be one-and-a-half times the width of the container.

The quickest way to get the measurement is to hold the stem against the container and then cut it to size.

This rule is, though, only a rough guide for the beginner. As the flower arranger progresses she will find that interesting effects can be obtained by varying the height of the main stem. The importance of the rule to the novice is that it ensures the arrangement will have good proportions.

Having cut the tallest stem, place it in position towards the back of the container, in the centre. Even if the stem is curved its tip should be directly over the focal point. Next put in place two side stems, low down. These



Fig 18.

should be cut to the same length as each other. Place them so that one comes out towards your left shoulder, the other to your right. Now put in your focal point flower, and then go on to fill in with other flowers and leaves, keeping everything within the triangle shape formed by the first three stems. The joy of the triangle shape is that it is so simple but always effective—and yet, because all flowers and leaves are different, no two triangle arrangements will ever be exactly the same.

The Assymetrical Triangle

Yes, this sounds terrifying, but it’s really quite simple. It simply means a triangle with sides of irregular length, instead of matching. Think of an ordinary triangle, made up of a base and two sides of equal length, and then imagine it pushed out of shape to one side or the other.

Get a bit of paper and a pencil and draw a few of these irregular triangles—you’ll soon see how many variations there are. But, because of that firm outline, they all re-



Fig 19.

main well-balanced and pleasing to the eye. (See fig 19.) It’s an odd thing, but some people always make a left-handed assymetrical triangle (that is, with the longest side on the left), while others do it the opposite way round.

On starting the arrangement proceed as for the ordinary triangle, cutting the tallest stem first and placing it in the container. Now comes the difference: The two lower stems must be of different lengths. The lengths will be determined by the proportions of the triangle you have in mind.

The Hogarth Curve

The Hogarth Curve, or S shape, is named after the great 18th century painter William Hogarth. In 1745 he painted a portrait of himself and his dog, now in the Tate Gallery, and included in it his palette with an S-curve painted upon


Fig 20.

it and the words ‘The Line of Beauty.’ (See fig 20.) Flower arrangers everywhere agree with his definition, and the Hogarth Curve is much used as the ‘line’ in line arrangements. To achieve this rhythmic ‘S’ you need curving stems and a tall container, allowing the lower curve of the ‘ S ‘ to flow down below the rim line of the container.

As in all designs, the tallest stem (which establishes the height) is positioned first, curving away upwards. Then, in goes the lower curve, pressed firmly home into the



Fig 21.

chicken wire. Make sure that the end of the stem is in water.

It is helpful to have an inch or so of chicken wire above the rim of the container. Better still, use Florapak or Oasis, brought high over the rim.

The Crescent Shape

The C, or crescent, shape is most useful when you are using material with very curved stems. Once again, make the outline shape first, like a crescent moon slightly over on its back. It can be either left-handed or right-handed. Then put in the focal point as usual, and fill in with more flowers and leaves. (See fig 21). Make a point of retaining the empty, hollow part of the crescent shape. As with the S shape, the empty space is as important as the shape itself. For the crescent, you may find that you have to trim up branches and leaves, and cut stems quite a lot, to achieve the scooped out look. The crescent design must always look well-tailored.



Fig 22.

The Fan Shape

The fan (or horizontal) shape is a lovely low, restful form, much used for dining table centrepieces and for placing on top of a low bookcase, a mantelpiece, or a window ledge. As the name implies, the shape resembles that of a fully-opened lady’s fan, and when arranged for a position where it will be seen from all sides, it should look pretty from every angle.

In this design the topmost stem must be shorter than the two side stems. (See fig 22.) Long, low containers, of oval or oblong shape, are generally used for this design.

The Torch Shape

When space is limited, an arrangement which stresses the vertical line, like the soaring grace of a tall church spire or a flaming torch, is most effective. (See fig 23.)

All the naturally tall and spiky flowers, such as gladioli,
    97 ‘    


Fig 23.

larkspur, hollyhock and delphinium, lend themselves ideally, for the basic shape of the arrangement repeats their own manner of growth. Bulrushes, iris leaves and tall grasses come to mind, too, for these again will emphasise the upright line. To prevent any appearance of top-heaviness, use rounder leaves and flowers at rim level.

A Frontal Arrangement

The term frontal arrangement is applied to a design

intended to be seen directly from the front; for instance,



an arrangement to be placed on a side table, desk, or mantelpiece. Because the back is to the wall, a frontal arrangement is very economical of flowers—none need be placed at the back, where they wouldn’t be seen. An important point to remember is to put in the main upright stem towards the back of the container. If this stem is placed too near the front you will find yourself with an arrangement which looks as though it is falling over frontwards—and which probably will!

Even though this is called a frontal arrangement, it will be seen also from other angles as people move about the room, and this must be borne in mind as you put in your material. Allow a few leaves to flow back towards the wall to avoid a hard sheared-off appearance.

The All-round Arrangement

This explains itself—it’s just an arrangement intended to be seen from any angle. It has its place on dining tables, coffee tables and so on, and should also be used when the arrangement is to be seen reflected in a mirror or against an uncurtained window after dark.

The main upright stem must be placed right in the centre of the container, so that there is room for the rest of the flowers and leaves to be positioned all round it.

Using Curved Stems

To make the swirling patterns of the Hogarth Curve and the crescent moon design, as well as to give a sense of rhythm and movement to other designs, well-curved stems are required. Some leaves and flowers have natural curves, others can be shaped by hand after picking. Even strong twigs and branches can be encouraged into curves by putting the thumbs under a bud or joint




and gently pressing down on either side of it. (See fig 24.)

Seek out Nature’s beautiful curves. Study each branch before cutting it from bush or tree, and look at the stalk of each flower before picking. Apart from helping you to select the best and most pleasing pieces of material, this will also help to reduce waste.

Fig 24.

Broom is a favourite with many arrangers, for it makes a good, sweeping outline and is quickly and easily coaxed into a shapely spiral in the warmth of the hand. Loosely wind the pliable stems round the left hand, as though winding wool, and allow to remain there for a few minutes. When removed, the stems will have a gentle curve, which stays in.

All flowers with fairly long and supple stems can be moulded (gently does it!) in the hand to take on any desired curve. Simply stroke the stem between the thumb and first finger of one hand. The movement must be long, slow and easy, or the stem may snap.

A curving line can also be induced by placing a stem in the chicken wire with the palm of the hand facing down-


wards and the thumb supporting the stalk. As the stem goes into place, bear down upon it (but gently!) with the warm palm.

Wild Flowers

Wild flowers should never be arranged in over-elaborate designs. Simple arrangements, to match the unsophisticated charm of the flowers, are called for.

The smaller wild flowers, such as primroses, violets, wild anemones, and the little field daises, will sparkle for days in shallow moss-filled containers, which provide them with the slight humidity they seem to appreciate.

Miniature Arrangements

Miniature arrangements are irresistible, and I am seldom without one in my home. And what popular exhibits they are at shows! Women find them fascinating to look at, but most people fancy that they are too finicky to attempt. In fact, they look more difficult than they are, so do have a go—bearing in mind that a few flowers are better than a lot. Incidentally, some people use tweezers or forceps to put each tiny piece of material in place, and you may find this helpful, though to me it is like weeding in gloves, and I have never found it necessary.

For miniatures, a clear-cut design is vital, and flowers and foliage must be carefully selected to remain in scale with the container. You can’t just put big flowers into a tiny container and call it a miniature arrangement. Use this simple test: Imagine the arrangement photographed and enlarged. No matter how big the enlargement is made, every bloom and every piece of foliage should still be in perfect proportion.

How small should a miniature be? Well, the generally accepted definition is anything under four inches, but I


have found it perfectly possible to attain a tiny arrangement of under two inches.

What is Recession?

In all flower arrangements, large and small, recession is of vital importance. It sounds highly technical, but it only means that the face of the arrangement should have depth as well as width and height. Or, to put it another way, it should be like a 3-D picture not a flat photograph. This effect is achieved quite easily by cutting some stems short and pushing them well in among the other material. The result is a feeling of depth, added interest for the eye, and a quality of life and movement.

The newcomer to the hobby finds it difficult as a rule to appreciate that flowers can be made to flow not only upwards, forwards, and sideways but also inwards. The focal point is often seen at its best when the flower or group of flowers of which it is composed is pushed a little farther in than the surrounding blooms.

Never place flowers so that their heads are at precisely the same level, like a row of soldiers, nor put them in line one above another. Though every bloom is put in deliberately, the finished effect must be casual rather than stiff and regimented.

Finding the Faults

Each part of an arrangement must look exactly right. Each flower and leaf must fit in happily with the whole. Be a perfectionist, and don’t leave in anything with which you are not completely satisfied. If a thing looks wrong when you put it in, it will still look wrong when the arrangement is completed.

Look at your finished work through a handbag mirror, or through half-closed eyes. Either of these methods


(used by artists when looking at their pictures) will generally show up any fault in the design.

Frequently, some apparently minor detail will spoil an otherwise good arrangement. For instance, the whole appearance can be ruined by one stem crossing the line of another. Stems may cross each other under water, but they should never do so where they can be seen.

If you have to change the position of a stem after the arrangment is completed it is unwise to try to pull it out— you may pull others out with it. Cut it off instead.

The Right Feeling

Aim at a feeling of life and rhythm in all your flower designs. A stiff, formal, or set appearance is tedious and lifeless. You can help capture the right feeling by using flowers and leaves of different (rather than matching) sizes.

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