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Bright Ideas



When we think about how the environments we create are used, the first image that probably comes to mind is one of people enjoying themselves in or near the water on a beautiful, warm afternoon. That’s natural – and a vision that’s a big part of the watershape experience we set up for our clients – but it ignores the other half of the day when our clients are left to themselves with our work.

The fact is that watershape owners are mostly working people who spend their days away from home earning their daily bread. So despite the fact that we build these things in daylight and seldom have the occasion to see them after hours ourselves, we can assume that there are going to be long stretches when the only time our clients see their watershapes will be at night.

That’s why I’m so often startled to hear about projects where nobody – landscape architect or designer, general contractor or watershaper – has given any thought at all to how their work will appear once the sun goes down. And I’m open to confessing the fact that, up until just a few years ago, I was one of those thoughtless people.


I know it’s been discussed more than once in the pages of WaterShapes, but judging by what I see in the field, it’s a subject that bears mentioning from time to time: For whatever reason, lighting has been almost completely ignored when, in fact, it should be considered as a primary design element to be discussed with our clients from the very start of a project.

But in so many situations, lighting is obviously an afterthought, and it’s clear that nobody’s thinking about ways of maximizing the visual potential of a given space once the sun goes down. That’s a shame, because when you do see a space that’s thoughtfully lit, it takes on aesthetic values that simply cannot be achieved in full sun. And I can only believe that wrapping ourselves around some basic lighting techniques will be good both for the aesthetics of what we do as well as for our bottom lines.

Indeed, I see no downside at all to embracing lighting possibilities early in the design process and offering a broad range of options to the client. Yes, developing competence with lighting technology and techniques takes some time, but the simple truth is that we can use it to extend dramatically the amount of time a space can be used. It’s also true that we can create nighttime spaces that are even more inspiring and moving than their daylight counterparts.

We’re not on our own here. We’ve learned through our experience in setting up courses for Genesis 3 that there are a number of resources for information about lighting. Hadco, for one among many, offers seminars at its facility in Texas, and we’ve staged sessions with well-known lighting designer and author Janet Lennox Moyer. These are wonderful resources, and I know from my own explorations that there are many others out there.

What I’ve learned in familiarizing myself with this corner of the design process is that I can approach the task of working with lighting much the same way I do the design of a pool or any other type of watershape: It all begins with a fact-finding mission to obtain important information from clients about how they plan to use the space and what’s most important to them.

If, for example, you know the environment is going to be used extensively for nighttime entertaining, you would likely approach things in a different way than if they say they merely wanted to add visual interest to a space that might occasionally be seen from inside the home at night.


Given the tendency for lighting to be a late consideration in outdoor design projects, I now make it a practice, as early in the process as possible, to determine who is going to be responsible for the landscape illumination. As I mentioned above, it’s amazing to be working on a project with several participants only to find blank stares when I raise the issue. To be sure, I’ve occasionally been pleasantly surprised to find that someone’s on top of things and that lighting is an integral part of the plan, but that’s a rare occurrence.

This is why I now take it upon myself, whenever necessary, to raise these issues and make sure they’re part of the design mix. I also think that all watershapers should ask the question, even if you’re not prepared to step in and take up the task yourself.

Let’s assume for the moment that you’re willing to step up and embrace lighting considerations: What you’ll find is a veritable design bonanza in which you can use lighting to set up focal points and create specific effects having to do with depth, ambiance and contours or with highlighting shapes, colors, textures, planted materials and the reflective quality of water.

This is a big step beyond what most of us consider, and I think I know the reason why: We may meet with our clients in the evening for an introductory discussion, but after that, we’re on the job site in daylight hours doing what it takes to pull a project together. If our “schedules” were different, we might see things differently.

I frequently walk around my own neighborhood in the evening, and it’s an interesting experience. There are some very nice homes hereabouts, but the landscape lighting for most of them is, at best, unimaginative: perhaps a bit of path lighting, maybe some up-lighting of a tree or two, and, among the more paranoid of Miami residents, an amazing urge to rekindle daylight in the darkness with flood-lighting so overpowering that it would confuse chickens.

When I do see a property that’s thoughtfully and tastefully lit, it’s always striking how much more interesting the yards and structures become. This leads me to think about ways I can capture similar effects in my own design work to sculpt and define a setting.

There are, of course, two sides to lighting – design and aesthetics on the one hand and technology and techniques on the other. To work effectively with lighting, you need to understand both. None of it is all that complicated: You just need to expose yourself to the possibilities and experiment a bit with the effects you learn to create.


This magazine has done a great job through the years of exposing watershapers to the fundamentals of lighting, so I won’t go into great depth here. What follows is intended to give you the vocabulary and perspective you need to seek more information and to converse intelligently and insightfully with professionals who can help you define and achieve your design goals.

I’ve also learned as I’ve dug more deeply into the subject is that lighting effects are sometimes quite subtle and difficult to describe. In other words, you have no option: You need to get out in the field, pick up some fixtures and begin exploring this subject on your own, even if it’s in your own backyard. Education is an important first step, but practical exercise is the key to real learning!

What I’ll cover here has mainly to do with techniques you can use around water, and some of it is fairly obvious. (There are also issues of safety and security wrapped up in the discussion somewhere, but I won’t focus too much on them here.)

[ ] Spotlighting: We’ve all heard this term and probably have a general idea of what it’s about based on the familiar image of a performer standing on a stage and being lit by a single, tightly focused beam of light. In this classic case, you see the performer front-lit from above, with a strong shadow cast against the background – and the principle isn’t much different in a landscape, where a focused beam of light illuminates an object, whether it’s a specimen tree, a sculpture or a cascade.

In all cases, spotlighting is used to create a dramatic focal point within a space. Doing it properly requires care when it comes to selecting and mounting the fixtures, with the avoidance of glare always being a priority. You can spotlight objects from below or above, depending on the site, and you can work from a point relatively close to the object to be spot lit, or from some distance away – again depending on the site.

I’m always impressed by the range of products available for this purpose, especially by fixtures that throw a focused beam over considerable distances. Also surprising is how great a range you’ll find when it comes to scale: There are systems designed to highlight very large objects, such as trees, but there are also tiny spotlights that work in confined spaces to highlight a single small plant or maybe just the face on a small statue.

[ ] Silhouetting: With this technique, you cast light on a vertical surface to show off an unlit object that stands in front of that surface, thereby drawing attention to the dark silhouette of the unlit object. This technique is not about showing off the color or texture of the object. Rather, it’s about taking the dramatic outline of a tree, sculpture or rock structure and amplifying its most distinctive qualities.

The key to silhouetting is effective backlighting on, usually, a wall of some kind that stands behind the object, and it’s usually done with a floodlight that disperses light evenly over a large space. In effect, you look “through” the unlit object to find the light, creating a dramatic contrast and the silhouetted image.

This technique works with large objects – artworks or trees with dramatic trunks or branches – but it also works on smaller scales with simple plants and garden statuary. And silhouetting sometimes happens inadvertently, usually as a result of path lighting bleeding onto surrounding surfaces. Even this accidental form of silhouetting conjures interest, so imagine what you can do with it when you deliberately work with this technique.

[ ] Shadowing: This technique works in much the same way as silhouetting, but to a completely different effect. Here, you set up an object in front of a wall, but instead of washing the wall behind it with light, you set the fixture out in front of the object so a large shadow is cast on the surface behind it.

Palm Highlights

One of my recent projects includes a variety of design elements, including (among others) a fireplace, a waterfall, and a large Egyptian Date Palm located in a raised, circular planter. That tall, regal tree seemed a natural candidate for some distinctive sort of lighting. In particular, I wanted to highlight the rough texture of the palm’s trunk with a lighting technique known as grazing (discussed briefly at left in the main text).

By washing the trunk with soft up-lighting, we were able to draw attention to the palm in a way that’s not possible in the full light of day. The effect is particularly dramatic when viewed from across the water’s surface, where the reflection of the illuminated palm dances on the dark water.

Bower SBDuring the planning phase, the homeowners didn’t fully understand or appreciate just how dramatic this effect would be. But when the project was completed and the area lit up, they were thoroughly impressed by the sight of the majestic tree and particularly enjoy the way their view of it is essentially mirrored and distorted on the surface of the water.

— B.V.B.

I like this technique for the way you can take small objects that might get lost in daylight hours and give them huge, distorted shadows that can be quite visually compelling. It’s a great way to accentuate unusual branch structures in trees, or small contours in sculptural or architectural elements.

[ ] Grazing: This is another simple technique, one accomplished by placing a light source just a few inches from the base of a façade of some kind and aiming its beam straight up, just skimming the surface. This works wonderfully with textured surfaces such as brick or with stonework that has a sculpted quality. As the name implies, the light grazes the surface, creating tiny shadows that accentuate and deepen recesses and makes the high points stand out.

[ ] Contrasting: This technique is best explained with an anecdote about the Washington Monument told by Hadco’s Bud Austin at one of his company’s lighting schools. According to Bud, who’s forgotten more about lighting than most people will ever know, when the obelisk was first built, they lit all four sides equally from the bottom up with a series of powerful floodlights. What they found was that because the entire object was being lit to the same intensity, the drama of its form was being lost.

After much study and consideration, it was determined that they would light two of the four sides with lower-intensity lights, thereby creating a visual contrast that sharpened the edges between the planes. So now when you see the great tower at night, you can notice that two of the sides are dimmer than the others and that you can appreciate the beauty of the simple form from miles away.

That same principle can be applied in lighting any number of vertical structures, including pedestals on a deck or pots holding plants: If you light these objects equally all the way around, they won’t “pop” as much as they would if you lit their surfaces with lights of varying intensities.

[ ] Moonlighting: We all like the softness of moonlight, and you can achieve a similar effect by placing soft lights in or above the branches of a tree and letting the glow filter down through the branches – another remarkably simple technique that can pay big dividends when it comes to setting an ambiance or mood.

This effect can be combined with other simple effects to create visual layers. For example, while the branches of the tree are lit with moonlighting, the trunk of the tree might be highlighted with a small, upturned floodlight at its base.

[ ] Path lighting: This is one of the most familiar forms of landscape lighting and is usually done with a series of shielded or capped lights mounted at regular intervals along the sides of a path. The safety and utility aspects of this lighting are self-evident – and pretty much essential when you have changes of elevation, winding passages or uneven surface materials.

I also believe that, in well-designed spaces, a thoughtful array of path lights will invite homeowners and their guests out into the yard and encourage them to explore the environment you’ve developed. This is especially true if the path takes a turn and beckons observers to find a “hidden” space.

[ ] Spread lighting: As the name implies, this is the opposite of spotlighting. Instead of highlighting a single object within a space, with spread lighting you cast a general light that doesn’t highlight anything in particular. In some cases, it’s accomplished with floodlights; in others, the technique uses the same sorts of fixtures designed for path lighting, just dispersed over a larger area.

[ ] Step/deck lighting: As with path lighting, there are obvious safety issues involved in the lighting of steps. The trick here is to light the elevation changes evenly, but to do so without creating glare.

Step lighting often differs from path lighting in that it’s frequently done with recessed lights (in step risers or on stairwell walls) or with fixtures that have some sort of hood or shield that sends the beam downward rather than up into your eyes. Many of the same sorts of fixtures are used to light decks, either in walls, pilasters or columns or set up underneath benches or other low structures.

[ ] Water surfaces: Capturing the ever-changing textures of a water surface with light is something with which every watershaper should be well versed. There are different ways to do this, however, and doing it well often requires some ingenuity and creativity.

As an example, I’m currently working on a pond that’s 50 feet long and has two bridges crossing over it. The owner wanted to do something with submersible lights, but I advised against it because watershapes that house fish and plants, even properly maintained, can appear murky when lit from below the surface as a result of turbidity. Instead, we’ll spread a soft light on the light-colored undersides of the bridges, bathing the surface and edges of the pond in a warm, gentle glow.

In other cases, I’ve recognized that the big trick to lighting the surface of water is all about avoiding glare: The instant a hot light shines up into someone’s eyes, the entire effect is ruined. As with lighting dry horizontal surfaces, you need to find ways to shield the light source so it doesn’t create glare. The added challenge with water is avoiding additional glare reflecting off the water as well.

[ ] Mirror lighting: I’ll conclude our discussion with this technique, which is a truly wonderful addition to the watershaper’s bag of tricks. The effect is about lighting a background scene so that it will be reflected on the water’s surface.

Typically, this involves placing light sources at low levels between the water’s edge and the vertical objects you wish to light beyond. This will create a dramatic view looking across the watershape at the lit objects; in addition, it creates a strong reflection across the water. (Glare is undesirable here, so path lights are not recommended for these applications.)

When this technique works, the results are spectacular. The Taj Mahal at night is one example, where the beautiful spires shimmer on the surface of the structure’s long reflecting ponds. The Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial are similarly reflected on the glassy surface of the pond that separates them. The best thing is that this technique works on a small scale as well and is equally effective in a typical backyard with much smaller object and spaces.

Next time: more on types of lighting fixtures and applications.

Brian Van Bower runs Aquatic Consultants, a design firm based in Miami, Fla., and is a co-founder of the Genesis 3 Design Group; dedicated to top-of-the-line performance in aquatic design and construction, this organization conducts schools for like-minded pool designers and builders. He can be reached at [email protected].

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