Thursday, April 16, 2015

To be Equal or not to be Equal....

Just read a charming little children's book about design that says a great deal quite succinctly.
it's called A Book about Design: complicated doesn't make it good   by Mark Gonyea.

He states that good design rests on how we perceive relative shapes, sizes and colors (amongst other things).

In Chapter 1, he begins a little narrative of two shapes, let's say two squares, equal in size and while different in color, the colors are both mid value and equal levels of saturation.  Wherever you might put those shapes in your design, neither is really dominant.  They're equals - and like the two players on a tennis court, you look first at one, and then at the other.  BUT if one of those tennis players is a LOT bigger, or in human terms a much Bigger Name, then that one will stand out.

But...the story continues....the second lesser named player develops an attribute that makes us want to look at her.  It could be anything, a funny wiggle, an unexpected tremendous backhand, or perhaps she has a bright orange dress and the Big Name wears a plain grey one.  Any change in one person's shape (the wiggle), the color (bright saturated orange) or ability (stature of her playing) will now make her the dominant one:  the one we want to watch.     She has drawn attention to herself.

But then....the Big Name develops the same attribute, when Lesser Namw wiggles, she wiggles - since they're now both wiggling (just imagine!), neither is dominant.

But then, the Lesser Name, changes her racquet and suddenly her game improves immensely - now we start watching everything she does again.

So you can see how, when you have two or more squares in your quilt, any changes you make to one square will affect the other.  They might begin as equals, but if you do anything Interesting to one, then we'll see that one as dominant - it will dominate our attention.  This is human nature, we're hard wired to do this.  Interestingly even if it's negative.  So we all paid a lot more attention to a certain ex-governor of Alaska because she was different - even though she was different in largely negative ways.  She made the other candidates look somewhat boring!  Until of course, another candidate with a Different Quality came along, and then our attention went to that one.

So two clear points  to remember:
1. Make it a bit different and it will stand out, and it will also make the other one look less interesting.
This works with all the shapes in a quilt design, it works with athletes, comedians, politicians, products in the super market etc etc.

2. When things are in close proximity, they affect each other.

Well that's just Chapter 1!  This is a kid's book with profound implications for life!!!    Definitely succinct to the nth degree!!  Strangely enough, my kids thought the book boring - and I, the designing grandma, though it fascinating.....hmm is second childhood on its way already?

If you have been, thanks for reading.
  Now to go and play with shapes....     Elizabeth

Friday, April 10, 2015

Developing a Style


A lot of people worry about "developing" a style.  Style is something reviewers like to write about.   But what is said about the topic is getting to be a little predictable and doesn't show any real imagination on the part of the reviewer.    They probably like to write about it because if an artist has a particular "style" it means that you as the viewer or Reviewer (one who looks again - if you think about it!) can appear very knowledgeable and say aha yes that's a so-and-so!!  Humans do like things to be recognizable - we like to be able to predict our world! We especially like to be One Up on those predictions!

Reviewers urge artists to develop a style and consequently many art quilt makers feel this is an important step on their journey...I've learned to piece and appliqué, I've learned about values...oh what's next ?  Aha ...develop a style!  And then one must make a Body of Work.  When I hear the phrase a Body of Work I always think about a human body endlessly (though not,alas, tirelessly) working and working and working...  I actually don't understand why the collective term for art work has become a "body".  It's nothing like as imaginative as a Murder of Crows, or a pride of lions, or a shrewdness of apes!  Or how about this: "an ostentation of peacocks" - isn't that wonderful?
and then us artists are down to a plain old Body.  A busy body usually - if one wants to develop that body.  It does sound rather muscular doesn't it?  I think maybe they want to put us off by making it sound hard.  Of course to develop the body, one needs a trainer!  So I think maybe in future i should style myself as a trainer.  Now I wonder if that would be called developing a style?
However, enough of these linguistic fantasies!    A Batting of Quiltmakers?

But apart from plumping up the egos of the know-it-alls, are there any reasons why one should Develop a Style?  And should this be done Deliberately?   Can  it actually be done deliberately?  Or should one just sit back, wait and hope that it will come like  the Tooth Fairy and that if we lie very still with eyes tight shut we might feel the firkling hand beneath the pillow?

As to the HOW one might deliberately develop a style...I think that's actually fairly straight forward.  Look at the art you like...narrow it down, print out your top 20 favorite quilts every - no matter who made them.  Pin them up on the wall and look at them.  What are the commonalities?  Once you know that, then deliberately build those commonalities into your work.  Yes it will feel weird and cumbersome at first, like developing a new tennis playing style, or a new hair style, or a new kind of handwriting, but soon it will become a part of you.  OR, you will realize, no I'm just not the kind of person who only works in black and white - or whatever it is - and you'll drop that aspect of style out.
So it's definitely Doable...and this will also happen gradually (as long as you don't take TOO many workshops in different techniques!) by itself as you narrow down your interests and fall into similar ways of working.

But WHY should you develop it?   Well "they" say it's because people (those d...d reviewers again!) like to be able to recognize your style.  That in the famous gallery in which you'll now be invited to show - having got your Style, visitors can recognize your work.  That everybody who wants something covered in Red Dots (or whatever is part of your style) knows to look through your portfolio.  But are these good things for you?  Do you want to be "classified"?  I've read about the problems in the popular singing world, that if you can't be classified as Rock or Reggae, Soft or Hard, Metal or techno, you're not attractive to the labels and the outlets. But is that really also true of art? of quilts???  Well perhaps so - in some ways.  I read that it's still the case in some quilt shows that one has to say whether or not one's work is pictorial, or abstract, figurative or landscape etc and that they will change you into another category - or reject you - if you don't fall into a specific type. But that's hardly a reason to limit yourself.

Now I do think there's a lot to be said for working in a series, and in fact devoted several pages to the why and how of doing that in my second (and probably last!) book:  Working in a Series.  And it's very likely that working in a series will lead to you developing commonalities in your own work - but wanting to Develop a Style Before you've made a lot of work, before you've worked in a series, etc might well be putting the cart before the horse.  Which makes it an uphill battle for that poor old nag!

So, since I don't want to continue beating the poor old nag of a topic!  I think I'll make a nice cup of tea and just not worry about style...I'm going to leave that up to the reviewers!
If you have been, thanks for reading!   Elizabeth

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Classes...No "it's lovely dear"!

I"ve discovered that something I really like to do is research for upcoming classes.  I just don't know how some teachers teach the same thing for years and years.  When I taught at a university having three sections of the same class nearly did me in!!! Everybody else said "oh thank goodness, less prep" and I was thinking "how on earth will I get through the boredom of repeating the same material over and over?"!!!

Of course performing artists  (I suppose in some way a teacher is a performing artist come to think of it!!), do find a way to give each performance a little different flavor and meaning, but I bet even some of them were composing their grocery lists while they played a sublime Chopin nocturne!!!

Anyway this last week I've been working on three new Power Point Presentations - how I love being able to be So Visual in the classroom - for my upcoming Master Class on Cape Cod.

In my Abstract Art for Quiltmakers online class (which starts again this Friday by the way - do check out the website,   we examine the work and the processes used by female abstract artists of the 20th and 21st century.   From that study I was able to come up with a LOT of different ways one could design a quilt...and it's so much fun trying them out.  This is a great class and very popular, by the way.

So for my Cape Cod Master Class (June 8-12) (if interested contact Linda Gallagher at - Linda has organized a great venue, 5 day class with lunch provided, and she has all the info re accommodation, travel etc), having "dealt with" the almost unknown female abstract artists, I thought it would be really interesting  to see what the men had done and what we could learn from them.  There are some amazing inspirations out there!  So that was a wonderful lecture to put together and I plan to show you how to analyze and derive ideas from their work.

  But did I stop there?  NO!!!  I was having some much fun, I've also put together two other assignments, one about the hidden order, the structure beneath a design which is a) vital and b) completely ignored (as far as I can see) by most people, teachers included.  The third thing we'll do that week is look at the best ways of working from a photograph - using all the knowledge we've gained during the week.

I'm hoping by the end of the week on Cape Cod and by the end of the 6 week online class , students will have a huge amount of knowledge, a great many quilt designs, and at least 3 quilt tops cut and pinned ready to finish. Actually for the online class, they should have 5 quilt tops!

One of the most vital things for making progress in any endeavor, is helpful, supportive, honest and clear-sighted critiquing.  A lot of teachers I've noticed  find it easy to get away with "oh that's lovely dear, now onto the next thing".  Well that sort of teaching approach has never helped me - I always want to know what's right and what's wrong, how can I improve, what solutions could I consider in improving the work. As my piano,  square  and French teachers are discovering!!

Obviously you don't want to be destroyed!!!  Everyone needs encouragement to continue trying, but you also need some pointers, some direction.  How can you fix a problem if you can't even articulate it?  I really think education took a step backward when the idea of letting the student discover everything for himself became universal.  Now there are situations where that is the Ideal response - situations where you know the student has the knowledge to analyze, find the difficulties and fix them, but  expecting people to find an answer without that knowledge basis is an avenue fraught with frustration.  There are a few highly motivated people who can do it - yes - but in my experience those folk usually are applying analytical skills they obtained in a different field - which is great.  I'm all for transfer of skills from one area to another.  But for most people who want to get to the top of  the mountain, helping them achieve their goal by pointing out the trail, the list of equipment you need, and the right way to climb over the rocks etc, etc etc is the better way.

I'm really looking forward to trying out some of my ideas.  And the online classes inspire me to real life classes and vice versa.  And then they inspire books!  (Inspired to Design, and Working in a Series, both published by C&T, came from my online classes).

And now back to my research....if you have been, thanks for reading!  I look forward to seeing you in class - online with the academy of quilting or in Real Life on Cape Cod (  Elizabeth

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Looking Into Space...

Traditional paintings (prior to the late 19th Century) usually portrayed a sense of depth or 3-dimensionality –  foreground, middle ground and background.  Once cameras were invented, painters began to explore ideas other than the reproduction (however beautiful) of a specific person or scene.  Many painters chose to flatten the space in the picture as they wanted to emphasize the idea that a painting was just that: a painting.  It does seem ironic that after the struggles of painters in the Middle Ages and Renaissance to develop depth in their work, just a few centuries later artists would be eschewing such pictorial ideas!!  In fact, some of them even pushing in the other direction with reverse perspective such as David Hockney has played with.

Most traditional quilt patterns don’t involve ideas of depth: their abstract designs were well ahead of abstraction in the fine art world!  (Which, of course, the Whitney eventually realized with their show of the Gees Bend Quilts a few years ago!).   So for art quilt designers today there is a choice – shallow space or deep?  Do we want to convey the illusion of deep space or not?  If we do, there are a number of devices by which this can be done.

  People ask me about perspective; I personally rarely use it to indicate space – but I do, however, think it’s important not to get perspective wrong unintentionally.  Quilts that have a lot of perspective drawing are of a much more controlled style than I am interested in.    If you look at books on linear perspective drawing, all the illustrations look like blueprints rather than art. However I do think it’s worthwhile to read a couple of articles or books on the subject and work a few examples, so you have a sense of the different kinds of perspective (one point, two point etc), how it’s indicated in a reproduction, where the horizon or eyeline is  and what effect that might have upon various 3D objects in your design.

Apart from actually using perspective there are a number of tools you can use to indicate depth - and these are the ones that most artists do use.

Overlapping: if we see a picture of an apple in front of a box…we “know” the apple is in front, we don’t think that the apple is behind the box which has an apple-shaped hole cut in it!  The same for a man in front of a wall. or a tree in front of a lake.  Overlapping is one of the major ways by which we judge depth.  Think about it when you’re driving around town!
edgeoflightIn this quilt, “Edge of Light”, I’ve used overlapping to indicate the rows of cottages being in front of the water and the distant hills. I haven’t really used any other devices as my interest was in the way the far group of cottages caught the light, rather than distance or other concerns.

Size:  if we see a tree in the distance, it actually looks much smaller than a man right in front of us standing on our feet!!  we don’t think we have a giant right next to us and a bonsai in the distance…our brains automatically compute – smaller therefore further away. 

In the quilt on the right, Ferrybridge, I don’t mean to indicate that the terrace houses at the bottom of the quilt are larger than the cooling towers at the top, rather that they are a lot nearer – so they are bigger.

This quilt also uses placement on the picture plane to indicate depth – the lower an item is on the quilt, the nearer it is to us, the higher it is, the more we read it as being further away.

That's obvious, because if something is small and far away it's not going to be visible behind everything anyway.  Our brains soon get used to figuring these things out.

Interestingly, it is the brain's experience that does figure it out - it's not built in.  If your brain was deprived of distant views from infancy, it would be much harder for you to see and understand this kind of depth.

Colour can be described in 4 different ways: hue, value, intensity and temperature.  Each of these can be used to indicate distance or closeness.  Things that are further away tend to be bluer (as we are looking at them through all the moisture and dust in the atmosphere), the colours are less intense, the values are lighter, and the temperature is cooler (towards blue, closer things being toward red).  You can see some of these colour changes in the quilt below (Overlook):

The amount of contrast and detail you put into an area can also indicate distance: more contrast, more detail..nearer the foreground – less contrast, less detail…the background.
In Greenhouses, the trees in the front  are more detailed.  The foreground of houses and trees is much more detailed and with a lot more contrast, than the middle ground of darker more amorphous shapes, and the distance of soft hills has very little contrast or detail. 

Of course in real life and in designing life, you wouldn’t just choose or use one device alone to assess distance, usually there are combinations.  And, as you can see from above, you don’t always have to follow all the rules!!
If you want to experiment with designing with space – consider foreground, middle ground and background: 3 distinct levels of space. Starting with the furthest point in the landscape and building forwards..developing more contrast etc.

And, if you have been, thanks for reading! Now for some space!

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Golden Ratio - golden? or merely efficient?

I've often wondered how important the so called golden ratio really is in art.
It's one of those things that "experts" love  to talk about ...but anyone who labels anything in art as a "rule" has me thinking "why?"....actually I must admit I wonder why about a lot of rules...BUT that is another issue!
As art quilt makers it's important that we know which guidelines are really useful in designing...and which are more the result of one person repeating what another said, and another repeating  that.  Like the old story of the famous grandmother's recipe for roast turkey which involved cutting a 2" slice off each end of the beast.  The family swore for years this was the secret to her perfect roasts, finally somebody asked the old lady the reason for this rule..."oh", she said, "it was to fit in the oven, I only had a small oven!".   And cooking isn't the only place where strange superstitions and practices have built up over the years...maybe we're all turning round and round before we peck at the feeder like Skinner's chickens!!!  And I want to know why?

But first....what is this Ratio anyway?

Well, here's the standard definition:
The Golden Ratio the result of dividing a line into two parts  (part a and part b) in such a way that:
the longer part (a) divided by the smaller part (b)    is also equal to
the whole length divided by the longer part (b)

There's only one number ratio that will do that and it's approximately 1.618033989...
It is exactly equal to (1+√5)/2 - if you're the mathematical kind...which I'm not...alas!

but mathematicians really love these special numbers!!!  And in mathematics the 1.618 number turns up everywhere e.g. in a pentagon - hence the "magic" of the five pointed star...but I digress.

There are many books and articles written about the importance of  this ratio in art, in architecture, in painting, in photography (photographers cling onto their Rule of Thirds almost as tightly as to their cameras), in poetry, in music and in nature.  The Greeks revered it.  Kepler said that in geometry there are 2 treasures: pythagorus and the Golden Ratio.

So last week I went to a couple of lectures by the Famous Calculus Professor (FCP), now retired and keeping his mind active by examining any claims as to the magic of numbers!!

He showed us 9 different rectangles:  which one was the most pleasing?
They were all different ratios:  1:0.75, 1:1, 1:1.25, 1:1.5, 1:1.6, 1:1.75, 1:2 etc

Take a look and see which one you think is the most attractive:

Opinion was somewhat divided but people did tend to prefer certain ones.  Scroll down to the very end to see which one is the so called "golden" one.....

So is there something to this?  Have artists, architects, musicians etc across the ages used these particular proportions to increase the beauty of their art form???  
When the the GR experts show a picture of the Parthenon with the GR lines drawn around it.  You can see, if you look carefully, that the position of those lines is largely arbitrary - done simply to create that ratio – do you include the steps or not??!!!  It’s very random.

There is some evidence that Le Corbusier actually did use the number. But images of Mona Lisa with lines drawn on it are quite arbitrary too – often they don’t include the whole face!  You could actually take any portrait and just randomly draw lines on it and sooner or later you'll come up with the right ratio.

People have spent a lifetime analyzing the number of words in verses e.e.g Vergil’s Aeniad….showing  that they agree to the GR.  But you can count up the words or  the syllables in so many ways you can create something that approximates the GR if you pick your object carefully.

They thought people like Mozart used the GR and counted up the notes, or the phrases etc etc…but a careful analysis shows the same problems with music as with poetry. Imagine counting all those notes?  and what about chords? d'you count them as 2, or 3  or 4??

Despite numerous claims that they did, one prestigious Latin professor even built his whole amazing career on revealing this in various writings - despite analyses of the art of Da Vinci and Micheangelo and Vergil and Dante and Mozart etc   most of them DID NOT use this ratio.  They simply used whatever felt right for their particular art form.

So is the whole thing about the Golden ratio a load of hooey then?  well....having thoroughly debunked its use in art, the FCP (who is definitely not an LCD!) turned to nature and the Fibonacci series.

Now you all know the Fibonacci number sequence...a lot of quilt makers have used it in designing their quilts.  This is the sequence where you simply add the two previous numbers in the row to create a third number:  0, 1, (then 0 +1 = 1) so 1 is the next number, but then 1+1 = 2, so the next number is two, and 1+2 = 3....

0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34 and on and on and on upto at least 17 thousand digits (somebody had a big computer and a lot of time on their hands!!)....

Now,  consecutive Fibonacci numbers have a particular ratio to each other....and guess what?  yes!  it's 1.618...very approximate in the smaller number but by the  time you get upto 233/144 it's spot on.

Then we looked at flower petals, and the spiral lattice you see on the bottom of pine cones and pineapples.  Counting them up we realized that there were 13 clockwise spirals and 8 anti clockwise spirals.  13/8 = 1.625  - pretty close to THE ratio!!   
But why? why does nature "choose" to use the Golden Ratio, the magic number beloved of mathematicians where artists (of whatever medium) actually haven't?  The answer is efficiency.  The best way to get the MOST little seeds into a sunflower head, or pine cone, is to create the lattice effect of two sets of spirals that are related in that particular ratio.   And if you're going to survive, you want as many of your little babies out there as possible.

So...the ratio is Golden for survival, but...really not at all crucial for art!  So don't worry if your ratios are a little off, your thirds not quite corresponding to the norm, Da Vinci didn't, the architects of the Parthenon didn't, Mozart didn't....just smile gently at the critic or the teacher who insists  on concrete, permanent, eternal rules without question!!!  

....and now for a nice cup of tea after all that hefty cogitation....if you have been, thanks for reading!

and the answer is:  number three.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Elements of Design: creating them on fabric....then using them.

My Dyeing to Design online class starts this Friday: March 6th (it's with academy of quilting).
This class is a really broad review of different ways of creating value, color, texture, shape and line.....on fabric...and then how to design a small quilt using those fabrics.

When you're designing a two dimensional art work you only have (believe it or not!) five things, known as elements, to arrange ......and they are value, color, texture, shape and line.
 However juggling five things at once isn't easy.

So I thought it would be fun to write an online class where we look at the elements one by one.
First creating them on fabric - using a variety of different surface design techniques (low water immersion, arashi shibori, screen printing with dye) - and then designing with them.

In the Value lesson, we mix dye concentrate (once mixed you've enough for the whole class...and for several months more experimenting if you wish!) and then make a set of fabrics of 8 or 9 different values - tones - from very light to very dark.  You know how you can never find more than 2 or 3 different values of a single color in commercial fabric?  And if you buy graduated hand dyes, they're in those dinky little packets tied with a ribbon - and Not Cheap!!
It's much better to learn how to do it for yourself!
Then I discuss how to use value in designing a quilt - and you make one too..

In the Color lesson, you can dye many different colors...but then think about choosing a good color scheme for a quilt...and  then make it!

In the Texture lesson, you learn how to make those marvelous arashi shibori patterns on cloth - in an easy way!!  This lesson alone is worth the price of the entire course!!  I used to make this fabric and sell (well not dinky beribboned packets that's not my style!) chunks of it...but now I think it's much more fun to teach people how to do it.

In the Line and Shape lessons, you learn how to create these elements on cloth by screen printing with thickened dye. And then make quilts...

The whole course is designed to make you think about and become familiar with the use of the different elements of design.  It also shows you exactly how to create those elements and then how to use that fabric in a quilt.  So it covers a lot of ground.  It's fun....and educational!!  I love learning and I hope you do too.

Of course I like having fun as well....and best of all, feet up thinking about what I've learned..along with a nice cup of tea.

If you have been, thanks for reading!  Elizabeth

P.S. I'm happy to answer any link on the side bar at the  top of the page.

Monday, February 23, 2015

A Little Dissonance

"Do you mind a little dissonance?"said the piano teacher as we discussed how to play a certain phrase.
I said I loved it - and realized, in saying  that, that the same principles hold in all the arts.  In pictures (whether made from paint or fiber*) we call dissonance "edge" , in pictures that move (i.e. films) it's known as dramatic tension - but it's the same phenomenon in all.  Even in a romance we would be bored silly if the heroine's romance was perfect from start to finish!  Boy meets girl, they fall in love and ride off into the sunset is pretty dull after all!!  no no we want girl meets boy, they fall in love, then Something Happens and all is in jeopardy, but with a courageous effort from somewhere, all is resolved!   Look at Dickens and the trials and tribulations his central characters went through in order to achieve their Great Expectations - which of course always turn out to be different, and nobler, as a result of the trials endured.  Classic Greek drama too.  And in cooking!!!  if all the tastes and textures are the same, it becomes so bland...even if all the colors are the same.  At the convent school I attended for 12 years - yes 12 years martyrs have done less time! - we would have grey mutton with white fat, white and grey lumpy mashed potatoes and cauliflower boiled down to a pinkish grey mush....yes even, I mean especially! - in food we need color and contrast! I learned about contrast early!

What purpose does the contrast, tension, edge, dissonance serve? why do we need it?    there area number of reasons.  The Greeks felt that in order to be completely satisfied by the drama we needed to feel different (and strong!) emotions when experiencing it.  Keen interest, horror, anger, despair, relief and finally joy.  Running an engine at all its different speeds gives it a good work out!
Eating a meal with different tastes, different oral textures, even different temperatures is so much more enjoyable.  Contrast not only draws our attention, it enervates us.  It tunes up our senses and our emotions.  it makes us feel and see and hear so much more clearly.  it is much richer an experience than the bland simpering sweetness of the Hallmark/Kinkaid variety.

How is the dissonance/tension achieved?  In music you can contrast rhythm, color (with different keys), timing, legato vs staccato notes, single versus many notes etc.  Now do these things sound familiar?? Oh yes:  contrast in values, contrast in color, contrast in shapes both positive and negative, textured versus solid fabric.   It's all the same principles in art quilts.

Very interestingly,  self taught artists  have always been very aware of the need for tension - think about jazz, think about the "who'd a thought it" quilt makers of Oakland and Gees Bend fame whose work lead to exciting new developments in art quilts in the '80s and '90s.   They were less bound by the "rules", less concerned to be following them, and more interested in the actual Impact of the work.
As Picasso noted to be able to paint like a child but with the knowledge of the trained artist was the way forward, the goal in art.

Does it work if the whole art work is dissonant?  Well....a protest song maybe....but generally if it's all dissonance we'll turn it off, tune it out.  So we don't want too much, we want a little tart salt, a little bitter lemon, a little vinegar on the chips (fries to y'all!).  The contrast in sound, or sight or taste or feel makes each component much richer.

I'm always looking for good topics, topics that are central to making exciting art work, for my Master Class (there is a significant waiting list for  the online version by the way, but do email me if you are interested.  Also there are just a couple of places left in the Actual version to be held on Cape Cod this June, email ambasatrvl AT for details).  I think it would be fascinating to see how we can introduce dissonance into our fiber pictures, our art quilts, using some of the ideas I've learned from music and the other arts.   I shall sit down with my laptop and a nice cup of tea and do a bit of cogitating on this one!

Consider adding dissonance!
And, if you have been, thanks for reading!    Elizabeth

* It's curious, isn't it, that if the artwork is made from paint it's called a picture and if it's made from fiber it's called a wall hanging.  And yet, most pictures are also hung on the wall...and art quilts are really pictures (whether abstract or representational).  I think I might refer to myself as a maker of pictures in future!!