Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Advice to Aspiring Art Quiltmakers




A few years ago the famous thriller writer Elmore Leonard was asked for his advice to aspiring authors and he came up with a number of “rules” – let’s say Guidelines – I dislike the word “rules” because it inhibits people from deviating if they have a good reason for doing so.
After Leonard’s guidelines were published, a number of other authors were also asked for their thoughts on the topic.  And, of course, Rilke’s little book “Letters to a Young Poet” antedates them all and is well worth reading.

Now a lot of Leonard’s advice addresses literary style but what it boils down to is avoiding clichés and intrusive but meaningless details.
Cliches in art quilts are ideas that we’ve all seen before e.g. the silvery moon in the sky to add interest to a large dark area.  Why not use a strange curious raggedy cloud that almost obscures the moon – you’d get some interest up there without the old clichés.
Meaningless details are things like including signs (say in a street scene) “because they were there”…..a STOP sign adds nothing to your impression of the street and may well be very distracting.

I think also another very unnecessary detail is an overly pretentious title, or “statement” that is somehow attached to the image.  I do wish that the catalogues from the prestigious shows would stop doing this!!  How often have I seen people spend 5 minutes reading the statement and 5 seconds looking at the quilt?!!

And of course Leonard did say to avoid too many exclamation points of which I personally am very guilty when writing!  In art quilt terms, the exclamation point would, I think, be an area of high contrast or saturation of color where nothing very important was actually going on.  Be very selective with this – only use such emphasis where you really want to catch the viewer’s eye.

Other writers have commented on the value of having other people look at your work and tell you what they see…however they suggest that you do not listen to how they say you should fix the problems!!  Listen to the difficulties they spot…..but figure out your own solution.  There are a number of reasons for this – not least that it’s important to be able to fix problems for oneself.  But also because their solutions might well not be in keeping with your own ideas that you’re trying to convey.  Be especially carefully if the critic is very didactic!!!  Originality and freshness are much more important that a standard academic solution to everything.  One art professor would always give me the same suggestion for every problem, I don’t know if he was lazy or just stuck in a rut!!  But I quickly realized that one solution is not going to fix all design errors.

The writers also state that honesty is important – make the art from the heart, telling the story as you see it.  I think it’s interesting to chat to strangers in waiting rooms, or eavesdrop on conversations, to see just how much of what we say and report upon is automatic and not a fresh personal vision.  Become an eavesdropper and see if you can become aware of the honest valid statement – whether verbal or visual – so as to heighten your ability to produce these yourself.

The authors say it’s important to read a lot of books!! 
 The artist should see a lot of art – you cannot get better without doing this.
Spend your money on good art books rather than magazines full of adverts for the latest “quick fix”.


Try to find a way to look at what you’re making as a third party, rather than as you yourself with all your inside knowledge.  One way I’ve found to do this is to take photos constantly as I block out the quilt on the design wall.  Then I view them on the computer monitor – you could even put them on your tv – in the same way that I might look at anyone’s work on the small (or large) screen.


Now here’s a very interesting idea from Zadie Smith:
Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.
I think that’s a brilliant piece of advice – don’t struggle with a technique  you’re not good at; you don’t need to be a “well-rounded” artist!!  Respect those that can do that, but spend your own time going deeper into things that you are skilled or knowledgeable at.  This is one of the many reasons for working in a series (more in my book!!  See the sidebar).  You don’t have to learn everything, especially not those things that require more gadgets, more workshops, more how-to books etc.
 
Zadie Smith had another very applicable idea, which was to leave some time between writing and editing.  For quilt makers, I’d suggest make the top, then leave it for a while and come back to it weeks or even months later.  You’ll be able to assess its impact so much better with a gap in time.  I like to make several tops and just put them away…when I’ve got about half a dozen on one theme, then I’ll pull them out and take a long hard look to see which need adjustment, which need the scrap bag and which should be finished.

Well this blog is getting too long – final comment: spend more time on art than on reading blogs!!
And so I shall take my own advice……if you have been, thanks for reading!  Elizabeth

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Dyeing to Design online class...

My Dyeing to Design class with the Academy of Quilting starts this Friday.  It's a really fun class that's aimed at both the beginning dyer and the person who wants to extend some of their dyeing practices.
I emphasize Safety and Ease of Use!

There are five design elements with which most 2D artists work and I've devised a dye technique that addresses each one.
So we start with value:

You can buy value strips like this one, but you can also make them with Photoshop or a similar photo manipulation program, I just began with white and added 10% black, then 20% and so on.

In the dye class we make fabric like this in the first week.
Then I give you suggestions on how to use this in a quilt.
Then we get to see everyone's lovely quilts!!   Especially me as I'm a big fan of black and white.


The second week we look at color:
Using just 6 different dyes (you really don't need more), we create all kinds of colors, discuss color schemes and make a quilt featuring one of them.

The third week we explore texture with tie dyeing, particularly the "storm" texture of arashi shibori where the cloth is twisted and tied onto a pipe.  You can create fabric like this:


The fourth week we create shapes with a variety of screen printing techniques:
And in the final week, we look at  line:
See the skinny lines on some of the tanks? 

Each week one or more new techniques, each week a quilt top the subject and size of your choice!

If you're interesting in joining us...please contact the Academy of Quilting! 
What's really fun is that you'll be joining people from around the world!!!  My current Working in Series class has people from the USA, Canada, Australia and Tasmania, New Zealand, Europe and the UK and Africa!!!

and now back to the sewing machine......if you have been, thanks for reading!!  Elizabeth
 PS  my website has moved: it's now: www.elizabethbarton.com and I've revamped it.
The old one was on the University of Georgia servers and in June they're going to close down all personal websites, so it's still running but will disappear soon.


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Slow Art of Learning



 I love learning, but I want my learning to be efficient! There simply isn't enough time to learn all I want to learn in the time available (whether the amount per day, or in terms of years!). So I've been reading about the best ways to learn, practice and improve. 

By the way that's me, on the left,  learning to dance "plus" in square dancing; pictures of me trying to learn to make better art, play piano, speak French, write etc etc would be too boring - no good visuals! As you can see, in dancing as well as in quilts, I love black and white!

This was taken at the Art Fair that I and two friends put together last weekend...we had a great time.  It finally occurred to me that ART wasn't just paintings, photographs or quilts hanging on a wall, but was also dance (insofar as you can call what I do "dance'!), music and acting...and a bunch of other things too of course.  So we added all those into the Fair and it was Excellent! And, by the way, the artists sold more of their work!!  So if you want a tip for making your Art Fair successful......add square dancing!

However, back to  learning....from music to soccer the advice seems to be: break it down into small pieces, take the difficult bits and practice them VERY SLOWLY while remaining totally focussed.  Studies show that it's not so much the Quantity of practice (though of course that is definitely correlated) but the Quality that leads to improvement.  Far too often we keep going over and over the fun bits - because they are just that!  But we ignore the difficult bits and just muddle through and hope for the best.  And make little progress.   In this last week I've been in three different group learning situations in three different art forms and have heard people say that they practice a lot but they're on a plateau and not making progress.  Whether you're making an art quilt, learning to play a sonata or executing a Spin Chain Exchange the Gears, if you don't go through the most difficult bit very slowly and thoughtfully totally involved in what you are doing, it's very likely that you will stick at the same level.

 Now that is absolutely fine if that's all you want to achieve and you're having fun - but over and over I hear people saying, "oh he/she is so lucky, they are so talented."  Most people (7 foot tall basketball players aside!) are NOT born with some amazing talent, they have learned and learned and learned very efficiently and slowly. Yes, even Mozart! and Picasso - read their biographies!

Ignore those producers of Stuff that constantly urge us to work quickly!! That is to their benefit (more product consumed, more product purchased), and not ours...if you want to be talented, break the task into small bits, focus and Go Slowly!

And now for a nice, SLOW cup of tea..if you have been, thanks for reading!  Elizabeth

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Artist's Prerogative



 
It is the artist’s prerogative to reveal the beauty of common things to those who havn’t noticed!
Most of us usually do notice a gorgeous sunset, or a pretty child or a cuddly kitten.  But how many spot
the beauty on stained tanks of chemicals?
 As John Carlson put it in his highly recommended book on landscape painting:

 "the need is for something more than a commonplace truth".

It is the artist’s task to help/make the viewer see the beauty in things that they might well have missed.
  This is true regardless of the image that is being created.
 Still life: whoever looked twice at an old bottle?  Morandi helped us to see the nuances of color and form.  Dominie Nash shows us the amazing pattern and structure of a few items left lying on a table. 


Monet showed us the varying light on haystacks – pretty ordinary looking things one wouldn’t normally give much time to…and if you look at photographs of the actual scenes that Cezanne or Van Gogh painted you’d be amazed at how ordinary and prosaic many of them are.
You don’t have to go to Venice to find wondrous ideas, they are as close as your nearest supermarket!

People in my workshops sometimes say - I don't know what to make a quilt about, everything been done!!  Yes it's very true of sunsets and puppy dogs and sweet little cottages nestled in landscapes, to say nothing of those eternal sheep on the green hillside (these days they're probably statues anyway!), but what about the beauty of the everyday things that you see - the shadow of light on the bathroom wall, the dandelions (a sadly under rated flower) pushing their way up through cracks in the pavement, the accidental superimposition of two images, or the juxtaposition of oddities.   The keys of a piano seen from an unusual angle, the moss - oh the moss!! And yet I hear of people trying to get rid of it!!!
.
 What images, what little secret vignettes are stored in your brain?   Your memory is a good place to work from for it exaggerates the essentials and the trifles become blurred.  This is especially helpful to the artist.  Remember, if you just create (in whatever medium) that which is exactly there, the literal truth, it's frequently dull and unexciting.
Push the good stuff!! forget the rest!Always tell the story well, emphasizing the main action, don't worry about the details of  what the weather was like when it happened, or what Mrs Smith said when she heard about it!! Unless she had the wit of Oscar Wilde, of course!!



It's curious but true that the visual memories that often have the most impact are those that seem to go far back.  Carlson feels that much creative work is founded upon our earliest impressions, when everything was new and fresh and we had no preconceived notions.  Those early images  "ripen" as memory and feeling get to work on them.   They are our artistic inheritance, a treasure trove of ideas.  Furthermorewe may well be excited by something we see now precisely because it triggers these old early memories.   That might be why I see beauty in industrial buildings having grown up within sight of a gasometer!  And, very interestingly, artists are using gasometers as objects of beauty.  There is a show about to start in Germany based on many views of them.

I wonder how many artists have made quilts about cups of tea though, I think I'd better make one and get a few ideas!!
And, if you have been, thanks for reading!!  Elizabeth




Thursday, March 13, 2014

Hearing Yourself Thinking, Hearing Yourself Seeing.





I just read a very interesting article in a new (to me at least) magazine of interviews (actually called Interview, it must have come free with something and has been totally fascinating reading) about two famous NYC art critics: Jerry Saltz (New York magazine) and Roberta Smith (NY times)  married to each other for years. They are two of the best known, most influential art critics of our time. They go out to see 25-30 art shows per week!  …then race home – (or perhaps stagger with stimulus overload!) and write their reviews.  Some of the things they discussed totally resonated with me.

 Roberta Smith said that the act of writing the review itself is the real test of one’s view of the art.  “Writing is a process that tells you what to think” – that sometimes your real feeling about the art you’ve seen isn’t clear until you try to put it into words and make sense of it. That's why I feel it's so important for us to develop an art vocabulary - words help us to think!  Just try it without!

Roberta Smith commented that quite often “when you look at art, you hear yourself thinking things you don’t want to be thinking”!!  (I know I’ve had thoughts at some quilt shows – and many art shows too, that I certainly felt I didn’t want to be SAYING, though I don’t know about thinking!)  She feels that your opinion can switch as you look at the work: initial dislike can change to like and vice versa, that you might go in with a very positive attitude but then as you look more, discover things you really don’t like.

They both advocate that one should take one’s time when viewing art.  They feel that “that whole Gladwellian “blink” first-opinion-is-the-best-one is terribly anti-intellectual to begin with, but for art it’s disastrous”.  And yet, how very often is this how our art quilts are judged?  The jurors for the prestigious quilts shows talk about having to make judgments just about as fast as the blink of an eye.  Certainly I felt that many of the judgments in a local art show I just visited where probably made when the judge’s eye was actually blinking!!  Because they were blinking ‘orrible!!!   

Smith and Salz recall some of the art that in the end they developed the greatest respect for, they had actually hated at first glance.  They suggest that one revisit art multiple times, letting your doubt work for you as an important cognitive process.

They also advocate that a critic – or juror – should know nothing  at all about what the artist thinks – no artist statements…let the art speak for itself.  I’ve never understood why the quilt catalogues require such statements and I don’t read them.When I do critique sessions in my workshops, I try to prevent the artist from speaking – not always possible of course!! The work of art itself is the artist statement, you don’t need more. 
 “Don’t talk, I can’t hear myself see!”

And, if you have been, thanks for reading!!!  Elizabeth


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Serial Work


There's a lot of buzz these days about working in a series. A few years ago I made about ten quilts all based on "the Idea of the City" - each one 60" square...I had one show where they all hung together and it was amazing....

 Working in series is not a new concept at all - Van Gogh made many different paintings of his vase of sunflowers, Edvard Munch produced a lot of Screams!!  Must have been quite hoarse by the end!
Our most famous quiltmakers, also, have always picked an idea or a theme, whether based on form or content and worked many examples of it.  I remember reading with fascination Nancy Crow's beautifully illustrated first book: Nancy Crow, Quilts and Influences, (only $5 second hand on Amazon, an amazing bargain), and seeing how she would take some formal idea like three or four strips of fabric, joined and then cut into squares and rearranged and make many different examples of it.

And, of course, the Log Cabin pattern, one of the most traditional of traditional quilts has numerous variations.

So, why work in a series anyway?  Why did all these people do it?
 What is so helpful about doing it that most major artists, in no matter what medium, all seem to do it?

And the Big Answer, the Most Important Answer, is because it works!  yes, this particular mousetrap is worth beating a path for!  Serial work leads, almost inevitably, to better work.  I say "almost" because you have to keep pushing, not just iterating.  Serial work doesn't mean developing a formula and sticking to it for the rest of your life no matter how stale it becomes - we've all read those awful potboilers, and I'm so disappointed when an author with great promise in his or her first few books gets caught up by the great "publish and prosper oligarchies" and starts churning out one stale hamburger after another.

And if you want to know more about serial work, I just happened to have written a book about it!! I promise there are going to be no potboilers, or stale hamburgers issuing forth from my keyboard, however!  The book is on Amazon: Working in a Series, published by C&T.  Or you can contact me for a signed copy, I still have a few left. (link on sidebar at the top).  Or you can sign up with the Academy of Quilting for my Working in Series class which starts this Friday.

Take a look at your own work - you might be surprised to find out that you've been serializing yourself!!
And, if you have been, thanks for reading.............Elizabeth

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Importance of being Focal





Why are focal points important?  It’s because they are a tremendous help in capturing people attention – a very good reason for having, or at least considering, using them.
I’m assuming that we want people to look at our work?  Even though there are a few artists out in the desert or closeted in their own homes who make work for reasons other than viewing , and often brilliant work too, they are rare. Rosie Lee Tompkins was a prime example of this.  For most of us, we want people to look and be fascinated.

We want to be fascinated ourselves! I’m struggling to learn watercolor and I can say without a doubt it’s a lot harder than quiltmaking or piano or square dancing – the other things I’m working on. I’ll paint a picture or two and if there are no glaring horrors (alas far too many of those), hang them up on the wall, and see what happens.  Usually they bore me stiff within a very few days.  They just look bland and blah.  Well, there’s a lot of reasons for that, but a key one is lack of a focal point, or center of interest area.  In fact there’s usually a whole lot of no interest at all!  And I feel that about many quilts that I see online. 

The focal point (also termed center of interest) is a technical way to provide interest or emphasis in a work of art; it serves to capture our attention initially and then, hopefully, keep it – as least for a short while.  Usually the focal point is pretty obvious in a representational work, but can easily be achieved in an abstract piece too.

Can you have more than one focal point?  Indeed yes, but one should be more important than the others. A more focal focal point, or in the case of the tenor on the stage a more vocal focal!! (sorry, couldn’t resist!).

As to how to achieve the focal point? There are several techniques.
I think that contrast is one of the most important.  Contrast in anything: shape, line, value, color or texture.  A big shape among little ones, a jagged line amongst curved, a very dark value in a light area, a highly saturated color on a neutral background, a detailed flower amidst soft blurry ones. As human beings, we are drawn to the one that is different.  There’s probably a good survival reason for this, but we can exploit it to make our work stronger.

Isolation can also  be used: one element is alone, there’s a lone child on one side and a group of kids in the rest of the photo – where would you look?




Placement is another possibility – if an element has all other elements pointing towards it, our eye tends to go to it.  The light at the end of the tunnel.  The ball in the golf game – to which everyone’s gaze is pointed.

Of course, if want you want to communicate “the sameness” of everything, the unrelieved repetitiveness of it – like some Techno music – then you can deliberately avoid having a focal point.  In a way, then, the absence of a focal point becomes the focal point. Andy Warhol’s soup cans are often cited as being an example of this.

And sometimes if there is a lot or overall interest and variety, as, for example, in a sampler quilt, then our attention will be caught by the multitude of ideas we have to explore.  A multitude of focal points!

So, if you do have a focal point where should it be?   Unless there’s a specific point to be made with an unusual placement, we’re both used to, and more aware of, a placement that is just a little ways off the exact middle of the work – in any direction.  Having the focal point right on the edge of the piece (unless the message is alienation or something like that) is not as effective in keeping our attention on the whole piece.  Having it slap bang in the middle (unless we’re communicating something about targets, or feeling like a target) tends to make the work rather static.

Look back at photos of your quilts.  Do they have focal point or not?  Take a couple that don’t have them and using software like Photoshop or Gimp, add one in – using contrast, isolation or placement.  In this case, contrast is probably the easiest to achieve. Print out both versions of the quilt and show them to a few folk and ask which one is more interesting.  Don’t tell them what you’ve done!  Just test out the idea that having a focal point makes an art work more intriguing.

And now, my focal point is a nice cuppa tea!!  Off to put the kettle on!!
If you have been, thanks for reading.  Elizabeth