Friday, January 23, 2015

Drawing is a technical skill not an inborn talent

Every time I teach a class and suggest people make a quick value sketch before attacked fabric with scissors, there's always some poor soul who sadly regrets not having a talent for drawing.
Well there are something you are born with - like long legs, or red hair (I have one but not the other!! though I guess red hair is achievable!!)  and there are some things you learn as you go along.  Like learning to drive, learning to eat with a knife and fork (though I feel like my grandson will never master that!), learning to read and learning to write.  Learning to write - hmm - isn't that a bit like - er - drawing????  You copy shapes, right?  What is drawing? Copying begin with simple ones, copying printed ones, and then gradually get more complex and make up your own.  Is anyone born who is able to write without any instruction?

But - for the purposes of making art quilts, does one really need to be able to draw well?
The value sketch is just a rough road map, now you could draw an elegant map of how to get to your house from the nearest grocery store - or you could draw a rough sketch.  The latter would be perfectly functional - and that's all you need to plan out your quilt..
Here are some steps and tips I have found helpful from both books and a few drawing lessons: 

SubjectThe first step is to decide what you are going to draw! What is the best way of finding your composition? I think it’s helpful to use a Viewfinder or crop tools. You can actually buy cardboard frames with clear plastic in divided into 4 or 9…or you can make one – with or without the plastic..or you can simply cut two L shapes from card. I find the Ls easier when working from photographs because you can adjust the frame size. If you are working live, whether outside or in, then a Viewfinder you can hold with one hand is easier: simply move the frame (usually a rectangle, but whatever you want the shape of the piece to be) nearer or further from you. Most of us are used to doing this with a camera, so we already have helpful experience of this step. Sometimes I’ll take out my camera and just look through the lens to find an interesting composition.
when it comes to looking for ideas for quilts - I'll also do research on the internet.  I wanted to make a quilt with the outlines of hawthorn trees on it, for example - well they don't grow round here so I couldn't just go and photograph them (though that would be the best thing) instead I just searched for "images of hawthorn trees" and then made a quick sketchy copy of what I found.

The Beginning 
On a piece of paper draw in the first four lines: the outside edges, in the same shape and ratio of sides to top/bottom as your view finder or crop tools. Then, very faintly, indicate the “horizon” line, the line that is level with your eyes as you sit or stand. For example if you’re looking at a sea scene, the level of the sea against the sky is the horizon line, the end of the street in a street scene and so on.
Always begin with those first four lines - these are "grounding lines".

The edge connections.  Then make little marks (dashes or dots!) where the objects within the scene, whether trees or bottles or kittens,  intersect with those first four lines. This makes sure that you get everything into the drawing that you have selected in your view finder or crop tools. I know if I don’t do this I invariably run out of space!! It’s easy to see the half way mark on the view finder (vf) and the half way mark on the scene. For example if I like through the vf and see the edge of a roof. Where does that edge intersect with the frame of the vf? Is it half way up the left hand side? A quarter of the way from the top? As quilters we’re used to eyeballing these kinds of distances.
So if the roof line intersects with the vf on the left hand side, at ¼ of the way down from its top edge then I make a little mark on my paper at the same point i.e. 1/4 of the way down from the top edge.

I actually use this exact same procedure of looking for half way points, intersection points etc, in cutting out shapes freehand for a piece when I assemble a quilt.
And you use this same procedure when it comes to enlarging the shape onto fabric for your quilt when you come to cutting out.  So it's good to get in the practice!
Being able to do this eliminates the need for a full size cartoon when making a quilt based on a sketch.  his saves, time, gas, paper and pollution - what else could you ask for?!

Two dimensions is easier than three.  If you’re working from an actual scene as opposed to a 2-d photograph, it helps to reduce the 3 dimensional scene to only two. How d’you do that? By closing one eye. Before you do that, look at an object in front of you first with just your left, then just with your right eye. See how the object jumps?? That makes it very difficult to draw, because your drawing is only in 2 dimensions. So close one eye if you find that everything keeps jumping around!! Which one to close? Your less dominant one. 

 Look at what you’re drawing.  As you draw, look frequently at the object you are drawing if you want it to be accurate. Though one teacher (can’t remember if it was Hans Hoffman, someone of that ilk) – used to make his students look at an object in one room for 5 minutes, then sprint back to the adjacent room to actually draw it!! He felt that the exercise improved visual memory!! It certainly would improve one’s level of fitness!

 Elements (line and shape) only.  As you draw the contour lines, don’t think “boat” or “roof” or “bottle”, think instead “this line goes from ¼ of the way down the left hand side across to a point about halfway across and 3/4 of t he way down the rectangle (or square). Just think about lines going from point A to point B. Like little trails on a map.  
Sometimes it’s easier to think about drawing the negative shapes – i.e. the spaces behind things, while focusing on them you are less likely to be distracted by the actuality of the object.
thinking about objects in terms of shapes helps you to make natural and interesting arrangements much more easily.  If I gave you 3 triangles and 5 squares each of different sizes I bet you could come up with half a dozen pleasing arrangements very quickly.  If instead I said draw me a picture based on this photograph of 3 trees and five houses, I think you'd find it a lot more difficult.

8Angles  If the lines are angled, the easiest thing to do is to hold up your pencil against the view or the photograph and line it up with the angle…then, holding it carefully in the same position, mark that angle on the page. If that doesn’t work for you, then you could use a protractor. I like the nice big ones. Or…when working from a photograph, you can line up(i.e. make sure that the verticals and horizontals on both photo and sketch paper are all exactly vertical and horizontal!) the photograph adjacent to your sketch paper and put a long ruler on the angle on the photograph, such that it protrudes beyond and onto the correct place on the paper. I use this for cutting out correct angles too. I simply line up the sketch with my fabric and continue the angle out from my drawing to the cloth. Try it, it works!!

 Major shapes first.  Get the big shapes and the longest lines in place first. Details are far less important, don’t even think about them until all the big stuff is in place!!! No you can’t mess about putting in all those little windows yet! This is also Very True in designing quilts. And don’t think about shading or colour yet either!
Remember:  you generally put on your top and pants before adding earrings!

Light and Dark.  Before you start shading, decide where the light is coming from (or...Where you'd LIKE it to come from) ….if you’re inside, set up a single light source, if working plein air the most interesting times to go out and draw are early or late on a sunny day – because of the nice long shadows! Having shadows creates depth and adds to the value range. If you take a picture of nearly any quilt, scan into photoshop and increase the contrast (Image-adjustments-contrast), it will improve it. Why? Because you increased the value range. What increases the range? Light!
If you are working from a photograph, look to see where the darkest darks and lightest lights are. What was the direction of light in the scene? You don’t have to necessarily follow this (Rembrandt didn’t always) but it’s better if you use light and shadow thoughtfully.
It’s easiest to spot the very darkest values first, so start with those. I think it’s helpful to have a little value scale (even if it’s just 5 values: light, med light, med, med dark, dark) drawn out on the side of the paper to refer to. Do the darkest darks, note where the lightest lights are and reserve those. I often put a little pencil dot in them so I know “don’t shade this!”. Then look for the mediums. Do make sure you have a good range of values. If you look at our very best art quilters you will see that in all their major works, there is a great range. And remember the Photoshop experiment!! Push the light values lighter (if you’re using a pencil simply erase) and the dark values darker.

Maturing on the wall.  Finally, when you feel you’ve finished the drawing, pin it up on the design wall to mature for a few days or weeks…if there’s anything untoward it will make itself known! Believe me!

Anybody who can write their signature can draw - with practice.
If you have been, thanks for reading!  Elizabeth  

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Orthogonality of Art and Craft

It's fun to go out with a few friends and look for inspiration!  Before we set out yesterday, my little photography group (Magical Mystery Tour Photographers)   got together for an excellent potluck lunch (so love potluck meals!! a great invention) and chatted.  The old question came up from one of them: is photography art or craft?  A question we've heard so often in the textile field.  I expounded my theory that the two are orthogonal - i.e. not related in any way, but at right angles to each other.  Any art practitioner (I hesitate to use the word "artist" without actually defining it) can be low or high (skilled or unskilled) on either art or craft.  

Think about this in terms of quilting.  A quilter low on art but high on craft would make incredibly beautifully crafted quilts that were either dead boring or absolute reproductions of traditional work.
Like those Jacobean sampler quilts I've seen - appliquéd stylized flowers on a dark background - every stitch and shape meticulous, copying the published patterns.
Whereas a quilter high on art but low on craft might make something that was extraordinarily creative but had lumps and bumps and unintentionally hanging threads and bits that didn't quite come together.
Somebody trying to make a quilt for the first time might follow a pattern from a book and have very bad stitching too!  The worst of both co-ordinates!
And the place where we all aim to be, of course, is high on craft: beautifully made work that is also incredibly fresh and creative and marvelously composed.
There is no either or or!!!  I can be tall or short, I can be fat or thin.  I can be tall and fat or tall and thin.  I can be good at mathematics and poor at languages or brilliant at both.   We always want to be good at everything of course!!  And we all know what it takes:  time, persistence and good teaching.

So, don't spend your time arguing whether it's art or craft, rather spend the time practicing!

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

Oh...and here's one of my photos:

 Below two quilts that this kind of photograph inspired: On one, I've added other colors (grey, brown) to the palette but kept with the branching movement of the lines.

And on the one below, I've used the palette and the contrast of skinny lines with larger dark areas:

Thursday, January 8, 2015

A new quilt

I've been wanting to make a quilt from a sketch I did of my home town, Athens, Ga  ages and ages ago  for some  time and FINALLY (with a little bit of help from my friends) I got round to it:

It's only small (19 by 25 or thereabouts)- but I think there are good reasons for working small these days.  I'm finding that the businesses and institutions that used to buy the larger work are no longer buying as much art work as they were - this happened with the recession and things haven't picked up much. Well at least they haven't in the South.

But, more importantly, working much smaller gives me a chance to try some ideas out, if I really like a piece and think the design works well there's no reason why I shouldn't make it again - only much bigger...or for that matter, just a little bit bigger!

It's been a while since I worked with my screen printed fabric - of which I have a Great Stash!! - and it was lovely to get back into it.  Not that I made all the fabric in this piece, my friend Linda Levin kindly donated the beautiful greens and browns.  The black fabric I had screen printed with gold pigment.  I made a photo emulsion screen some years ago of trees in winter (just the best time for looking at trees!!) and it makes wonderful fabric.  I've been wanting to use this particular yardage for some time.

And it's also great to be back with working with an  "overhead view" - I always said that when I died I wanted to come back as a condor - not that we get many condors flying over Athens, GA - but this is what a little sparrow sitting on a window ledge at the top of Academic Hall at the University of Georgia might see!!  Good enough!!

Feel free to make comments and offer me Vast Sums of Money!!!
and, if you have been, thanks for reading......Elizabeth

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Basic Dyeing for Quiltmakers: A New Class: You Do It!

I really don't like to have to use commercial fabrics and commercial colors in my quilts -
 I want it to be all mine!
 "Me do it" as the toddlers say!!
oh yes, I'm told I was truly one of those ornery independent little tikes!!

I really like to keep things simple so that's what I've tried to do with this class.  But I also like to understand how to make certain colors, and why some color schemes work and others don't.  And so this class explores some of that in a little more depth than usual. For example, one of the sections addresses neutrals in great detail: what they are, how to create them and why you might want to use them.
I also describe how to choose colors from a color inspiration photo, and then dye them all yourself!

If you’ve never dyed before,
 this is the class to take.
If you have taken a class but ended up feeling confused about the whole process,
  this is the class to take.
If you have taken a class, and felt like it was all too much work,
   this is the class to take!
If you have taken a class and had wimpy or muddy results,
   this is the class to take!
If you have read about a class where you had to dye thousands of little square samples before you could even think about what you needed to make that quilt you have in mind,
   this is the class to take!

If you want to be able to dye a reasonable approximation of any color you see anywhere,
   this is the class to take!

There's still time to sign up for my new class for which starts on Friday Jan 2nd!   Academy of Quilting classes are priced very reasonably - they suit any pocket, you can study and learn all sorts of things in your own home.  I love online classes - no travel, no worrying about airports, no traffic jams, no trying to figure out who should look after things at home.  Plus in online classes you get to meet people from all over the world!!  Do join us!

And, if you have been, thanks for reading!!
A Happy New Year to Everyone - full of the Joys of Learning!!  Elizabeth

PS all the quilts shown are ones I've made with my own hand-dyed fabrics

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Keeping Quiet

I wanted to reproduce a   poem by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1904-1973), (translated by Alastair Reid) for you which is called Keeping Quiet....but alas the required permissions to do so are incredibly laborious.   The publishers (not the poet!)  want me to have a copy of the book in hand so that I can fill in a form with about 20 different esoteric bits of information - almost to the point of counting the full stops (periods) in the entire book!!! Plus full details of my entire existence!!!

The poem is so appropriate at this time of year - when we're singing about silent nights but not really thinking (or cogitating!) about the importance of silence.

 The message is so strong - for all of us of course, but for artists in particular.  It is difficult to create beauty in the midst of noise and chaos....we need silence.

It begins:

And now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth
let's not speak in any language,
let's stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

and here's the link to the full read it.

 All my very best wishes  for the holiday season (however you celebrate it) to all my blog readers.
And if you have been, thank you so much for reading all year long!  Elizabeth

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Question of Confidence

I recently asked several folk what they felt were their chief weaknesses in art quilting and was surprised by how many responded that they felt one important thing was that they didn't have enough having confidence in themselves as an artist.

I remember seeing a study of disadvantaged youth in LA who were not performing at all well academically - they were giving special training in self esteem.  It was thought that what they really lacked was feeling good about themselves as people.  At the end of the training, their self esteem was indeed improved...but their academic performance was, if anything, slightly worse!

Some years ago Robert Hughes was quoted as saying:

"The greater the artist, the greater the doubt;
 perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize".

Now I do know that just because all As are B, it doesn't mean that all those who are B are A!!!
So I'm not suggesting we start giving lessons in doubt!  But also it's clear that encouraging confidence in one's art is not going to be helpful either - IF the goal is to improve the Art.

And it really does depend on what the goal is:  we do know that confident people generally do better in the market place, they are considered better student by their teachers in school, are more likely to be hired in the job market, make more sales etc....and if your goal is to sell your art - not matter how mediocre it is, then probably working on improving confidence is a good idea!!!  But if you want to make better art, then do two things:

1.  find out is good
2.  practice doing it

yeah - I know!  No easy answers!  I always used to hope that over the next hill in whatever I was learning, or in whatever endeavor I was engaged, there would be a green and pleasant valley where everything was easy - amazing art would literally drip from my fingers!!!  Then I started reading about famous artists and their doubts, their constant struggle and I realized that uncertainty is the norm in good art.  If it's getting easy, it's probably getting trite...

So...don't worry about confidence!  Don't be fooled by the confident...instead ...get back to the art of making art!!  

If you have been, thanks for reading!  I'm off to perfect the art of making a nice cuppa tea - it just needs a little more practice.    Elizabeth

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The List of Important Features

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an artist should have a singular “voice” or style. 

People say this is important.  One's work should be recognizable for various commercial reasons, getting into shows and so on.... but I think a much better reason is that the only way to become really really good at something is to practice it over and over and over.  If you’re practicing a lot of different things at once, you simple won’t get as much practice at one thing. Of course I'm as guilty of this as the next person !!!

It's so much fun to try a lot of different new things, but like any kind of performance, whether gymnastic, or pianistic or artquiltistic you need to practice and perfect one type of piece.  In quilt making, at least, we don't have to work on the SAME piece over and over - though it really seems like a few (well-known) people do!!  But I do think we need to be making the same kind of work - whether it's delicate little appliqués, lots of embroidery, amazing chunks of surface designed fabric beautifully balanced (nobody is better than Elizabeth Busch at this), or the ubiquitous "improv', knock-offs from Gees Bend, quilts.

And talking about Gees Bend, I saw they currently have a show in Atlanta airport, and the pieces are small and completely unfinished - they are small framed tops...definitely worth checking out if you're in the area.  It's at the T gates - I can find no mention online as to how long the show will be up, but Bonnie Hunter's blog has some pictures.  Also the Metropolitan Museum in NYC has just announced a gift of 20 of the earlier Gees Bends quilts from Southern Art collector William Arnett.  Brilliant!

But back to our own work: while having a clear style  is partly the result of much practice and experience, it is also, I think, a matter of knowing your own taste.  Some day - when you've nothing better to do! - it's a great exercise to print out (or line up on your computer screen if it's big enough - scrolling through on a "smart" (so called!) phone does not count! - to print out at least a dozen images of quilts you've seen that you really really like and admire.

Looking at them all at one go, what similarities can you see?

1. Is it color?   or black and white? neutrals, restrained sophisticated color schemes?
2. Representational, impressionistic or abstract?  landscape, cityscape, figurative?
3. Improv or designed?
4. referring back to traditional quilts?  or not?
5. Using a lot of surface designed fabric?  Or commercial fabrics? or solid colors?
6. does the content relate to a specific topic?  like nature? or social commentary?
7.  what is the emotional impact?  An expression of beauty? of elegance, of energy? or something else...
8. Is fine workmanship a major feature, what particular skill does the artist demonstrate?

I'm sure you can think of other topics, and the images themselves will suggest topics to you - please put them in the comments so that we can all add them to the List of Important Features.

Once you have the list...take a look at your own work - how does it compare?  are these things that you find are most important when you are Looking at other people's work, evident in your own work?  And if not, why not?  Why are you not making the work that really turns you on??

Well...after so much cogitation, I think a nice cuppa tea is in , if you have been, thanks for reading!   Elizabeth