Friday, February 27, 2009

The Art of Unpredictability

A composition is simply an arrangement of the elements (in 2D art these are: line, shape, value, color, texture). It’s really helpful to think of these quite abstractly – ie. Not a house but a square or a rectangle, not a tree but a circle with a line, or rectangle emerging from the bottom

In quiltmaking the elements are usually: shape (i.e. patches of cloth), value, color and texture (or patterning).. For most quiltmakers, line is much less frequently used.

There are a lot of “checklists” available for assessing the strength of an arrangement of our patches of different values and colours and textures.One of the most important things is that the arrangement should be unified and harmonious – that there are no really sore thumbs sticking out! No bombs ticking in the pasture, or giant black blobs, or sudden unexplained divisions. Even if your piece is about disharmony and chaos, it will be too difficult to see it as a whole if every shape is unrelated to every other shape. I’ve not seen too many giant black blobs! But I have seen a lot of quilts that appear to be sections from other quilts sort of haphazardly sewn together – there’s one draped over a chair in my living room!

However, if you have complete harmony, things could get really boring. It’s important to have some contrast, some variety – this is also often called “tension” or “edge”. Sometimes called "counterpoint" - as in music...a melodic phrase or rhythm that opposes the main idea but works in harmony with it. Every shape should not be completely predictable, every colour shouldn’t be pastel and sweet – unless you’re aiming for complete and utter boredom. Beige people sitting on beige furniture in a beige house – how long would you really want to look at that?

While overall symmetry to achieve balance is helpful –( it’s difficult to look at a piece where there’s a heavy weight on one side pulling it down), perfect symmetry can get quite tedious. Asymmetry is actually not so much a lack of symmetry as balance achieved by means other than identical placement of identical objects. The old sketch of the fat boy sitting near the center of the see-saw (teeter totter) opposite the small boy at the far end of the other side illustrates that well.

Symmetry and asymmetry work together in good design. A piece that has symmetry without the tension of asymmetry is predictable and boring, whereas a design that feels balanced yet looks asymmetrically off-balance is exciting. A strong design should keep you wondering! In the old days they used to think that homeostasis (everything in balance, everything just right) was good for human beings, now they realize that in fact we do much better, stay more alert, more interested and more active if we’re slightly out of balance. And the same holds true in art.

A piece that has energy and tension will raise question. If it's too cutesy or sweet, slick, or trite (save me from that!) you'll just pass it by. In my blogs in late September last year I showed some work (stitched blankets) by Tracy Emin – very edgy work. You might not like it, but it engages you. And her misspellings (she’s dyslexic, and had little education) make you read every word and hear her voice. They’re unexpected.

Any piece of art or music or dance will have a basic structure of repeated elements. Variety (contrast, tension) is the counterweight of repetition. If you think about any piece of music that begins with a series of the same note (there are lots of examples in both classical and popular music), notice how although the note is the same, the emphasis, or the length or the colour of the note varies. And that’s what makes the phrase work! If you did a piece about a fence and every board was perfect, it would be an architectural drawing….If you had a knot hole here, and slight lean there, a gap somewhere else…it begins to be a lot more interesting.

Matisse wrote: “Ready made images are for the eye what prejudices are for the mind”. Frank Webb likes alternations of cool and warm which he feels adds excitement.

An artist is a “choreographer of space” (Barnett Newman) and every inch of the piece should be consciously considered to achieve the most interest. So negative spaces should also be examined to make sure there is variety and contrast – as well as the positive shapes. If you are making a quilt with squares mounted on a background, look at the background grid – is it totally uniform? Could you tweak it a little to gain some interest? Some uncertainty? Your piece will be stronger for it.

Don’t have every flower in the same pink fabric…if you add occasional touches of a different fabric it will bring the flowers to life. The contrast can be in any of the elements – if you have all straight lines…boring!! But one or two that just wiggle slightly..hmmm, what’s happening here? If all the shapes are identical? Bring on the geometry exam!! Instead…have some not quite complete. All colours are the same value? How Deadly!

In order to gain the viewer’s attention so that you can communicate and entrance them, there should be something that makes them look again? A little variety, unbalanced.. something to focus your eye on.

ello, ello, ello - wot's 'appening 'ere?!!! It works!

Above is an early quilt, you can see I've got a lot of variety already but I've squared the blocks off rather uniformly and the quilt below I rectified that error and allowed the blocks to make a more natural organic less predictable edge which I find a lot more interesting and engaging.

In the next quilt, my aim was to contrast the block look of the manmade forms with the more organic rounded look of the natural ones. also the triangles that repeat...are rarely identical - which makes the piece look a little bit less as if its made from a child's set of blocks (though I was also alluding to that!).

Having some conflict/contrast/variety/energy/tension – creates interest, relieves monotony. And it can it can be used with design elements. It can be used with different degrees to attain different effects. if there isn’t some variety your piece might be boring!! So never make any two elements exactly the same.!! Make repeats subtle, varying them (the line, the color, the shape, the value, the direction, the size, the texture). One way of varying is by using gradations. Above all - Don’t be too predictable!

And, if you have been, thanks for reading!!!
All comments will be carefully read! Be unpredictable!


Jackie said...

Thank you for the comparison of your two quilts and the explanation of what you were working toward in the last one. And thank you too for just writing!

Barbara Strobel Lardon said...

Thank you for a lesson on "tension". I completely understand now and see it comes from many things that make up the overall design and construction of the piece. It was so VISIBLE in your example of the two quilts, your early uniform one vs. the "less predictble edge" of the later one. How inspiring!

Olga Norris said...

I hope that you are writing a book.

Deb Lacativa said...

What Olga said, 'cept I expect an autographed copy cause I will be out peddling it for you.

thanks for this particular lesson at this moment in time

Elizabeth Barton said...

I need somebody to step forward and say - Elizabeth just give me the copy and the pics and I'll do all the rest!!!!