I’ve read quite a few instructional art books now and they all begin with an outline of the basic elements and principles - the strange thing is they tend to vary these!!! But of course that’s artistic license, right? Sometimes, even, elements are described as principles and vice versa! It’s actually quite straightforward though: the elements are the things we arrange in the two dimensional space formed by the backcloth of the quilt, and the “principles” or guidelines are simply suggestions on how to make an interesting arrangement.
I usually begin my workshops with an overall discussion of these but there are many more nuances in choosing what to arrange and where to arrange it than can be quickly remembered. I know my work will be stronger if I can become more aware of these nuances. So over my next few blogs or so, I’d like to take a look at some of the concepts particularly as applied to quilts I have made.
Once I’ve decided the principal concept, or main idea of the piece, drawn a number of rough sketches and decided upon the size of the piece, I outline a rectangle on the design wall. This is equivalent to the painter selecting a canvas or sheet of paper and a lot of sketches. I then quickly put in the background colour – like a wash of colour behind the main painting. Much of this fabric will get cut away later in the construction of the piece.
The next step is to make the shapes!! This is the most basic thing – the patches! We are the shape makers! As quilters, we have a great advantage in that we can make a tangible shape that we can move around very easily. Cut out interesting shapes: they don’t have to be realistic, it all depends upon the main concept and your own aesthetic style. I like to hint at things, so often will make a shape that has some of the characteristics of the house (or whatever) in the original sketch, but not all. Painters know that it’s important to involve the viewer. Don’t just spell it all out for them. Also as human beings we tend to see value shapes – the darks and the lights….remember when you were a child and you’d see a tree or a monster in your room at night? Then when you switch the light on it’s both the shirt hanging on the wall+its shadow + the coathanger! We add the dark shapes (or vv) together to make one value shape. I try not to cut shapes that are an exact replica of the object in real life. Remember Nicolaides (The Natural Way to Draw): “it is necessary to rid ourselves of the tyranny of the object as it appears!”
You also don’t have to include every single shape just because it is there in the original scene. Alex Powers calls this the
How big should our shapes be? I think it’s important to look at a lot of art to see what you respond to..e.g. if you look at Milton Avery or Diebenkorn you’ll see scenes reduced to a few large shapes. Arthur Dove does this too. So firstly, I would prefer to not have too many shapes (even though I break this rule a lot!!). I’ve seen various numbers mentioned but a good starting point would be somewhere between 10 and 15 shapes (this is overall shapes: the shirt+ the shadow + the coathanger). It helps to have the average size of the shapes in proportion to the size of the piece. (e.g. the average size of 12 shapes in a piece of 12 square ft would be one square foot).
Obviously though, you would want some variety in size.
If you have more than a dozen or so shapes it gets difficult to arrange them – for the ideal is to consider the relationship of every shape to every other shape as well as the relationship to the sides of the rectangle. How many shapes can you juggle? To achieve fewer shapes, group them, or zoom in on your main idea. This is something that you would do at the sketching stage, of course.
Too many small shapes are more likely to cause problems than too few big ones.
In the quilt above, A new day, you can see I've made an arrangement of value shapes, I've added chimneys to rrofs, sides of houses to roofs etc to make more interesting shapes then arranged them into a value pattern that alternates lights and darks across the piece.
Once I’ve cut some interesting shapes then I begin to arrange them within the rectangle I’ve outlined on the wall. At first I follow my sketch, but soon I find it better to relate the positioning of the new pieces to those already pinned onto the wall. You’re aiming for an arrangement which is balanced but not so much so that it is static. Here’s an early quilt of mine (Aiming High), you can see that the arrangement of the basic shapes is very static, too symmetrical. Also a little top heavy. I’d do it differently now!
There’s a number of different ways you can begin your arrangement…I generally start with some of the bigger shapes. If arranging flowers, I always begin with the biggest. But another possibility would be to begin with the focal point or area, the greatest area of emphasis in the piece, and then work out from there. This is the area of greatest contrast and greatest definition. You can see it here in Aorist at the only place in the piece that doesn't have soft curving lines.
But not every piece needs to have a focal point.
A quilt I just finished, Five Mills Rampant, is more about alternation and reversing than about one specific visual point in the image. The focal point in that piece is much more abstract. So in that piece I began by establishing that value reversal.
And so! I must look to my shapes!
And, if you have been, thanks for reading!!