I read a book some time ago about The Hidden Order (Probing the Hidden Order, Marie Roberts) that underlies most successful compositions and have recommended it in workshops. It was an inexpensive paperback at the time, but now seems to be very expensive – I guess it’s out of print…it’s a little esoteric but quite fascinating. Recently I came across another book ( Barbara Nuss: 14 Formulas (yes it should be formulae I think but I wasn’t asked about the title!) for Painting Fabulous Landscapes). It’s the same material but explained with good colour pictures of her work from photograph through to the finished piece.
What both books emphasise is the importance of having an underlying overall plan, structure or pattern scheme to your composition - as an architect might build the frame work of a house. Is it a row house? or a bungalow? Is it a house with a central hall for ventilation?, is it split level, is it cantilevered on a hill etc – this should be decided before anything else. And the same with a composition. I think many of us do this fairly intuitively, judging “does it look right” – or not! as the case might be. In the same way that we would notice that a turret looked out of place on a ranch house. And we’ve all seen those “funny looking” houses! And, plenty of “funny looking” quilts.
Once the overall theme or idea has been decided,it’s helpful when doing the preliminary sketches to decide upon the design structure . Once you know the basic structure it really helps you with everything else: the values, the track of vision and focal point, etc and it’s crucial in achieving unity and coherence.
Okay – “so what is it” I hear you saying??? Well, there are different ways of categorizing different design structures (by direction, by letters of the alphabet etc – different books will discuss them a little differently); I suggest you develop a few favorites for yourself and give them your own names. Roberts characterizes them largely by direction or placement of the large shapes/lines in the piece and has many examples from well known paintings, Nuss characterizes them more by the shapes of letters in the alphabet.
Roberts describes the main design plans as:
triangular (many medieval paintings with Christ in the centre follow this plan), vertical (like a quilt about tree), horizontal ( landscape), diagonal (one of my favorites –e.g. roof angles ), cantilevered – where a large mass at once side is balanced by a smaller mass further away (think of those gas stations that have a heavy squat building that supports a cantilevered roof over the pumps), circular (radiating out from a central point, either with circles, spiral or rays), meandering (where there is a pathway working its way through a landscape) interwoven shapes or sections (I often think of Milton Avery’s work for this type of design – they’re like a handful of jigsaw puzzles pieces put together). She also includes designs that are based on dividing up the piece into sections which is very like a traditional block quilt, or having an overall pattern (as in a single shape quilt like tumbling blocks, or a Klee painting).
Nuss describes the plans (all 14!) in terms more of letters or shapes but they correspond to most of Roberts’ descriptions. The advantage of the Roberts’ book is the classical examples from wellknown paintings, the advantage of the Nuss book (apart from the colour which of course as quilters we all respond to!) is her description of how she finds these overall shapes in the landscape. She shows the development of the diagonal, triangular, radiating, cantilevered, division of shapes, overall pattern etc. designs into a finished painting.
Libraries will have both books and a quick look through will familiarise you with the overall idea – which is omnipresent in Mother Nature (She Almighty!) and good architecture and design.
The design structure usually relates to your subject matter – though it doesn’t have to – e.g. Linda Levin’s architectural pieces often have a more curvilinear plan – what d’you think she might be conveying by that?
Deciding the underlying structure of the design from the outset is crucial to achieving unity.
Here are some examples from my quilts:
Above, on the left Age Cannot Wither is a radiating design, in the middle Affluent Chimney is vertical, and Cathedral on the right is triangular. In Age Cannot Wither I was thinking about memories of the medieval town where I grew up, in Affluent Chimney I was thinking about the ideas of trickle down economics and wastage! In Cathedral I was thinking about the power of the church – or the economic cathedrals of power in places like NYC. So, hopefully, the underlying design fits the theme.
Here are three more:
In the one on the left: Airport: Wheels, I chose a circular design to emphasise the way an airport is often a hub for many activities…(this is in Gate 29, concourse E, Atlanta airport). In the quilt on the right, Brighter at the Top I used a diagonal underlying design to fit not only the sense of a steep roof, but the idea that you have to climb to get to the top! (and yes, it’s all too easy to slide down).
I’ll show more examples in another post, this is getting way too long! So, if you have been, thanks for reading!