I’ve been taking a look at the 2009 Quilt National catalogue – some wonderfully inventive pieces – so wish I could have seen the show…and while the underlying composition for over half of them remains abstract/geometric (either random or regular repeated geometric shapes pieced together), about a quarter of them are pictorial – often botanic, or landscape with very different compositions demands.
I don’t think one style or the other is easier/more difficult. Each has particular challenges. An abstract/geometric piece may have a pre-ordained basic compositional structure but the artist needs to establish an idea or theme – most do! A few don’t!! There are always some pieces that you think “how in the dyepot did that piece get in there?”! Whereas, those pieces that are pictorial or landscape in nature have a much more obvious central idea but the artist has to make more design or compositional decisions.
All work is stronger if there is a specific center of interest. The center of interest relates to the overall theme for the piece…thus in an abstract piece if the theme is texture, that texture should make you want to touch and feel (no! you can’t!! but oh boy you want to…) in the same way that you want to stroke sueded silk, bounce your hand on a crew cut, or run your fingertips over a tree trunk. If the theme is a polar landscape, the harsh monotony and immense distances should be so evident you feel a chill on the warmest day.
I find an all over pattern much less interesting to look at – I think oh nice! But feel I have quickly “got it” and am ready to move on…it’s a much more difficult to be successful in this mode. Harmony yes, repetition yes….but always with some variety, repetition of the same note gets very boring….vary the height, or width, or angle, or sinuosity of the shape…slightly. Much more interesting!!! That’s why the African American quilts drew everyone’s eye when they first saw them. Think of all the variety and movement in Rosie Lee Tompkins work.
I find it hard to understand why some folk keep on making the same bland repetitive work when there are so many ways of keeping people interested. Areas can be brought to life by the use of contrast – of hue, of value, of intensity, of detail - is a monotonous regularity enough?? Having said that, ignoring this guideline can work if your theme – is “look how many of these there are!” – in which case you have to keep the scale large so that the viewer can be lost in the immensity of it.
High contrast will make an area appear more important; therefore the reverse is also true. But several pieces had their areas of highest contrast away from the most important element…and it wasn’t till I read the statement that I caught the meaning of the piece. Avoiding this isn’t too difficult if you can stand back and say to yourself “okay what am I really wanting to convey here?” – how exactly am I doing that? the answer shouldn’t be in the statement but in the piece itself! Use contrast! Of any element.
I also like to see a piece that includes a variety of density of details…whether a landscape or a geometric. If you’re showcasing squares with interesting things going on inside them, have some that are quiet, and some that are really busy. Several people accomplished this and it makes their pieces much more exciting.
It’s important to keep me (the viewer) in the picture! And this can be done by nudging me back if my eyes start to stray…e.g. don’t have lines that lead me out of the picture, but rather lines that pull me back in. Include some mystery…so I’m leaning forward to look more closely. Slow me down with curved paths, rather than straight lines that zoom in…then out. Remember Hundertwasser’s opinion of straight lines: "The rigid, straight line is fundamentally alien to humanity, life and the whole of creation". How right!
Allow me to saunter through your piece … to take a slow visual walk. Don’t block my journey with a barred fence across the way, or a door or window you can’t see through. Windows that give a hint of what’s inside – or outside – are much more interesting. It’s even better if I’m invited to try to solve a mystery….this is especially true with narrative pieces – just what is happening here, what is around that corner? You don’t have to spell out all the details…a person will keep looking longer if they have to complete some of the information… It’s not necessary to indicate every leaf on a tree…unless you are aiming for a hyper-realistic effect. A few will convey the idea. …hyper realism doesn’t work as well in a quilt (or a painting for that matter) as does softness and suggestion.
I think it’s also important not to have strange things happening that don’t relate to the theme…towers that grow out of heads, or people with half bodies – even the bust of Beethoven had a little stand! Things like that distract one visually away from the main idea.
I find I’m attracted to pieces that have a lot of movement. These are quilts that include vertical, horizontal and diagonal elements. Rhythm and movement activate the eye and brain as well as the body! And it’s more interesting if the geometric shape isn’t completely spelled out..but rather is slightly hidden or disguised. This is where Paula Nadelstern’s work is so very clever – your eye is fooled constantly by her hidden edges!! (Paula wasn’t in the ’09 QN show, she was preparing for her solo at the Museum of Folk Art, NYC – a show well worth seeing!).
It’s difficult in quilts to avoid the cut out, pasted on look…..the nature of appliqué whether by hand, machine or gluepot..puts one at risk. But there are ways to get around it: overlapping, cutting through (there were some marvelous cut through pieces in the show) and losing the edges into the surrounding background by equalizing values.
Varying values is so important: light and shade can indicate mood and drama. The most successful pieces used this well. A piece made of overall mid values is more difficult to see, especially when so many QN viewers are looking at the catalogue and not the actual show. When you’re designing a piece, squint, or put the camera out of focus (or reduce the pixels) and you can get a better sense of where the values are…and develop a more interesting composition
Shapes should intertwine, not just stop when one ends and another begins…much less interesting and also less harmonious. Again this is why Nadelstern’s work is so strong. She keeps your eye flowing onto the next shape by clever use of a consistent element – like an underlying color or form.
Balance is another key factor. There shouldn’t be that much difference of mass on any of the four areas (right, left, top, or bottom). This will make it feel like it's leaning or top heavy and a few pieces were guilty of that. It’s fine to do this, however, if it relates to the central idea.
Well I didn’t even get to colour!! This is already too long…but you can see just how much you can learn and appreciate from the perusal of a good catalogue! Run out and get the Quilt National one today!!
If you have been, thanks for reading!! I look forward to your comments!