Some people start a quilt with just an idea, or a few words, some are inspired by the fabric, some by colour, some have a rough sketch, some have detailed sketch. You bring your own style and personality to quiltmaking as to other things in your life – if you are a planner, you plan, if you are more reactive to the moment..then you engineer a moment and go from there. And all the stages in between. But you might not always be aware of just how much you do think ahead. One of my favorite art quiltmakers says she never plans anything ever!! Now I happen to have peaked into this lady’s kitchen cupboards ( I was only looking for tea!) and I saw a very detailed meal plan for the following week….so I’m inclined to take her words about not planning with a grain of salt…or, at least, a cup of tea!!
The Detailed Plan
There are pros and cons to every level of preparation. A very detailed plan for example would be necessary for a precisely pieced quilt…but then one might lose the heart and vigour of the moment? These are the engineering plans of the quilt world. They have a clean predictable beauty, and a strong structure. But the structure could easily become stricture and the piece then runs the risk of being flat, bland and lifeless.
The fairly detailed sketch
Then there is the equivalent of the clearly rendered accurate traditional representational drawing. This can be achieved by a fairly detailed (but not compulsive!) sketch – based on real life, a photograph, or an image cast by an overhead projector, or similar device. This method allows for some softening of lines, omission of annoying or unnecessary detail and the sketching alone brings the hand of the person drawing into the piece – bold lines, or more suggestive lines…straight connections or more rounded softened ones. Also you can begin to suggest depth and value with your line quality and shading. The difficulty with this type of sketch is that you are still focused on what the objects actually are, and it’s harder to see just shapes and lines.
The Rough sketch
Working from a much rougher sketch - one which emphasizes the basic shapes – might counter the tendency to see trees rather than forest. We need to see those basic shapes as shapes alone – not houses or trees or parts of buildings etc - in order to balance them in a way that is harmonious but also with some tension )– i.e. not too well balanced, not too symmetrical and predictable). Working in this way also encourages simplicity – far too many quilts are simply spoiled by too many colours, too many textures and too much junk clarted on top!! This doesn’t mean quilts have to be completely spare and boring. I love Paula Nadelstern’s very rich quilts (currently at the Folk Art Museum and a must see if you’re visiting New York) – but they have a lot of structure: the fabric and shapes are repeated and the larger circle shapes are balanced and organized in interesting ways.
The Spontaneous Gesture
And then…least structured of all, on can begin with a Spontaneous Gesture! Actually, I doubt strongly that anyone ever works successfully by being completely spontaneous. Yes! That first gesture is likely to be spontaneous:
“I feel like red today!! Let me cut a jagged red piece and throw it at the wall!!!”
That’s a beautiful spontaneous expressive start….but then if you want an art work that will work, you have to respond to the Red Beginning…you can’t just say…okay that’s got my red jagged feeling out of my system…now I feel like a nice cup of tea and piece something that looks like a cuppa and place the block next to the Red Beginning and expect it to work! You have to start thinking…okay what shape and colour would balance the Red Beginning…..will it be a blue jagged shape? Or maybe some smaller less jagged red ones…..
So the spontaneous method is great – if you can then harness it and live with decisions and uncertainty every step.
In every method, you need to have an underlying order, structure or pattern of shapes and values. Not too predictable, that’s boring…but not too chaotic, that’s unsettling and unpleasing. We want to take in the whole piece, and then discover the focal area: the key to the whole…the kernel in the shell.
I’m writing as if you choose one method and stick with it! …but obviously few do that.
Jeanne Williamson writes: Sometimes I have an idea for a piece after looking at a building or photo, and sometimes I don't have any ideas, and simply start with a piece of already monoprinted fabric.
And Carol Taylor responded: I've done all of what you suggest at times. I never used to sketch at all, but just designed on the board. Then when I satarted working in series, I would do basic sketches to map out my values and sizes mostly. Not very detailed. I use colored pencils allotting a certain color to indicate which value. I usually plan with 5-7 values. Sometimes I write out my idea in words, but not very often. And yes, I usually have an idea ahead of times, but have at times just started because of a certain fabric I’ve wanted to use too.
and as for me – sometimes i do a rather detailed sketch, but never a very precise one – I find that I would lose the opportunities for adjust a shape or a value or a colour if I did that. At other times my sketch is very rough…indicating main shapes and values only. But I always have a clear idea of what i want to make the piece about – though sometimes I struggle to get it into words for the title!
I’m not recommending any one approach over any other but I do think it’s important to know what you like to do – don’t fight yourself on technique!! Know who you are and your own personal style of working and planning. Write a paragraph (for personal use only) about what you want to communicate with the piece.
I’d love to hear from you about how you prepare to make a piece! Thanks for reading! Elizabeth