I’ve had the impression from some folk that there is a little snobbery about using photographs as a beginning point for an art quilt. Work that comes out of oneself (rather than a photo) is considered somehow purer…hmm well ..there are several responses one could make to that!! (but better not in a public forum!). However, I think the reason that starting with a photo is so looked down upon is because people often do a very bad job of it . They follow the photograph too closely (warts and all) and end up with an overly literal piece that shows the warts very well and not much else. This kind of work often looks exceeding stiff and lifeless. But I don’t think that work that comes from a photo HAS to look that way, and it seems to me it’s just as good an inspiration as any. Wherever you begin, you’re unlikely to come up with the perfect idea or image at the first try. There’s always considerable orchestration, presentation, refining and distilling needed to be able to gain even some semblance of that golden idea floating in your head. Have you got golden ideas floating in your head? I know I have in mine!! Oh! would that I could realize them!
Here are some points I’ve found helpful when starting from a photograph?
1. The best photographs of course are those that you take yourself because you were inspired by a particular scene; there was something about it that made you want to keep a memory of it. If you can, write that down when you take the photo! Even if you don’t use the photo to make a quilt, it will add to your pleasure of the photo itself to read your notes. And if you do make a quilt design, then you can look at your notes and compensate for the distortions that the camera makes, or thing things that it misses: the atmosphere or brightness that you observed but couldn’t quite capture in pixels. So often I find that what entranced me was the light, especially when it suggests some magic place ahead. A sunny corner (or in the South – a shady corner!), a clean fresh meadow full of flowers. The small flowers may not show up on your camera, but if you have your written note, when you make the quilt, you can sprinkle flowers in there, to be observed when people come up close to the work. Just like you might see the meadow from a distance and then, as you come to sit in it, you appreciate all those small wonders.
When you’re looking at the inspiration photo preparatory to sketching out some possible designs, think first what it was that attracted you. Then think “how can I bring this out in my art quilt version of this picture?”. If it was the freshness of the spring day…then it’s unlikely that your photo has captured the freshness very well…but it will have the main shapes and values of the scene and it’s up to you to figure out how to use color or value pattern or texture to indicate that freshness. Think: What colour is fresh? What texture is fresh?
2. The camera photographs everything, it is omnivorous! No discrimination at all!! But you are not…so the next step looking at the photo is “what can I leave out?” And basically that’s anything that doesn’t set the scene or contribute to your feelings about the image and what you want to communicate about it.
Leave out all the extraneous “stuff”. You can always put some back if you need it for balance later on.
3. Next, I like to assess the photo and see if there’s anything that might be better rearranged. You know how you just want to move things around a little on a dining table, or in a bunch of flowers, or the furniture in a room. As a teenager I drove my poor parents wild because I was always seeking the “perfect” arrangement of furniture in my room – with lots of crashing and banging and dings and dents!! It’s a lot easier in a photograph! You can make a photocopy and cut out the relevant bits you want to move, or simply sketch them.
4. Having left out unnecessary stuff and rearranged what’s left, check the value pattern. Just because the actual place happened to have lights and darks in various places, it doesn’t mean you have to have them that way. Nor d’you have to have the direction of light as it actually was. You can choose your direction (or directions – even Rembrandt often had multiple directions of light) purely by what you most want to illuminate.
Also it’s important to remember that a camera tends to overaccentuate the lights and darks – especially the darks, rendering them as a heavy black when in reality they might have been a rich mixture of deep values of several colours.
5. Now for the colour – what are the important colours to include in this piece to best demonstrate your feelings? You might have photographed the scene because it spoke to you of a fresh spring morning, but maybe that was the result of the cool air, the faint scent of blossoms and the warmth of the spring sun on your face. Sadly, the photograph won’t include those, BUT you can bring them out by altering the colours. What colour is cool air? What colour is the warmth of the sun? What color is the smell of flowers? Yes !! you know! You’re thinking of it already!! So add those in…but then check to make sure that you don’t have too many colours, the piece will be stronger if your colours are harmonized. And talking of harmony, it’s good to have harmonized shapes and lines too – even if they don’t occur in the photo.
When you have used a few existing photographs as a starting point for a quilt and made some of the changes described above, it becomes easier to “compose” the photograph as you are actually taking it. I think “fresh” photos are best (like eggs!) because then you can remember your impressions of the scene and why you were photographing it more easily.
Some people think that “copying a photograph” is cheating because it doesn’t involve any input on the part of the artist….but I guess they’ve not read the above suggestions!!! Input is all..the photo is where you start, not where you end up. So please, just smile gently at those who would look down on you as you look through your photographs to see where to begin…you know how much you’re going to add. It’s not the method, or the process or the subject that is important, but how genuine and unique the expression is.
If you have been!...thanks for reading….Elizabeth