Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Importance of being Focal

Why are focal points important?  It’s because they are a tremendous help in capturing people attention – a very good reason for having, or at least considering, using them.
I’m assuming that we want people to look at our work?  Even though there are a few artists out in the desert or closeted in their own homes who make work for reasons other than viewing , and often brilliant work too, they are rare. Rosie Lee Tompkins was a prime example of this.  For most of us, we want people to look and be fascinated.

We want to be fascinated ourselves! I’m struggling to learn watercolor and I can say without a doubt it’s a lot harder than quiltmaking or piano or square dancing – the other things I’m working on. I’ll paint a picture or two and if there are no glaring horrors (alas far too many of those), hang them up on the wall, and see what happens.  Usually they bore me stiff within a very few days.  They just look bland and blah.  Well, there’s a lot of reasons for that, but a key one is lack of a focal point, or center of interest area.  In fact there’s usually a whole lot of no interest at all!  And I feel that about many quilts that I see online. 

The focal point (also termed center of interest) is a technical way to provide interest or emphasis in a work of art; it serves to capture our attention initially and then, hopefully, keep it – as least for a short while.  Usually the focal point is pretty obvious in a representational work, but can easily be achieved in an abstract piece too.

Can you have more than one focal point?  Indeed yes, but one should be more important than the others. A more focal focal point, or in the case of the tenor on the stage a more vocal focal!! (sorry, couldn’t resist!).

As to how to achieve the focal point? There are several techniques.
I think that contrast is one of the most important.  Contrast in anything: shape, line, value, color or texture.  A big shape among little ones, a jagged line amongst curved, a very dark value in a light area, a highly saturated color on a neutral background, a detailed flower amidst soft blurry ones. As human beings, we are drawn to the one that is different.  There’s probably a good survival reason for this, but we can exploit it to make our work stronger.

Isolation can also  be used: one element is alone, there’s a lone child on one side and a group of kids in the rest of the photo – where would you look?

Placement is another possibility – if an element has all other elements pointing towards it, our eye tends to go to it.  The light at the end of the tunnel.  The ball in the golf game – to which everyone’s gaze is pointed.

Of course, if want you want to communicate “the sameness” of everything, the unrelieved repetitiveness of it – like some Techno music – then you can deliberately avoid having a focal point.  In a way, then, the absence of a focal point becomes the focal point. Andy Warhol’s soup cans are often cited as being an example of this.

And sometimes if there is a lot or overall interest and variety, as, for example, in a sampler quilt, then our attention will be caught by the multitude of ideas we have to explore.  A multitude of focal points!

So, if you do have a focal point where should it be?   Unless there’s a specific point to be made with an unusual placement, we’re both used to, and more aware of, a placement that is just a little ways off the exact middle of the work – in any direction.  Having the focal point right on the edge of the piece (unless the message is alienation or something like that) is not as effective in keeping our attention on the whole piece.  Having it slap bang in the middle (unless we’re communicating something about targets, or feeling like a target) tends to make the work rather static.

Look back at photos of your quilts.  Do they have focal point or not?  Take a couple that don’t have them and using software like Photoshop or Gimp, add one in – using contrast, isolation or placement.  In this case, contrast is probably the easiest to achieve. Print out both versions of the quilt and show them to a few folk and ask which one is more interesting.  Don’t tell them what you’ve done!  Just test out the idea that having a focal point makes an art work more intriguing.

And now, my focal point is a nice cuppa tea!!  Off to put the kettle on!!
If you have been, thanks for reading.  Elizabeth

Friday, February 21, 2014

The tools of the trade

Funny how the same idea will occur in two totally different places almost simultaneously……I was reading in Robert Genn’s recommendations for an artist’s tool kit in his lovely little newsletter Painters’ Keys.. At the same time, several students in my classes bemoaned their lack of a formal art education, and thinking about that it occurred to be that if you have had any  education you actually do have the tools you need.  For any good education, no matter what field it is, teaches you how to research, how to find out what you need to know, how to go about learning it, where the resources are, and how to analyse and synthesize the information you gather. A good education will also involve reading, trying out, experimenting and practicing on your own.  Most of us who’ve been lucky enough to go to college KNOW these things!!  I remember my Latin teacher continually reminding us that the word “educate” meant to lead out, to lead forward.

Education should not be (though, alas, often is, and especially in the US, I fear) simply memorizing facts – particularly not these days when one little trip to the internet can usually produce a multitude of facts (and yes I know you have to consider the sources – but basically the facts are there).  You really don’t need to fill your head up with facts.  But…what you do need is to know how to learn, to research, to analyse, and to put what you learn into practice. AND you need the time and space and the self motivation to do this.

Which is exactly what Robert Genn described as being necessary for the artist’s toolkit:
“ time, space, series, medium, books and desire”

Time: whatever you want to learn, spend some time on it every day.  You can learn something much better if you practice if daily – not just weekends, not just a weeklong seminar in some lovely quilting conference place!!  I try to allow at least an hour a day for the main things I’m trying to learn and improve at.  If an hour isn’t possible, I say to myself: you must do something.  So if I’m blocking out a quilt on the design wall, I say: “at the least, just get one more piece up!!  Of course it would take a long time for a 365 piece quilt to get done!! But it would Get Done! 

Space:  both Real and Personal.  Any space will do, it really doesn’t have to be a fancy, beautifully organized studio.  I think too many people get hooked on making the space gorgeous and forget about the artwork!!  But you don’t want to have to use your precious allotment of time, simply setting up the work, the machine, the fabric, the paints, the instrument or whatever it is.
  The other kind of space you need is personal space.  You do need to be alone.  Just about every artist I’ve read about really emphasizes that.  Being alone lets you get into your own head so you know what you want to communicate.  Being alone allows you to really focus – and focus is necessary for progress.
Now when you get to the “busy work” part of the process – stitching down the binding, or hand quilting, or even dyeing the fabric…then it’s fine to be sociable!

Series: one of the best ways of making progress is to work in a series…I’ll put in a little plug for my book Working in a Series (see side bar) here – where I got into why you should do this, and how to do it in detail. 

Medium: quiltmakers are luckyj!  They’ve already chosen their main medium – cloth!  Having said that there is still a tendency to keep adding on techniques and types of cloth and different ways of working with it.  The bottom line is that you will get further if you stick with one medium and limited methods.  Look at the “greats” in our world – you don’t see them trying this and that and the other.  Imagine a Nancy Crow quilt with beads and buttons!!

Books: Robert Genn writes: “"How-to" and art-history books are better than ever. They are your best teachers and friends. With books, you can grow at your own speed and in your own direction.”  This is SO true, I would add the internet too of course for all the wealth of visual imagery that is out there now.  Many of the major museums are committed to putting wonderful photographs of their artwork onto the ‘net.  I think a good book is worth so much more than a workshop.  Of course the two together…is the best of all – definitely greater than the sum of the parts!

Desire: You do need to be highly motivated to make good work.  So many people think that talent is something you’re born with and that you’re simply “lucky” if you make good art or play an instrument well or whatever it is….but the real truth is all the time that the person has spent learning and practicing their art.  And to do that you need to have a burning desire to do it, an itch to get back into the studio, a need to be alone with the work.

Quite a toolkit!!
I’d love to hear from you what else (if anything) you consider a necessary item for the art quiltmaker’s toolkit…meanwhile I’m off to the studio with a short stop to put the kettle on for a cuppa tea, of course.
If you have been, thanks for reading!  Elizabeth

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The illusion of movement in art

The illusion of movement is a great way to make an artwork very effective, but it’s quite difficult to do.  Recently I challenged my master class students to create designs that showed movement and many of them found this to be quite a struggle, particularly if they didn’t want to portray a human being or an animal actually in motion.  The Italian Futurists actually praised movement so much that they said that a speeding car was more beautiful than Venus de Milo!

Movement is involved in many aspects of our life.  We would literally die if we didn’t move. A tree that doesn’t move in the wind is likely to be a dead tree.  Movement is necessary to withstand external force. Even skyscrapers and bridges sway…and of course (to most of us at least!) the earth moves around the sun!
Anyone who has taken a life drawing class would be aware of how very difficult it is for us not to move…how amazing some models are in not moving…but even they are blinking and breathing!!

So since our existence and our environment is all about movement, why is it so unusual to see movement portrayed in art work?  Is it because we’re so used to looking at photographs where the action is stopped?  In many ways photographs distort our views of the world.  For one thing, a camera only has one eye and we have two!  A camera dulls colours, omits nuances and squashes values at each end of the value spectrum. 

Another reason of course, it’s that it’s difficult to portray movement – as my students found out!  While it would be difficult to make art quilts that actually DO move, it is possible to create an illusion of movement.  And such illusions make for very dynamic pieces.  Here are links to some well-known artworks that create those illusions:

Harold Edgerton.  Milk-drop Coronet

And here’s a link to many other such photos that he took:

A female contemporary painter of waterfalls....

or then there's Bridget Riley's optical illusions which shift constantly:

Movement is also indicated by unstable body positions - figures which appear to be just off balance.  You see this a lot in sports photos...take a look at your newspapers sports page!  What's interesting is that the best photos of sports people is when they are in action, just plain "portraits" are not very exciting at all.

"Kinaesthetic empathy" is the name given to the involuntary feeling within our own body that such an image produces.  It's a great way to give a sense of movement to an art work.

A feeling of movement can also be created by contrast.  This is one reason why we feel that the people might be moving when they are portrayed in a much more static setting - and painters use this a lot. The "off balance" or diagonal line is contrasted by a very static stable vertical or horizontal one. The designers of fast cars now use streamlined curves and diagonals rather than vertical lines in their designs: these cars look like they'll go very fast even just sitting by the curb.

Other ways to show movement include repeating a figure, blurring outlines, multiple images (remember Duchamp's Nude descending a staircase?)

And now I'll have to see if I can master that challenge myself!
If you have been, thanks for reading.........Elizabeth
remember t o email me if you're interested in buying a signed copy of my latest book: Working In Series.


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

New Academy class starts this week: Inspired to Design

A New Day
I love starting a new class - whether I'm teaching it or taking it!  And I'm starting a new Inspired to Design class this Friday with www.academyofquilting.com  .  This class is based on my book "Inspired to Design" and covers pretty much the same ground.  The benefit of taking it online is that you have me at your fingertips (as it were!) while still warm and cozy in your own home studio.
In the class we work our way through the seven steps involved in finding an inspiration, developing study sketches from it, working through variations on those sketches, choosing colors etc and then enlarging the design using a grid.  Then the fun begins as you begin to cut fabric and assemble the quilt on the design wall and your art work blossoms!!  At every stage I'm there to answer questions or give advice - and so are fellow class members from around the world.  I do love the international flavor of the online classes.

I'm taking a new class myself this week - our local university music school is encouraging the community to take classes learning various instruments and the basics of music.  I've been enjoying learning the piano so much I thought it was time I had a little theory!!  my ideas that music comes in the key of one flat or one sharp, or maybe more, certainly need a little organization!!  If you've been wondering how to combat old age - forget those anti-wrinkle creams!  Instead learn something new!  It definitely works to ward off the effects of creeping time, unlike the emollients!

And I've been developing a new online class.  It's called Abstract Art for Quiltmakers and it will be starting at the academyofquilting in May.  February is Inspired to Design, March is Working in Series, April is Dyeing to Design and May is the Abstract Art.

Then I'm going to take June off to go to France and be inspired myself!  Visit the sites I've long wanted to see: Chartres, Paris, Giverny and the Bayeux tapestry - one of the oldest European hand stitched textiles in existence (11th century). It's listed as a "Memory of the World".  Isn't that a marvelous concept?   One of the memories of the world is a textile embroidered by women a thousand years ago.

And now to start a new day for myself.....
If you have been, thanks for reading!  And learn something new!   Elizabeth