Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Advice to Aspiring Art Quiltmakers

A few years ago the famous thriller writer Elmore Leonard was asked for his advice to aspiring authors and he came up with a number of “rules” – let’s say Guidelines – I dislike the word “rules” because it inhibits people from deviating if they have a good reason for doing so.
After Leonard’s guidelines were published, a number of other authors were also asked for their thoughts on the topic.  And, of course, Rilke’s little book “Letters to a Young Poet” antedates them all and is well worth reading.

Now a lot of Leonard’s advice addresses literary style but what it boils down to is avoiding clichés and intrusive but meaningless details.
Cliches in art quilts are ideas that we’ve all seen before e.g. the silvery moon in the sky to add interest to a large dark area.  Why not use a strange curious raggedy cloud that almost obscures the moon – you’d get some interest up there without the old clichés.
Meaningless details are things like including signs (say in a street scene) “because they were there”…..a STOP sign adds nothing to your impression of the street and may well be very distracting.

I think also another very unnecessary detail is an overly pretentious title, or “statement” that is somehow attached to the image.  I do wish that the catalogues from the prestigious shows would stop doing this!!  How often have I seen people spend 5 minutes reading the statement and 5 seconds looking at the quilt?!!

And of course Leonard did say to avoid too many exclamation points of which I personally am very guilty when writing!  In art quilt terms, the exclamation point would, I think, be an area of high contrast or saturation of color where nothing very important was actually going on.  Be very selective with this – only use such emphasis where you really want to catch the viewer’s eye.

Other writers have commented on the value of having other people look at your work and tell you what they see…however they suggest that you do not listen to how they say you should fix the problems!!  Listen to the difficulties they spot…..but figure out your own solution.  There are a number of reasons for this – not least that it’s important to be able to fix problems for oneself.  But also because their solutions might well not be in keeping with your own ideas that you’re trying to convey.  Be especially carefully if the critic is very didactic!!!  Originality and freshness are much more important that a standard academic solution to everything.  One art professor would always give me the same suggestion for every problem, I don’t know if he was lazy or just stuck in a rut!!  But I quickly realized that one solution is not going to fix all design errors.

The writers also state that honesty is important – make the art from the heart, telling the story as you see it.  I think it’s interesting to chat to strangers in waiting rooms, or eavesdrop on conversations, to see just how much of what we say and report upon is automatic and not a fresh personal vision.  Become an eavesdropper and see if you can become aware of the honest valid statement – whether verbal or visual – so as to heighten your ability to produce these yourself.

The authors say it’s important to read a lot of books!! 
 The artist should see a lot of art – you cannot get better without doing this.
Spend your money on good art books rather than magazines full of adverts for the latest “quick fix”.

Try to find a way to look at what you’re making as a third party, rather than as you yourself with all your inside knowledge.  One way I’ve found to do this is to take photos constantly as I block out the quilt on the design wall.  Then I view them on the computer monitor – you could even put them on your tv – in the same way that I might look at anyone’s work on the small (or large) screen.

Now here’s a very interesting idea from Zadie Smith:
Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.
I think that’s a brilliant piece of advice – don’t struggle with a technique  you’re not good at; you don’t need to be a “well-rounded” artist!!  Respect those that can do that, but spend your own time going deeper into things that you are skilled or knowledgeable at.  This is one of the many reasons for working in a series (more in my book!!  See the sidebar).  You don’t have to learn everything, especially not those things that require more gadgets, more workshops, more how-to books etc.
Zadie Smith had another very applicable idea, which was to leave some time between writing and editing.  For quilt makers, I’d suggest make the top, then leave it for a while and come back to it weeks or even months later.  You’ll be able to assess its impact so much better with a gap in time.  I like to make several tops and just put them away…when I’ve got about half a dozen on one theme, then I’ll pull them out and take a long hard look to see which need adjustment, which need the scrap bag and which should be finished.

Well this blog is getting too long – final comment: spend more time on art than on reading blogs!!
And so I shall take my own advice……if you have been, thanks for reading!  Elizabeth


Regina B Dunn said...

Thank you so much for this post. It was very insightful. A marvelous comparison and very timely for me as I'm trying to get to the next level in my compositional skills.

Barbara Sindlinger said...

Great post. Love to hear advise on the art side of quilting. I belong to a small art group where we spend every other month learning how to critique and look at art. We always bring articles that we find helpful so I think I'll direct them your way. Thank you.

Elizabeth Barton said...

thank you Regina and Barbara - lovely to know someone is out there reading!! and thank you for recommending the blog...I only write about once a week so it's not too overwhelming!

Lynn said...

I've been a regular reader for a couple years, although I don't comment often. When your first book came out I promptly purchased it. Will probably get the second too. I am a member of a small art group and two of our members will be attending your class next week at Alegra - Janet and Peg. Both are very talented. I asked Janet if she would take my book with her and ask you to sign it for me, if this is okay with you. I looked at attending the class too, but finances and life in general don't permit that for me at this time. I know you and all the students in your class will have a great time next week! Thanks for all your great advice and musings here on your blog.

Chris said...

A lot of this blog hit home for me. Great advice. But the part that really meant a lot was not to struggle with a technique I'm not good at and that I don’t need to be a “well-rounded” artist. I will spend my time getting better at what I am good at and go deeper into that. I don’t have to learn everything. I am done with buying more gadgets and workshops that will not further that goal. Your master class is helping me further that goal.

Maggi said...

A really interesting post. Plenty of food for thought here.

Natalya Khorover Aikens said...

Thank you!