Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Shape Shifting Quilt Maker

While it would seem easy, at first, to arrange the five variables of two dimensional design - only five! -
as you get into it, you soon discover the possibilities are endless. For within each of those five variables, are many many more.  Think of ALL the possible shapes there are in the world!  All the possible lines, all the colours and textures. There are even at least 11 easily detectable values:

 I made the above value scale in Photoshop ©, beginning with 0% black, and then adding 10%, 20% and so on up to 100%.  Notice the effect of simultaneous contrast here by the way:  as your eye goes towards the right hand end of each square, it appears that the value gets lighter....and towards the left hand end of each square it appears to get darker.  This is an illusion created by the contrast of the darker (or lighter) adjacent value and is a nice example of the power of simultaneous contrast - which you can create with any of the four variables of colour (but that's another whole blog!).  It is something that I cover in most of my workshops because it's so useful.

Back to values: We can clump them to some degree.  But even working with just  three values and three shapes there are six design possibilities...and if you increase to four values and a design with just four shapes there are 4 x 3 x 2 possible arrangements.
Twenty four value studies to choose from!!  I wonder what would happen if I suggested that in a workshop!!!  I think I'd be thrown out on my ear!  "Don't take Elizabeth Barton's class, it's too hard!"
Humph!!!  Actually IT grad students looking for a thesis idea could develop a little program where all you do is stick in your 4 shapes and four values and ...voila!!...24 value studies are printed out - now wouldn't that be neat!!

But of the five variables, I think two stand out above the others as being most important to address first in basic design: value and shape.

As fiber artist we work (largely) with small pieces of material; we're constantly looking at Shapes. Our medium is basically shapes - shapes of different values that we are going to arrange in a way that is attractive, but also so interesting that it will capture the viewer's attention even though they're flicking through the catalogue or the website at 200 miles an hour! If you think about it, you'll realise that the subject matter of the piece is rarely that important in catching the viewer's eye.  Look at the popularity of snow scenes, for example.  Why do they attract attention?  It's because they usually involve interesting shapes of highly contrasted values.  As a result, they stand out across the gallery.“Subject matter is not nearly as important as the arrangement of the elements into a pattern. ” wrote painter Ted Kautzky.

 When I teach a workshop I emphasise making a Value pattern of the Shapes in the sketch.  If you don't make the value pattern, the sketches are composed of  lines; you are looking at dark lines threading their way around a white background….but is that what most people are thinking of making?  NO.  They are trying to translate those lines into shapes in their minds and assess whether or not this is an interesting composition/arrangement.  It’s much easier if you shade in the values so you can see SHAPES, after all  most of the time, we're cutting out Shapes from fabric.   

So look for shapes not lines….if your subject matter yields only lines, then it might be worthwhile to seek a different inspiration - or a different medium e.g. pen and ink, or embroidery.    Also,  as you look at the shapes school yourself to look at SHAPES not objects; try to forget you are looking at boats in a harbour, or flowers in a vase…rather, triangles arranged interestingly on a horizontal plane, or circles above a rounded rectangle. Notice how the shapes vary in size and regularity…the odder the shape the more interesting!  Notice how one shape interlocks with another.

And remember - you can be a shape shifter!  Shift your shapes until they're interesting!!! Equidistant rows of shapes are not attractive - except to the Sargent  Major of course!!   We're attracted by the novelty not by uniformity.  The big secret to artistic success is to make something that people really want to look at - again and again.

And now for the very attractive shape of a cup of tea!  If you have been, thanks for reading.  Elizabeth


The Idaho Beauty said...

I was with you until that last bit about the unattractiveness of uniformity. I am constantly drawn to that. Whether it be manmade (including works of art), found in nature (rare but not impossible) or purely accidental, there's a certain fascination to perfect spacing of objects, a beauty & mesmerizing quality that DOES attract many of us & makes us want to look & really study it again & again.

Vickie Wheatley said...

Thank you so much for useful, thoughtful information that is helping me on my artistic journey. I was having a terrible time with my landscape river project that is part of a group exhibition until I followed your advice Nd focused on value and positive-negative space. This helped me focus and create a satisfying piece!

Elizabeth Barton said...

Re Idaho Beauty's conformity:there is beauty in many things and it's important that we both look for and SEE it! I do think that human beings (for survival reasons) are wired to notice particularly those things in their visual environment that are different but that definitely does create a little tension. And everyone responds to that differently! As Agnes Martin says, beauty is the most important.

Vicki Miller said...

Great information! Thanks.

Georgina said...

Super interesting!I know what Idaho beauty means - and there is a serenity in rhythm and order, but there is something exciting about the subversion, or disruption of order!

Shelly said...

This is a really interesting way to approach art quilt design. I'm currently learning to draw using "drawing on the right side of the brain" and Betty Edwards talks a lot about learning to see shapes in the positive and negative space. Thanks for the intriguing thoughts Elizabeth.