Friday, July 28, 2017

Working from a photograph

the photo: York, UK.  

the quilt: cathedral

Starting to make an art work with a photo is so looked down upon is because people often do a very bad job of it . Not only quilts! but paintings too.
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.

In the photograph above, what was of interest was the way the cathedral soared over the medieval houses and Roman walls.   Even though not evident in the photo, what I remember from being in the countryside around York was how immensely high and present the Minster is and that's what I wanted to bring out in the quilt.   My memory did not involve the contrast with the Roman wall/ it could have! but I decided that was for another quilt.....

the photograph: the old guildhall in St. Helen's square, York

the quilt: Guildhall

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?

 In the photo above, what always interested me was the way that architects of old (in this case 18th century) didn't have the same monotonous rows of the cheapest windows they could find....but rather enjoyed using some of the variety....and of course the windows would reflect the importance or status of the rooms on that floor of the building!
so what I took from the photo, was the idea of different kinds of windows...I "abstracted" that idea from it.  Even though the building is all grey stone, I used a rich palette to reflect its rich history.

2. The camera photographs everything, it is omnivorous! No discrimination at all!!
Leave out all the extraneous “stuff”. You can always put some back if you need it for balance later on.

 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.

the photo: Cornwall farmhouse

the quilt

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.
so in the above piece  I focused in on the buildings tucked into the landscape...I let the landscape drift into the sky...I contrasted the building with the landscape both in color and in value....and while I used very rich shibori patterned fabric, I left out all those details of other buildings, the stream, the skyline etc

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.

In summary,  the photo is where you start, not where you end up.  consider the essence, add in the memories, ignore the irrelevant...and make it as beautiful as you can!

If you have been!...thanks for reading….Elizabeth

Friday, July 14, 2017

Broadening one's horizons.....

The more I get into art quilting, the broader and broader my interest in art in general...
One school of painting that I never really "got", could never really grasp the idea or the principles behind the work is that of Abstract Expressionism.  Not that I don't like some of the work...I really love Joan Mitchell's and Elaine de Kooning's  paintings for example:

Elaine de Kooning: watercolor
I couldn't find any photos I had personally taken of Mitchell's work...but all you have to do is go to google images!  they're amazing.

I did take this one as you can see from the reflection!

One of my big puzzzles with AE is: how to know when it's "good".  And I think we often run into this...same thing with 20th and 21st century music...very difficult to judge how successful, how long lasting something will be  when people are really pushing the edges of an art form..In the early stages of a movement, there are no definitions, that's what is really so fascinating!  anything is possible...for a while...

When I wrote my online class on designing modern quilts, the first thing I did was look for a definition - actually an official definition came out a little after I'd written the class...but I was pretty close!

I had never seen a definition of AE before but apparently Arch Critic and Cataloguer Clement Greenberg did write one in 1962:

"If the label Abstract Expressionism means anything, it means
 loose, rapid handling, or the look of it;
 masses that blotted and fused instead of shapes that stayed distinct;
large and conspicuous rhythms,
broken color,
uneven saturations or densities of paint,
[obvious] brush, knife or finger marks".

I love that phrase "or the look of it" - a seeming casual but carefullly thought out arrangement! 
I must admit I often try to cultivate "the look of it " myself!! 

Once you have a definition, you can begin to grasp the movement as a whole and form an idea as to what the artist is trying to do. so I'll be headed back to all those AE folk for a long second look.
But also, reading this definition, I can see just how easily one could apply some of this to quilt design...AND I don't think there are very many people doing this.

anyone looking for a new direction to take?  Consider AE!

And, if you have been, thanks for reading!  all comments Very Welcome....Elizabeth

Friday, July 7, 2017

With Your Own Two Hands: Working in a Series

I"ve recently been reading a fascinating book (With Your Own Two Hands: Self-discovery Through Music) by Seymour Bernstein - who was a renowned piano (not quilt!) teacher last century.
 In order to develop as an artist - no matter what the medium - it is important to know yourself well, your likes, your dislikes, your strengths vs your weaknesses.  For how can you make progress without this? And, as I get older, I discover that the drive to improve to make progress, in whatever one loves to do, doesn't go away.  We are all striving to be just that little bit better! I really think it's part of our genetic make-up ....of course for some it goes awry into a search for more wealth or more power - but that's a whole other issue!!

Most of Bernstein's book isn't relevant to textile artists, but I think his core message is:

"Productive practicing is a process that promotes self-integration".

Well, yes...he does like alliteration too!!  That's fine!  I love bad puns and split metaphors and all those naughties of the writing world!

So what is practicing in quilt terms?  ...yes! the answer is in the title to this blog: Working in a Series.

remembered lines small                                                                            Remembered Lines (69”w, 41”h)
the above quilt was the 12th in a series of black and white pieces.

As a teacher, I am frequently asked about how one can develop one's own style.  We can clearly see that the Big Names all have it.  but how is it done?  does it just happen over time?  Or can you jump start it?
I wrote a class* (and subsequently a book) about how to do just this.....having your own style isn't some result of an unusual talent (if such things exist at all) or the eventual build up of patina (as it were) over can work on developing it.
How?  by Practicing.  and how to practice as an art quiltmaker?  Working in A Series!
It is , however, important to figure out the right series, the right way, the right paths to take.
Yes, it is something of a road to self knowledge too, and it can be really absorbing and invigorating.

edging into line k
  I would define a series  as a  group or succession of related things – objects that go together.  They can go together in a number of different ways, some more meaningful than others.   In my series featured here (and yes I must admit to having more than one series!)  used the same  palette, the quilts were inspired by (but not copies of) timbered houses I had seen in England.  I found the drooping lines of the roofs fascinating in that as age and time prevail, the “man made” aspect of the building begins to echo more and more the natural curves of the timbers used.  I also got a little carried away by the abstract patterns created by the timbers, and in the 12th piece, repeated some of those elements several times – just taking the bits I liked and repeating them like a doodle!!

  A series of objects is related by a central idea –  My father always used to jumble up the slides when he gave us kids a picture show and while it was hilarious as successive images were shown: “here we are  on the beach, oh no now we’re in the marketplace, oh and the next one is little brother’s birthday and then the garden, and back to the beach and then another flower..”…hilarious – but confusing, jumbling, and frustrating because  you can’t get into the feel of the place or the idea.

I find that as I explore a theme gradually  I get  better at extracting the essence of the theme that is compelling to me.     Instead of skittering over the surface sampling a little here and there (yes! I love mixed metaphors!), it’s a richer experience to stay in one place for a while.  There are many reasons to do that: enhancing the experience, really getting to see the ideas, not trying to cram in everything at once, improving skills. 

While, working in a series  might seem hard to do if it’s hard to pay attention to one thing for a concentrated period of time, there are ways around !!!  In the same way that our eyes continually flick about so we don’t habituate and see nothing, I think attention can focus on a number of things, but one should limit the number….and keep the things related.

A series doesn’t have to be planned out all ahead of time, but I think certain parameters  either have to be set or will emerge.  If there’s no central idea, or nothing that relates one piece to another then it’s not a series. 
If you keep making pieces where you didn’t quite get the idea across that you wanted, but you then abandon that idea and try something completely different, I don’t think you’ll progress.  It’s practice (i.e. repetition) that “makes perfect”, not dabbling.  Research shows us that it is both practice and coaching or critiquing that leads to improvement in performance. Hence the benefit of working in a series (or practicing piano!) with some guidance from a teacher.

Some  feel  limited by only working on one series.  I totally agree!!  There are many examples of great painters, e.g. Gerhardt Richter, who work in different series simultaneously.  I definitely don’t want to “close” a series and in fact I’ve stopped dating my quilts because I don’t want to be chronologically constipated! 
   If you have been, thanks for reading! and do please keep the comments coming!! thank you.   Elizabeth

*This class is now available "on demand"  at the