Friday, January 30, 2009

The Benefits of Reading and Value sketches!

When you’re feeling a bit like the barrel is empty, the well dry and the old horse out of feed, turn to literature!!!
Yesterday I reread some of Edgar Whitney’s thoughts on painting, and also some of Charles Reid’s writing and some journals – I like Art in America and International Artist - but there are a lot of good ones out there. Both Whitney and Reid have published excellent books on painting which I’d recommend. In some ways these two artists are at complete odds with one another! Whitney firmly believes that it’s vital to know and follow basic compositional guidelines (unity, harmony, balance, tension, etc ) and he emphasized that over and over in his workshops.
Whereas Reid says someone with nothing better to do devised the rules of composition!!
His reason is that following the rules might lead to overly safe, correct and boring work. Bonnard often broke the rules, he points out - he rarely had a so-called focal point, and often put important elements on the boundary or corner. However, having written that, Reid goes on to give his rules. I do love the way people do that – I remember my first class with an extremely well known teacher who began by demanding we “throw out all the rules!!” then she said: “now, you must do this and this and this and this….”. Nothing like a nice contradiction to whet the appetite for a workshop!

Going back to Charles Reid. Here are some of his ideas (and yes they definitely overlap with Whitney’s ideas but we won’t say that out loud!!):

1. don’t compose with lines – it’s shapes, color and values!
This is so true with quilts – it’s not till we get to the quilting that we have a line to play with….and it’s important to remember this when looking at sketches – if you just draw the shapes you see white shapes with black lines around….you don’t see that these shapes are a solid colour until you put the values in. All compositions should be viewed as an abstract arrangement of shapes of color/values in relation to each other. (the basic elements from which 2D art is made). And in order to stress the importance of the value studies – both to you and myself, see below for an offer!

2. be aware of the placement and size of your objects in relation to the size and shape of your paper – and to the other shapes. (balance, proportion).
I think it's good to get this worked out on paper ahead, of time, but also as you begin to block out the quilt on the wall to step back and assess the relationships constantly.

3. backgrounds and surroundings are hard to compose – always plan ahead-
for quilters this step is easier as we usually begin with the background and then build up from it..but I think it’s helpful to consider the impact of different values of background. Many a time I’ve composed my entire image and then decided it would have been much better on a differently valued background – should have done that in the sketch stage!

4. Reid also advocates
i. a crowded foreground – little background
ii. objects connected to 3 borders
iii. dark colors one side, intense colors other side
iv. strong colors at the borders
v. warm and cool colours juxtaposed
All of these ideas could be borne in mind when evaluating a piece – especially if it’s looking a little boring, or a little chaotic.

5. Reid doesn’t like a focal point.
I think that sometimes people get hung up on the idea that there has to be one single small focal point. In actuality, the main area of interest can be a significant proportion of the picture/quilt…but you always need some quiet areas to give contrast to the more stimulating ones. And in fact, elsewhere Reid has written – there should be detailed areas, and blurred areas, soft areas and sharp areas, lost edges and found edges.... So as long as there is some variety, some interest and t he viewer is encouraged to look at all the picture/quilt then all is well!!

Regarding the magazines, I read where one artist (Paprocki) always begins with an underpainting in the same value but opposite temperature to what the finished area will be. I’ve also seen underpainting like this on some of Schiele’s work and been intrigued by how much it can enliven a piece – something else to add to one’s tool box!
So please, when you have one of those dry, dull periods where you’re wandering round the house looking for chocolate rather than engrossed in the studio, take to literature! It won’t be long before you’re thinking – hmm….now that would be interesting to try!

OK The Offer! If you took one of my workshops, and you’ve continued to do at least 2 value sketches before working on a piece, email me the evidence!!! I will put the sketches up on the blog to illustrate the importance of value sketches and send you a free packet of my postcards!!

And, if you have been, thanks for reading! Elizabeth
PS The quilt at the top is one where I was experimenting with an "underpainting" technique, layering some of the colours. A quilter who does this superbly is Dominie Nash.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Further notes on Feedback: use the whole brain!

There have been some very interesting comments on the last two blogs and I’ll attempt to respond to some of them!

Marina suggests that personality type may underlie whether you work analytically or intuitively. And Wolf Kahn (not in a comment! but here) also indicates he works very intuitively:

“I just work here! I don’t constantly judge my work”.

He advocates that you

“follow the brush, don’t keep imposing your will”.

While I definitely think that constantly judging would soon drive you batty (!) as well as dry up all creativity, there comes a point where you must stand back and evaluate.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote that

“a designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add but when there is nothing left to take away”.

To me this implies a cold hard look at every shape or mark (or word!) or sliver of stone to see if the piece is “just right”. I think true intuition is a high level of experience where the judgment has become somewhat automatic and instinctive. But I don’t see that as an instinct one is born with, rather a skill that has been honed over years! Think about writing – very few people, in fact probably no one!, can sit down and write a story that has everything you need to see the characters, follow the plot etc and nothing extra. If you read potboilers (and there are plenty of them out there – virtually the whole of a well known “best seller list”!), you will see all the extra comments, repetitions, unnecessary details like the kind of shoes the heroine wore, or fluff like “she took off her coat and hung it in the clothes cupboard on one of three matching coat hangers made of plastic”.

When you make a quilt, or a painting or whatever, you begin with a rough value sketch and a lot of possibilities, gradually you eliminate the ones that don’t work, or are superfluous, and find the elements that are absolutely necessary to the Main Idea. Your brain should be operating on all channels: where you have enough experience to work intuitively, then go with the flow, get in the zone! Where you are stuck, pull back and instead of floundering, helplessly grabbing at every bit of flotsam and jetsam!, (yes I’ve seen those quilts! and made them too!!) , get the analytic side of the brain going to help you find the next right step.

I also think it’s good to choose a point at which to stand back and evaluate the whole thing…for me that point is usually at the beginning of the day when I can see the piece with (somewhat) fresh eyes. “Ok, how is it looking?”

While I can’t find a sequence of in process pictures at present ( I take them, but then dump them!), I do have a couple I can use to illustrate some points.

Here's a start I made on one called "Beehive":

I kinda like the scattered feel here now and was fascinated to read that Wolf Kahn says he likes chaos!

"An artist should have the courage to celebrate mess - create chaos out of order! Order is too predictable..."

At the time, however, I was interested in the idea of the city being more like a beehive with all the little workers located in their own little channels within the hive, so I discarded some of the above elements and repeated others:

With the one below, I felt I had added in extra unnecessary extraneous and redundant (!) material since my main interest was in the rhythm of the chimney I cut off the bottom section and yes! I had not used my brain but just gone blindly ahead, and bound it and sewn a sleeve on the bottom, so all that had to come off too! But I do think the later version is much more concise.

I will try to take a series of process pictures on the next the moment it's just a bunch of sketches on the wall, and I'm trying to decide which one I find the most interesting and see if I dare to risk chaos!

and if you have been! thanks for reading,

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Critical Evaluations – no more passive gazing!

Ericcson and his cohorts talk about the successful person as being one who had engaged in many hours of focused, concentrated practice: "gradual refinements of particular aspects of performance through repetition with immediate feedback." So, how to obtain this?

I think the first person to turn to is the first person!! But I would do some ground work. I think it’s important (already said!) to have specific goals, not only generally but for each piece. When you know what you want to achieve with the piece, then you can begin to look at it in a specific analytic way: so “I want this quilt to convey tranquility” or “I want this piece to convey a warning about pollution” or “I want to make a piece about red squares dancing on a blue ground”. Or: “ I want to use only one colour, but show how it can be cool, and warm, somber and gay, hard and soft – and I want to make a dynamic arrangement of these qualities”.
You can see how each of these statements enables you to look back at the piece and ask yourself – well? Does it do that? Go out of the room and come back in and look! Or look through a mirror. Or take a photograph and look on the computer…Keep really looking at the whole piece. Call the family in and say “what d’you think this piece is about”?

Don’t: spend hours focused on one tiny little aspect of stitchwork until you have the main idea solidly in place. Also as you step back, don’t just look at the patch you just adjusted, but at the whole thing.

It’s important to look at great art (art that has stood the test of time) and ask yourself " now, how did they convey the idea I’m trying to convey?" How is it that a particular painting makes you feel sad, happy, engrossed with texture etc? It’s not magic – though it might be alchemy!!! It’s something that very experienced and brilliant artist has done deliberately..and by looking and looking you can find the clues to see how they do it. Don’t be a passive gazer! Learn the alchemical devices! But don’t overuse them.

If the piece is communicating the way you planned, the next step is to see if your arrangement of shapes and values supports your idea. Work through every variable (line, shape, value, colour, texture) – asking yourself does this convey what I want? If the lines are jagged and the piece is about a calm landscape….hmmm…and vice versa – gentle curves in a piece about intolerance…doesn’t go. It’s about a cool day? Well why are there more warm than cool colours? On the other hand if you have all warm (or cool) colours the piece will lack a little pizzaz, a little spice of the opposite temperature helps make it more interesting plus thanks to the alchemical reaction of simultaneous contrast will make the cool cooler, and vv.

Check for the balance of harmony and tension (unity with variety) that makes a piece interesting. If everything is the same and perfect, it probably won’t hold your (or anyone else’s) interest for long. But you don’t want a chaotic jumble either. Nor does perfect symmetry work well – that tends to be quickly boring. The African American quilts in the book Who’d a Thought by Eli Leon were fascinating because they eschewed perfect symmetry, blocks didn’t always line up, the blocks weren’t always identical, points didn’t always meet. When I was a child I was in bed sick a lot – I would examine each panel of the patterned wallpaper looking for t he bits that didn’t quite match!! The places where the pattern slipped or changed. Actually it’s a pity I didn’t have something better to look at than the wallpaper – but there it is!!

Check for traps! Traps are usually excessive kitsch to the point of banal predictable vulgarity i.e. Kincade, Hallmark cards etc…, as Wolf Kahn says “nostalgia is a very cheap emotion”!
Big eyed babies, blue women and kittens are definitely a clue!! And I’m sure you can think of many more.

Compare your work to the work of those you admire. Take some time to learn your taste in quilts or whatever medium you work in – select out 10 brilliant pieces to which you really respond…then try to analyze what it is about this work that you admire so much. Then look at your work – in what way is it the same? In what way different? Say you were an athlete, looking at a video of a great athlete’s high jump…how is she doing it that is different? Can you deliberately do that? Make a few sketches, a sample study or too – not a direct copy of the whole piece for that would probably be mindless….but an exercise in using a variable in a particular way. Perhaps your favorite artist’s work looks very rich and you like that. So how is it looking rich? Why d’you think that? Maybe it’s the color choices? Saturated colors with a lot of black, - okay then your piece looks wimpy? Try the same idea with more saturated colours, and more black.

So all of this critiqueing is something that you and I can do – it takes time and effort and brain strength of course, but that was what Ericsson discovered was the key difference!

Critiques from others: this is more difficult to obtain. As one commenter wrote, people tend to be too kind, they don’t really want to get into it, and to be frank most of them don’t want to do the work – and it is work! If you’re in an MFA program then your instructors are supposed to do this, but I have heard many many stories about that not happening! If you can grab a person who is used to evaluating art and who has both the analytical ability and the vocabulary to explain it to you , then do so!! But it’s rare. However, I think if you sit down with a couple of friends and go through the kind of analysis I’ve talked about it can be very helpful. In the workshops I lead, I try, when time allows, to have such a peer evaluation exercise. I think it really helps to practice practice practice not only one’s art, but also one’s ability to evaluate art.

And, as usual, if only I would follow my own advice!!! If you have any comments, or suggestions!! Please add them! If you have been, thanks for reading! Elizabeth
PS the quilt above is about (al)chemical processing! it's called "Oh, what pretty smoke!"

Sunday, January 25, 2009


I’ve been thinking some more about Artist Statements and New Year’s Resolutions! I think it all comes down to goals. The artist statement is a conglomeration of things you should be saying to yourself, and things you might be asked about by a viewer. The latter in my experience usually being about technique: “how d’you do that?” rather than “why d’you do that/” in fact I don’t think anyone has asked me Why? Though many have asked me How?

For ourselves,however, Why? is the most important question. For only then can we know if we are being successful. I actually started making quilts to be sociable – I was in a new town, knew no one and was asked if I wanted to join a quilt group. And certainly that was successful!! And is a perfectly good reason why one should make quilts.

So, then I had all these quiltmaking friends… though now they live all over and refuse (sadly) to move to N.E. Ga so that I can enjoy a natter over a cuppa tea!! But I kept on making quilts… My reason to continue was enjoyment and escape – I loved taking workshops and there’s nothing like quiltmaking for workshop opportunity!

After a while, however (i.e. about 16 workshops!), I found the workshops became of less interest, but I still kept on making quilts. By that point, I think my main goal was that of being creative or expressive. I wanted to see if I could convey a feeling I’d had about a landscape, a building, a pattern, a composition of light and shade into cloth.

I also had the goal of wanting to make No More Dogs!! (apology to canines, by the way!); it really irked me that I might make one good piece, then 5 lousy ones, then another that wasn’t too bad. I thought the Real Experts never made anything weak!!! Reading artists’ biographies soon disabused me of that idea! If you don’t take risks, you don’t make progress, and if you take risks, there is a higher failure rate. It took me a while to accept that. I still don’t take enough risks, though – it’s hard.

Finally I reached a point where my goal was to be Very Good at making quilts – I want to be able to make a quilt that would stand up compositionally against a good painting and be just as meaningful and satisfying as that painting. I want to be able to make something that really looks strong and intriguing if you see it every day. I’ve always wanted to have some activity that I excelled in, instead of being that most boring of creatures “a good all rounder”!

So it was with interest that I read in Gladwell’s book Outliers about what it takes to be an expert. He was quoting from the work of a Florida professor of psychology: K Anders Ericsson (Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, 2006). Ericsson concludes that people who are Very Good at doing something aren’t innately superior but they do have different modes of action. He feels there’s little evidence to support the belief that genetically programmed ability makes the difference. The main difference between those who do really well, and those who do not is that the former practice much more, and practice very rigorously and even somewhat obsessively. It’s not just mindless practice either. They are much more thoughtful in their practice, and they seek feedback. Just simply repeating the same behaviours without consciously striving to improve doesn’t seem to lead to progress.

"The traditional assumption is that people come into a professional domain, have similar experiences, and the only thing that's different is their innate abilities. There's little evidence to support this. With the exception of the influence of height and body size in some sports, no characteristic of the brain or body has been shown to constrain an individual from reaching an expert level."

Ericsson attributes the apparently amazing gifts of musicians like Mozart, or athletes like Tiger Woods not to their inherent talents but to practice. Studying biographies of geniuses reveals that they had all spent countless hours in practicing, all had access to excellent teaching with a lot of expert feedback, and opportunities to perform that were unusual. Ericsson described "deliberate practice" as the key. "From the outside, it seems like talented people don't have to put in a lot of effort. They make it look so easy. But when you look closely, the opposite is actually true. The best performers are almost always the ones who practice the most. I have yet to find a talented person who didn't earn their talent through hard work and thousands of hours of practice."

Their tremendous skill is the result of "gradual refinements of particular aspects of performance through repetition with immediate feedback." In one study of classical pianists, those who played brilliantly had at least 10,000 hours practice by their 20th birthdays! Those who were merely adequate averaged about half of that. Similar data were evident in other spheres: chess, athletics, computer programming, medicine. It’s not just mindless practice or standard drills that work, he discovered; those who do really well have access to focused guidance and they develop very innovative practice routines: they set specific goals, learn to evaluate their work meaningfully, and refine the specific skill sets necessary. Ericsson gave the following example:

"Medical diagnosticians see a patient once or twice, make an assessment in an effort to solve a particularly difficult case, and then they move on. They may never see him or her again. I recently interviewed a highly successful diagnostician who works very differently. He spends a lot of his own time checking up on his patients, taking extensive notes on what he's thinking at the time of diagnosis and checking back to see how accurate he is. This extra step he created gives him a significant advantage compared with his peers. It lets him better understand how and when he's improving."

I don’t know that I can get anywhere near all the above, especially since I’m - ah-hum- a little over 20 (!), but my goal now is to try. I challenge you!!! Decide your goals – are your activities going to lead you toward them?

And, if you have been, thanks for reading!!


PS the quilt at the top is called "Firedreams", I hope my goals don't prove to be just that!
More of my quilts can be seen on my website, please visit!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Artist’s statements

I decided to do a little research on this having confessed ignorance in my last blog! Artist’s statements are a frequently requested item and whether you agree with the notion or not, I think it’s always good to show willing!! After all, the goal is to make good work and get it shown, if a few hoops are required, I’ll jump through them rather than question their presence and save my energies for the design wall!

Here are some general guidelines for the AS which I think make sense:

1. It should be readable (!) not too much claptrap – though I must admit that I wrote one some years ago that was intended as a total pastiche of claptrap and while it was funny to me to do it, probably didn’t do me much good with the AS reading public!!

2. It should answer the questions you would want answered if you were viewing the piece for the first time, with little knowledge of the artist’s process or body of work. I think this is particularly important in those shows where they only ever include one piece by any one artist – I really wish they’d stop doing that!!! As a viewer, I’d rather have 3 pieces by the top 30 people than 90 separate pieces ….I think you can get into the artist’s head much better and it’s a much more satisfying gallery experience for me. Of course as an artist entering, I’m glad I have a higher chance with the 90 separate artist idea!!!

3. It’s helpful to recall questions you have been asked at previous shows, and include those answers – where relevant! Obviously “where did you buy that fabric?” isn’t one of them!! But it is helpful to state if the fabric is painted/dyed etc.

4. It should help a person stay with your piece a little longer and discover things that they might otherwise have missed.

5. The best advice for the writing of it that I came across several times was to brainstorm on describing the piece, almost as if you were standing in front of it…and likewise with the process…obviously brainstorming yields great lists of words and then you have to clean these up a lot!!

6. Once you have the information you wish to give: Put it into coherent and dynamic sentences – as in any good writing. Which means largely grammatical sentences unlike this one! As well as getting the grammar right especially the possessive its (oh how I hate all those extra apostrophes floating around these days!), some variety in verbs and adjectives is more interesting to read. Edit, edit, edit – whenever I write a blog I try to go through and excise all the words that don’t give information e.g. “and I think it’s really important in this day and age to thoroughly consider…” Also be sure to get rid of all redundancy! I really hate it when people tell me the same thing three times!!

7. It’s important to be very economical – people are not going to stand and read a lecture!!! I’ve found that I’ve been asked for “a page” (i.e. 3 paragraphs), 500 words, 300 and 100. It would be a lot easier to do them all at the same time, save them, then you can easily snatch up the relevant one.

8. Opinion seems to be divided on 3rd person versus 1st. I think you should choose which you prefer when you are reading a statement. I like a personal voice…but not every single sentence starting with “I”!

9. Address inspiration (why you made it, your Main Idea) in one paragraph, process in another, and where the work fits into your body of work in a third. Keep the themes separate. I have always found it quite fascinating to know which artists really inspired the person – then I can go and look them up. So if there’s room for a 4th paragraph, that would be what I’d want to know.

And, if you have been, thanks for reading!!!
Now I’m going to go through my AS and see if I can’t improve it following my own advice!
here it is :

"On the designs:
In my work I attempt to address both conceptual and formal issues. I wish to explore the beauty of everyday environments; in troubled times it is especially important to be aware of beauty and wonder. Even a brief history of man reveals both the importance and the endurance of art. I want to reference archetypal memories to assess our own place in the history of time and I believe that in the quilt format such ideas can be expressed with repetition and serialization.

Furthermore, I love to play with the balance and color, space and light seen in landscapes (whether urban or rural). My quilts reference traditional quilts but I try to push the concept much further, to use the medium to its maximum – relishing in its ability to reflect texture, depth and luster of color as well as hue. Reflected light, translucency and the effects of time are recurring themes; I want to translate into fiber the marvelous effects of light and color. Repeated patterns of windows and architectural forms have been a leifmotif. Recently more ephemeral patterns such as those created by water and shadow have also become a source of inspiration.

The aim is to make work that glows with light and is rich with color and nuance: work in which the unified composition is satisfying, but the details are fascinating.

Technical details:
An “Art quilt” is defined as several layers of fabric stitched together to form a whole - usually two dimensional and hung on the wall. I take plain white (occasionally black) cotton (polyester or silk) fabric and color it by dyeing and painting with multiple and various applications: immersion dyeing, pole wrapping and/or other resists, direct dyeing/pigment application, painting and screen printing, heat transfer/disperse dyes. The fabric is then cut up and re-assembled and fastened together with multiple stitches to create the texture I desire.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Road to Improvement

I came across a great post on becoming a professional artist the other day by the photographer Daoued Bey,professor of photography at Columbia College Chicago; he said one was free to pass along all his good advice!! So I thought I’d take the opportunity to mention his main points referring particularly to the Art Quilt world.

Make good work!

It’s very interesting to me that buyers seem to have a more discerning eye than jurors! I’ve had some horrors juried into shows (yes I know I shouldn’t have entered them – but somehow it’s hard to resist entering 3 pieces – two strong ones and an also ran…) well, not real horrors, (at least not by me!) those never leave the design wall, but definitely weaker stuff. They’ve picked the weakest one and passed over the stronger ones (to my mind). But I’ve noticed that buyers have a true eye – they go for the good stuff!! I think it’s important to make every piece as good as you can – and that might mean taking more time – especially at the initial design stage. It’s a difficult frustrating time I know!! One thing that gets me through that stage now, (after 200+ pieces nearly all of which gave me significant birthing pains!), is the knowledge that I probably will be able to resolve the problems. If I just put in the time, and take my time and keep on adjusting each problem area…then taking another photo…looking at it on the computer (you’d be amazed at how well I can critique stuff on the computer!)…leaving it a day or so …

The work has to be good!! If you’re not selling and not getting into shows…something’s going wrong.. maybe you’re a hermit waiting for people to discover you (actually there aren’t too many of those left!!), maybe you’re not entering shows, or the right shows…or maybe the work needs to be stronger.

Put in the time.

It does take time, nothing in – nothing out!

Hang around people who are better than you think you currently are.

This can be very difficult, but I’ve heard this advice many times in sports and games situations – you won’t improve at card games, or Scrabble or tennis etc if you consistently play with weaker players. I was lucky enough to get invited to join a group of excellent art quilters who meet once a year to compare work. Since then (1996) I would say my work has definitely improved. When you’re soliciting advice from those who are better, you don’t have to agree with everything they say obviously, but you’ll learn if you Listen to all they say. I’m so grateful when people will take the time to discuss my work with me and not just fob me off with a “it’s lovely dear, d’you fancy a cuppa tea?”

Show your work to as many people as possible.

I carry around a few postcards of my quilts – business cards are too small I think to see a piece…and I hand them out to anyone who will look…of course a lot just respond with the cup of tea thing (see above!) but now and t hen an opportunity arises as a result. Or they make a really interesting comment that sets you onto a creative train of thought.

Occasionally they’ll chuck the card in a waste bin as they walk away (yes I’ve had that happen!) – at which point you try to figure out why….was it the work that was poor? Or just not interesting to them? You can learn something! Don’t take it personally though – it was just the postcard that was trashed, not you yourself! It’s also helpful, I’ve found, to have postcards of more than one piece, that way you can say – these are some of my pieces, which d’you like the best? If people are completely unresponsive…something’s going wrong…

Know the quilt world and where your work fits in it.

I’m always amazed when I talk to quilters who say they are trying to make a career in quilting but they don’t know the key players and the important shows. It’s also important to know which shows to enter – I was reading someone’s resume the other day and Five Best of Shows in quilt shows were mentioned …..I thought wow that’s amazing…then realized that although I’ve never had a BOS in a national quilt show I have had them in art shows. I try to be aware of the work of all those I consider to be the best and I also figure out why I think their work is stronger than mine – how can I improve my work to their level?

Keep in touch with people

Bey stated that he had had many exhibitions that were the result of keeping in touch ….I certainly have had one or two, and I have missed out on some key shows because the organizer didn’t know me…this is a hard one for me because I’m not a natural networker – and moreover the next big opportunity (QN ’09) I’m even out of the country!

Join those professional organizations
that can provide a community, network, and professional information. This is traditionally given advice, but one has to be selective. In my previous life (as a psychologist) my membership of most organizations did very little for me…however once I got a job as a result of a chance remark at a meeting of our local professional organization.

Stay Informed! Know what’s going on.

I’ve not been able to do this in the art quilt world per se here in a small college town in Georgia, however I have found it helpful in the general local art world. What is happening in your local art community? Any shows being devised? Open studio days? Organizations looking for work?

Be prepared for the long haul.

Remember those pop stars who only ever made one hit record? There are a few art quilters who made one spectacular piece and t hen moved onto some other art form…there are also many people who give up because their first few pieces aren’t very good….I think if you have the goal of becoming really good at anything you have to commit yourself to a significant period of time…having said that it is absolutely fine to quilt just for fun!! The same way as it is to learn to play the piano for fun, or learn a few phrases in French. But you won’t improve….

Develop good communication skills.

Bey feels that it is important to be able to communicate articulately about one’s work, and also to write a good artist statement. While I have read this advice in other places I would really like to see an example of a good statement versus a bad statement. I rarely get anything from reading other people’s statements – maybe that’s because they’re all bad!!! Probably it’s because I like to figure out things for myself…if I want to ask the artist anything, it’s usually technical rather than inspirational. And I find when I ask for questions myself, if I’m giving a presentation, most of them are technical – what type of dye d’you use – sort of thing – always a bit disappointing!! But that’s what people want to know.


Knowledge, solid knowledge is always important, no matter the field. I’ve always been disappointed with workshops I’ve taken that were really touchy-feely, airy-fairy and not informational. And the information needs to be relevant!! I remember one ghastly workshop where the instructor spent 3 hours every morning trying to explain obscure yoga practices to us!!! Other ones where we were given sort of kindergarten exercises to carry out – you know the sort of thing – you dip your hand in a box and what you pull out you make – blue triangles with bobble hats sort of thing…and a third workshop with a Big Name who handed out some multiply photocopied ancient art school exercises that were to take us the whole week!!! And he never critiqued the results! What a let down that was! always be suspicious if the printing on the handout is slightly diagonal to the paper!

I’m glad that Bey states that knowledge can be gained from either a good art program or from “your own obsessive seeking out of knowledge”. And he also states that if you do decide to have formal training that you have to be very careful where you choose to go – many programs are quite weak.

Don’t be afraid to create new paradigms for how you can exist and function as an artist.

I think many art quilters are really ahead of the game on this one – we’ve discovered that few galleries will accept us and have found other ways of showing and selling our work. People who buy my work are sometimes surprised at the cost ($200 per square foot; that’s about $1200 for a piece that is 24” x 36”) until I explain: 50% to the gallery, 33% (or thereabouts) to the Feds (though thank goodness I can at least now agree with the policies!! At least the policies as described in the campaign speeches!), 10-15% for supplies…. Which brings it down to less than $50 psf for me. Plus I might make many pieces that I can’t sell. I just sold my first watercolour painting! A friend said – “wow and so much easier than working at my job”. She was only counting the time it took me to do that one watercolour, but there had been 50 practice ones I couldn’t sell!!

All additional advice welcome!!! Plus all comments and any questions – I’d love to do a blog just answering questions one day, so go ahead!!

And, if you have been, thanks for reading!


Monday, January 19, 2009

Is Colour bad for you?

I thought it was just because I was peculiar that I get into certain colour grooves!
Sometimes I only want black and white, other time purple+orange+red is the only thing that will satisfy my appetite. One year I was totally bemused by grey. But it turns out I’m in good company!! Both whole societies and individual artists have at certain times prescribed or proscribed particular colours.

Colour has sometime been considered nothing more than decorative – it was though that if you exploited colour in your work it would turn it into nothing more than “eye candy” – and of course there’s some delicious candy out there!!! Bridget Riley was accused ( I think unjustly but then I’ve a sweet tooth!) of this with her switch from the optical black and white pieces to the coloured ones. There’s a nice range of her images here.

I love the snooty remark from Le Corbusier and his friend Ozenfant:
“Let us leave to the clothes-dyers the sensory jubilations of the paint tube”!!!
However they, and many others including Picasso, did enter the Elysian fields of colour leaving the rather “ascetic chromatism” they had previously espoused.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the reverse happened with a number of painters turning to black and white, or grey.
There’s a lovely painting by Frank Stella called Jasper’sDilemma where he comments on this:

The idea that colour would detract from a design, and the belief that value and line were more important to the strength of a composition goes back to Renaissance times, if not further. In fact research with newborn infants has shown that they respond more to high contrasts of value (as seen with the eyes, eyebrows and hairline of the mother’s face) than to bright colours.

In ancient Rome it was felt that the use of too much colour indicated a lack of moral restraint; Pliny complained about the concentration of interest on the expensive fabulous colours, rather than on the genius of the artist. Of course centuries before that, colour was used extensively – many of the beautiful Grecian marbles that we see today in pure natural stone colour were originally painted. However Pliny’s view persisted, with the morality of excessive colour being called into question – especially in religious settings.

One of the most extreme negative views on colour was expressed by Al Reinhardt in his series of black paintings. “Someone once asked me about colour and I used the occasion to mention a number of times and places in art where color was excluded. ..There is something wrong, irresponsible and mindless about color, something impossible to control. Control and rationality are part of my morality”. (panel discussion in the 1960s) He was quoting from Lao Tzu’s Twelve Rules for a new Academy where Lao Tzu really lashes into the evil aspects of color!

Black had become popular in 19th century European painting too even though some complained it looked like everyone was in mourning! (Baudelaire). But the value of the dark black enriching and contrasting the few brighter colours was unmistakeable. Look how brightly the red cummerbund glows against the black suit.

And then the gorgeous greys! Of Jasper Johns of course, but also Whistler and Richter…and the Andrew Wyeth watercolours. (we mourn his passing of just 3 days ago).

So how do these ideas and these precedents relate to quiltmaking today? I think it’s important that we use color wisely, that we respect its huge impact and value and don’t just slosh it around adding it everywhere like sugar is added to so many foods. We need to enjoy a smidgen of a taste, we need to let it work with the strong flavours of black and white and grey and not dull our palates (and palettes – it's not for nothing these words sound the same!) with a surfeit of sugar and sweetness. We need to respect the meaning of colours and how much can be conveyed by their use, over and above the actual physiological reaction. It’s the psychological reaction that is paramount.

And, if you have been, thanks for reading!!
PS A lot of the colour ideas I’ve been writing about recently have sprung from my reading Colour in Art (yes it has a ‘u’!) by John Gage which I’d definitely recommend.

Saturday, January 17, 2009


I don’t know how you could bring synaesthesia to quilt making but it would be a neat idea!!

Synasthesia is experiencing a response in two or more senses at the same time. Some smells and tastes to me have distinct colours, other people experience certain tones as colours. Imagine being able to make a quilt of such a sequence of colours that people could hear music when they looked at it, or smell roses!!

Artists have explored synaesthetic effects for at least 150 years, probably longer. Turns out that flashing coloured lights round during a concert goes way back before pop music was ever invented – to the early 19th century in fact. Before even Edison did his bit with inventing light bulbs, stage manager and actor Henry Irving was coloring the lime lights by painting a translucent lacquer onto the glass along the front of the stage to give different color moods.

As soon as electric bulbs were invented, Dancer Loie Fuller designed stage lighting using upto 20 diffferent lamps with rotating coloured filters, and a double lantern that could mix colored beams. She even used glass floors lit from below (nothing is new, Michael Flatley!).

One of my favorite Kandinsky paintings – the big black piano on a yellow ground– that he painted after hearing a Schoenberg concert (Three Pieces for Piano, in 1911) was inspired the colour of the music. Kandinsky showed the dissonance that Schoenberg was exploring with the bold yellow and black shapes. Kandinsky considered yellow to be an earthly colour (in his treatise On the spiritual in Art) which could have the effect of representing “mania or frenzy…like the reckless pouring out of the last forces of summer in the brilliant foliage of autumn…a wild power”.

A colour organ was invented (this was pre laser and computer days) to play specific colours attached to particular notes..and pianists such as Alexander Laszlo integrated a colour light show with his concerts in the 1920s and 1930s. After the second world war, cinema began to use color to illustrate the mood of the scene. I remember when I first saw Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, there was a tremendous shock in the audience when the black and white movie suddenly exploded into dramatic colour. You felt it viscerally!! Eisenstein called colour a “terrible and savage tyrant” and he wanted “red drops of blood in the black and white”..

Red and black and white! A powerful combination – can you hear it? Smell it? Taste it? Feel it in your bones? I hope so…

And, if you have been, thanks for reading!


PS the details above are from "Remembered Lines", which will be in the QN show in May - unfortunately I'll miss the opening as I'm off to Iona! so ...please make sure it's hanging straight!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Colour Choices

I seem to have gone full circle in my color schemes. When I first began quilting in the US (early ‘80s), I was limited by what was available – like the artists of old! I had actually made patchwork many years before that – for clothing – and used all sorts of mixtures. But in coming to the US I was determined to follow the rules of the local culture which meant buying little calicos in either garish or insipid (there seemed to be nothing inbetween!) colours from the local fabric store. Further more the rules said “thou shalt only use 3 or 4 different fabrics!!” and actually specified yardage and everything – remember those days? How could I have ever been so meek?!!!

Eniow (this is a Yorkshire word you may not know..but it’s a great way to start a sentence because it links the before and after with a beautiful rough hewn word)…eniow, as a result, my first few quilts were: black and white, followed by blue and white, followed again by….blue and white! Well, at least I showed some consistency!

And then I discovered dye!!! …I began to buy white fabric by the 100 yard roll. No more standing in line for those useless fat quarters ( who wants fat ones anyway??? I always wanted loooooooooong skinny ones!). So then the next few quilts became saturated with multiple colours….let’s get them all in!!!

After a while I got the idea that it was helpful to have a theme!! A theme temperature (nearly all warm colours), or a theme colour – e.g. rust – and relate the other colours to it.
By this time I had worked out a simplified step by step foolproof (it was amazing how haphazard and vague the early dye classes I took were) way of dyeing for myself (no more meekness!), and I began to produce yards and yards of gradated colours, complementary colours, mixed colours.

So my colour schemes became more sophisticated. I usually begin a quilt with a Main Idea – the main thing that this quilt is going to be about…then do a value sketch, deciding whether the piece is better in mainly light (high key), or mainly dark (low key) values. Then I pick a colour scheme – choosing more abstractly from analogous, complementary etc or directly from nature.

I’ve often noticed that I get almost hungry for a certain colour…like pregnant women who need some mineral will crave it. For a time I just had to have purple/yellow/orange – nothing else tasted right!!! Then it had to be green! Everything else was stale. But trying to photograph green with Fuji Velvia film (a red saturated film) was so difficult…..

But recently my palate and my palette have desired simple fresh bold combinations! Not quite yet back to blue and white…but a strong urge for everything black and white led to 12 recent quilts using just that colour scheme.

I was joking to a friend last night that I’d love to win a prize for “Best Use of Color” for a black and white quilt!! Now wouldn’t that be refreshing?!!

And, if you have been, thanks for reading…

PS all my Art quilts are for sale, both on this blog and on my website.
I'm happy to answer any queries, listen to proposals (!)...just email me.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

How d’you know what colours to choose?

I’m in the midst of an interesting book on “Colour in Art” by John Gage. It describes the many different ways artists have used to choose the colours in their work. In some cultures of course, Australian aboriginal for example, only certain colours (black (from charcoal), red, white and yellow (from ochre) were available. In medieval times, minerals were ground to make colours and some minerals were very rare and precious, such as lapis lazuli for the gorgeous blues that were so revered. Jacob Lawrence only had access to a few colours of house paint for his series of paintings telling the story of the underground railroad.

At other times the choice of colours was determined by contemporary prevalent colour theory. Painters were fascinated by the idea of the primary colours – which colours actually were primary, and was this in pigment, or in light? Which groupings of colour would add to grey? They painted discs devised by James Clerk Maxwell ( who proved that Saturn’s rings were neither solid, nor liquid but made up of fragments orbiting together) with different colours and spun them rapidly to see if the additive effect was grey.

Interestingly, grey has always been Jasper Johns favorite colour and was the theme of a fabulous show of his paintings at the Met last year – there’s a beautiful catalogue (Gray) available. From the spinning experiments of the 19th century was developed the idea of the complementary colours – one of which is a primary colour, the other a secondary colour made up from the other two primary colours. Then paintings were devised to exploit or reveal these theories.

Jasper Johns painting (False start (1959) demonstrates the effect of words on perception: for most people the written word of the colour overrides the actual perception of colour: eg if I type “red” you see red, not black!

False Start has an interesting history in that it is one of the most expensive paintings by a living artist. It was sold in 1988 for $17 million, and then resold in 2006 to the Chicago hedge-fund manager Kenneth C. Griffin for $80 million.

And, from Aristotle on, artists have realized that the perception of a colour varies tremendously on their context – the surface that bears the colour, the adjacent colours, the ambient light, reflections onto the surface, and the translucence of the surface. As a friend said to me yesterday “your watercolours look so much better on the computer!” – with light shining through them! Quilts often look tremendous hanging on the washing line with the light shining through. I’ve often wondered about making a quilt to be hung in front of the gallery window!

The effect of adjacent colours is fascinating – in my workshops I often suggest people do a few little exercises in simultaneous contrast (putting one colour against several others) so that they can really see how one can affect the other. (Many examples in Josef Albers work). Here's an interesting blog where the writer is exploring some of the ideas from Josef Alber's seminal work: The Interaction of Colour.

Most people know the after-effect phenomenon where if you stare at one colour for a minute or so then look away you will see a image the same shape in the opposite colour. Several artists have deliberately used this in their paintings – of course you have to stand and stare at the painting to wait for the after effect images to appear. It’s fun to do!!

Dan Flavin the artist who works with neon light installations manipulates this effect gorgeously. (if you haven’t been to Dia Beacon, the museum in New York state, that has several of his pieces plus loads of other wonderful work including Warhol’s amazingly beautiful Shadows series, you must go!)

So, choose your colours thoughtfully!, there’s a lot of history, science and philosophy to consider! In a later post I’ll write about how I choose my colour schemes - though in a much less esoteric way I’m afraid!

And, if you have been, thanks for reading!


PS be sure to check out my other blog: Retired elderly quilt looking for a good home!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Don’t be too literal! Working from Photographs

There’s always been a controversy in the art world as to whether it’s a good idea to work from photographs, or not. Photographs rarely show the real truth and beauty of the subject. They give some quick information – compare a news photo as compared to a painted portrait by a master- but don't give the emotional content, the emphases and nuances that we are aware of in front of the real scene. Start really looking at the photos in the paper/magazine and see which ones really seem to convey something of the spirit of the event or person portrayed, and which are just dull and flat.

A camera only has one eye – and you have two…a camera doesn’t move and you move constantly. So what we’re actually seeing when we look at something is more like 20 or 30 frames a second. Take a look at the table now with one eye, and then the other – 2 different pictures!! Move two inches to the right and two to the left each time doing the one eyed thing (and it’s fine to do this in a public restaurant by the way!!! It’s especially good to do in a really boring meeting where you’re sitting around a table with your colleagues and boss and boss’s boss!). So in a few seconds of this activity you see many different views of the subject. When photographing something to make a quilt therefore, take a lot of pictures from slightly different angles, side to side, up and down….David Hockney did a wonderful series of photo collages illustrating this point.

Since the camera has a single point of view, pictures or quilts made as a direct copy may, therefore, tend to look a little flat. I think it’s better to distort the perspective slightly to give more of an idea of what the real experience was….because what we actually see is shifting all the time. So try not to flatten out your images - instead consider using different angles, or adding shading or having two building in a slightly different perspective - the result will be more real.

Photographs don’t show movement – but how might one indicate that in a piece? How have various artists shown it? Of course the famous DuChamp painting is one solution.

The camera records everything in the scene – from the aspect that most interested you,

to the one that is of no account at all. So when you’re looking at your photographs (note – plural now!!)
of a scene, first think what was it about this scene that was so attractive to you?

When you make your sketches from the photograph
(and I definitely advocate working from sketches rather than from the photograph itself),
drop out the details that were of no interest, emphasise the main idea.
At this point my DH loves to come in and say “but the tower wasn’t that tall!”….but
if my main idea was “how tall that tower looks” – then of course in philosophical (and artistic) terms
it was that tall.

Be sure to omit those details that are inconsequential, putting them into your piece will just detract

from your main area of interest. Photographers do airbrush out after all!!!
And, as well as omitting, you can add…..if your main interest was the poppies in a field, put more in!

make them bigger and brighter!!
Use all the techniques you know about emphasis and focal point to bring them out.

Other odd things that may happen in photographs that you can (and should) change –

are those weird effects where a tree is growing out of someone’s head, or 2 heads are growing out of a cow!

You can also move element – take a tree out from the middle and move it to one side,

or plant a tree on the right to balance something on the left, and so on.
Colour and value may also need some adjustment.  Photocopy  the photograph

(or scan into Photoshop and desaturate) so that you can see where the main values are…
it can really help to increase these if a greater range of values will express your main idea more clearly –
and obviously the converse is true.

And change colours!!!! Quilts with blue skies, green grass and brown or grey trees are Boring!!!
And I’m sure you’re not making a quilt about a scene because you find it excitingly Boring!
Photographs are immensely helpful in reminding us of most of the elements in a scene

but can be very unhelpful if you copy them too literally!

And, if you have been, thanks for reading!


PS the quilt at the top is called What Pretty Smoke!

It's on the Industrial Landscape page of my website.

PPS I apologize for the weird formatting - there must be some hidden code somewhere doing this!! one of the elements I would have liked to drop out!!