Monday, March 30, 2009

Not just Change...

There’s a wonderful quote from Emily Carr, the Canadian painter of the wild forests of Western Canada, that is something to hold in mind while making a piece:

"The subject means little. The arrangement, the design, colour, shape, depth, light, space, mood, movement, balance, not one or all of these fills the bill. There is something additional, a breath that draws your breath into its breathing, a heartbeat that pounds on yours, a recognition of the oneness of all things."

What is the difference between a quilt that simply portrays a pastoral scene, or a still life or a skyscraper or a pattern of squares and triangles and one that brings those things to life?

As Robert Genn says:
“Don't .. leave your (design)to the vagaries of nature or the limitations of your initial conception--but rather to your own higher nature and finer sensibilities.”

Get out your quilting books…catalogues from major shows – and find the pieces where there is more there than a simple portrayal of the subject matter. What have they done? What elements have been added, changed, or subtracted? (let me know if you think there’s another verb I should have in this sentence!)

When I stood under the Cement Works recently to take photographs, I was struck by their rusting height, how abandoned and dusty they were and the repetition of shapes. There was also a sort of old lady elegance to the site. To achieve a feeling of more height, I can make the shapes taller and narrower, and emphasize their curvature at the top. I can utilize a very vertical design structure to the piece rather than a horizontal, curving or circular one.

I can take the shapes that I find the most interesting and repeat them more often than they occurred in reality, and drop out those shapes and lines that were less intriguing, or only occurred rarely. I can choose the many colours of dust: cream, sand, brown, grey, dusty pink etc to emphasize the dustiness, make the dust palpable, soft and inviting!

I can bring out the rustiness by pulling out the contrast of the markings on the various surfaces.The shapes are crowded together with gantries towering above them connecting one side of the plant to the other…can this be emphasized by slightly changing height and placement? of course….let’s move a few of these things around!

People may say “but it’s not like that in Real Life”! but the quilt, (I hope)won’t be about real life, I could just give them a copy of the photograph for Real Life, or the address for that matter……. The quilt (and possibly quilts!) will be about what I saw, what I felt, what I thought about when looking at it and similar structures – I want to convey this by subtract, add and change. And now I’d better get down to it!!

Next post I’ll write about the blocking out process.
So, if you have been, thanks for reading! Elizabeth

Friday, March 27, 2009

Reading, surfing, thinking……

I like to spend the first half hour or so of the day improving my art education.  While it would be lovely to go back in time, be young  and full of energy and at an amazing art school, I don’t think any of those are likely to happen!  However, I have always learned better by reading, making notes, thinking, explaining what I’ve read to others..than by sitting in a lecture hall doodling and daydreaming.

My favorite magazine for quilt artists is Art in America – I really think one’s  imagination is much freer looking at work in mediums  other than quilts,  AinA rarely show quilts or even fiber art (sadly, but maybe one day!) .  My favorite online newsletter is Robert Genn (you can sign up for this and it comes twice a week in an email – 3 snappy paragraphs that may be irrelevant – delete! – or may set you on trail across the internet – heartily recommended).  Today Genn’s  newsletter (Painter’s Keys) was about Virgil Elliottt who wrote The Oil Painter’s Bible – available from your local library. (Support libraries!).  So, you’re thinking “oil painting?! what’s that got to do with quilting?”   But the book is largely about art as a whole, how we see what we see, how great painters are able to engage us so that we will continue to be intrigued by their work for hundreds of years.  You can always skip the chapters on oil painting brushes and so on!   I read again a section on the illusion of depth in two dimensional work.  In almost every workshop I teach, someone asks me about achieving depth.   Elliott sums up the techniques neatly into geometric perspective (developing a horizon or eye line and relating other lines to it) , atmospheric perspective – the effect of light+atmosphere on objects as they are at greater distances from us and selective focus.   While he advocates much practice with all of these to the point that the artist is so familiar with them they become intuitive, I think that  even a little understanding is sufficient to introduce depth into a piece.  As well as the effects of atmosphere and light,  using detail and high contrast versus a blurred, soft focus, low intensity blending of colour can indicate depth and areas of interest.

Thinking about selective focus, I wondered how one might use hard and soft edges in quilts.  Obviously people who paint whole cloth can just utilize the lessons straight from painters.  For those of us who piece or applique (whether by stitching or that other method!), I think  we could “lose” the edges by using more muted colours or, as Paula Nadelstern does, use fabric that has the same or similar background colour.  It’s an intriguing possibility and I shall cogitate upon it for my next quilt!  Dominie Nash loses edges by the use of overlays – semi transparent organza or organdy.  Which, interestingly, is exactly how the oil painters do it – with layers of paint, the top layer being transparent.  So we can lift their ideas!!  Talking of Paula Nadelstern, she has the honour of being the first living artist to have a solo show at the Museum of Folk Art in New York City – it opens on April 21st – so do go if you’re in town!!

Back to my morning art education: Art in America always has a long section of reviews; the wonder of the internet is that you can immediately look up any artist who catches your eye to see more work.  Today I was struck by the paintings of Paul Bloodgood  and those  of Gladys Nilsson, both of whom had  shows  reviewed in the February issue.  I rushed to the computer to see more, and then started thinking: what is it I really like about this work?  What has the artist done that is pulling me in?  why do I respond to these more than to the other paintings who were reviewed this month?  I have some ideas….but really need a cup of tea for more intense cogitation….so, if you have been, thanks for reading, I’m off to get the kettle on!    Elizabeth

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Elements and Principles: the design plan, determining your objectives.


There is a tired old discussion that still seems to raise its hoary head amongst those who have nothing better to talk about: whether certain media (or mediums as they say now, which always makes me think of spiritualists – and I don’t know about you but there’s no way I’m making something out of slime!! (as in ectoplasm!)). (Sorry! My knight’s move thinking got the better of me again!) These hoary heads argue whether certain media should be considered “art” or “craft”. For those of us striving to make the best work we can, to communicate our ideas as clearly and richly as possibly in the medium, we know that what we’re doing is both art and craft. We’re making original work as artistically as possible and with the best craftsmanship we can. It should be both!

I was listening to a talk by Bruce Hoffman the other day where he appeared to draw a line between “fine” art and “decorative” art which I think makes a start in placing art quilts, but it’s not the whole story. I remember being in a discussion lead by New York critic Janet Koplos – she was asked why art quilts just weren’t accepted by the galleries in New York.  She replied by observing that while many art quilters might feel they were unfairly excluded from the mainstream of contemporary art, whether or not they did work that would be accepted depended on what their objectives were. That the art work currently desired by the NYC art world had very different objectives – at present being concerned with art whose main goal is surprise, things turned around, made from unlikely materials, even shocking, startling, different. These are not the objectives of your average art quilter! It’s not that one type of reason for making art is good or better than another – it’s just different.

I like the categorization system (if one is needed – and as human beings we do like to group and predict) outlined by Feldman (I’m sorry I can’t find a url for him). It is more detailed but less hierarchical than the old court case of Art v. Craft which implies a winner and a loser. He described 8 different kinds of designed work: in alphabetical order:

Abstract: some designs are “abstracted” from reality. This can be completely – bearing no relation to reality whatsoever – and that’s probably very rare. More likely there has been some initial visual reference. The work of Ricardo Mazal demonstrates this clearly: he took a photograph of a few branches, then gradually simplified and simplified the image, cropping in closely, dropping out natural references to the point where the image becomes unrecognizable and finally making a monoprint based on the simplified photograph:  The book about his work: From Abstraction to Reality is listed on Amazon.


Conceptual: where it is the idea or concept that is conveyed that is the most important – over and above any concerns about beauty, craftsmanship, particular medium etc.

nooseLR A good example would be the 2004 exhibit 552 Georgians: A Memorial, created by John English. This was an installation of 552 individual hanging nooses representing Georgians lynched between 1880 and 1930 accompanied by an audio track listing their names.

“While a single noose has long been a symbol of terrorism, this assemblage of 552 takes on iconic status,” said English. “Only by acknowledging the grim reality of our collective history can we continue the process of healing and reconciliation between the races.”




decorative: formal design where the elements (line, shape, value, color, texture) are arranged creatively.

Descriptive or realistic: documenting one’s visual world

emotive: to evoke a mood (Picasso’s Guernica painting of horror and outrage)

narrative: to tell a story, send a message (e.g. Cave paintings – the hunt, religious paintings, the wonderful tapestries in the Cloisters museum in NYC).

utilitarian: a practical function, like the design of a computer or salt and pepper pots

Surrealistic: Salvador Dali and many others.

Obviously there is overlap between these types of design – they are not true categories in the sense that they exclude the other types…but I think it’s helpful to consider what you’re trying to do at the outset, and which type of communication is most important.

The success of the design lies in how well it achieves its objectives.

And, as for me?

cityofmistshp  My reasons for making work vary: In my quilt City of Mists, I definitely wanted to evoke that soft melancholy, tender mood that has a whisper of hope that you feel on one of those flat misty days – literally feel!






hours1pm In a short series (I may revisit!) about times of day, I was interested in more of a narrative mood conveying the story of my day:





In many pieces my aim is a combination of descriptive, decorative and conceptual in that I am describing what I see, in a creative formal arrangement of elements with, at the same time, a specific formal message implied. This is especially true in the latest Industrial Landscape series. My foremost aim is to make work that anyone would want to look at for a long time in their home, office, or waiting room; work that is both simple and complex, elegant and earthy, intelligent, meaningful and easy to understand. Phew!!!

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


Monday, March 23, 2009

An interesting day for the industrially minded

And here I was wondering where the next inspiration would come from!

I noticed in yesterday’s paper that there was to be an “artists’ panel” in an alternative gallery downtown (Athica).  The gallery is located by the old cement works – what inspiration!!!!  white against blue…I think I got some interesting photographs – I took a lot (per my advice yesterday!)…and will spend today sketching out various elements, combining things, omitting things and trying to convey the dusty feel, the complicated pipes and gantries, the rusty chutes hanging over open air, the desolate rail cars and tanks, the peeling paint….. and look at those crinkly roofs!!!

IMG_1164 IMG_1166 IMG_1170

There are so many interesting textures, and a lot of colour.   But talking about colour…in the gallery (when I could finally drag myself away from the cement works!)  I was totally seduced by some gorgeous paintings of abandoned industrial interiors by Morgan Craig of Philadelphia.

Do go and visit his site – here’s a quick snap of  my favorite:


His colours are both tender and sumptuous; the paintings are full of light and atmosphere.

He talked about wanting to paint the all the memories of these old structures so that they were as evocative as Proust’s famous Madeleine!

As well as showing the beauty of old industrial buildings, and their memories, he is fascinated by the way Mother Nature (She Almighty) is gradually reclaiming the territory.    They are, he said, the “modern sublimity”.

He also told us that Philadelphia is currently allowing its heritage of historic industrial buildings to be destroyed while at the same time  fabricating a much more sanitized children’s storybook history.  

It’s so inspiring to see accomplished fabulous art made with similar goals and ideas to one’s own…there is a way up this mountain!!!

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

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Between Quilts/ Working from photographs

And now I’m in that limbo between quilts…sometimes they’re just falling on top of one another, overlapping so there’s always something to work on ……..but then there comes a point when everything gets finished at once and there’s a stillness.   What is the next piece going to be?  Will I start with a clear cut idea for a shape?  that’s frequently a starting point for me.  Another possible place is a particular colour combination.  I’ve been away a few days up in the North Georgia mountains and the colours of the hills – smokey blues, going  to dark green and the deep pink to mulberry of the new leaves coming, plus lots of white flowering pear trees…hmmmm…..seeing a beautiful scene, I’m always tempted to take a lot of photographs, print them out and then start to work.  But… have to be careful when working directly from photographs…..  The temptation is to go in with a literal translation but there are so many problems with this.  The camera doesn’t see things like we do – it has one eye, and most of us are blessed with two.  Images are flattened.  The effects of light are changed and the glow is lost.  I’m often so disappointed when I look at my photos of some amazing glowing side or back lit effect I saw in the garden and it’s just dull and flat.    The shadows on a photo are much darker and often without  the many subtle colours – and the camera’s eye is so Overinclusive!!! too many meaningless details!

In my workshops I encourage people to bring photographs as a reference or starting point. From this start they develop sketches, simplifying content, emphasizing what was important about the experience, pushing the colour, blurring the surroundings, moving elements that either overlap too much or are not connected at all. 

As I look at a photograph  I ask myself attracted me to this image?  what lines, shapes etc in the photograph support that first impression, and what is irrelevant or weird and should be omitted?  Is there anything that should be repeated?

I like to print the photo in black and white so I can assess the value pattern – and usually adjust it.  I also like to invert the value pattern and see if that is more interesting!  You can get some really surreal effects inverting colours  as well– that’s a lot of fun on a grey day!

Artists have worked from photographs since cameras were first invented.  I was reading in Gurney Journey (an excellent blog – see my links) – that art historians have discovered that nearly half of all the photographs taken in Paris in the late 19th century were commissioned by artists for figure studies.

James Gurney suggests making a quick sketch – however rough – of what you remembered as being important and memorable in the scene before you even look at the photo – that way you’re not so influenced by the camera’s memory which can overwhelm your own.  Remember those pictures from childhood where you can’t remember if it’s the event itself you recall, or just the repeated viewing of the pictures by family members?

He also suggests that having mined the photo for the nuggets you need, that you put it away and continue to work from your own memory.

It’s a good idea too to have several photos of the same scene, capturing different aspects – you can put all of those into one quilt even though the camera can’t capture them all in one frame.

Here’s some examples – hopefully I followed my  advice above!!!  You’re free to comment!

lendalbridgesq lendalbridge OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Above, the original photo, taken from the bar (Roman fortification)walls in York, UK,  a long time ago (old photos often stick in my memory)…next Lendal Bridge 60 x 60, then a second quilt Museum St 35 x 54. You can see how I’ve continued to simplify elements and sharpen the colour contrast in the second piece.

westcliffwhitby theredgate westcliffsteps

Above an old photo which we took in Whitby, Yorkshire – one of my favourite spots of one of the narrow ginnels that go up the cliffs….in the first quilt, The Red Gate, my area of interest was the red gate…which as you can see I repeated.  In the second piece, West Cliff Steps I played with the light, putting one side into deeper shadow, and the other with a bright glow.

It is fascinating to work from photographs, but as in everything – don’t be too literal!!!

And, if you have been, thanks for reading.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Elements and Principles: Unity, harmony

In previous blogs I’ve discussed the elements  we use in making a quilt design – the shapes, the values, the colours and textures.  Now I’d like to introduce some of the ways in which we can organize these elements into a pleasing and interesting arrangement.  One of the most basic principles is that of  Unity: harmony in the elements!   This was the second thing I tended to forget when I first began to make up my own quilt designs. 

The first thing I forgot was to have some variety, or tension.  I wrote  about that on Feb 27 in “The Art of Unpredictability”.   I’m pretty good at forgetting things, by the way!!  So, to begin with my designs were Really Boring because I would draw out a design for a little block and then repeat it without change across a rigid grid, making sure I had enough fabric so I could use the same stuff in every block!!  I look back now …and am amazed -  “what was I thinking?”.   I remember clearly being sick a lot as a child and examining the wallpaper pattern in the bedroom desperately looking for a place where they’d changed it a little bit – a red flower instead of a blue one (of course they hadn’t!)…..I even made a few small changes myself…not enough for The Parents to notice, of course!  And then, here am I a Grown Up  making boring wallpaper myself!

But then…when I stopped being boring, I launched straight into chaos.  too many elements, too mixed up.  Thankfully I didn’t take any photographs of the worst efforts..but here’s a later worst effort:


As you can see, there are a number of mistakes…but the one I’d like you to focus on is how I quite arbitrarily seem to change those circling elements, so I have 4 different things spiraling around.  Go and look at nature!  She Almighty usually gets it right – as a sea shell, or snail or tree rings circle round, they don’t suddenly change shape, colour, texture, value balance!!!  I do like the last two strips by the way, there is some relationship to each other both in tone and in meaning (the tiny pictures on the third strip are of windows)….those two alone would have been enough.

It’s essential for a good design to have the separate sections of the piece strongly related to one another.  I needed to show a lot more restraint!  (in many ways!)


Since then I have learned that Unity is achieved by planning ahead which the shapes, colours etc  will be the dominant ones.  Everything should go together e.g. a squirrel’s tail on a bulldog would look weird..or a bar of a Souza march in the middle of a Chopin nocturne.   Lines, value, color, texture, shape or direction that is not repeated, echoed, integrated elsewhere in the piece can compromise its unity.


Here’s a second quilt, done much later.  Now in this one I have a number of different elements but because I’ve used that strong vertical yellow as a dominant element it helps to pull all other  sections together.

One shape, value, color temperature or texture or direction should predominate – this leads to unity. these can be combined but one must be dominant.   Or put it another way: choosing a dominant design element limits the possibility of chaos.   Unity is, therefore,  achieved via dominance.

barton cityofwillows detail 

In this detail from City of Willows, you can see I’ve a variety of colours and line direction and values, but the shapes repeat, the low intensity of colour repeats and the texture is dominant.


A general theme/structure must be imposed upon parts by the whole. This is true for the whole piece, but also for any also holds true for each design element.    We know this from any study of nature, and the amazing fractals we can observe.  It’s actually very helpful to look at nature to see how all these design principles/guidelines work so successfully for both beauty and practicality:

I’ve often wondered how people were successful at creating wonderful art quilts when they say they work quite intuitively and don’t plan at all. While, I suspect that many of them are not successful, there are some major exceptions. People whose work I like a whole lot! Nancy Crow, Emily Richardson are two such.

So how do they do it?  I think it’s because they choose a dominant design element right at the outset of the piece, or the series of pieces.   This then leads to repetition which pulls the work together. However, they both love to cut freely and so their shapes vary somewhat – but not too much: unity with variety.

so – take a look!!!   At my quilts, at your quilts, at those of your favorite artists, and above all at Nature!  Observe first the harmony and unity, then look for those little differences that give the variety and interest!

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

Monday, March 16, 2009

Industrial Landscape # 7

I’m happy to say I’ve finished my seventh industrial landscape piece.  It’s fairly small – 24” by 45” and is in a vertical format – unusual for me recently.   I’ve been working on wide and short horizontal views because that’s how I first saw the steel works in Hamilton. 
Sometimes in order to get the picture you want you have to go to considerable lengths!   OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         I volunteered as “crew” on a sailboat in order to be able to view the steel plant across the water!   Now, while I’ve always wanted to sail, I know nothing about it!!! So I just had to fake it and make sure I kept my head down at the right time, and be quite assiduous about bringing up beers from the cabin when asked to do so!

I’ve now made a series of 7 quilts based on this trip across the lake (by the way we were in a race and came in last!!  but it was so much fun).    I’ve pictured all seven quilts on my website.

Most of the quilts are very horizontal, but I wanted to make a black and white one that was more of a closeup and thought the vertical format more appropriate.  I wanted to contrast the plant buildings with the environment – I’ve done this in the other pieces focusing on the water, but this time I thought more of  local plant life – completely absent as far as I could see from my deck viewpoint!   

I’m not sure what to call the piece – so please advise me!!!  I was thinking of a play on Flora and Fauna and calling it Flora and Ferra (but there’s no such word as ferra to denote iron and steel – though it makes sense to me!!)…..but Flora and Ferra has a nice ring to it.   Another possibility would be Plant Life.  What d’you think?

Here’s the piece:

floraandferra canon pic

And, if you have been, thanks for reading!


Saturday, March 14, 2009

Knowing your own taste

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an artist should have a singular “voice” or style. 
People say this is important to be be recognizable, but I think a much better reason is that the only way to become really really good at something is to practice it over and over and over.  If you’re practicing a lot of different things at once, you simple won’t get as much practice at one thing.  And am I guilty of this !!! I should definitely heed my own advice once in a while!

Having a clear style  is partly the result of much practice and experience, but also, I think, of knowing your own taste.  In my workshop “Developing your Own Voice”, one of the things I ask people to do is to bring a dozen or so pictures of works they really love – no matter what the medium.  And pictures of their own work that they really love.  Two groups of pictures.  

The next step is to develop a list of descriptors. 
The list of descriptors could be based on many things; I began with a  list that some friends and I developed after a long evening of discussion of our own and other’s art quilts!  An evening of considerable libation I may add!!

Our list included the following: originality, technique, attention getting and holding, compositional success, communication, tension and the mark of the human hand. 

To those factors, I would add: size, format, colour palette, edge treatment, abstract/impressionistic/realistic, subject matter, passive/active, use of negative space, mood, movement.

The way to develop the items is to look at the pictures one by one and write down the key things that attract you:

for example, one of my favorite quilts is Farne Islands:


The things I like about this quilt are:
the unity of subject matter and colour
the variety of textures
the restlessness
the overall size and shape

so I can begin my Definition of My Style with these items:

a) unified subject matter: taking one subject and portraying it with variety.
b) a controlled palette – not necessarily monochromatic but definitely not “cor blimey!”
c) textural variety
d) a lot of movement – interestingly this definitely fits me as a person – I remember a friend half my age complaining that I was the most restless person she had ever met!
e) a fairly large size, horizontal format.

Then I could take another artist’s work that I love: Red Landscape by Dominie Nash.
nash, red landscape


What do I like here?
a) the controlled palette – everything is related to red
b) the mystery
c) the strong diagonal movement
d) the dynamism
e) the fairly large size and horizontal format


If I repeat this exercise with a dozen piece, I will find a clear description of what I really like in my own and others’ work and if I focus on this type of work (well for a while at least, remember the restlessness!), and practice practice…not only will I be clearly delineating a style and a taste, but also should improve.

well, here’s hoping at least!….and, if you have been, thanks for reading!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Elements and Principles:line and texture


Line is not used much in the art quilt world as a predominant element though its secondary value is significant. In traditional whole cloth quilts, line is created by the quilting stitch. The stitched line also creates texture of course. Surface design techniques can create line too. Line is a more delicate element and, I think, is more appropriately used in a smaller format – where the viewer is drawn close to the work. When does a line become a shape and vice versa? I think a shape should be considered a line when it’s so thin as to be one dimensional….so even though I’ve used very skinny shapes in many of the black and white series of quilts – I do think they’re shapes not lines!!

I have experimented with a very bold line in the piece that’s going to be in this next Quilt National – trying to make the line really stand out – here’s a detail.


Texture in quilts is seen as the pattern on the cloth where the shapes are generally so small…they are considered more as a surface variation. If texture is a dominant element, then the other elements should be somewhat subdued. I think you have to be careful though because using texture might lead technique to predominate rather than the overall design. I’ve run into this problem with my drowned city series of quilts.

I’ve found that the shibori texture is so strong, you really have to let it be the dominant element. Trying to use it very occasionally within a piece is extremely difficult as it stand out so much. You have to balance it very thoughtfully.

What I found worked best was to have all the fabric shibori patterned, but some of it with a very low contrast of values, and some much higher contrast.

It was also difficult to get shibori pieces into shows because I’ve found that jurors either like shibori or don’t! one judge dismissed a piece as “too much shibori!”.

Of course for us shibori lovers, there can never be too much shibori!!!

I’ve always admired Jan Myers-Newbury's, Sylvia Einstein’s and Nancy Halpern’s quilts and they love to use highly patterned fabrics in a multitude of textures. If you notice they are successful because they allow the texture to totally predominate and not fight other design elements. If they added in strong, solidly or boldly coloured shapes, the compositions would not work as well.

Overall, it's important to think and plan carefully, choose the element you wish to predominate, don’t have a battle of the elements!

And, if you have been, thanks for reading!


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Elements and Principles: value

Color is experienced in three basic ways: hue, intensity and value. Of these three, value is probably the most important in determining whether or not a composition is successful. Research shows that even in tiny infancy we focus on sharply different values – the mother’s hairline and eyebrows – rather than bright or saturated colours. Values are the primary visual shape maker – we see the darks and the lights first. A successful composition, therefore would be one where the light and dark shapes were interestingly arranged and reasonably well balanced

People with experience can differentiate 10 or even more values – from white, through 10, 20 30 (etc) % grey all the way upto black. For myself I find 4 levels of value works sufficiently well.

Once I’ve made some outline sketches of my subject matter, then I like to try out different value patterns – varying the effects of light, medium light, medium dark and dark within the piece. Two aspects are important: first ,mood and second, value relationships. Do I want this to be a low key piece, lots of dark values, giving an evening or night time mood? Like in my pieces about the old city in late November.

Or do I want a very high key – the white landscape of a cold snowy day?

Secondly, I want my value shapes to be interesting and also to relate to each other, intertwining to pull the design together.
If you look at the next two quilts, both in colour and in black/white you can see how I've tried to arrange the very light and very dark values to create an interesting shape - as a whole.

and again in Greenhouses:

squint if you can't see it!!!

Manipulating values is also the way in which a focal point can be created – surrounding an object with a highly contrasting value on 3 or 4 sides will really make it pop: i.e. to make a light shape come forward, surround it on 3 or 4 side with darker values.

Look at Vermeer paintings to see how very beautiful and effective this can be!

You may have to ignore the actual values in the photograph (or whatever source you’re using) to achieve the effect desired. Yes! You are allowed to do this!!!! The value contrast should be high if you want to emphasise the area surrounded. Obviously the same effect can be achieved with a dark focal point surrounded by light….I love this back lit effect!

Plan values in the value sketch, then sort fabric according to value before beginning to cut!
I think it’s difficult to make an exciting quilt with only mid values unless you have some very saturated colours, or some very strong textures or other dynamic design elements to make up for the lack of value contrast.
Don’t worry too much about color initially – add it gradually, but get the values right from the start.
And, if you have been, thanks for reading!!!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Elements and Principles: shape

I’ve read quite a few instructional art books now and they all begin with an outline of the basic elements and principles - the strange thing is they tend to vary these!!! But of course that’s artistic license, right? Sometimes, even, elements are described as principles and vice versa! It’s actually quite straightforward though: the elements are the things we arrange in the two dimensional space formed by the backcloth of the quilt, and the “principles” or guidelines are simply suggestions on how to make an interesting arrangement.

I usually begin my workshops with an overall discussion of these but there are many more nuances in choosing what to arrange and where to arrange it than can be quickly remembered. I know my work will be stronger if I can become more aware of these nuances. So over my next few blogs or so, I’d like to take a look at some of the concepts particularly as applied to quilts I have made.


Once I’ve decided the principal concept, or main idea of the piece, drawn a number of rough sketches and decided upon the size of the piece, I outline a rectangle on the design wall. This is equivalent to the painter selecting a canvas or sheet of paper and a lot of sketches. I then quickly put in the background colour – like a wash of colour behind the main painting. Much of this fabric will get cut away later in the construction of the piece.

The next step is to make the shapes!! This is the most basic thing – the patches! We are the shape makers! As quilters, we have a great advantage in that we can make a tangible shape that we can move around very easily. Cut out interesting shapes: they don’t have to be realistic, it all depends upon the main concept and your own aesthetic style. I like to hint at things, so often will make a shape that has some of the characteristics of the house (or whatever) in the original sketch, but not all. Painters know that it’s important to involve the viewer. Don’t just spell it all out for them. Also as human beings we tend to see value shapes – the darks and the lights….remember when you were a child and you’d see a tree or a monster in your room at night? Then when you switch the light on it’s both the shirt hanging on the wall+its shadow + the coathanger! We add the dark shapes (or vv) together to make one value shape. I try not to cut shapes that are an exact replica of the object in real life. Remember Nicolaides (The Natural Way to Draw): “it is necessary to rid ourselves of the tyranny of the object as it appears!”

You also don’t have to include every single shape just because it is there in the original scene. Alex Powers calls this the Mount Everest theory of making art!

How big should our shapes be? I think it’s important to look at a lot of art to see what you respond to..e.g. if you look at Milton Avery or Diebenkorn you’ll see scenes reduced to a few large shapes. Arthur Dove does this too. So firstly, I would prefer to not have too many shapes (even though I break this rule a lot!!). I’ve seen various numbers mentioned but a good starting point would be somewhere between 10 and 15 shapes (this is overall shapes: the shirt+ the shadow + the coathanger). It helps to have the average size of the shapes in proportion to the size of the piece. (e.g. the average size of 12 shapes in a piece of 12 square ft would be one square foot).

Obviously though, you would want some variety in size.

If you have more than a dozen or so shapes it gets difficult to arrange them – for the ideal is to consider the relationship of every shape to every other shape as well as the relationship to the sides of the rectangle. How many shapes can you juggle? To achieve fewer shapes, group them, or zoom in on your main idea. This is something that you would do at the sketching stage, of course.

Too many small shapes are more likely to cause problems than too few big ones.

In the quilt above, A new day, you can see I've made an arrangement of value shapes, I've added chimneys to rrofs, sides of houses to roofs etc to make more interesting shapes then arranged them into a value pattern that alternates lights and darks across the piece.

Once I’ve cut some interesting shapes then I begin to arrange them within the rectangle I’ve outlined on the wall. At first I follow my sketch, but soon I find it better to relate the positioning of the new pieces to those already pinned onto the wall. You’re aiming for an arrangement which is balanced but not so much so that it is static. Here’s an early quilt of mine (Aiming High), you can see that the arrangement of the basic shapes is very static, too symmetrical. Also a little top heavy. I’d do it differently now!

There’s a number of different ways you can begin your arrangement…I generally start with some of the bigger shapes. If arranging flowers, I always begin with the biggest. But another possibility would be to begin with the focal point or area, the greatest area of emphasis in the piece, and then work out from there. This is the area of greatest contrast and greatest definition. You can see it here in Aorist at the only place in the piece that doesn't have soft curving lines.

But not every piece needs to have a focal point.

A quilt I just finished, Five Mills Rampant, is more about alternation and reversing than about one specific visual point in the image. The focal point in that piece is much more abstract. So in that piece I began by establishing that value reversal.

And so! I must look to my shapes!

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


Friday, March 6, 2009

Elements and Principles:colour

One of the basic elements that we 2D folk get to play with is colour – when I start a workshop and everyone introduces themselves (briefly!), at least half of them say they love colour and that’s what really gets them enthusiastic about making work. But when I look at publications about art quilts, and catalogues from shows, what often strikes me is a rather over the top “cor blimey!” colour scheme in many pieces. I’m finding this out myself with learning to paint in watercolour. The paintings look much better if I just mix up 3 or 4 basic colours to begin with and add in no more than that. In my workshop at Arrowmont I ask people to bring only white fabric, and on the second day having given a brief talk on developing good colour schemes, we dye the fabric for the quilts using a limited palette – the results are gorgeous.

The basics of designing with colour are covered in a little paperback by Wucius Wong called Principles of Color Design (1987); most libraries would have a copy. There’s lots of complex stuff you can get into, but the basics are very straightforward. Colour varies in 3 ways: hue (what colour is it?), saturation (how strong is it?) and value (how light or dark is it?). Like people, when you put different colours together they have an affect upon each other! You’ll look paler when standing next to somebody brighter, greener when standing next to somebody redder and so on!!

I always advocate choosing a colour scheme at the outset…imagine being an interior decorator and turning upto someone’s house with a whole truckload of different colours and saying hmmm let’s have these 6 in here, and these four in here and…..!!!!!! nearly as bad as beige, beige, beige – and we’ve all seen that too of course!

There are a few different ways of choosing a scheme: Wong advocates picking a dominant colour and then going from there, you could also begin with choosing a format (monochromatic, analogous, complementary etc), or begin with a famous painting that you’ve always loved, or something gorgeous from She Almighty. I suggest people build color idea notebooks and then when you’ve chosen the Main Idea for your piece, you can go to the notebook and look through to see what scheme works best for your idea.

For myself I notice I go through phases with colour. At one point I was very much into a purple and amber look – this was all based on a photograph I took one late November afternoon in my hometown of York, ancient streets, dark purple sky, all the shop windows lighted. I’ve been through a red phase, and a grey one! Even a black and white one!
Currently I’m thinking a lot about very strong red and blue together!
please take a look at my website for all my phases! Some examples from all these phases are below……


Red Shift 4

City of Mists


Strange Beauty

So…how is your colour today?
And, if you have been, thanks for reading!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


Metaphor has long been used as a source of design by artists. Pilgrim's Progress, the Inferno or Gulliver's Travels are classic illustrations of the struggles of the hero to reach his/her goal - as seen today in reality shows like Project Runway (alas destroyed by greed!) and ANTM where the protagonists have to undergo various trials to win the hand of the fair prince (?Tim Gunn!!!) or princess (Tyra Banks?)!!!! (plus the loot, of course!)

Metaphors in art can be obvious, I think of the target pieces that both Beans Gildorf or Mary Ann Jordan have made, or much more subtle and personal - I'm reminded of the broken circle quilt in an early Quilt National made by the lady (so sorry I forget her name, please comment if you know it) who was dying of breast cancer.

An interesting design exercise would be to sit down with an issue - personal or general - and think how many ways could I depict this delight, this joy, this sorrow, this concern, this issue etc.
A new grandma could make a wonderful piece based on drawings of tree buds - full of swelling promise. Both more subtle and more universal in meaning than a flat Bubble Jet set print of the new babe.

Having got the urge to make a piece about X or Y (and you know how fascinating X and Y can be!) - don't be too literal - think how many ways could I depict the idea, thought or feeling? Stand back and sort through them and don't be afraid of Metaphor!

here are some examples from my work:

The Arrogance of Calm
I made the above quilt when I was worried about the apparent indifference of our previous president to the dire events that his policies were creating.

City Blocks
This quilt likens the higgledy piggledy development of our cities to a jumble of child's building blocks!

Sorry about the bad picture! this 4 part quilt is in Gate 29, concourse E of Hartsfield Atlanta airport - 35 feet high hence difficult to photograph. The architect asked that the artists commissioned to make works for the gates on concourse E think about some of the work of an airport and its connections and effects. My metaphor of wheels within wheels within wheels was an attempt to show all the different skills working together within the airport, but also the circling out effect of an airport.

Jaunty Ladies
These ladies are out on the town for the night all dressed up in their fine glowing colours and jostling each other in their gaiety!!!

And, if you have been, thanks for reading!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Musing on Muses


I’ve finished my 6th industrial landscape (photo soon) and started immediately on #7, and #8 is already crowding into my head. I began to wonder where ideas come from…I know playing with Photoshop always sparks possibilities – and looking at other art. I wish I could teach a workshop where everyone had a computer with Photoshop loaded on it! I’m not a PS expert by the way – but you really don’t need to be. I use probably 1% of the program – if I learn a new trick I try to repeat it several times, otherwise it’s soon gone!

Cogitating upon the source of ideas, I picked up an old book lying around (and if you saw my house you’d realize that was very true– there are piles of art books on every piece of furniture!) Art Synectics by Nicholas Roukes. His main thesis is that bringing different things together can lead to new creations. Sandburg is quoted: “poetry is the achievement of the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits”. Synectics is really a modern term for alchemy - you put an unlikely mix into a pot, cook it and voila! E.g. neon lights and birds’ nests! Wouldn’t that be fabulous? Or even better, nests made from that laser fiber you can beam light through…giant ones with cushions in would be lovely – definitely a cure for seasonal affective disorder! Of course there’d have to be room for the tea tray with the pot of tea and jug of milk! the heat from the lights could be harvested to boil a kettle! I’m teaching a class called “Coaxing the Muse” at Arrowmont in July. I have several different exercises, I think it would be fun to have people try hyacinths and biscuits!

Roukes also gives several examples of analogies – e.g. an ear of corn and a high rise building, or a tree and the human vascular system. And of course many diagnostic questionnaires now use the tree branch system of continually splitting into yes/no branches. Town planners use it too, and I once heard a lecture on artificial intelligence and they were trying a similar model.

Analogies in poetry yield wonderful pictures: Sandburg’s “the fog comes in on little cat feet”..actually our 25lb cat most inappropriately named Thistle sounds more like a galloping horse as he approaches the bed for the morning feline alarm call!

Designs can be lifted from anywhere though She Almighty (Peter Hoeg) has some of the best ones. Aerodynamics and the building of air craft came from the study of birds.

Roukes defines and lists possible sources of analogy:
a) logical: where there are similarites in design, function or structure in very different things e.g. streams →rivers and streets→roads.
b) Synaesthetic analogies: visual, aural, taste – any sense. A musical rhythm can be compared to a visual one: in designing quilts one could take a piece of music as a start for a quilt.
c) Affective analogies – a person’s ideas disgust us and we think of them as slime; a child’s face can radiate joy like a sunbeam in a gloom ychurch. So if we wanted to make a quilt about joy we might consider a radiating design with light values as a focal point.
d) Paradoxical analogies: and of course there was a whole series of wonderful quilts based on oxymorons – sadly I wasn’t asked to do one! Though my whole Industrial Landscape series is an oxymoron in a way. Industrialization embodies the conflict between our need for energy and manufacturing and the effect it has on the environment. I want the quilts to show that push/pull – the positive and the negative totally intertwine.

Which reminds me – I’d best get back to work!
And, if you have been, thanks for reading!!