Thursday, April 29, 2010

Creativity continued

I’ve continued to read about creativity – there’s a bunch of books and articles out there.  Of course many are mainly waffle + anecdotes and you really have to sift through the dross to find the few nuggets.  I do wish the authors of some of these books would just insert a Key for those who can Think but don’t have much Time! A sort of condensed version!  Also, I read all your interesting comments from my last blog on this topic and most feel that creativity definitely could be encouraged and some thought that it could be taught.  (I’m going to explore that idea further in a later blog when my researches are a bit further along!)

It seems like an effective Creativity Kit would include the following:
A medium and skills within that medium
Encouragement at the least, and excellent teaching/coaching at the best.

Imagination is what happens in your head, but creativity is imagination realised in visible (or audible etc) form.  Children have wonderful imaginations but don’t (usually) have the skills within any given medium to fully realise their wildly imaginative thoughts.  Obviously there are exceptions, like Mozart.  But when you examine the lives of such exceptions, they almost always have had a parent coaching away from the child’s earliest days.  We tend to ignore that part of it ; we think “I could never be a good dancer, musician, poet etc.  because I don’t have “the talent””.  Obviously for some mediums there are some physical attributes that help – a galumphing six foot girl would not a gymnast make – but for the most part, it’s the specific training within the medium that allows the person to realise their creativity.  So our first task if we want to be creative is to get good at doing something!!!  Whether it’s singing, dancing, painting, quiltmaking, writing, throwing pots (presumably not at others!) and so on.

Training and Encouragement
While you certainly can teach yourself many things, having a good teacher definitely is a short cut, plus you’ll probably learn much better.  I taught myself to swim by balancing on a piano stool on my stomach reading the book of instructions positioned on the floor beneath me!  My girls had a good coach and access to swimming pools from the age of 3.  Guess who swims better?  Also they had encouragement, all I got was “wotthebloodyhell are you doing now?”!!!    Encouragement is key.  There are lots of people whose imagination was incredibly well realised – take the Beatles for example – without training, but they had tremendous encouragement from their peers.  It’s well known that artists thrive in groups.  The Blau Reiter group in Germany all produced magnificent works (some of my favorite painters) and introduced major new ideas into painting – because they were feeding off each other (and other things too but we don’t need to do that!).

There’s no doubt it takes time, and a lot of it, to be creative.  There are no wonderfully creative people who produced amazing things by working at them for one hour a week!!!  sadly, magic doesn’t happen – despite all those books that promise it!!  If you want to be a creative person, think about at least two hours a day, preferably much more.

The art of producing original thoughts…there are some that feel this can be taught and I hope to write more on this later when I’ve fully researched just exactly what methods have been proposed and how successful they really are.  What I’ve read so far is either airy-fairy, directed at producing a new widget and making a lot of money or drug-induced!  But, I’ll get there! And if I can’t find anything, then I’ll set my cogitation cape on and figure out how one could be more imaginative…to begin with simply try the following exercise as you do any mundane task that doesn’t require your full brain: Say to yourself I must think 3 thoughts that begin “Imagine if….”  and let me know how it works!

One of the emails I received following my last blog was the following (reproduced with permission) from Sarah Elizabeth Brown in Canada. Her story illustrates the importance of all of the above: being skilful at a particular medium, getting encouragement from others, and, above all, time to think and to play.

Like you, I believe anyone can be creative. Or more accurately, that everyone is creative, but perhaps they aren’t creative in the ways that our society/culture/etc. define as “creative.” For the longest time, I thought I wasn’t creative because I can’t draw very well. Actually, I’m terrible. Even my stickmen are embarrassing. It’s not a lack of hand-eye co-ordination – I played a variety of sports through school and university and I did adult-level cross-stitch at the age of eight. It’s that my younger brother is a truly gifted visual artist. He was always the “artist” in the family. I can’t draw like him, I can’t teach myself guitar like him, I don’t know colour theory like him, therefore I’m not officially creative. My brother now works at a paint store, mixing paint, as a way to finance his art, which evolved from painting (he still does some), to making stop-motion animated films that are truly, truly creative. Odd, haunting, and really original. But despite the fact I worked as a newspaper reporter, stringing thousands of words together each day so that other people could go to places, meet people and see things they wouldn’t otherwise experience, I didn’t think of myself as creative. But a funny thing happened when I discovered quilting ... I started to think of myself as creative. My first quilt was from a commercial pattern. But then I discovered all the wonderous fabrics out there and started to get ideas from blogs, matching up things I’d seen online with fabrics, and fabrics with people I know, and the next thing I knew I was creating quilts of my own that meant something to the recipient (food fabrics + foodie friends = great excuse to quilt!). My quilts are evolving as I learn new things and get more and more ideas. I’m nowhere near your level of art quilting, but it’s where I’m headed. And this summer, when I was home visiting my parents and brother, showing off my latest quilt tops, my mom told my brother that maybe he wasn’t the only artist in the family. Funny eh?

I believe that time is where creativity comes from. Free time, enough time to be bored and for your mind to start to wander, time in which to stare at your materials or the world around you and get inspiration or see the connections between this fabric and that fabric. When I sit in my sewing room and avoid studying (switching careers and going back to college), I stare at my fabric collection. In all that time, the pages of my quilting notebook are filling up with all sorts of great ideas for new quilts.

I recall an interesting thing said by someone in the hockey/raising kids realm. He was talking about the difference between the grinder players – the ones who are solid, but not truly creative when it comes to making plays – and the truly creative athletes, who seem to make fabulous plays out of nothing-special situations on the ice or field or court. He said something along the lines of that kids needed to be less structured, that the kids who played endless games of road hockey or pick-up basketball rather than endless structured drills at pricey hockey or basketball camps were the ones who developed that gift of athletic artistry. Yes, sports are an art form too. Like visual or performing arts, it’s using your mind and body to see opportunities and make something beautiful. Watch a nifty triple play in baseball or a jaw-dropping play on the ice or field involving several players and you realize that true creativity is at work. A perfect give-and-go is a piece of art.But the thing behind it is time. Lots and lots of time spent practicing, experimenting with moves that your clipboard-toting coach says is too risky, and most of all, playing. You know those jokes about buying a toddler an expensive gift and all they want to play with is the box? Or how about kids who make fabulous dramatic productions and entire worlds with nothing more than a sheet, mom’s pearls and the couch cushions? We don’t need stuff and doodads and iPhones and personality quizzes to make us creative. We need time to make connections between what’s around us and the ideas in our heads.

When I was 26 and getting bored with the newspaper job I had at the time, I went travelling. I spent three weeks in Singapore and India with an Indian friend and her family, and then four glorious months alone in New Zealand, hiking mostly. Before I left, my mom made me take a journal to write in. I whinged, saying it was hippy-dippy. I didn’t think I would write a word, but when I was in India and seeing a culture entirely different from my own (and I spoke exactly zero of the language), I had time to just watch people. Not wanting to forget any of it, and unable to talk to most of the people around me, I wrote down everything I saw. When I was in New Zealand and seeing places fantastically beautiful, but having no one to turn to and say “Wow, isn’t that gorgeous?”, I wrote down what I saw. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. Page after page, I described everything in minute detail, from the mountain views to shells on beaches to the antics of my fellow travellers. I was travelling with no set schedule and was taking multi-day breaks between hikes to rest my knees, so I had the time.

But I didn’t realize what a gift I’d had in that time away until I got home and started my next job. All of a sudden, I discovered my writing had improved drastically. It was pretty good before, but now I could look at an event, place, person, thing and really “see” it. And then find words that got the essence or fascinating part of it across to readers. In newspaper lingo, it’s often called “colour” writing. It’s the feature writing that transports you to another place, rather than the dry-as-dust stuff of which politician is lying today and what company bought what other company. All of a sudden I was being complimented on my writing, for making interview subjects feel like someone “got” what they were trying to say, for taking readers into homes and workshops and whole worlds they’d never been to. It was so cool. I was officially creative. All it took was some time away from the daily grind of daily news to practice writing what I saw in order to be able to really write what I really saw.

So in a really long-winded, roundabout way, I think time and creativity are fundamentally connected. Throw in playing and travel and you’ve got yourself a masterpiece brewing somewhere. And parents, encourage your kids to travel, especially off the beaten, scheduled, planned path. I’ve been to university and it was OK (it gave me some journalism skills with which I was able to make enough to eat), but it was the five months of travel that really educated me.”

thank you, Sarah!  And thank you everyone for reading, and for commenting!! the dialogue is great.


Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Virtual Chop

narrowlyfull 300dpi



This piece from my “half timbered houses” series is all right….
but there’s no denying it’s a bit static and full frontal. 
So I’m thinking about chopping it up! 
I can either chop it into “interesting bits” – if such can be found…
or chop and reassemble. 
With the magic of Photoshop, I can see what the possibilities are.

I do love messing around virtually with quilts like this!



So here are some of the crops and rearrangements:


chop 1

this first one is simply 4 vertical slices rearranged.

It does give a much better idea of the crowding of these old medieval buildings.

But the top right hand corner is very odd and disconcerting!

chop 2



This one on the left (#2) is a little better but I find it difficult to look at with the squares on point at the top.  Too many different angles.

Then I did a series of straight crops: #3,#4, #5 and #6:

chop 3 CHOP 4  chop 6 chop 5

A couple have some promise…I do like the way that the diagonal lines (originally drainpipes) show up a lot more on this…particularly on the funky looking one I tipped sideways!





chop 7



Finally I tried a horizontal slice (#7) - and I think this one is my favorite: it retains the original idea of the beams, but is nothing like as literal as the original image.


I recommend you to play!

You can do this with photoshop elements which is not an expensive program, or you could also do it by getting several copies of your image and cutting them up and glueing them onto a background; it doesn’t have to be high tech.

I simply open the image file in Photoshop and then make a “new” page at the same ppi as the image. I used black as the background colour since there was so much black in the quilt.  Obviously, though you can set any background colour.  Then I select the quilt image and cut out the section I want, then select the “move” tool and move that section over to the new page.  It’s really helpful to have your Layers toolbar open as each time you move a section over it goes onto a different layer.  Imagine making tracings of the sections and layering them on top of each other…that’s how the “move” function works.  So if you want to change a layer, you have to go to that layer (simply by selecting on the toolbar) to do it.

When you’ve got everything the way you want it, then go to the Layers menu, and select Merge Down which puts all your different sections into one image, dispensing with the different layers (as if your tracings suddenly all migrated to one page!).  

so, do let me know which of my manipulations you think the most successful!  Have a go at The Virtual Chop yourself!  and, if you have been, thanks for reading, Elizabeth

Friday, April 23, 2010

In and out of the grey cube

“I’m not a creative person”.
How very often I have heard that, and my heart sinks for the person saying it.

Can creativity be taught? It seems there is some controversy on this point.
Two articles I’ve read lately give entirely opposing points of view. A discussion of Cal Arts admission policy stated that since they felt that creativity could not be taught, students had it or not.. they would only choose students for their MFA programs who had clearly already demonstrated that they were creative people. Sarah Thornton in her rather depressing and cynical book about the Art World states that most art teachers believe that creativity is a “personal process’ that cannot be taught. They certainly don’t teach it in most art schools and I never came across its having being taught anywhere except in business think tanks and those horrible motivational seminars on which some workplaces waste thousands of dollars – though maybe with the recession the “motivational business” is seen as the pseudo psychology that it often is!

On the other hand, Ken Robinson, in his U-tube lecture, specifically talks about teaching creativity to his students. He also discusses the ways in which modern education tends to crush any creative thinking by requiring precise rote answers, by punishing nonconformity and by allowing no time in the curriculum for thinking in any way other than pre programmed. If you can discourage it…can you encourage it?

Most of the articles on line about creativity are related to business brain storming – how to come up with a new widget to make more profits for the shareholders…as in “go back into your grey cube and think outside the box”! We’re programmed from childhood to live in the grey cube…and then suddenly we’re supposed to be able to think in a non-grey cube way! Well, I guess, if we’re lucky! It’s very much back to Throw out all the Rules! Now you must do this…and this …and this..and in such and such a manner and all by 3pm”.

If you think about it though it would not make any sense for us not to be creative – that’s the whole difference in the human brain…we can adapt and adapting means coming up with new solutions – which is being creative.

It’s difficult to measure how creative one person can be compared to another because as an activity – whether mental or physical it covers many different variables. Any behaviour with many different variables is really difficult to measure – look at all the work that has gone into trying to define intelligence or personality.

But I agree with Sir Ken, everyone can be creative…each time you change a recipe slightly, decide how to plant flowers in the garden, arrange ornaments on a shelf, write a letter, doodle, hum your own little tunes, stand up and wiggle in time to music, think strange thoughts (and yes, we all do!) you are being creative. If we practiced a lot at any one of these, then we would improve beyond the general norm and maybe come up with something that others would find quite remarkable.

Creative thinking can be quite dogmatic: following one step after another – as in various systems that suggest you think of two things and then follow a variety of steps involving different ways of combining these two things and similar activities. Or it can be unconscious, a solution being perceived in a dream (we all know abut KekulĂ©’s rings), or based on a combination of luck and awareness – as in the discovery of some molds’ antibiotic properties. Many creative endeavours involve generating many different possibilities or examples and then picking only the best. This holds true from discovering new drugs to painting 100 watercolors to have one that is inspiring.

It is obvious, however , that to be creative you need time, persistence, patience and an open mind. And with those…you can fly!

I’d love to hear from you how you think of your own creativity and what steps you take in a creative activity – and whether or not you believe that anyone can be creative.

If you have been, thanks for reading! Elizabeth

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Overlook

I don’t know about you but  I tend to eat sleep breathe and live quilts…it can get hard to step back and get an overall view and plan. I get obsessed and I'm often right down in the ditch with them, rarely looking up over the sides!  I’m thinking "hmmm I’ve got this idea to piece, this quilt to bind, that one to quilt, dye fabric for another.".pretty much constantly at the coalface. So it’s good to take a week completely off to refresh and I'm doing just that..on the beach in South Carolina.  It's very quiet, a perfect time of year for thought and contemplation.

(I'm the one in the middle!)
So I'm reading, and thinking.   Where  do I want to go with my quilts ?  What are my overall plans as opposed to the specific ones I have for the current ongoing crop.  What are my goals, what new things do I want to try?  What shows do I want to enter?  What teaching do I want to pursue? I need to look ahead  and plan.  I'm taking a breather on the pathway, stopping at the overlook examining the view…behind and ahead.

I'm  getting up onto the overlook platform...where have I come from? and where am I going?
Somebody emailed me and asked me "how do I get moving?"  My problem is more how do I stop moving to allow myself to think and plan!  Keeping moving isn't always the best idea, it's important to review.  Looking back, is my current work stronger than that of several years ago?  If it's not, then why not, what is missing?  Am I repeating myself? or getting stale? or becoming too predictable and stylized?  I've definitely see that happen to other people, but it takes a bold person to wrench oneself from a comfortable mode into a new venture.

Looking ahead, I really would like to see some changes, I'm not sure that minute improvements in what I'm currently doing would be very exciting.  So, I must walk on the beach and think about what does excite me?  What sort of work really engages me at every level?

Like many quiltmakers, I teach as well as make quilts.  The goals there are more straightforward.  When I started teaching I thought I would just do one or two 5 days workshops a year, however I've found that I really enjoy the interaction with the students in the class.  The enthusiasm is so I definitely know I want to expand the teaching a little, but not too much.  And I've  discovered that 3 day workshops can work very well too.  Looking ahead, I want to try different places, different parts of the country - I don't want to repeat myself.  I would like to develop some new classes.  If you've always been looking for a class on something and havn't been able to find it - then let me know!!!  Also if you've thought "why isn't she teaching such and such" that would be interesting to contemplate building a workshop on too.

Re entering shows: I'm beginning to doubt the value of many shows plus they are just plain getting very expensive - between entry fees and two lots of shipping you can easily be out $100 for just one piece in one show.  And there are now so many shows....I've had very few queries re purchase of a piece or teaching possibilities as a result of shows and I've been lucky enough to get into quite a few so that thrill of "congratulations, your piece has been accepted" is not the same it once was.  Like cocaine, it's the first few hits that really count!

 so, if you never have...then give yourself time to visit the Overlook, and think....and now to get back over the dunes to make myself a nice cuppa tea!   from the beach....thanks for reading!  Elizabeth

Friday, April 16, 2010

Is Creativity doomed?

A terrible thing is happening here in Georgia (and I’m sure in other places too).   State government is planning cut all State funding for the arts, which of course will mean no matching funds from the federal government.   Art is not considered necessary.  The public libraries across Georgia operate on miniscule budgets, but even those are being cut.  A mayor was heard to say that libraries were not necessary, nobody ever went there, they all have televisions in their own homes.   Huge amounts of money are being cut from the education budgets, and schools have diluted and diluted their curricula until they are nothing more than a series of test questions that the children can learn by rote so that the schools don’t lose even more funding.   The minds of all are being shrunk…watch tv, don’t read.  Don’t even consider a creative answer, it’s not on the test.   Art, music or drama?  Those are unessential “soft” activities designed to take your mind off the real tasks in life: produce, buy and consume.  Nineteen Eighty-four  is here.

The crazy thing is – that in order to have more things to produce, buy and consume we need people to be creative.   So cutting funding is self destructive anyway.    All over the world companies are competing to provide new objects, new technologies, new systems.   Innovative solutions are necessary for progress, so why are we not encouraging and teaching our children and ourselves to be creative?  Even if creative solutions are dreamed up, it seems there are conspiracies to squash it.  A friend of mine discovered a better drug for a certain disease; the drug’s patent was bought by a chemical company and the drug never produced….it might have competed with their existing drugs for that disease.  Ian McEwan’s brilliant new book Solar shows how greed at every level acts like weed killer to mow down all new ideas sprouting up.    

We need more Weeds!!! More creativity.  More horizontal thinking all over the place.  As teachers we know how often people say in class “oh I’m not creative like you”….let’s help everyone to see how creative they are. 
I remember one class where the teacher started out great “let’s throw out all the rules!”, she said.   But then, “now you must do this, and this , and this….and all by 4pm”!!!  Hmm, just run that by me again?!!

If we all demand to be creative, celebrate creativity, stop educating our children in ways that reduce rather than increase their creativity, if we all stop watching reruns on telly and go to the library and support any local art event, perhaps we can begin to turn the tide.    Let’s find out how to be creative and practice creativity every day…it’s more important for the brain than crosswords and sudoku.  Once your brain has learned to solve those kinds of puzzles it stops learning, simply uses the same kind of analyses over and over.

Never again make a quilt that someone else designed!  Never take a class where the teacher dictates the pattern or gives you new rules to replace old ones.   Try to come up with new ways of solving problems, and encourage all those around you to do likewise.   Let creativity rule, and grow and grow.

Sorry for the rant!  but the local news has really shaken me up.  If you have been, thanks for reading!  And if you have any ideas as to how we can really encourage activity everywhere for everyone, let’s hear about it!


Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Old Friends and how not to photograph

It’s always very curious to see work that you made and sold ages and ages ago…..two “old friends” came to visit me today together with a photographer friend.    We were supposed to be photographing some recent work but managed to make every error in the book while we did so!! 

It’s always good to center and level the camera

bt somehow we completely forgot with the first photos…and the images came out with wide tops and narrow bottoms: a perfect shape for cowboys, but not for quilts!)….Here’s me trying to see if the camera is level on our repeat photo…


and,no,I don’t have rosacea, it’s just the weird light reflection..I have 8 spotlights shining on me!

We also managed to omit checking the exposure level so the first pictures were all totally washed out.

And then I forgot to adjust the lamps so the  light fell evenly onto the quilt.  Nobody is supposed to touch these lights which are totally jury rigged with cheap mechanic’s examination fixtures mounted on all the broken fan bases and other assorted rubbish that I have picked out of the neighbours’ bins on trash mornings!!  Got some other good stuff too!!  It’s Recycling after all!  But,of course,various husbands just thrust aside such “clutter” when crossing the studio!   Which I’d forgotten!

We  were so busy talking and laughing that we continued to replay every basic mistake, such as forgetting the grey card (crucial with the warm lights that I have).  Here’s the difference:  on the left is the image before grey card correction…you can see the actual grey card adjacent to the quilt.  On the right is the same piece, colour corrected, using the grey card correction in Photoshop:



     This was a quilt I made about 8 years ago, using a monochromatic colour scheme…could never photograph it with the old Fuji Velvia film we used back then, so it’s lovely to see it in all its greenness!


well…when the color is corrected anyway – second time round!



And of course  the quilts were busy sprouting new threads in every direction (have you ever noticed how they do that?!).   “C’mon boys we’re headed for photography, let’s grow a few shaggy hairs!!”

Here’s another old friend – this one I made 12 years ago…I was still using commercial fabrics  mixed in with the hand dyes back then….


  I don’t know if I’d let myself be this loose now!  And I think I would have cropped it down quite a bit…I was obviously in love with that gorgeous green shibori fabric and wanted to show it off!!! 

Looking at the old work, I think it would be good to get back some of the rawness I had back then, but with the stronger compositions I prefer now.

An interesting day…..

If you have been, thanks for reading!   Elizabeth

PS  There were some wonderful comments on my last blog “What the good teacher does”, so when I’ve time I’ll redo that piece and incorporate all the various suggestions.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

What the Good Teacher does

I’m sure you’ve had many experiences of the good, the bad, and the indifferent in various workshops and seminars.  As I’ve begun to do some teaching, I’ve started to try to figure out what exactly the good teachers do (or don’t do!) that is different.

Organized.   Good teachers are well organized, they arrive on time, they have the right materials with them, they have a lesson plan for each day and they tell you what the overall course  plan is (whether it’s a couple of days or a couple of weeks).

Focussed. Several times I’ve been in workshops where the teacher has been addressing some private interest of their own..there was one who spent every morning explaining some obscure yoga theories to us!  a brief aside on some topic that illustrates a point is good, 5 x 3 hours of esoteric, obscure, arcane theorizing is not!

Well Informed.  Good teachers either know the answers, or know where you can find the answers – they don’t make up rubbish off the tops of their heads! (or from anywhere else for that matter!).  They are also well educated in their subject and can not only tell you something but give you the context, and examples from many areas in art – or whatever is appropriate.  Those teachers who have obviously never looked at a decent painting and know nothing of art history are so limited.

Relaxed .  I do dislike those very tense, humourless obsessive teachers who insist that everything be done their way: “throw out all the rules!! now you Must do this and this and this….”.  Eeek..I’m running!  One lady even burst into tears because I was unwilling to do every single mind-fogging example of stitching that she required.

Focussed on the class.   And then there are those who are on their own private narcissistic ego trip and see the class only as a chance to gain more acolytes: “Let me show you just how wonderful I am!”

Greedy.   I don’t like to have to buy (other than essentials not obtainable anywhere else) over-priced supplies in class – especially if the teacher spends all his/her time laying out a shop that overtakes 50% of the workroom (yes, folks! I’ve seen that – unbelievable).  A small selection of interesting things that can be perused when the muse is failing, yes…that’s good.  But requiring me to buy…not good.

Sober:  it is nice too if they’re not drunk, high or hung over!  that slurred speech and falling about is  not very conducive to learning! and I’m not sympathetic if they’re sitting there with bloodshot eyes clasping their foreheads first thing in the morning when I’m ready and eager to learn.

Open about their own work.  One of the reasons we take workshops from working artists is to learn from them; people who are secretive about their work just shouldn’t be teaching.  You feel very embarrassed when they respond “oh I can’t tell you That!  that’s a trade secret”.  Also frustrated!  AND…even more curious.  It’s fine not to want to show the newest work, or current issues with which one is struggling of course.  But learning about the process that was involved in work that is public is one of the best ways of applying information to actual practice.

Respectful and egalitarian.  As I see it everyone in the class has saved up and paid to be there, therefore no matter what their level of talent they deserve equal time and attention and care from the teacher.  It’s easy to go wrong both ways: giving too little attention or too much attention.  Two ladies told me one time that because they were quite independent and experienced many teachers gave them no attention saying “well you two don’t need my help!”.  I was amazed – if they didn’t want something from the teacher, they would not have taken the class.  On the other hand the teacher must be respectful of the class needs, as a whole, if some person is constantly wanting attention (and thus taking it away from others).   

Able and willing to give individual help  I’ve been in classes where the teacher gave 30 minutes instruction then spent the rest of the time sitting at a table doing their own stuff.  I think that’s cheating!  Everybody in the class deserves a little private time with the teacher.  Some have questions related particularly to their own work, others are too shy to ask in question in front of others.  I like to allot gradually more time as  the workshop progresses to spending individual time each day with everyone in the class.  I don’t like to just respond to the needy ones who constantly ask for help, I much prefer to divide the time available by the number of people and work my way round in a relaxed way (not a ward sister flashing past- “okay dear?” – and before you can reply… gone!) but instead actually sitting down right by the person and giving them my full attention.  This has happened to me rarely in workshops, but I think it’s absolutely crucial.  I remember the times it did happen years and years later; those few words of clarification or encouragement are precious and have a lasting effect.

so…write and tell me what you think is important!  You never know, I might be in a workshop with you sometime and be able to add…or subtract!…the required behaviour!  also any funny stories would be good (but don’t use names).  And, if you have been, thanks for reading!   Elizabeth



Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Art of the Study


I’ve been thinking about how one improves…yes I know! practice!  but how difficult it is to practice when you only make one of something every 2 or 3  months.  We are really handicapped as quiltmakers by having such a lengthy process.  I’m sure you’ve all been in the position where you’ve laboured over something for months and at the end hated the dratted thing!!  I know I have.  The secret to improve is being able to practice something over and over…but how can one do that with something so large and time consuming as a quilt?

Thinking about the making of large oil paintings, I realized that many of the old masters (and mistresses too I’ll be bound, not that one usually hears about them, alas) made many studies and drawings before they began work on The Main Opus.  And nowadays we treasure those drawings and studies as works of art in their own right.   In fact, they are frequently enjoyed and loved more because they are fresher, more natural, more experimental than the finished large work.   There is a spontaneity in the studies that is very appealing.  Furthermore, they often address the essence of the piece without a lot of the extra detail.  Now it so happens that the kind of work I love is very spare – even though my own voice has often been overly taxed with detail, even (puke!) whimsy, in the past, what I am drawn towards in the work of others is economy.  Everything said with a few strokes or lines.  Bach’s unaccompanied cello works speak more to me than any Beethoven symphony (though I do confess a sneaking enjoyment when in certain mood for Carmina Burana!).

So where does this lead me?  I’d really like to figure out a way to make those studies…smaller pieces that address either just the essence, the main lines….or a particular interesting detail of the entire piece.  And will I make the entire piece?  well perhaps…when one of the Carmina Burana moods is upon me…

So I’m off into not a “brown” study…but a blue and green and red and yellow and black and white one!

If you have been, thanks for reading…and do share with me how you have addressed the problem of the inability to make many pieces and thus have reducing opportunity for practice.  Elizabeth

Monday, April 5, 2010

Track of Vision – follow the eyes!

I’ve always been interested in HOW people look at art…you see them transfixed in galleries and I wonder what is going through their heads?  Are they really thinking great thoughts, or instead are they going over a grocery list?!  What do YOU do when faced with a great picture or a great quilt?  I try to soak in the nameless impressions first, all the inchoate sensations!  But soon I start to look and see how and why the artist created the piece.  What techniques did they use?  Amongst these is how they have contrived to make me examine the whole piece.   What do they want me to look at? Which parts of the piece are obviously most important to them?  And how do they get me to move my eyes from that area to another?  Are all the areas equally satisfying or do I find myself skipping over certain sections?

There are reams written about focal points and golden areas and Track of Vision (TOV)….at first I thought there actually was an area that had to be literally golden!! And I could never find the dratted thing!!  “Where is this gold bit anyway?”.   And all those rules about one third and two thirds or if it was turned sideways and you stood on your head somehow one side fitted into the other side with nothing left over….hmmm!!

Well, it turns out, (of course!) to be a whole lot more complex and many of these specific rules were probably made up and rounded off by the Controllers.  Any time I’m told to do something 10 times or a hundred times, or some neat round number like that, I always know They’ve Made it Up!! for things just don’t happen that neatly.  As James Gurney (excellent blog by the way) reports in this month’s International Artist,    he actually commissioned an eye-tracking firm (wonder what their ads on telly would look like?!) to have people examine the TOV of people looking at his paintings.

In the historical books on composition, it is claimed that one’s eyes follow a circular path through a piece starting with the most important or interesting area and then gradually following a circular path hunting for a lost purse in a field. Well I knew this wasn’t true simply by asking people  to look at a quilt in process and saying “Where d’your eyes go first?  and  then where, and then?” and, I must admit, often being puzzled at their responses.  When I thought about my own TOV, what I noticed was that I tend to flick about from one area to another.  My eyes are not on legs (thank goodness!) and can zoom rapidly and saccadically about a piece.  As did the eyes of those I asked.

What the eye tracking technologists revealed was that people tend first to look at people – I guess we’re hardwired to do that since other people are the greatest source of nurturance or danger in an environment – so first we check them out, especially faces.   In the article Gurney shows the actual movements of the eyes when the picture is observed for 15 seconds on a computer screen.  Different people look at a picture in different sequences, but  tend to focus on  the same areas.  After people, and animals, the next most likely thing examined would be an odd shape that might signify something.   I’ve also noticed that writing attracts attention – if you can read it, but not so much if it’s in an alphabet that one can’t understand.    

Interestingly, what didn’t attract so much attention was areas of contrast.  We have always been taught that one can emphasise a focal area by contrast  and this is true…but an area of contrast per se  without any additional meaning will be unlikely to grasp our attention especially if it’s contrast that occurs naturally in nature.

What was totally disproved was the important of the golden area!  Which is just as well since I could never find  nor figure it!  If an area is worthy of attention, it will get it, no matter where it is.   While people might begin and end looking at different places in the piece there does seem to be an overall tendency to alternate between looking at the piece as a whole, and then focussing in on details.  I definitely know that to be true in my looking…I’ll advance slowly on a piece, and then sometimes back right off so I can see it from a distance…then come in very close, then back off again.

The artist has less control of the viewer than was previously thought.  The viewer brings to each piece his/her own preconceptions – as in my friend seeing my familiar and friendly spires and towers as being threatening teeth!  Her history and background being very different from my own.

so now…rush to your design wall and observe your eyes!!!

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

Friday, April 2, 2010

Process: Edge of Light

I‘ve always been intrigued by the edge of light along a piece when the sun is fairly low, or the shapes are backlit.  There’s something magic about the glow.



I made a piece called Brighter At The Top on which I tried to show that last golden glimmer on the chimney pots.



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And I had seen another artist’s work at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (alas I didn’t make a note of the name; I was so fascinated by the effect of the light on the cubes as I walked back and forth) make a large stone sculpture of this same effect.

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See how the light changes?


I had photographed St Ives from the Tate St Ives art museum –

st ives


from the cafe balcony which has a great view but, sadly, such poor service that after half an hour waiting for a cup of tea we left in high dudgeon and thirst……..but the view is good!




Then I made a sketch from my photograph, and looked for place where the buildings were seen as an edge against the light…..from that I made sketches just of those details and finally picked the one I liked the best and made a quilt called Edge of Light:


edge of light k

I reversed the values because I wanted the chimneys and rooftops to show the glow I love so much; I thought that putting the deep blue behind the golden yellow would really emphasize that intriguing edge!   I made the houses nearer to me deeper in color  so that the piece has some weight toward the bottom and also added a few (just a few, don’t need to spell it all out!) details to give a sense of depth.  I wanted to bring out the horizontal line patterns of the sketch.  If you notice there are 3 or 4 lines going horizontally across the piece in somewhat syncopated rhythms…..these contrast to the very straight edge of the sea, and the rounded edges of the distant hills.  It’s really a kind of 6 part harmony – I often find it helps me to think of music composition when I’m tried to compose a visual piece.  I’m no musician and, to my great chagrin, can only croak not sing….but I once did a harmony class and the concepts were (0n the music page) very visual.

So…these were my aims and process for this little quilt..I hope I succeeded!  And now to go and look for more edges!  If you have been, thanks for reading!   Elizabeth

PS Just received this rather pretty little logo (from Professional Quilter magazine)!teacher nomination