Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Composition: Abstract design is the primer.

moorfarm I’ve often wondered why the representational art quilts seem to be those less favoured by the art quilt cognoscenti.     I’m beginning to think it’s because this type of quilt is often much less well and interestingly composed than an abstract quilt.  With some notable exceptions, many people making more representational work don’t consider the abstract basis for their composition.   In his 1899 book on Composition, Arthur Wesley Dow states that in designing art work based on a real “naturalistic” scene it’s important to consider the elements from an abstract point of view. Don’t think of trees, think of vertical shapes, cows as rectangles, hills and rivers as lines and so on.

Dow feels that it’s crucial NOT to consider making an actual representation of a scene first. This is something I’ve noticed both in workshops and in quilt shows…people want to copy nature and get the most accurate copy of it they can and feel that if they do, the piece will be good. But a faithful copy might not be a good design. (and often isn’t!).

Historically, points out Dow, artists did not aim for a perfect copy of nature. Even portraits were considered firstly from the point of view of the overall composition with “the facts and the truth subordinate to the great idea of the aesthetic structure”. Artists should be trained in the “fundamental principles” of Composition rather than in accurate representation.    However, as “art academies” began to be established  they laid more emphasis on drawing ability – which he descried.  Instead, he stressed, it should be abstract design that is the basic training ground of art. For in abstract mode the principles of Composition are very clear whereas in representational work, they are frequently obscured by the complexities of meaning and detail. The beginning of a picture (or a design for an art quilt) is “a pattern of lines”.

Perhaps this is why so many times (in both the shows and the catalogues that I’ve seen) it seems as if it is the quilts with the abstract designs that are the strongest. Those making representational quilts have possibly focused too much on the representational aspect of the task and not enough on the compositional basics.

There is a feeling in many people that quilts should be abstract, it’s as if the abstract work were seen as purer, and more related to the longstanding tradition of abstract quilt patterns. Nancy Crow blanched when I once suggested I could see a lake and trees in one of her quilts!

However, I think there’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea of making a piece about trees and a lake – but just because you’ve got trees and a lake you cannot forget the importance of a strong composition. And that’s easier to see in abstract mode. Representational and landscape quilts are not weaker because they are representational but rather because the maker has often neglected the importance of the underlying composition. Let us heed the words of Dow: Composition is more important than Representation…begin here! If we do that, then I think representational quilts will become much stronger than many of them are now.

I recommend Dow’s book on Composition – there’s very good information, funky drawings and a challenging vocabulary – very good fodder for our weak little polysyllabic word deprived grey cells!  If you have been, my gratitude for your thoughtful and perspicacious perusal of my cogitations!  Elizabeth


Elsie Montgomery said...

This is so true! Any good art classes I have taken encourage the artist to rearrange the scene, to rethink it in terms of shape and values, to consider the proportions and placement of each line and the negative shapes as well. In other words, the drawing is the bones. No matter how "pretty" the flesh, if the bones are not right, the work will be unsatisfactory. Most of the quilts that I like are because of their bones. (Oh, I really like the one on this post!)

Connie in Alabama said...

The representational quilts I made for many years were not strong compositionally, although I couldn’t put my finger on what they were lacking. It was only when I tried to work abstractly that I realized I didn’t understand composition. So now I am concentrating on developing compositional skills by working in the abstract, first with line and now with a few small steps into shape. Perhaps one day I will go back to representational work, after composition becomes a little more natural.

Marianne said...

You write "Dow states that in designing art work based on a real “naturalistic” scene it’s important to consider the elements from an abstract point of view". This made me think of the great "landscape" gardeners of the past, Capability Brown for instance. Is this not what they did? Took a landscape got rid of the shapes that did not fit into good composition and then added (bridges, lakes etc) to get what was ultimately a "nature" that was pleasing to the eye, i.e. a good composition.
I think we are all very scared of "removing" items in representational work whereas when we garden we are more than happy to get rid of weeds.
As always a very interesting post. Thank you

Kathleen Loomis said...

I once heard Nancy Crow comment that she prefers abstract quilts because "it's too easy" to do representational. Of course that's an oversimplification -- as we all know from attending numerous quilt shows, it is very difficult to achieve good representation (although perhaps very easy to attempt it).

When I used to jury an annual quilt show we always knew that the representational stuff would be the most popular with the viewers, even though we didn't think much of it as composition or design. Maybe ordinary people, as opposed to the cognoscenti, like things that are easy.

Frances Arnold said...

Just did a quick flip thru the new Quilter's Art magazine to see what I can look forward to.....was SO excited to see your article!!!! Congratulations!!!!

mad elena said...

After two weeks about compositions with Nancy Crow, I would love to learn more. Which Dow book do you recommend? Found two: composition with exercises or composition, line, notan and color?