Friday, July 30, 2010

Making it More Interesting

I don’t know about you but I worry that my quilts might be boring. I know by the time I’m done fussing over them, I’m often very tired of them. So often ,when I look at the finished work  instead of seeing all the elusive moods, sensibilities and nuances that were in my head at the start of the piece, I see the tussles I had!

I usually just have to put the quilt away for a few  months like a cheese and hope that it improves as it matures! I used to think that this happened because I was just a beginning artist, but the more I read the more I see that even experienced artists struggle with these same things.

So I’m always interested in learning about ways to improve a piece, especially ways to make it more interesting. When I look at quilts online and in print, I see two things that I want to avoid. One is work I can make no sense of, work that looks like my nephew’s basement pad! He can make sense of it, but I can’t and I have to retreat Very Quickly! The other thing, which is probably worse because it leads to me moving on even more quickly than a chaotic mess, is work that is totally boring, dull, torpid, predictable, pedestrian, dreary, dry, dull, humdrum, monotonous, stuffy and tedious! Like this sentence.

So, what makes an art quilt boring? We know from old wartime psychological studies on habituation, that if things are very predictable, after a while we just don’t see them. They don’t attract our attention. Or, in musical terms, a steady dull beat ( like in those 60s pop songs that some of us whose husbands never grew beyond the stage have to put up with!) can lead to a pretty melody withering on the vine. (Oh, love those mixed metaphors!) No synocopation, no alternating rhythms, no two hands playing to a different time lead to unobserved tedium.

In visual terms, shapes are boring that repeat in a dull 4/4 time – equally sized and equally shaped, and, what’s more, with equal negative spaces between them. Although we’re not initially aware of the negative spaces in a piece (the space between the edges of things…within and without shapes, or between a shape and the edge of the quilt), it is often an interesting negative space, or the rhythm of such spaces that support the work and keep you involved with it and attracted to it.

Let’s look at quilts where I think I was able to create some rhythms in the spaces.


Between the rooflines and the top edge of the quilt is a negative space.  Each side is different – one has 4 steps to descend, one has two – I could have balanced the steps on each side and lined up the places where the steps occur but that would have been less interesting.  I’ve repeated the same idea at the bottom of the quilt – with one side having more steps away from the bottom edge than the other, and each of the steps being slightly different.




In Aorist, a small piece I made for the Kiss Challenge that Rachel Roggel organized years and years ago (and I’ve no idea where this quilt is now), I made the negative spaces create the meaning of the piece.  Of course I was playing on the idea of the old image of two faces vs a vase that you see in psych textbooks!  But I put a little different rhythm on the left side from the right to make it more interesting.



In Assembly, I wanted to create an intriguing negative space for the sky area, but I also wanted to repeat that idea (with somewhat different rhythms) within the larger shapes lower in the quilt.   I also played with the negative and positive shapes changing places at times!


barton what pretty smoke full


In Oh What Pretty Smoke, there are a lot of vertical elements which are similar in in order to make it more interesting, I varied the width of each shape, and the height, and the spaces between the shapes, and the surface texture of the shapes…while at the same time holding the idea of the shape constant so that you know they are related to one another.  That they belong in the same song.

I usually block out my quilts on the design wall before sewing them together, and in my last evaluation check before stitching, I check the spaces between and within the shapes, and between the main shapes and the 4 straight edges of the quilt.  Looking at the quilt above, I think it would have been good to have had a little more space on one of the sides, to emphasize the difference…I’ll try to remember for next time!

If you have been, thanks for reading!  And do please comment….also I must apologize for somewhat long negative spaces between posts this summer – too much travelling!  and I have one more long trip to go: to England for the Festival of Quilts next month where I’ll be showing Oh What Pretty Smoke and about eleven other quilts based on industrial landscapes.

I look forward to hearing from you!!  and maybe even meeting some of you at FOQ.  Elizabeth


Quilt or Dye said...

Elizabeth, I am trying to do a cityscape using broad open blocks and bright colors such as in your Oh, what pretty smoke. Can you talk a bit about the quilting of your piece? I am not sure how to quilt my concept that will complement the lack of details in the shape and the overall feeling of boldness I want.

Elizabeth Barton said...

Hi QorD, I generally decide on the quilting pattern related to the subject matter of the piece. Secondarily I'll work from the surface design. So I did some sky patterns - working horizontally from the smoke pattern. Then within the verticals did various vertical patterns - never too precise or "quilty" - more like you might do within a pencil sketch. good luck!

Linda and Michelle said...

I very much like reading about your process, especially with this post, as I sometimes deal with the same things.....what keeps it from being boring. Excellent - I look for more from you.

Elizabeth Barton said...

Hey Linda! thanks for your post..and if you're reading I'll be sure to watch my grammar!
I'm glad you liked the process piece, I do hope to do more..perhaps when I get back from England in September!

Jane Herlihy said...

Elizabeth --

NEVER NEVER think that your quilts are boring! I can look at them time after time and always find them refreshing. I strive to make mine more like yours, with surprises hidden here and there. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and ideas about art/quilts. Your work is very inspiring.

Elizabeth Barton said...

Jane - thank you so much for your comments! I'm so glad I'm not boring!! or rather my quilts...BTW Jane is one of my favorite names - my girls are Clare and Jane - I always things of Janes as being elegant, calm and strong!

Mary Helen-Art Saves Lives said...

Thank you Elizabeth for sharing these incredible works of art. Your work is stunning and very inspirational. Imagine and Live in Peace, Mary Helen Fernandez Stewart

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Nina Marie said...

Hi Elizabeth - I like that this post mostly talks about good composition making a piece more interesting (which of course it does). Lately though, I find that subject matter has a lot to do whether I'm bored with a piece. I find that in representational(figurative) art, I like work that leaves me wondering what's next? what's around the corner? what's the subject thinking? In abstract, I want it be fairly clear the theme of a piece without a whole essay from the artist (I do like a sentence or two though what the artest is thinking)

Elizabeth Barton said...

I agree, Nina-Marie, I like a little the critic said on Work of Art: "I love a piece of art that doesn't show itself completely at first glance" and also: "the level of obscurity, a secret that if we look deep enough we can find, is compelling". Something to aim for!!
And I really don't want to have to read a whole paragraph about the piece to understand it..if the piece is any good we should (with time! and they've got to make it interesting enough that we'll take the time) be able to get it - or at least get something!!!