Tuesday, July 20, 2010

What are the compositional questions that bedevil you?

I'm laptopping from Canada where I'm enjoying cooler air...and sailing on Lake Ontario....but still thinking about how to make better quilts..
If we take the composition of a quilt apart we see that it is composed of only a few elements, but like any chemical composition those few elements can be designed into an immense variety of arrangements.

One of the main elements is color and I’ve noticed that a lot of people struggle with colour:
 some are addicted :
“Colour is why I make quilts, colour is totally what attracts me….”
They use so much colour their quilts sound like a brass band 2 feet away – everything blaring at the same time..  Yes it sure does knock your socks off…and everything else too!

Some are very uncertain and play too safe, often resulting in pastel mud!
“ I always make mistakes with colour, I’m never quite happy that I have the colours right”.

Others keep using the same palette over and over and the colour is too predictable – it is good to have a little unexpected taste in there mix!

A common problem is only to think about hue…and not consider the other properties of colour: value, intensity and temperature.  This is a little like thinking only about size and colour of a meal.  A quarter of a plate of green, a quarter orange a quarter brown and a quarter white!!  Yes, I’ve noticed that’s the plan most airlines use….!

Many people cannot see the difference between a warm yellow and a cool one, or a warm red and a cool one.  To them, the concept of temperature within colour is as strange as thinking of hot ice, or cool fire.
You are losing a dimension if you can’t use all the properties.  It’s like having a machine and only using it for one thing – sadly, of course, machines now come with so many twiddly bits and add on functions  that require a mathematical equation to figure out that I fear we have become used to ignoring anything other than one or two possibilities.  Give yourself time to explore it all!!!

And, Sadly, too many people allow themselves to be limited by what they have in their stash.  I think the answer is to be more purposeful when dyeing, or purchasing fabric.  Don’t be seduced by pretty patterns!  (unless you want to make a quilt about pretty patterns of course!! In which case go ahead!!)  But you’ll have less problems if you Think about your palette!

And I do think it would be hard to have full control  over colour if you can’t dye your own fabric – especially trying to get good gradations in value.  If you are not in a situation to dye fabric at home, check out your local art center’s facilities..many have an art room with large sinks, etc.   Working only with purchased fabric is a bit like making a meal from only packaged prepared foods.

Other common problems involve contrast:  too much or too little between adjacent colours.  It’s important to be sensitive about the effect one colour has upon another: a tiny smidge of this or that can often make all the difference.

I’ve only covered a few of the common problems with colour…and I’ve written enough for one post!  So please comment and tell me what difficulties you run into when composing a piece – whether you do it on paper first, or directly onto the design wall.  What are the battles you fight with colour, with value, with shape and line?  What gradations and proportional puzzles haunt your dreams?  Describe your unsolved crimes and mysteries and let’s see what we can figure out!!  I love a good conundrum.
And…  If you have been, thanks for reading!  Elizabeth


Diana Parkes said...

Great article on colour. One of my observations is that people who dye their own fabrics often stay with using stock colours. And I can recognise these when I view their work because I am an experienced long-time dyer. If they mixed some of their colours to produce 'new' colours I feel their work would be greatly enhanced.

Jackie said...

Color--wow! It's amazing! So much can be accomplished with color indicating depth and volume as well as shapes and images. I've intentionally studied and practiced with color, including values. I try to use palettes that are unusal for me and realize that I am able to create with them as well as those with which I am more comfortable. I do disagree that those of us who use commercial fabrics are handicapped by that choice. It takes searching but I've always succeeded in locating all the values I've required.

MaryAnn@SticksAndBroomstraws.com said...

I am struggling with color for decorating my bedroom. When I worked at a quilt shop I usually helped folks choose supporting fabrics that were included in their focus fabric and encouraged them to keep, for example, their greens all the same, that is either yellow green, pure green or blue green. Now I feel I did them a disservice because as I look at shelter mags, I see the decorators mixing the greens (or blues or whatever). I've been studying color schemes--analogous, complimentary, etc. and now am wondering about using tints, tones and shade of the same color in a design. Are there any hard and fast rules? I want to know before I paint my 14 ft. ceiling. Help!

Elizabeth Barton said...

Hi MaryAnn, I love to use lots of different tints of the same color in a piece, and shades...When I dye fabric, I'll always do a gradation, and then have one where i've added a little warmer or cooler colour, and one where I've added black or a deeper shade..it's all the variation that makes a garden so interesting!
In a bedroom, the light will make the paintwork look different, so I really don't think you need to paint different tints or shades on different walls. I know some decorators advocate this but i think it would make it look flat. However having your linens or accessories a much paler or darker version of the wall colour would be much more restful I think than an obvious complement. though you could go with a very greyed complement which would be rather nice!!! good luck! e

mad elena said...

I like graphic designs with high contrast in values. I prefer some value contrast instead of none or very little. Could you clarify when high contrast might be a mistake? I can see where, in a more subdue palette, this might jump out too much. Is that what you mean?

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Robin said...

Thank you for a very thoughtful write up on color. I have struggled and gone through most of those stages...I think we have to go through them as we grow.

Penny Mateer said...

There is quite a range within the quilt world of what fabrics quilters use and how they use it. There appears to be two camps of quilters those who use dyed fabrics and those who use commercial. But to suggest that "Working only with purchased fabric is a bit like making a meal from only packaged prepared foods" strikes me as a bit precious.

I'll throw a few names out of quilters who use purchased fabrics and there are many more both in art and traditional circles. Lori Lupe Pelish http://www.lorilupepelish.com/gallery_1.htm her work never ceases to amaze me. Of course Ruth McDowel, Ruth Powers and Pittsburgh's own one of my personal faves Shawn Quinlan http://www.shawnquinlan.com/GALLERY.html.
And I am a commercial fabric junkie. To me that is the thrill of it to find the fabric that conveys my message but that doesn't mean I am not wowed by those artists who dye or paint everything they use your work a stand out among them. But whether dyed or purchased it always gets down to good composition and color is one component.

I also think what can often be overlooked when using patterned fabric is not just value which seems to be one of the greatest problems but scale. It is essential to step back from the work and if that's not possible look through a reducing glass that's when value, scale and patterning problems can be seen. Or take a digital photo and look at it on the computer. Really study it and as you suggest take time and experiment and play. I think it is important to walk away from a quilt I am working on for awhile then the problems become obvious (if i am lucky...). Finally as I have come to learn your last piece informs the next.

Elizabeth Barton said...

Thank you for your thoughtful comments Penny - I was hoping to stir somebody up to defend commercial fabric!! And you did it well with some excellent points, backing off to judge the look of the fabric when seen as part of a piece makes a lot of sense. I also love Sylvia Einstein's work and she uses those large patterned fabric magnificently.
As you say, it takes practice practice practice!

Elizabeth Barton said...

Hi Elena....your question was where would you not want a high contrast in colour? One situation would be where you want to indicate distance...because generally you don't see bold contrasts at a distance.
Also since a high contrast is very noticeable it would not be good to use it where it might detract from a center of interest. For example in a portrait, if the subject is wearing very boldly colored garments, his/her face just disappears into the background.
High contrasts create sharp edges.
I'm sure there are more situations...where it wouldn't work well. Traffic signs often use high contrast so that they are highly visible...etc.
It's not that it's bad, but rather you should put it where you want it!

mary beth frezon said...

I fall into the commercial fabric using camp - I rarely find myself wishing for a particular color. After all these years I think I'm aware of "valuable" colors (colors that I find useful and harder to locate) and purchase bits of them when I need them and what the heck - more is always better for more options. When I started quilting, for example, yellows were quite hard to find but over time I acquired a range of them to use. Having a range of fabrics is my working palette.