Monday, April 4, 2011

Feelings without words

A question I’m often asked  in both virtual and actual workshops  is:
“How do I convey visually what I feel?” 

I think there are both cognitive and emotional aspects to this; they do overlap in some examples, but not all, so I’ll consider them  separately.

First: why you want to make  a piece about this image/idea/event etc?
What aspects of the idea have really intrigued you?
What was it you saw that makes it worth your while to spend a significant amount of time in making it?

For example, if I look at a cityscape I might be fascinated by the interlocking shapes, or it may be the overall grid patterns of windows, or it could be the interaction of negative and positive shapes, or it could be the outline against the sky, or it could be how there are trees growing happily between the buildings, or it could be the sense of outside/inside, or the contrast of old versus new…or..or…or…  Each of these observations would yield a different piece.  If I tried to put them all into one piece (which I have tried to do!!) I generally end up with a bit of a mess.   Knowing what it is that I want to highlight helps me to focus the quilt. 

I imagine a photographer would be faced with a similar question.  I’m sure they just don’t head out into a city and snap away, they’ll have something in particular that they’re looking for and want to reveal with their pictures.  I think this is true if your starting point is a real image like a city, or a piece of fabric. 

And, if fabric is your starting point, then (either consciously or unconsciously, but I personally work much better when conscious!) you’ll be thinking:  what do I really want to bring out, reveal, highlight, focus upon, explore etc in this fabric?  It might be the color, the markings on it, or  the  actual shape that you cut out or other things entirely…but if you know what it is, the chances are the piece will have more direction and be more pulled together.

I always like to suggest before beginning to make a piece about a bird or a building, a box or a behemoth (not that I have met many who want to make quilts about behemoths!) that you ask yourself “why?”  What is it about this landscape, or this visual puzzle, or this group of people that really intrigues you?    I’ve recently started a new landscape piece based on one of my watercolors and I loved the landscape because of the way the folds of land interlocked, so I know I want to feature that, I also like the way the light caught the top of a distant hill and I’ll make that my focal point.  I also want to bring out the depth.

Second:  What are your feelings and how d’you convey them?
Two steps here: first you have to know them, then figure out how to convey them.
An example: I want to make a quilt about April.  What I love about April is the freshness, things springing up, the shadows still cool but the sun quite warm.  I want to show those things in my piece.  So I want to show “fresh”, “cool/warm contrast”, “growth”.  It’s also a month where I feel most in harmony with Nature. Partly I think that old childish thing of one’s birth month feeling “special” but also that my favourite colour (chartreuse) is very evident this month. I’m sure there are other reasons too: like chocolate!  The celebrations at the end of Lent: Easter eggs, a three week spring break (there were three terms when I went to school), the new growth everywhere, walks in the countryside etc etc. 

So how can I show those feelings?  In 2d art we have 5 basic tools:  line, shape, value, colour and texture.

So, what colour is fresh? That’s pretty easy!  it’s definitely not brown or grey….Green!  
How do I show a temperature contrast?  warm and cool colours placed side by side.
What kind of line is fresh?  straight, diagonal, curving, spikey?  for me, spikey has it!
What shape is fresh?  A bud like shape…
What value is fresh?  contrasting values with a lot of lights.
what texture is fresh? I think fairly detailed not flat.

What lines are harmonious? Lines that repeat in a gentle rhythm.
What shapes are harmonious?  Shapes that repeat, that are comfortable and fit together.
What  colours are harmonious? Adjacent ones, with just a smidge of a complementary to bring out the freshness !

And so on working through all my feelings.

I’ve got a couple of examples below:


A quilt about April: spikey new growth in my favourite greens; the river…because we always went for a walk beside a river if we could (love country walks), repeated shapes and lines for harmony.  Soft reflections, and an adjacent colour scheme. Spikey lines!




The quilt on the right is quite different: I wanted to bring out the coziness of these old houses in my home town and how they comforted me:  so I chose warm brown and gold colours, soft curving lines, and strong reliable grids.  I also wanted to show hope, and I felt the lighted windows against the dark would definitely convey that.


So, the next time you’re making a piece, examine your feelings first!  Then decide what kind of lines they are…what kind of shapes, what colours, what textures…  There’s a very nice little book about all of this called Picture This by Molly Bang if you want to get further into it.  However, just running mentally through how you would picture any particular kind of feeling is a great exercise and can be done anywhere!  Just like Kegels!

And, if you have been, thanks for reading! 
And do write and comment and tell us all what colour, shape etc your feelings are!  Thank you, Elizabeth


Miriam said...

Your blog is very thought-provoking. Thanks.
Is it your assumption that all art expresses feelings or should?
Even abstract work?
Do you think that every artist has that intention?
I would realy appreciate your thoughts on this.

Ellen Lindner said...

I have Molly Bang's book and love it! An excellent resource.

Still, I often overlook some of the aspects you've suggested. Your post is a good prompt to give them more consideration.

Moonsilk Stitches said...

Thanks for your thought provoking posts. I've been just starting on a paper-pieced hexagon quilt (I'm an embroiderer so this is new territory, although I'll probably embroider on it at some point). I began it in conjunction with a recent trip to London (where I got some fabrics to add to it). Right now it's fairly undirected and your recent blogs have really helped guide me to things I should be thinking about and looking at before I end up with a random blob. Thanks!

Faith said...

Apparently, I've been working unconscious! I ordered the book, but what you have explained here is enough for me to use with a project I put aside a while ago. I'm still wondering why I want to do it. I still want to. It's a mood, I think. How vague!! Thanks for giving me something to think about.

Anonymous said...

What a helpful blog! I am a quilter who has struggled to make my work more subtle and interesting. You have given me a new way to think about making better choices. Thanks!