Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Art of daily compos(t)ing

Daily practice is one area where composting and composing differ! They used to say that you should turn your compost, air it, add this or that or t’other, adjusting it frequently. I’ve found it does perfectly well if you just leave it alone! (as long as you follow certain basic mixing rules, of course)

But the art of composing is probably best done on a daily basis. You’ve probably seen the popularity on the internet of a “painting a day”.  However I don’t think a quilt a day is possible, it’s a much slower process – even though those people who ask you to make them a quilt just don’t understand that!!  But I think one  could aim to sketch out a little composition every day. Now these don’t have to be fresh or earth shattering, they could well be copied from the masters. Which masters? It would probably be a good idea to simply work through a compendium of major works by well known artists.

Sketch out the major value shapes in paintings, or photographs (your own or other peoples) even adverts. Any visual image (including your own living room) is good in trying to practice the art of making consistently good compositions.

Some of the best visual compositions I’ve seen have actually been on television – no, not the talking heads!! Not much of a composition there!. However, reruns of well done movies can be full of wonderful arrangements of shapes. Frequently the best art in a movie isn’t the acting, or the script (most of the latter are attempts to see how many clich├ęs you can gather in one paragraph! Just close your eyes and listen some time!) but rather the camera work. Some of the scenes are composed so beautifully and originally it’s a shame the film doesn’t just freeze for a moment for us to admire it!

It’s frequently said that  the  ability to make consistently good compositions can be considerably developed from the practice of drawing a little (say, postcard size) rough little sketch every day. Emphasise the shapes, think of them in terms of abstract masses not actual objects. Focus on their quality and the abstract arrangement of those shapes and the negative spaces. Try to think of shapes rather than outlines because quilts are designed from shapes not outlines. I try to clarify this all the time in workshops. Think about an Ohio Star, for example. What we usually see in a book is:

ohio 1

If you look at the above and think about it abstractly, it is 8 very skinny black lines in a square: 2 horizontal, 2 vertical, 4 diagonal. (Please, ignore the graph paper lines which alas came out too dark!)

But what we actually have when we’ve made the quilt is this:

ohio 2

Which is 9 black shapes arranged on a white square – very different!

So always try to think of shapes rather than outlines. And the easiest way to do it, I think, is by drawing with your pencil at a low angle (almost horizontal to the page) and filling in the masses, i.e. the shapes, as you go.

Furthermore, you want the shapes to engage the whole of the background shape – the body of the quilt. Quilts with just one shape plopped in the middle are not very successful. And, sadly, you see examples of them everywhere.

I’m really trying to practice what I preach and sketch out a little composition every day. It’s just like playing scales on the piano, but actually a lot easier and more pleasurable. I just spend a few days in Canada and took a pencil and some paper with me to practice on every day, while I was waiting for the Guinness to be served!

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


Monday, July 25, 2011

Strategy for visiting an art museum.

I recently adopted a different strategy for visiting an art museum  I always felt I should look at everything!  Naively I was under the impression that if the museum thought a piece important enough to include in their collection, then I ought to spend the time to look at it (that's convent school training for you!). The result was I always had a very jumbled memory of any museum, mainly involved with visual overload, to say nothing of an aching back and feet!

I know that looking at great work is a key way to improving one’s own work.  Analyzing the composition that the artist has used, tracing it with one’s eye to see where the main masses of values are and how they’re balanced within the four edges of the piece.   It’s important not to just see – ahh a pretty picture of boats on a river, but rather to assess where are the darks and lights, what is the structure of this piece, how is one shape blended – or not – into another.

So what I’ve decided to do now is just focus in on a few key pieces.  So first I do a quick recce of the whole place looking for pieces that catch my eye.  Of course this would be a bit difficult with somewhere as big as the Metropolitan Museum in New York, or the British Museum…but for the average art museum in a small or medium sized city I think it’s very possible.  So I zoom around looking for those stand outs.  And I’m beginning to realize that many museums have had to flesh out their collections with lesser works by well known artists.  I’ve given myself permission to say that’s not a very good piece even though it’s by so and so and I’m not going to waste my time on it!

Then I borrow one of the little folding stools that most museums have these days (or should have!  It’s always good to ask if you don’t see them).  I like to choose no more than 3 or 4 items and then sit and sketch them.  The point of sketching them is that it really does force you to figure out what the artist did.  Where are the main shapes?  How are things arranged here…what strong lines do I see as I gaze at the piece.  How has contrast been used?  And what about gradation – of value, or color or line quality?  Where is the center of interest and how is that indicated?  What’s the craftsmanship like? Does it have a distinctive style that it is in keeping with the subject matter?  What ideas could I “steal” to use in a quilt.  remembering Picasso is reputed to have said that great artists steal, mediocre artists copy i.e. make it your own!

Using this strategy on my last museum visit I felt I got a lot more out of my visit.  I didn’t stay too long and I focused in on my key "take home" works of art.  If you go with another person I recommend after the whiz around and choosing of the study pieces, you go your own way but then meet up in the coffee shop later – another pleasure!

Well, I thought I would be enjoying some cool Canadian air but instead I seem to have brought the heat from the SouthEast up here with me!  However, a trip to the wonderful Tom Thomsons at the McMichael collection in Kleinberg, ON is on the cards!!  I’m also teaching my online class Working in Series and have an amazing group of students from all over North American, Europe and Africa.  Registration for my next QU class, Inspired to Design is open by the way (there's a link in the sidebar), hope to see you there! 

If you have been, thanks for reading!  Let me know what you have found to be the most effective way to visit a museum – I’d love to know.   Elizabeth

Monday, July 18, 2011

More on compos(t)ing: legless eyes!

There are a lot of important things to remember when trying to compos(t)e well.

Don’t put too much into the mix at once, it will overwhelm the process. Gradually add ingredients assessing constantly as to whether the balance is right. Squinting is a good way to assess the balance!! (Actually,holding your nose is often good too!) When you look at the heap, or the piece on the wall, you want to see a few large value masses….I must admit I am always turned off by those quilts that look like they’ve been through a shredder – lots of squitty little bits that don’t add up to any large shapes to grab my attention. (but this is probably good for a compost heap!)  In a quilt, however don’t get too carried away with details. The big pieces are what’s important.

warmlight And the shapes should be interesting, not too stiff and block like – that’s why we all loved the direction shown us by the Gee’s Bend and Oakland quilters, they made the shapes so much more interesting than the rigid stiff rows we had learned in quilting 101.


Don’t add one large thing slap bang in the middle, it will probably just sit there indigestible to the end! As you add ingredients, do it with rhythm, the more syncopated the better! The mix is more interesting if things are not lined up rigidly. The same is true with plants…rigid planting rows look unnatural and industrial. Unless, of course, you’re making a point about that rigidity as Elizabeth Brimelow has done so elegantly in several of her quilts.

One thing I notice, as I critique and make suggestions in my online classes with Quilt University, is a tendency to have important things too near the edge of a piece, or lined up with the edges too stiffly. Now sometimes there is a reason to do that – for example if you were making a quilt about marginalization, but usually you don’t want the good stuff right on the very edge of things or stuffed into a corner. It’s like planting your best rose bush behind the garage in a dark corner…. Even in the Gospels it says bring out the good wine first!    And, yes, I’ve wandered off the compost metaphor a bit!

lavender gothic 2 Now it’s often written that you should have a clear opening for your quilt or your compost heap, that there should be an entrance, and a pathway round for the eyes (or worms!) to follow. I think this must be because people think of their eyes as having legs! But in fact your eyes have wings! And they fly quickly from one thing to another, so I don’t know that pathways are All That Necessary. I don’t know about your peepers but mine absolutely leap to the good bits!! Forget following a proscribed path!! (not that I haven’t had clear entrances to many of my quilts!) .  I like them, but I don’t think they’re strictly necessary.


…I think it’s more important that the different elements within the piece form a coherent pattern, that things are not just dotted around like currants on a bun! Our neighbours have had a landscape gardener who frankly should be shot because he created a “rockery” where the rocks are dotted painfully evenly spaced across the slope. It looks so fake and weird. There is no connection between the rocks – the main shapes – and that disconnection means the piece is scattered, incoherent, poorly pulled together. (thank goodness he doesn’t read my blog!!) (the neighbour or the landscaper!).




One good way to organize elements like this is with gradation – a very useful way to help balance a piece and also create movement. Our eyes do follow gradations in line, in shape, in dark to light, in colour. By using gradation you can make a large shape both more interesting and keep the movement going so that, as we look at it, we don’t get stuck. This is especially useful toward the edges of a piece…you want the viewer’s attention moved towards the center. This effect was often used by the Amish in their quilts…gradually shifting colors towards the middle of a piece.  In Geoff’s Shed (on the right) notice how the values are graded gradually as you go up the piece.


Well it’s time to get back out there and layer on a few more possibilities!
If you have been, thanks for reading!
Love the comments! Elizabeth

Monday, July 11, 2011

Compos(t)ing: it’s how you mix it.

To make good compost you should intelligently mix an assortment of materials to make something good and rich and much greater than the sum of its parts! The same is true without the “t”, though of course (as you know) I’m rarely without the (cuppa) tea!

The first thing to decide is the shape of your compost heap. In the garden I make little circles of fencing wire that I can fill quickly and easily with my mix of materials (some brown (warm colour), some green (cool colour)! The traditional shape is square or rectangle, however. The boundary is the first parameter to set. Likewise the first four lines in any composition are its boundaries: the edges of your quilt. Square or rectangle or round? And, if a rectangle, what ratio of height to width will you choose? Common ratios are 1:2, 2:3, 3:4, 4:5, 5:6. When I’m thinking about my subject material, I’ll often draw these shapes out so that I can see what will fit my idea the best. Currently I’m enamoured of an almost 2:1 (width to height) rectangle. I think this is because I’ve been working with landscapes. When I made the series of quilts called Idea of a City, however, I made them all square. I wanted to show the strength and stability of the old cities and the timelessness. My home town is 2,000 years old; I wanted the shape of my quilts to reflect that persistence through time. A square is very strong and stable.

ideaofacity castlesintheair OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Having decided the shape of the compost heap, or the quilt , the next thing is to decide where you’re going to place the important elements, the big shapes. In a compost heap, a horizontal stratification usually works best, though there are those idiots who like to smoosh the peelings and leaves around into an amorphous mix. I’ve never been keen on amorphosity! I like a clean clear plan that in some way fits the idea I’m working with. I always remember that lovely little painting by Milton Avery of a river with a row of ducks…all lined up, very horizontal – as a river will always be. If you ever want to see the big main shapes in a painting, Milton Avery is the place to go – he is a master at isolating those shapes. Google images has lots of examples.

all that glitters is not gold

In my quilts I’ve always been fond of a strong diagonal force which is held in place by opposing diagonals; I like to get a sense of a pulsing vitality, especially in the industrial landscapes but also in the abstract building pieces.




Natural landscapes, however, suggest a softer approach, a curving arrangement of the important shapes with a little mystery here and there – now where might that interesting looking road go…..


There are several other arrangements you can choose besides horizontal , vertical, diagonal or curving S shapes. You can experiment with cutting out abstract shapes in black paper and arranging them on a white page – see how many possibilities you come up with. Circular or radiating designs, for example – very popular in quilting for many years. It’s good to think how various arrangements might fit specific ideas. I remember when I worked in a long stay hospital years ago, I was always dismayed by the way the nurses would arrange the patients’ chairs in rigid rows. I had them re arrange them in more natural social curves and groups. In a recent class, a student was making a quilt about bottles and there were so many different ideas that she could convey about those bottles simply in the arrangement of their shapes on the background of the quilt.

These are only the first two steps in compos(t)ing - there are many steps more before the luscious result!! So, I’m going to don my wellies and get to work!!

And so, if you have been, thanks for reading!!!
If the comments suggest interest in further steps,
then I’ll be happy to return to the keyboard aka the compost heap of words!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

the joys of throwing out stuff!

I’m the opposite of that well known animal the pack rat!  I love taking a carload of stuff to the thrift store or dump and coming back clean, fresh and empty!!  So I decided it was finally time to go through all my fabric and Get Rid of pieces I hadn’t even contemplated using in the last ten years…or longer.    I’ve been dyeing fabric since before I was even making art quilts so there was a Lot of it.  All those scraps we save because they “might come in” have now gone out!!


Several giant bags of useable stuff are headed to the thrift store.     That’s me in my blue hat, so you can see just how much there was!!  A 25 year accumulation!

And, all the muslin (why oh why did we like that stuff?) is stacked to use for quilt backs. It looks awful mixed in with other fabrics on the front, so dead and dull.  It’s wonderful for a backing because it needles so easily, plus that means I only need keep the big bits so there’s enough for back/interfacing and sleeves that all blend together. 

IMG_2977  The rest I organized by colour and type of fabric.  The muslin is gone as I said, and much of the kona, I was never very keen on the way kona cotton took the dye – it always looked a bit muddy to me.  I know other people swear by it, but there are so many variables with dyeing and maybe their variables came together more positively than mine when it came to kona.

(you always have to take your shoes off to sort fabric, havn’t you noticed?)



I like Testfabric 419 – it’s a high thread count that’s perfect for screen printing, you get nice crisp prints whether you use dye or pigment to print.  It’s great for any kind of shibori – again because the high thread count prevents so much bleeding and spreading of the dye.   The downside of 419 is that it’s hard to needle, impossible to hand stitch for arthritic old dudes like me, and even my sewing machine sounds more like a traction engine than a purring cat when it’s going through it.

The fabric I prefer for straight forward immersion dyeing, and definitely if I want to hand stitch the piece, is cotton sateen.  I just love the soft glow it gives to the colours.

Of course by the time I’d chucked out about 2/3 of my stash and sorted out the rest I realised I needed to head down to the dye studio as I was missing all kinds of colours!!  Thank goodness the “global warming hoax” has lead to temperatures well over 90 during the day and over 70 at night here in Georgia – perfect dyeing weather!!

So this morning I enjoyed petting my newly dyed sateen, picked out colours for the next quilt and organized them by value.  I don’t like to choose fabrics by colour when I’m blocking out a piece, but rather by value.  I find I can make the composition much stronger by following values…and it’s fun to see which fabrics turn up where when I randomly piece a piece from the particular value pile!


Ah…space lovely space!
If you have been, thanks for reading!!!  All comments so very gratefully received, otherwise I won’t know there’s anybody out there!!   Elizabeth