Wednesday, May 28, 2014


I'm at Quilt Surface Design Symposium in Columbus Ohio for the week - with some very keen and very talented ladies!!!  My class is about turning inspirations into art work.  Inspiration is everywhere, not just in the great scenes of nature - which are hard to work with anyway - it's better to visit the Real Thing!!  But rather in the little every day things.  I think Georgia O'Keefe's painting of the black door in the snow (there are a million posters of it!)

It's a painting that really demonstrates the beauty of subtle scenes.
And this is something that the students in my Master class have been doing - with great results!!

Keep your eyes open!  Look for large simple shapes and clear value patterns...don't focus in on details.  Keep your mind attentive to those things that catch your eye - don't miss them in your hurry from point A to point B!

 Look for an unusual shape or juxtaposition of shapes - I'm looking out at the slanted side of a building which is really intriguing...alas I cannot show it for I left my Card Reader at home!!

Look for great color combinations, or the effect of one bright spark of color in a rather duller background.    Always ask yourself what it is about the scene that you find interesting?  Would it make a good design, What would you want to communicate in your art about this scene?

Why is this catching your eye?  And how?  You can use the answers to further your own artwork.  Try to record and remember those very personal first impressions of a specific scene for they will form the backbone or theme upon which the art quilt is based.

It is important to be aware of your emotional response for the work should be about what is important to you –otherwise why make it?   Art happens where your emotional response is added to your original straight forward visual impression.  I know that it's often hard to put words to your feelings about a scene, but the more you practice the easier it gets – and you need to know what those feelings are before you can make art about it!  Don't just think "Oh I like this" or "Oh I don't like that!"  Always question yourself: why do you like it, what is it about it that really grabs you, delights you, titillates you!!

Remember that when you're working from a photo - you don't have to be Literal!!!  Make a rough sketch as to how you would really like the scene to be arranged, leaving out awkward bits, maybe adding to some of the beautiful sections...and make your art based on that sketch rather than the photo!!  It's helpful to really push your emotional expression.  Whatever elements you use to express the feeling: shape, or line, value or color - push it a that you can make the idea into something really special.

And oh !  like I've written so many times, people get so literal about color!!!!  They'll nod their heads and make their notes as I talk about this and then go right back to the design board, matching fabric to the original photo!!!  Work from your sketch - a sketch without color, but with the values indicated.  Work from a black/white photocopy....hide the original away from yourself!!!

A good composition is the result of adding, subtracting, moving or changing what’s in the photo - not just copying!!!  Let your inspiration Inspire you, not Dictate to you!!

next week I hope to show photos from my QSDS class......
And, if you have been, thanks for reading!!!  Elizabeth

PS Several folk have asked me about my online classes with Academy of Quilting - here is the link:

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Design everywhere..

I watched an amazing French film the other night.  Called La Scaphandre et Le Papillon - The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. 
It's based on the book by Jean-Dominique Bauby who was the editor of Elle magazine in France.  Bauby suffered a massive stroke which paralyzed every part of him except one eyelid.  A speech therapist discovered a way for him to communicate using just that one eyelid and he wrote a short book about his experience.  Film director and artist Julian Schnabel made the film of the book 

The film is fascinating and beautiful, very visually beautiful and what really interested me was its design.  AFTER I've seen a film or read a book, I like to read the reviews to see how others' experience of it compared with mine.  One of the comments I read was "Why did Schnabel show three children in the movie, when Bauby actually only had two".  I started thinking about that and I realised that there were a number of scenes with the children playing on the  beach - they would not have been half so visually effective had there been only two children.  Schnabel as a painter made an artistic decision to change what was actually there in order to enhance his visual creation.

Time after time, I've walked around a workshop where people are making quilts based on photographs and I've asked "why do you have only two trees?  One on each side, like soldiers?"  And the response, of course, is "because there are only two trees in the photograph"!  Or that, in the photograph, the sky is blue, the sand is yellow, the grass is green, the house is grey so all of these must be literally copied!!  As artists we are not creating a documentary or an historically correct archive of How It Was, we are making something beautiful - and we must consider what changes to any of the variables with which we work will enhance that beauty.

 Bauby too - with the help of an extraordinarily dedicated therapist - made something beautiful from something which was not.

It was another Frenchman who wrote: we are what we think! Or was it the other way round!  Aha - but remember you can CHANGE things!!   
If you have been, thanks for reading!  Elizabeth

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Shape Shifting Quilt Maker

While it would seem easy, at first, to arrange the five variables of two dimensional design - only five! -
as you get into it, you soon discover the possibilities are endless. For within each of those five variables, are many many more.  Think of ALL the possible shapes there are in the world!  All the possible lines, all the colours and textures. There are even at least 11 easily detectable values:

 I made the above value scale in Photoshop ©, beginning with 0% black, and then adding 10%, 20% and so on up to 100%.  Notice the effect of simultaneous contrast here by the way:  as your eye goes towards the right hand end of each square, it appears that the value gets lighter....and towards the left hand end of each square it appears to get darker.  This is an illusion created by the contrast of the darker (or lighter) adjacent value and is a nice example of the power of simultaneous contrast - which you can create with any of the four variables of colour (but that's another whole blog!).  It is something that I cover in most of my workshops because it's so useful.

Back to values: We can clump them to some degree.  But even working with just  three values and three shapes there are six design possibilities...and if you increase to four values and a design with just four shapes there are 4 x 3 x 2 possible arrangements.
Twenty four value studies to choose from!!  I wonder what would happen if I suggested that in a workshop!!!  I think I'd be thrown out on my ear!  "Don't take Elizabeth Barton's class, it's too hard!"
Humph!!!  Actually IT grad students looking for a thesis idea could develop a little program where all you do is stick in your 4 shapes and four values and ...voila!!...24 value studies are printed out - now wouldn't that be neat!!

But of the five variables, I think two stand out above the others as being most important to address first in basic design: value and shape.

As fiber artist we work (largely) with small pieces of material; we're constantly looking at Shapes. Our medium is basically shapes - shapes of different values that we are going to arrange in a way that is attractive, but also so interesting that it will capture the viewer's attention even though they're flicking through the catalogue or the website at 200 miles an hour! If you think about it, you'll realise that the subject matter of the piece is rarely that important in catching the viewer's eye.  Look at the popularity of snow scenes, for example.  Why do they attract attention?  It's because they usually involve interesting shapes of highly contrasted values.  As a result, they stand out across the gallery.“Subject matter is not nearly as important as the arrangement of the elements into a pattern. ” wrote painter Ted Kautzky.

 When I teach a workshop I emphasise making a Value pattern of the Shapes in the sketch.  If you don't make the value pattern, the sketches are composed of  lines; you are looking at dark lines threading their way around a white background….but is that what most people are thinking of making?  NO.  They are trying to translate those lines into shapes in their minds and assess whether or not this is an interesting composition/arrangement.  It’s much easier if you shade in the values so you can see SHAPES, after all  most of the time, we're cutting out Shapes from fabric.   

So look for shapes not lines….if your subject matter yields only lines, then it might be worthwhile to seek a different inspiration - or a different medium e.g. pen and ink, or embroidery.    Also,  as you look at the shapes school yourself to look at SHAPES not objects; try to forget you are looking at boats in a harbour, or flowers in a vase…rather, triangles arranged interestingly on a horizontal plane, or circles above a rounded rectangle. Notice how the shapes vary in size and regularity…the odder the shape the more interesting!  Notice how one shape interlocks with another.

And remember - you can be a shape shifter!  Shift your shapes until they're interesting!!! Equidistant rows of shapes are not attractive - except to the Sargent  Major of course!!   We're attracted by the novelty not by uniformity.  The big secret to artistic success is to make something that people really want to look at - again and again.

And now for the very attractive shape of a cup of tea!  If you have been, thanks for reading.  Elizabeth

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Importance of Colour

It's surprising how many choices we make solely based upon colour.  When we buy clothes, we look for the colours we really like first.  When I've asked people why they like a certain quilt - they often respond with a remark about the colour.   Much of the processed food we eat and the drinks we drink is coloured by the food industry because they know that colour sells!

I remember once when we were staying on a remote lake in Canada and drawing water from the lake we had to mix it with dilute Chlorine to kill of bacteria etc....oh how disappointed the kids were when their Koolaid became totally colorless in front of their eyes!! And they wouldn't drink it!

Try eating any American supermarket Cheddar with your eyes shut, and you'll quickly realize it's only the orange colour that makes it palatable!!

Many quilters start to make a quilt by choosing the color of the fabric they'll make it with first.  But colour alone does not a strong design make.  Instead, use shape and value  to decide the basic  underlying structure for your piece - then add colour for the emotional content.

We consistently think of certain colours as representing specific moods.  Yellow is warm but also light hearted - cheerful and gay.  Red also is warm - but it's  stronger heat.  It can convey passion - both positive and negative.  I made a series of red quilts when I was feeling a great deal of anger about a totally unnecessary turmoil where I worked!!  I stitched red pieces of cloth together with bold hard dominant stitches as I sat through interminable meetings trying not to lose my temper!   We talking about "seeing red" when we feel angry about something.  

 When we're feeling down, we might describe it as a blue mood.
Winston Churchill talked about the black dog of depression that used to visit him.   And we are currently all trying to be green (even though it's not easy being green!), because we feel that is a good natural earth friendly colour.  Notice how there's now a plethora of "green" products in the supermarket, and the color is used constantly in advertising.

Strangely enough, when toddlers were asked what colour they preferred for their disposable diapers, they didn't choose green!!! Wise kids!!  They all plumped for purple!! What can I say?!!

The colour we choose for our quilts can make our feelings about the subject of the quilt much more obvious.  Colour appeals strongly to both our emotions and our senses.  This makes it  an extremely effective way  for an artist to arouse an emotion in the viewers of her artwork.   The type of colour too can convey the feeling - a clear bright red will evoke a very different response from a dirty blood red.  A dingy sickly yellow is very different from a bright clear warm yellow - and, in its turn, that yellow feels so different from a tart acid yellow. A dull brown and a sour green - look good together and also convey some of the mixed feelings we have about attacks on our environment.

So think and plan clearly - what do you feel?  What do you want your viewers to feel?  What colours can you as the artist use to generate those emotions?  Be aware that in all advertising, packaging and merchandising your colour senses are being manipulated!   Use this phenomenon for good!  Make your art rich and focussed with your colour choices.

So,if you have been, thanks for reading!! and thank you in advance for all your comments - which I must admit I read avidly!!  They are all golden (except for that annoying spam of course).   Elizabeth