Saturday, November 5, 2016

Adding mystery

WE all love a mystery!  mystery will keep us looking at something...trying to puzzle it out.  Just consider the popularity of mystery stories, tv shows, movies etc....the very word "secret" has such fascinating possibilities!!My favorite book as a child was The Secret Garden .   It's a wonderful story about a hidden neglected garden that three very different children bring back to life....I always hoped I'd find such a garden!!
One of the ways of telling if your art quilt is successful is to see if people want to look at it, and having started to they stay and ponder over it? How can you keep them there?  Well you could have a sign that says Everyone who stands at looks at this quilt for 10 minutes will be entered into a million $ drawing!! but that might be beyond most of our capabilities!!  Interesting idea though - to offer an inducement for looking!!
But another way is to add some mystery to the work.
 I've come up with a few ways you might do it....see if you can think of any more.  Next time you go to a quilt show, or an art show for that matter, make a note of which pieces hold your attention and why.  Let's all steal those artists' secrets!!

Lost edges/dissolving A technique much beloved of painters, where the edges of a form within the paint dissolve into the background.  Paula Nadelstern uses this method to disguise the real edges of her wonderful snow crystals. I used it in several of my shibori/discharge pieces.
In Botallack Mine the edges of the houses disappear into the outline of the headland.   
You can see that effect clearly in this detail (right) from The Arrogance of Calm where i’ve basically only indicated the roof.  It’s an effect that’s a little harder to do without surface design but could be managed by matching values: i.e. if the edge of the object is dark and the background is similarly dark, the one will flow into the other.  As well as adding mystery, it helps with the TOV (the track of vision) or the way your eyes flow through the piece.

Obscurity Something is obscure when you’re not really sure what it is..could it be a group of houses? or a set of rhomboids?  If I don’t give you any clues…perhaps I’ll achieve more mystery.  Another way to obscure would be to introduce more shadows with strange amorphous things possibly happening within them.  One of the things about such unnamed shapes is that the viewer can put their own ideas into a piece...and see what they want to see.  And seeing what they really want to see...will keep them looking!

Abstracting Picasso once defined all art as being abstract (because it’s never perfectly realistic) and no art as being abstract – because there are always associations and influences from the real world. But obviously there is a continuum ......between the two.  And, in any case,  I think it's really rather tiresome the way that people just seem driven to classify things.

There are many ways to abstract:  an interesting way would be to work through all the five elements  (shape, line, value, color, texture) considering the original scene from the standpoint of one element only and deliberately ignore the rest: e.g. consider only shapes…or only values (that might be really interesting!!), only colour…or only texture.     Certainly many artists have done this.
Look at Sean Scully's paintings of stripes - they're  derived from old houses, doors, walls made from strips of wood - he took the shapes ...and some of the texture...and used that for his paintings. He completely stripped away all the rest of the context.

I love reducing things to black and white! 

This is an easy way to drop detail and reduce an image to squares alone…put the image into Photoshop or GIMP and then reduce the pixels.  What’s fascinating is how far you can simplify and still know what the image is.

Unusual angle of view wow I got so many good ideas from this one! Look!! IMG_1839 IMG_1845

Reflections always a favorite:    Reflections in rounded objects are really mysterious!!

Close ups

 What are those things?     What is that texture?  

Gestalt – subtraction I’m a great believer in getting rid of stuff in quilts.  We know from Gestalt theory that we really need very little information to mk sns f thgs!
we don't need everything spelled out for us....and we are likely to stay with a piece longer if everything isn't spelled out.  You don't need to quilt every brick, add every window and branch and all the separate petals of a flower.

Disguise I could disguise one thing as another…is that a Dalmation or is it currant cake?
Is it a gold fish or a flower?    Is there a person hiding in the bushes, or just a lot of strange shadows?
Remember that quilt that looked like flowers but when you got closer, it was all insects arranged into flower shapes??

Enigma I love this word…how to create an enigma…an enigma is a puzzle...a visual illusion - you think you know what it is, but is it really?  Like the two profiles that make a vase if you gaze at the negative space between them.

Subtlety not  spelling  out but merely hinting – e.g. instead of the edges of a window or a flower, just indicating the shadow on the window, the light on the flower.

Obfuscation Of course in language one should eschew obfuscation, but perhaps in visual terms??? One possibility might be to reverse things like Hockney did so amazingly in his reverse perspective paintings.  something truly the Surrealist paintings of Magriite.

So what d'you think? would adding some mystery help?  And can you come up with any other ways of creating it?
If you have been…thanks for reading!  I apologize for radio silence!!  First I wasn't well (am fine now thank you!) and then I had to finish writing a new course for
And I'll tell you all about it on my next blog!



Irene MacWilliam said...

what an interesting blog. thank you from Northern Ireland

Karen said...

A very interesting post. I am a big fan of "less is more" and love to simplify my designs although I hadn't really given any thought as to why I do this. Having read your post I am wondering if it's because I too like a bit of mystery. I would like to try a more abstract approach and you have given me lots to think about, thank you.

Elizabeth Barton said...

thank you Irene and Karen.
Some of the best art work is the simplest...and it's often the most difficult because everything is so exposed....but...just perfect!

Ariane Zurcher said...

Great post and lots to think about. Love mystery. Achieving that balance of simplicity AND mystery is the holy grail...

By the way, I just cannot get over how much I am enjoying your Dyeing to Design class. You are such a terrific teacher. I hope others will sign up. I will certainly be taking another from you!

Elizabeth Barton said...

Thanks so much Ariane!!! I'm really enjoying this class too - it's a really lively one.

What's so interesting is how these principles for good design, good composition occur in so many different media - not just the visual arts...

ellen simon said...

Your observations about the value of mystery seem to run counter to what I just witnessed at Quilt Festival in Houston. The winning quilts had stunning details, down to the folds in fabric and individual hairs on animals. Of course one has to wonder if it is worth the time invested in such detail when, as you observe, some details can be left out and the viewer will still know we intended. I definitely vote for mystery and abstraction.

Elizabeth Barton said...

There does seem to be a tendency with some quilt judges to reward extreme representationalism over good design!! I can say no more!!!