Sunday, August 13, 2017

Abstracting from Abstraction


 
Contemplating abstraction.....
This Friday, I'm starting a new class with the academy of quilting   
on abstract art: More Abstract Art for Quiltmakers.  It's quite different from my first Abstract Art for Quiltmakers class in that it looks and the history and development of the movement as a whole...and includes many new different ways of devising designs.




 While abstract painting seems to be something people love or loath, there's a tremendous tradition for abstract work in quilting....
if you thing about it, most of the traditional quilting designs were abstract.    So in seeking new ways of designing quilts, I thought it would be interesting to see what the world of abstract art as a whole could suggest to us.
A good way to begin one's study of anything is with some definitions....what actually constitutes abstract art?  Abstraction can vary from ideas (shapes, colors ,relationships) abstracted in part from the real world, or it can be an attempt at a pure depiction of emotion. Some say abstract art is about nothing!

Many artists, in many different mediums, quiltmakers amongst them, deplore the idea that any mark they might make in their work actually represents something. But human beings are wired to make connections, discover resemblances and relationships and also to project meaning onto experience. 

Furthermore, would you actually want to communicate nothing about nothing anyway?  If that were the goal would the result be considered simply as  "decorative pattern-making" (as has been said by critics in the past)?  Even so,  I feel sure the makers still had the goal of creating beauty.  And abstract artists would say that their work is not about decoration, rather they feel that it reflects “hidden metaphysical truths” or emotions.


In contemporary art quilts, artists have taken traditional quilt ideas - squares divided and rearranged, strips added, sections cut and rearranged – and developed them further. Often they have exaggerated the “mark of the hand” by cutting the shapes out freely so that the normal curves and meanders that occur when you do not use a ruler are much more evident.

I have found it great fun to abstract ideas from abstraction and in this class show you many ways to do it!


Think of a painter as a choreographer of space...let us be choreographers of pieces of fabric...arranging them in a beautiful dance...

If you have been, thanks for reading!  All comments read carefully....and answered (if I have anything intelligent to add that is!).   Elizabeth

Friday, July 28, 2017

Working from a photograph




the photo: York, UK.  

the quilt: cathedral



Starting to make an art work with a photo is so looked down upon is because people often do a very bad job of it . Not only quilts! but paintings too.
They follow the photograph too closely (warts and all) and end up with an overly literal piece that shows the warts very well and not much else. This kind of work often looks exceeding stiff and lifeless. But I don’t think that work that comes from a photo HAS to look that way, and it seems to me it’s just as good an inspiration as any. Wherever you begin, you’re unlikely to come up with the perfect idea or image at the first try. There’s always considerable orchestration, presentation, refining and distilling needed to be able to gain even some semblance of that golden idea floating in your head. Have you got golden ideas floating in your head? I know I have in mine!! Oh! would that I could realize them!

Here are some points I’ve found helpful when starting from a photograph?
1. The best photographs of course are those that you take yourself because you were inspired by a particular scene; there was something about it that made you want to keep a memory of it. If you can, write that down when you take the photo! Even if you don’t use the photo to make a quilt, it will add to your pleasure of the photo itself to read your notes. And if you do make a quilt design, then you can look at your notes and compensate for the distortions that the camera makes, or thing things that it misses: the atmosphere or brightness that you observed but couldn’t quite capture in pixels. So often I find that what entranced me was the light, especially when it suggests some magic place ahead.

In the photograph above, what was of interest was the way the cathedral soared over the medieval houses and Roman walls.   Even though not evident in the photo, what I remember from being in the countryside around York was how immensely high and present the Minster is and that's what I wanted to bring out in the quilt.   My memory did not involve the contrast with the Roman wall/gateway...now it could have! but I decided that was for another quilt.....

the photograph: the old guildhall in St. Helen's square, York

the quilt: Guildhall


When you’re looking at the inspiration photo preparatory to sketching out some possible designs, think first what it was that attracted you. Then think “how can I bring this out in my art quilt version of this picture?”. If it was the freshness of the spring day…then it’s unlikely that your photo has captured the freshness very well…but it will have the main shapes and values of the scene and it’s up to you to figure out how to use color or value pattern or texture to indicate that freshness. Think: What colour is fresh? What texture is fresh?

 In the photo above, what always interested me was the way that architects of old (in this case 18th century) didn't have the same monotonous rows of the cheapest windows they could find....but rather enjoyed using some of the variety....and of course the windows would reflect the importance or status of the rooms on that floor of the building!
so what I took from the photo, was the idea of different kinds of windows...I "abstracted" that idea from it.  Even though the building is all grey stone, I used a rich palette to reflect its rich history.


2. The camera photographs everything, it is omnivorous! No discrimination at all!!
Leave out all the extraneous “stuff”. You can always put some back if you need it for balance later on.


 I like to assess the photo and see if there’s anything that might be better rearranged. You know how you just want to move things around a little on a dining table, or in a bunch of flowers, or the furniture in a room. As a teenager I drove my poor parents wild because I was always seeking the “perfect” arrangement of furniture in my room – with lots of crashing and banging and dings and dents!! It’s a lot easier in a photograph! You can make a photocopy and cut out the relevant bits you want to move, or simply sketch them.

the photo: Cornwall farmhouse

the quilt


A camera tends to overaccentuate the lights and darks – especially the darks, rendering them as a heavy black when in reality they might have been a rich mixture of deep values of several colours.
so in the above piece  I focused in on the buildings tucked into the landscape...I let the landscape drift into the sky...I contrasted the building with the landscape both in color and in value....and while I used very rich shibori patterned fabric, I left out all those details of other buildings, the stream, the skyline etc

When you have used a few existing photographs as a starting point for a quilt and made some of the changes described above, it becomes easier to “compose” the photograph as you are actually taking it. I think “fresh” photos are best (like eggs!) because then you can remember your impressions of the scene and why you were photographing it more easily.

In summary,  the photo is where you start, not where you end up.  consider the essence, add in the memories, ignore the irrelevant...and make it as beautiful as you can!

If you have been!...thanks for reading….Elizabeth

Friday, July 14, 2017

Broadening one's horizons.....

The more I get into art quilting, the broader and broader my interest in art in general...
One school of painting that I never really "got", could never really grasp the idea or the principles behind the work is that of Abstract Expressionism.  Not that I don't like some of the work...I really love Joan Mitchell's and Elaine de Kooning's  paintings for example:

Elaine de Kooning: watercolor
I couldn't find any photos I had personally taken of Mitchell's work...but all you have to do is go to google images!  they're amazing.

I did take this one as you can see from the reflection!

One of my big puzzzles with AE is: how to know when it's "good".  And I think we often run into this...same thing with 20th and 21st century music...very difficult to judge how successful, how long lasting something will be  when people are really pushing the edges of an art form..In the early stages of a movement, there are no definitions, that's what is really so fascinating!  anything is possible...for a while...

When I wrote my online class on designing modern quilts, the first thing I did was look for a definition - actually an official definition came out a little after I'd written the class...but I was pretty close!

I had never seen a definition of AE before but apparently Arch Critic and Cataloguer Clement Greenberg did write one in 1962:

"If the label Abstract Expressionism means anything, it means
 painterliness:
 loose, rapid handling, or the look of it;
 masses that blotted and fused instead of shapes that stayed distinct;
large and conspicuous rhythms,
broken color,
uneven saturations or densities of paint,
[obvious] brush, knife or finger marks".

I love that phrase "or the look of it" - a seeming casual but carefullly thought out arrangement! 
I must admit I often try to cultivate "the look of it " myself!! 

Once you have a definition, you can begin to grasp the movement as a whole and form an idea as to what the artist is trying to do. so I'll be headed back to all those AE folk for a long second look.
But also, reading this definition, I can see just how easily one could apply some of this to quilt design...AND I don't think there are very many people doing this.

anyone looking for a new direction to take?  Consider AE!

And, if you have been, thanks for reading!  all comments Very Welcome....Elizabeth

Friday, July 7, 2017

With Your Own Two Hands: Working in a Series

I"ve recently been reading a fascinating book (With Your Own Two Hands: Self-discovery Through Music) by Seymour Bernstein - who was a renowned piano (not quilt!) teacher last century.
 In order to develop as an artist - no matter what the medium - it is important to know yourself well, your likes, your dislikes, your strengths vs your weaknesses.  For how can you make progress without this? And, as I get older, I discover that the drive to improve to make progress, in whatever one loves to do, doesn't go away.  We are all striving to be just that little bit better! I really think it's part of our genetic make-up ....of course for some it goes awry into a search for more wealth or more power - but that's a whole other issue!!

Most of Bernstein's book isn't relevant to textile artists, but I think his core message is:

"Productive practicing is a process that promotes self-integration".

Well, yes...he does like alliteration too!!  That's fine!  I love bad puns and split metaphors and all those naughties of the writing world!

So what is practicing in quilt terms?  ...yes! the answer is in the title to this blog: Working in a Series.


remembered lines small                                                                            Remembered Lines (69”w, 41”h)
the above quilt was the 12th in a series of black and white pieces.


As a teacher, I am frequently asked about how one can develop one's own style.  We can clearly see that the Big Names all have it.  but how is it done?  does it just happen over time?  Or can you jump start it?
I wrote a class* (and subsequently a book) about how to do just this.....having your own style isn't some result of an unusual talent (if such things exist at all) or the eventual build up of patina (as it were) over time....no...you can work on developing it.
How?  by Practicing.  and how to practice as an art quiltmaker?  Working in A Series!
It is , however, important to figure out the right series, the right way, the right paths to take.
Yes, it is something of a road to self knowledge too, and it can be really absorbing and invigorating.



edging into line k
  I would define a series  as a  group or succession of related things – objects that go together.  They can go together in a number of different ways, some more meaningful than others.   In my series featured here (and yes I must admit to having more than one series!)  used the same  palette, the quilts were inspired by (but not copies of) timbered houses I had seen in England.  I found the drooping lines of the roofs fascinating in that as age and time prevail, the “man made” aspect of the building begins to echo more and more the natural curves of the timbers used.  I also got a little carried away by the abstract patterns created by the timbers, and in the 12th piece, repeated some of those elements several times – just taking the bits I liked and repeating them like a doodle!!


  A series of objects is related by a central idea –  My father always used to jumble up the slides when he gave us kids a picture show and while it was hilarious as successive images were shown: “here we are  on the beach, oh no now we’re in the marketplace, oh and the next one is little brother’s birthday and then the garden, and back to the beach and then another flower..”…hilarious – but confusing, jumbling, and frustrating because  you can’t get into the feel of the place or the idea.


I find that as I explore a theme gradually  I get  better at extracting the essence of the theme that is compelling to me.     Instead of skittering over the surface sampling a little here and there (yes! I love mixed metaphors!), it’s a richer experience to stay in one place for a while.  There are many reasons to do that: enhancing the experience, really getting to see the ideas, not trying to cram in everything at once, improving skills. 

While, working in a series  might seem hard to do if it’s hard to pay attention to one thing for a concentrated period of time, there are ways around !!!  In the same way that our eyes continually flick about so we don’t habituate and see nothing, I think attention can focus on a number of things, but one should limit the number….and keep the things related.


A series doesn’t have to be planned out all ahead of time, but I think certain parameters  either have to be set or will emerge.  If there’s no central idea, or nothing that relates one piece to another then it’s not a series. 
If you keep making pieces where you didn’t quite get the idea across that you wanted, but you then abandon that idea and try something completely different, I don’t think you’ll progress.  It’s practice (i.e. repetition) that “makes perfect”, not dabbling.  Research shows us that it is both practice and coaching or critiquing that leads to improvement in performance. Hence the benefit of working in a series (or practicing piano!) with some guidance from a teacher.

Some  feel  limited by only working on one series.  I totally agree!!  There are many examples of great painters, e.g. Gerhardt Richter, who work in different series simultaneously.  I definitely don’t want to “close” a series and in fact I’ve stopped dating my quilts because I don’t want to be chronologically constipated! 
   If you have been, thanks for reading! and do please keep the comments coming!! thank you.   Elizabeth

*This class is now available "on demand"  at the academyofquilting.com

Monday, June 19, 2017

Taking a break







 However pretty the garden is...and it's looking great - we've actually had rain this year..and have found a spray that actually keeps the deer away but is not obnoxious for humans - however lovely home is....sometimes it's good to get away from all one's myriad activities and take a complete break.....
 So I'm leaving behind my lovely "Mister B" (i.e. my old piano!) and piano inspired quilt beginnings....I love black and white!!!  (despite all those pink flowers above, I don't think I have ever made a pink quilt!)....
 ....and also taking a break from the current mini class I'm teaching and filming  - small sections only - for illustrations for the next online class I'm writing (it will be Fall before it's done, probably late Fall).....
(meanwhile of course I have seven other classes running with the academy ).......
Here are my willing victims selecting their fabrics!  sketches are already done....one lady called it her "map" which I think is a great term.  The map shows you where to go, in large terms...it doesn't get into tiny details of how many steps you must take, every little signpost along  the way, potholes and traffic lights and so on....so my victims will follow their maps and hopefully arrive at wonderful quilt destinations!

but - meanwhile - I'm off with my Magical mystery tour companions to explore Idaho and Wyoming.....and, with luck, come back refreshed and raring to go on all these activities!

When I'm not actually so focussed on these (and several other!) activities, I find that I get many more ideas about what to do...things that just pop up in my mind - and (with a bit of luck) get noted down (I usually just send myself an email - I lose little bits of paper! ) to be cogitated upon further at a later date. Never forget to listen to your ideas and note them down!

If you have been, thanks for reading...and I hope that you are all enjoying - or planning  to enjoy - taking a break!   do write and tell me about it...and let me know why you think it's important too.
Elizabeth




Monday, June 12, 2017

Drawing is Rarely a Gift

st ives crop
So often I hear people say: "Oh you're so lucky, you have such talent!"    Well......no......for nearly every skilled activity there's a background of  specific training!  Even so called "perfect pitch".   I remember reading about some famous musician -" his parents discovered he had perfect pitch at the age of three."...now how would you discover that???It's not something you stumble across your child doing!!!  you must have been testing or training in some way....

Take drawing: when I was a child, there were one or two in my class who were (apparentely)_ gifted at drawing...but as I look back I realise that they spent all their time drawing!  You do get better at things if you practice a lot.....especially if you have a few guidelines.

 I can’t draw “naturally” or “intuitively” ....in fact I can't think of anything very much (that I would want to write a blog about!) that I can do without having learned in one way or another.

 In my life I’ve only met one or two people who appeared to be able to “just do it” but even with them, on further enquiry, it was usually the case that they had been drawing for years and  also had had access to some instruction, however informal. For most of us, therefore, drawing is a skill that we can learn in the same way that we learned how to cut quarter square triangles and half square triangles and decided which we needed for any given quilt pattern. Like anything else, being able to draw involves a series of basic steps and a lot of practice. Furthermore, as I’m rapidly discovering, it requires constant practice to even maintain what little skill level one can attain!

However, I do think it is very helpful in any type of visual two dimensional art to be able to draw, not brilliantly, but adequately i.e. good enough to be able to use one’s drawing as a guide for making a quilt, or a fiber collage or a textile work (however you like to call it!).
So, here are some steps and tips I have found helpful from both books and a few drawing lessons:
black steps YSP
1. What?
The first step is to decide what you are going to draw! What is the best way of finding your composition? I think it’s helpful to use a Viewfinder or crop tools. You can actually buy cardboard frames with clear plastic in divided into 4 or 9…or you can make one – with or without the plastic..or you can simply cut two L shapes from card. I find the Ls easier when working from photographs because you can adjust the frame size. If you are working live, whether outside or in, then a Viewfinder you can hold with one hand is easier: simply move the frame (usually a rectangle, but whatever you want the shape of the piece to be) nearer or further from you. Most of us are used to doing this with a camera, so we already have helpful experience of this step. Sometimes I’ll take out my camera and just look through the lens to find an interesting composition.
2. Beginning.
On a piece of paper draw in the first four lines: the outside edges, in the same shape and ratio of sides to top/bottom as your view finder or crop tools. Then, very faintly, indicate the “horizon” line, the line that is level with your eyes as you sit or stand. For example if you’re looking at a sea scene, the level of the sea against the sky is the horizon line, the end of the street in a street scene and so on.
3. The edge connections.
Then make little marks (dashes or dots!) where the objects within the scene, whether trees or bottles or kittens,  intersect with those first four lines. This makes sure that you get everything into the drawing that you have selected in your view finder or crop tools. I know if I don’t do this I invariably run out of space!! It’s easy to see the half way mark on the view finder (vf) and the half way mark on the scene. For example if I like through the vf and see the edge of a roof. Where does that edge intersect with the frame of the vf? Is it half way up the left hand side? A quarter of the way from the top? As quilters we’re used to eyeballing these kinds of distances.
So if the roof line intersects with the vf on the left hand side, at ¼ of the way down from its top edge then I make a little mark on my paper at the same point i.e. 1/4 of the way down from the top edge.
A tip. Make sure you always hold the vf in the same place by lining it up with something. I find it easier to spot, for example, a chimney in the top right hand corner, and a Stop sign in the bottom left hand corner.
Of course it’s easier working on a flat photograph with the L shapes and that’s what nearly everyone does!! In that case I usually make a photocopy of my photograph so that I can draw on it exactly where I positioned my L shapes.
I actually use this exact same procedure of looking for half way points, intersection points etc, in cutting out shapes freehand for a piece when I assemble a quilt.
4. Two dimensions is easier than three.
If you’re working from an actual scene as opposed to a 2-d photograph, it helps to reduce the 3 dimensional scene to only two. How d’you do that? By closing one eye. Before you do that, look at an object in front of you first with just your left, then just with your right eye. See how the object jumps?? That makes it very difficult to draw, because your drawing is only in 2 dimensions. So close one eye if you find that everything keeps jumping around!! Which one to close? Your less dominant one. Actually I have found it helpful to simply wear an eye patch than to squint up at the drawing, but most people squint! You can choose!!  As an aside I used to drive down to the pub  for lunch when I was working in Easingwold, UK with a one eyed doctor in an antique car!  It was hair rising, for he had no depth vision, and no cares!!
5. Look at what you’re drawing.
As you draw, look frequently at the object you are drawing if you want it to be accurate. Though one teacher (can’t remember if it was Hans Hoffman, someone of that ilk) – used to make his students look at an object in one room for 5 minutes, then sprint back to the adjacent room to actually draw it!! He felt that that improved visual memory!! It certainly would improve one’s level of exercise!
6. Continuous assessment.
Continually assess whether you have drawn the major lines correctly…it’s like piecing a traditional quilt, if you get one triangle in backwards it throws everything off.
7. Elements (line and shape) only.
As you draw the contour lines, don’t think “boat” or “roof” or “bottle”, think instead “this line goes from ¼ of the way down the left hand side across to a point about halfway across and 3/4 of t he way down the rectangle (or square). Just think about lines going from point A to point B. Like little trails on a map.
Sometimes it’s easier to think about drawing the negative shapes – i.e. the spaces behind things, while focusing on them you are less likely to be distracted by the actuality of the object.
roofs connected 8. Angles
If the lines are angled, the easiest thing to do is to hold up your pencil against the view or the photograph and line it up with the angle…then, holding it carefully in the same position, mark that angle on the page. If that doesn’t work for you, then you could use a protractor. I like the nice big ones. Or…when working from a photograph, you can line up (i.e. make sure that the verticals and horizontals on both photo and sketch paper are all exactly vertical and horizontal!) the photograph adjacent to your sketch paper and put a long ruler on the angle on the photograph, such that it protrudes beyond and onto the correct place on the paper. I use this for cutting out correct angles too. I simply line up the sketch with my fabric and continue the angle out from my drawing to the cloth. Try it, it works!!
9. Major shapes first.
Get the big shapes and the longest lines in place first. Details are far less important, don’t even think about them until all the big stuff is in place!!! No you can’t mess about putting in all those little windows yet! This is also Very True in designing quilts. And don’t think about shading or colour yet either!
10. Light and Dark.
Before you start shading, decide where the light is coming from ….if you’re inside, set up a single light source, if working plein air the most interesting times to go out and draw are early or late on a sunny day – because of the nice long shadows! Having shadows creates depth and adds to the value range. If you take a picture of nearly any quilt, scan into photoshop and increase the contrast (Image-adjustments-contrast), it will improve it. Why? Because you increased the value range. What increases the range? Light!
If you are working from a photograph, look to see where the darkest darks and lightest lights are. What was the direction of light in the scene? You don’t have to necessarily follow this (Rembrandt didn’t always) but it’s better if you use light and shadow thoughtfully.
It’s easiest to spot the very darkest values first, so start with those. I think it’s helpful to have a little value scale (even if it’s just 5 values: light, med light, med, med dark, dark) drawn out on the side of the paper to refer to. Do the darkest darks, note where the lightest lights are and reserve those. I often put a little pencil dot in them so I know “don’t shade this!”. Then look for the mediums. Do make sure you have a good range of values. If you look at our very best art quilters you will see that in all their major works, there is a great range. And remember the Photoshop experiment!! Push the light values lighter (if you’re using a pencil simply erase) and the dark values darker.
11.Maturing on the wall.
Finally, when you feel you’ve finished the drawing, pin it up on the design wall to mature for a few days or weeks…if there’s anything untoward it will make itself known! Believe me!

So why should we bother to learn to draw? Because it is a basic skill that underlies many art mediums. If you can’t accurately put down in a pencil sketch what you want to have in your final quilt, then you have no good plan or map to follow. Without direction, no progress. Just yesterday I read in a painting magazine about the "Five Pillars" being the foundation of the Visual Arts: drawing, value, color, edges and composition.  So...begin your journey by sharpening your pencils!

If you have been, thanks for reading!  Elizabeth
and I look forward to the comments!!!

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Abstract Art for Quilters!

Anybody taking a look at the current   Quilt National exhibition will see that abstract art works very well indeed in a quilt format. And, while I love representational  quilts and have made many representational ones myself, or at least impressionistic, I do think that the medium is superb when it comes to abstract work.

I love abstract painting! I recently went to several shows in New York including the Whitney biennial and saw some wonderful work.
Any of these ideas could be "stolen" and developed! (I'm not talking about copying here  - that is not a very good idea  for very many reasons; I'm talking more about being inspired by a certain way that painter's structures work or a particular colour scheme, or a way that they have arranged particular shapes and so on)  Don't worry about "stealing" like this. As the piano teacher said to the student who was afraid to listen to Rubenstein playing Chopin because she didn't want to sound too much like Rubenstein, there is no fear of that! There is no fear that any of  us quilt makers will ever end up hanging on wall next to Rauschenberg or Diebenkorn or Clyfford Still or next to any of the great female abstract painters: af Klimt, Joan Mitchell, Bridget Riley, Elaine deKooning, Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner, Alma Thomas.... just to name a few.

What??! You tell me you don't know anything about these painters! Well, now is your chance!
I have written two courses each of five lessons for Academy of quilting on abstract art: abstract art for quilt makers and more abstract art for quilt makers. The first course, abstract art for quiltmakers, deals only with women abstract painters  - and there are a lot of them  - and they are quite wonderful...... In my course I tell you little bit about each painter and at the same time I have developed a number of different exercises that will help you learn how to create abstract designs.   This course starts this Friday and if you're interested just go to the Academy of quilting website.

Meanwhile here are some goodies that I saw in New York a couple of weeks ago:  

 I think that all of Georgia O'Keefe's works can be viewed as being abstract.....she abstracts to the nth degree!!she takes the essence of the city or land scape...or the flower....and plays with the shapes and colors and their interactions to make a truly beautiful composition that also indicates such a sense of place.  I had not seen this particular city scape before....
this is from a fascinating exhibit in the Brooklyn museum of many paintings but also the clothes she made herself - all in black and/or white...incredibly fine and neat pin tucking and little architectural details:









she wasn't the only one to paint city scapes of course...here is an almost abstract by Ault:


Lee Krasner.....imagine this in a fine wool...or silk!!
 Picasso and a real sense of fun.....and gosh it would be so easy to cut up lots of little scraps and create images.....
 One of the Biennal "new" artists....acutally a collaberation called Kaya....more below.  These were free hanging, different painting on the back....and they were so rich....
but also...wouldn't that wrought iron make a super quilt hanging?   Away with stodgy old rods and sleeves!!!


 I hadn't heard of Jo Baer before, but I really love the way she extracts landscape elements  and makes wonderfully spacious compositions, rich with tranquillity.

And this last one is Carrie Moyer who often begins with a simple paper collage to work out her ideas.


I hope you're inspired and want to have a go yourselves!!  I know I am.....

And, if you have been, thanks for reading....
also I love your comments...and I'll do my best to respond...thank you!  Elizabeth