Thursday, May 31, 2012

Developing a style

While I don’t remember ever really thinking about this for my quilts, it’s taking me so much longer to acquire a style in watercolor that it is something for recent cogitation. With quilts I’ve always just made what has really fascinated me at the time with what seemed like the most appropriate techniques. People say I have “a style” but to be honest I think that most of them only think about the early cityscapes – I did make a lot of them – actually in just adding them up now I’ve realized I made about 100 of them! Not quite half my oeuvre. But that does leave an awful lot that are not cityscapes.

Not only:


arrogancedetail april rains crop

but also:


forcefield 1 72

E. H. Gombrich, in his book Art and Illusion, suggests that style is similar to having an “accent” – motor habits acquired early in one’s artistic experience. He also feels that the

“ skill of the hand in art, like the skill of the throat in language, develops as a result of the awareness of differences that have to be observed, or pointed out” which, I think, implies conscious learning whether assisted by a teacher or not.

An artist who copies a painting by another, such as Van Gogh’s many copies of Millet’s paintings
will still use his own style or schemata.

The artist is likely to create the “replica” in the way he/she has already been taught, the way that he/she has done it since they began making art. One’s earliest models and teachers, therefore, are most influential in the style that one later develops. Gombrich felt that Van Gogh repeated Millet’s visual statements with a strong Van Goghian accent: “the microstructure of movement and shapes that becomes the inimitable personal accent of the artist”. Many try to analyze artists’ style like this, i.e. with very concrete steps. I’ve always been surprised when a person says to me “oh you have a distinctive style” and I reply “and what does it consist of?”’ for their answers often seemed extremely global and simplistic. It’s like saying who am I? And the answer relates only to age, sex, weight, height and hair-do (or lack thereof!).

So I feel that, while “style” does refer to themes (like cityscapes, or Wolf Kahn’s barns), more importantly it relates to how you cut the fabric, to the sort of fabric you use, the kind of shapes and lines you prefer, the way you arrange those shapes and lines, the colors you like and how you arrange them, your use of certain kinds of value patterns and particular textures. Some peoples’ styles are more analyzeable than others. Take Jan Myers Newbury: the texture of the fabric is nearly always that of arashi shibori, the edges of the pieces are always straight, the compositions abstract and geometric.

However, it is clear that if a beginner tries to copy a specific style, it’s pretty evident that they are a beginner and it’s only in skilled hands that an effective copy can be made. Friedlander felt that the recognition of a personal style was more a matter of intuition based upon experience.

It might be truer to say that the personal style of any given artist might not be the result of individual peculiarities and particularities which can be listed separately but rather by an analysis of the relationships of all the parts of the piece, of the interaction of many personal choices at each stage of the composition thus leading to a compilation of sequences of effects that would be perceived as a whole. Some think it would take a meeting between both expert forgers and experienced connoisseurs of that particular medium in order to agree on the exact criteria that constituted a particular person’s style!

Gombrich feels that as verbal language conveys not only the facts but also the feelings about an experience, so should one’s visual language in making art. This is a very telling summary – we are all aware of somebody telling a tale in a monotone without expression, like a child just learning to read who spaces out the words without any real awareness of the whole. Or someone learning to play an instrument who plays successive notes rather than phrases, and also in the next stage where they play absolutely technically accurate but cold and feelingless rendition of the music. Well, the same is true with our visual language in our art quilts, style is not only the accurate notes or words but also the characteristic emotional response to the story we are telling. Where you put yourself and your humanity into the piece.

Which brings me back to my own search for style in watercolor – I’ve got the techniques in art quilts down to a point where I can think more about the feeling (even though some judges still observe a slightly frayed note and go no further!), but with the watercolors I still need to reach that stage…I need to practice my scales more! But first, I think, a nice cuppa tea! If you have been, thanks for reading! And I’d love to read any comments about this topic – do you think you have a style? And if so, what does it consist of?


Thursday, May 24, 2012

Color schemes and Quilts

I know a lot of people like to start making quilts just by randomly pulling out interesting fabrics, but I find that a little too haphazard for me, I usually like to know where I’m going!! More or less anyway!!  So when I start thinking about which colors I’ll use for the next piece I “label” that thought in my mind as a “scheme” or a “plan” as to which colors I’ll combine for this next piece.  I also love arranging things and thinking mathematically about how many possible arrangements there actually are.

  If we work from the old 12 pie slice color wheel (and I know Munsell’s 10 slice model (bigger pieces!) is now fashionable but 10 is not such an interesting number as 12 when you come to divide it up!) – eniow going from the traditional wheel d’you realize there are actually 12 analogous schemes (3 adjacent colors)  and 6 complementary (2 opposite colors) ones, and that’s not even thinking about monochromatic and split comps and all the rest of it?   Some of the combinations are very popular, others you rarely see – so it’s kind of an interesting challenge to look through one’s oeuvre and see which schemes you’ve used and which not. 

lavender gothic 2



And, as an aside, talking about the Quilt Pile I just found the Missing Quilt! hooray.  I was looking for another one to mail off ( a nibble! a nibble!) and couldn’t find it either! Horrors!  Well I can’t have accidentally put TWO quilts into the thrift store pile, I reckoned – so a major overhaul of the whole quilt storage Etagere (yes I know that dates me!!) was required – and lo and behold two of the little bu**ers had descended behind the shelves down underneath and were getting upto lord knows what down there!! Well now I’ve found their hiding place, that’ll be the first place to search for missing persons. No more shenanigans from them!


Getting back to the color schemes: the wheel has 3 primaries (red, yellow, blue), between them 3 secondaries (orange, green, purple) and between each of them another color identified first by its adjacent primary which is then hyphenated with the adjacent secondary color as follows:
1. red 2. red-orange, 3. orange, 4. yellow-orange, 5. yellow, 6. yellow-green, 7. green, 8. blue-green, 9. blue, 10. blue-purple, 11. purple, 12. red-purple.  The 12 analogous colour schemes are, of course: 123, 234, 345 and so on. 


Don’t know why but I’ve not made many analogous quilts, I think they are a little too smooth and soothing for me.  but here’s a nice cozy one:                                                                 Fire Dreams


I made that one just thinking about how you look into a log fire and imagine all sorts of interesting ruins that would look like that.

And one of my favorite pieces Farne Islands ….



also is about a soft dreamy sort of mood…on a boat going out to the Farne Islands (a bird sanctuary off the NE coast of England)….just relaxing into the cool sea breeze…

so I see analogous pieces as being more about a mood, a dreamy kind of mood.


By contrast I think the complementary color schemes are much richer, more content, more bite, more opportunity for tension and mystery.  There are 6  basic complementary schemes: red and green, red-orange and blue-green, orange and blue, yellow orange and blue-purple, yellow and purple, yellow-green and red-purple.  Of course you can always add on a little extra color.  In fact when we talk about the color scheme we’re not really talking about Every Single Color in the piece, but rather about the Main colors because in most art projects using color you can always shade a color a little warmer or a little cooler as you work with it which means that you will probably be adding in some of those adjacent shades to the main colors simply to enhance and enrich your piece.



Looking at my quilts I realize that I’ve used the purple and yellow scheme an awful lot:                                                                                                                    Museum St

Here’s another:


y/m collage 2 (the poor thing never did get a proper name!)



I thought I hadn’t done many in red and green and immediately found three of them!:

pond in winter, looking east full 72 ppi out take 4 greenhouses72




Violet and yellow-orange only featured once and the yellow-orange is very dilute, but important in the piece.   

what lovely smoke full




Then I came across a blue-green and red-orange one, I’ve always loved the colors in this quilt: What Pretty Smoke:

another favorite combination of mine has been blue/orange:


West Cliff Steps

and     Watersky:  watersky







One combination remaining:  red-purple and yellow-green…I had to challenge myself to make this one!

meadowfarmbut it was really fun to do so and to create quite a different feeling from my usual combinations.  Take a look and see if you tend to stick to the same color scheme!  Maybe you need a challenge!

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

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Beautiful Quilt

Is it all about beauty?I was looking at the quilts that sold at the recent Art Quilt elements show in Philadelphia and it struck me that many of them celebrated beauty. While Agnes Martin was a great advocate of beauty and felt it should be the main subject matter of art you would certainly not think so when you look at some of the art shown today – especially in the major contemporary shows. I struggle with wanting to make something beautiful but also wanting to make it meaningful – to me at least. Some days there seems to be a yawning chasm (never understood why chasms yawn, or us either for that matter!) between the two: beauty and meaningfulness.

Ansel Adams wrote that: “Art is both the taking and giving of beauty” – we see beauty, perhaps where no one else has, and we try to give it back. And Renoir: “Why should beauty be suspect? ” why should we suspect that sometimes it has no meaning? Because it has been over-used and commercialized so often?

strange beauty 130




Strange Beauty





Iwonder even if we should be thinking specifically about beauty as we create our art, whether planned or intuitive, representational or abstract? Mondrian might not agree that representational art conveyed true beauty! “The emotion of beauty is always obscured by the appearance of the object. Therefore the object must be eliminated from the picture ”, though I think he is referring to making art about what we feel about the object rather than the object itself. If we make a piece about our beloved cat whom we feel is beautiful, perhaps to a viewer (who cannot have the same feelings about the cat that we do) it’s just a picture of an old moggie and doesn’t show beauty at all.



Thistle (“admiring” the beautiful birds and squirrels!)



How can we get past this? Interestingly, many have talked about the need from something unsettling, even ugly, in a work of art to create “true” beauty: Baudelaire wrote: “That which is not slightly distorted lacks sensible appeal; from which it follows that irregularity – that is to say, the unexpected, surprise and astonishment, are a essential part and characteristic of beauty.” I think it is this nuance that makes the difference between something cloyingly sweet and trite, the sugar coated pretend beauty that stultifies and real everlasting beauty.

landscape, iona








Everyone loves to look at beautiful scenery, would love to live in a beautiful house, or be with (or be!) a beautiful person (and by that I don’t mean looks!)…so it would make sense we would like to look at beautiful art. But real beauty is not trite, pallid, commercialized, pastel, greeting card taste – that is mere prettiness and can only briefly hold one’s attention. It stales very quickly – as, Shakespeare noted, real beauty is fascinating:

“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety. Other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry where most she satisfies. . . .”

Of course he was talking about Cleopatra, but the same holds true for a shallow prettiness versus a truly richly intriguingly beauty. Beauty with a little kick of spice to it!

Colours, shapes, lines etc don’t have to be “pretty” or “sweet” to be beautiful; music played in a minor key can be just as (if not more so) beautiful than a major one. Beauty can be fresh, or mature, bold or soft, quiet or loud, startling or soothing.

Frank Lloyd Wright felt that the longer one lives “the more beautiful life becomes. If you foolishly ignore beauty, you will soon find yourself without it. Your life will be impoverished. But if you invest in beauty, it will remain with you all the days of your life.” (yes! Buy more beautiful quilts!) For after all “When everything else physical and mental seems to diminish, the appreciation of beauty is on the increase.” (Bernard Berenson)

Art is lots of things (decoration, communication, information, honour, inspiration), but it has to be one thing first: something that holds our attention, something we desire, something that stays with you.

If you have been, thanks for reading! But consider this final quote about beauty:

Beauty is one of the rare things that do not lead to doubt of God. (Jean Anouilh)


PS comments are beautiful too!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Importance of Art in creating behavioural change

steelyardfrieze So, what is Art  about? Why do we do it?  Some would say they make art to please themselves, some make it to please others,  some to find expression for their observations and emotions and visual cognitions.  Others for the fellowship (there’s nothing like trying to speak at a guild meeting to know just how much fellowship exists!).  Personally, I love being able to learn new things and to feel like I have some expertise in making something.

what lovely smoke full There are many reasons for making art and one of the most powerful and, probably, the most ubiquitous  is Education.  Of course, sadly, art has often been misused in propaganda – is misused every day in advertisements cleverly produced to convince us of something.  Somebody just said last night “why doesn’t the food look like that when we go to that restaurant?” But art can – must - be used for good.   Therefore, I was very interested to read that the National Science foundation had actually awarded a large grant to an artist to make work to convince the public about the importance of the environment.  Mary Miss and the Institute for Learning Innovation were given the money to explore “how art installations can shape the public discourses surrounding the science and engineering decisions that shape the city”.  Mary Miss has made art about the environment for the past 40 years.

Sadly, the public at large, the man in the street,  is not very interested in environmental issues .  Despite the fact that all my neighbours complain about the heat and the lack of rainfall and ask me when I’m going to learn to do rain dances – I can’t convince any of them to use free heat from nature to dry their clothes, to stop watering grass and sweet gum trees, to turn off their a/c at night when the temperatures drop, to not leave the telly on all day, to recycle everything that can be recycled, to save up errands and just make one trip instead of 4,  etc etc.  They are not ready to make the changes necessary to reduce their reliance on gas and electricity.    Furthermore, businesses are largely against making any of the changes necessary to decrease the pollution that is likely to be the cause of climate change because of the cost.   (although some of the changes would actually save them money! for example, if they stop over-packaging: a small bottle of pills is packed in a box 4 times the size, therefore 4 trucks instead of one are necessary to deliver those pills to the store.)

heavymetal Climate researchers are faced with  considerable political skepticism only parallel to that shown by the flat earthers of medieval times.   Thomas Kuhn’s classical text The Structure of Scientific Revolutions  (1962)  discusses the history of scientific discovery focussing on what kinds of ideas were even thinkable at any given time? Kuhn researched the historical ways in which people could be  convinced of the new  scientific discoveries of those days.  His main thesis was that new understanding in science is not, as one might expect, the result of the straightforward accumulation of facts, but rather from a set of changing intellectual circumstances and possibilities. 

Mary Miss’ first art installation (Broadway 1000 steps) was actually designed as a scientific experiment: the hypothesis was “can art change people’s mind?” This was tested by making many observations of the site and the public as they passed by.  That data is now being evaluated.  Meanwhile Miss has installed a 3 year project at the Indianapolis Museum of Art: FLOW: Can You See the River?

all that glitters is not gold

Art rules!  Art educates! Furthermore, we are now probably at a time in the history of the world when visual learning and stimulation is at its peak – we are constantly bombarded with visual images to convince us of this and that all day long – let us make  Art Speak Out Loud!  think about it….

And, if you have been, thanks for reading.  Has anyone got instructions for the rain dance, by the way?


PS: the quilts shown are all mine and are titled, from top to bottom: Steelyard Frieze, Oh what lovely smoke!, Heavy Metal, and All That Glitters is Not Gold.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Working in Series – a new workshop is starting

airport 1

airport wheels 







I’m starting a new session of my workshop Working In Series at Quilt this Friday and I’ve had quite a few emails asking me questions about it, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to describe it a little more fully.

Firstly if you’ve never taken an online course before, Quilt University is really the best place to start.  The classes are extremely reasonable: $36 for 4 fully downloadable lessons plus an online discussion group where people ask questions and I answer to the best of my ability and  you have your own “gallery” where you can publish an image so that we can discuss it.  The Dean of QU is very friendly and very used to people who have not had a lot of experience with online classes.  And I think she lives totally glued to her computer – she responds so quickly with cheerful help to every query!

Secondly, What has surprised me, in teaching these classes, is just how much you can teach and learn, and, even better, how well you can get to know people who may be 1 mile away or thousands of miles away.  It’s wonderful hearing about fiber art and quilting in very far away places and feeling just how many kindred spirits there are out there.

The question I’ m most frequently asked is whether  or not a person can go at their own pace.  I think an online situation is definitely superior to a real life workshop in this regard. Throughout the 6 or 7 weeks of the course you can go back to earlier lessons and re read them and ask questions about them.  If you have to be away for a few days, or are very busy, you can catch right up with the lessons and the discussions and the galleries  for they are all right there waiting for you.  

barton guildhall

Level of ability is not a concern – the classes are aimed at all levels.   There are no tests, no grades, no competitiveness, no pass and no fail!   I hope that all will make progress in the direction and to the extent which they wish to go.

  Also, being a native English speaker is less of an issue than you might think.  The Dean has instructed us to keep to standard English wherever possible so that the translation programs can work well.  Sometimes the sentences get turned around a bit but you can always get the sense of it.

The Working in Series class is not, however, about the actual cutting and sewing and construction of a quilt.  It is about finding your own voice, how to develop your own ideas and how to know which ideas best represent you.   The aim is to explore the art world in general in order to find the right subject, the right style, the right working method.  It’s about improving your work and the best way to develop a coherent body of work is to work in a series.  This workshop focuses on the development of  several related designs for quilts. 

windows blue light

It’s about the importance of strong compositions and how to achieve them.  One of the many beauties of a series is that your awareness of design guidelines grows as they are outlined, discussed with reference to art quilts in particular, emphasized, exercised and practiced as you evaluate each piece. 


Do not worry about being able to draw.  Drawing is a technical skill that improves with practice.  It is useful for some specific types of art but not all.  It is well known that many successful artists do not draw that well; the important thing is to be able to sketch out roughly what you want to do, where you want to place the main shapes, so that you have a plan you can follow.  If you can draw a diagram of your kitchen – you can make rough sketches!

More than anything, working in a series helps you learn how to work from your own ideas and discover your unique voice.  Your quilts may be abstract, realistic or impressionistic or any style at all!

I hope this helps to clarify – feel free to comment and ask questions and I’ll reply in the comment section; if you’ve taken a class with me and want to comment too – that’s absolutely fine!

so, if you have been, thanks for reading!  Elizabeth

PS the quilts shown are all part of a series I did many years ago on “windows”; the ones at the top are installed in Gate 27 or 29, concourse E, Atlanta Airport (hence the poor lighting).