Things are getting more and more eccentric at Casa de la Swain. Changing styles in my textile work, falling in love again with painting and photography...and then there is the ever illusive quest for continuing creativity through working with Eric Maisel. Still on the road teaching, posting now at the Ragged Cloth Cafe and taking the pledge to keep handmaiden up to date.

Monday, October 09, 2006

A Short Treatise on Design

While admitting I have fallen of the wagon on daily blogging, that doesn't mean that I have stoped contemplating what we do as artist. My last several classes have been design classes which have left me gobsmacked at the amazing work done by quiltmakers who think they have no talent.
Why is this happening? First, as an instructor I see myself as a facilitor, guiding you to where you want to go and what you want to create. No longer do I teach from patterns unless it is a strict technique class......even then we aren't making "Gabrielle Swain" quilts. We are just learning the techniques I use in my work. My goal is to give you the confidence to try even if you don't succeed the first time; to encourage you to experiment so you can find the happy accident or learn what not to do the next time; and last to give as succinct as possible a road map to follow for future work.
Having said all that here is my standard approach to teaching design and my own work:

1. It is more important what you leave out than what you put in. Think about it we can't use every technique we know or every beautiful fabric we own in a single focus and simplify.

2. Anything asymmetrical or on the diagonal is strong than straight lines. Angles create visual tension and thereby visual interest.....which is what we are all after, keeping the viewing at the quilt longer.

3. Work with intention...know where you want to go before you get there. Have you ever made a quilt that did not turn out as you had expected? Usually, we find a fabric and let it guide us. I work exactly the opposite, I work a design until it says exactly what I want it to and then find the fabric that will give me that effect. I call this having a road doesn't prevent spontaniety since you can stop anywhere on the road for gas, food or whatever. However, without the road map you far less likely to reach your destination than you will if you have the map.

4. Finally, if design is the bones that hold the piece together, then compositon is the relationship between the bones, i.e. which bone goes where and last, but never least, color is the flesh placed over the bones that allow us to see the structure of the design and composition.

We can all do these simple steps and still find surprises along the way. Give it a try and see if it works for you. The greatest gift you can give yourself is the find a way to work in series. It doesn't have to be the same quilt over and over in a different colorway......but this is a perfectly viable series. Think of how many times Monet painted the rain, sun, at night, on a cloudy get the picture. The other way to approach a series is to find a subject matter that intrigues you a ride that horse until it drops. To use myself as an example, I have been making leaf quilts since 1994. I am currently working on a quilt called "The Last Leaf," which I just learned is the title of an O Henry story. The story goes a woman knew she would die when the last leaf fell from the tree outside her window. To keep her alive a friend daily went out and painted leaves so they appeared as if they were still on the tree. Of course, in the famous O Henry style of ending, the painter ended up dying of pneumonia since he painted in rain, snow, etc. Now this quilt has even deeper meaning to me. Lesson: could you find a story that would inspire a quilt and from that develop a series?

Back to subject matter as series, two of my most recent students were microbiologists. They are fascinated as what they see in the lab. One jumped right in designing cell structures; the other was trying to work on leaves and flowers since everyone else in the class was doing so. She had already shown a spectacular quilt of single cell structure. Immediately, noticing that she was struggling, I gently went to her and asked why she was working against her own desires. She is in love with what she sees in her work....this is what she should be translating into art. I got a big smile and a thank you and she was off and running on a spectacular design.

Working in series allows you to fully explore an image from every possible perspective. You can work on more than one series at a time......and like chewing gum when you get all the sweetness out of one series or subject matter, move on to something else that interests you. Each series will feed energy into the other. You will have strengthened your design skills and your desire to experiment.

To close this conversation that I have with myself all the time and am now sharing with you, I leave you with these parting words: "Just because you can do it doesn't mean you should." In other words spend more time with the design trying some of the suggestions I mentioned instead of trying to get all the techniques and fabrics in this single piece; there will be othere quilts and more fabric....see what happens to you internally and externally to the work when you enter the studio eager with the possibility of the day. Remember simplicity is elegance.

Back to packaging dvd's...hope to see some of you or at least your quilts in Houston.


Karoda said...

The last 2 months my work has been all about design, composition and value, plus I had 2 series about boundaries and the other in scrapbook style based on my own poems. I've found it very very freeing and liberating. Unfortunately, come Monday I must give up the studio space, but the time spent will forever impact future work.

Joanne S said...

Thank you for this post. Just because you can....oh, this is so true. And I have learned--the hard way--to always leave myself the possibility to REMOVE things. More is NOT better.

Why do students want to make exact copies of the teacher's work? Why do teachers sell them patterns so they can make exact copies? And sell them fabric so they can be just like the original?

Valeri said...

This is THE best monologue on design theory and practice and every teacher out there should have a copy! I have followed these principals all my life and I am sad at the amount of cloning going on out there! Well said Gabrielle!

Sarah said...

Thank you for those wonderful gems!

Gerrie said...

I am going to print this and put it on my design wall. My dh and I were just talking about how simple is hard.

Claire said...

Great post Gabrielle

I came to similar realisations about 6 months ago :-) It has revolutionised the way I work and my work is way stronger for 1) having a design and 2)keeping the construction simple. I am restricting my work to this style.

Susie Monday said...

Design is such a slippery topic because while the bones are, as you say, essential, the flesh (color) can dissolve them and turn the whole thing to mush. Also, I think the starting point for each artist may indeed be as different as the content -- I simply have to start with color matched to a whim of a story or character that is happening in my work. The design/composition won't happen for me without the stack of colored fabrics played out one against the other.

I believe that each of us is born with -- or very soon develops --a kind of perceptual screening and patterning that determines how we give shape/form to content. The more I can learn about that unique process for me, the sooner I discover my own voice whether it is in fabric or song or architecture or microbiology.