tierneycreates, What's on the Design Wall

Starting an Art Quilt

This post is not about starting a specific art quilt* (though I will share an art quilt I am in the progress of making), it about a little of the process I use to design a new art quilt.

*When I use the term “art quilt” I mean a quilt using an original design that you design/create; not based on an existing pattern (though a pattern could inspire it); and either improvisational or based on a specific idea/concept/photo that inspired the quilt.

One of my long time blogging buddies sent me an e-mail with the questions below (some paraphrased) after she saw my completed memory quilt post (see posts Update on “The Challenge” , Update on Memory Quilt, and The Memory Quilt is Complete and Given):

  1. What do you find successful when you are creating a design? 
  2. What is one thing you do that helps you focus and get rid of all the noise and clutter that come with color, design, prints, etc.?
  3. There are so many complicated variables (in making an art quilt),  how do you start?

I let her know I would answer her questions in a blog post in case anyone else finds my musing interesting and possible useful. (And at the end of this blog post I am going to invite you all to weigh in with your answers, so start thinking about them now as you read mine!)

What do you find successful when you are creating a design?

THE MEMORY QUILT

What I find successful in creating a design is to sit down and write out my general concept and what I want to accomplish with this quilt. For example on the memory quilt I made my friend I wanted to 1) make a quilt from as many of her mother’s favorite clothes that I could; 2) make something that feels like it is a hug from her late mother; 3) try and use some of the more challenging fabrics in the design.

In writing out my general concept, I consulted some traditional quilting books for ideas. I did not want to make it “improvisational” with a lot of little pieces placed randomly (or in a format such as a free form log cabin). I wanted it to have some defined structure.

During my research (looking through my collection of quilting books) I found a pattern that had hearts appliquéd over plaid (via four patches) squares. I thought – “yes that is it!” – the hearts could represent love from her late mother; and the plaid design (four patches) was doable with the challenging fabrics I needed to work with (like velour, a polyester scarf, etc.).

MY CURRENT ART QUILT IN PROGRESS

Recently I’ve started a new art quilt for a special show I am hoping to get into. It would be my first international show. I’ve been invited to submit a quilt for it but it has to be acceptable for the exhibit in order to make it into it. That’s all the details I’ll provide on the reason for the quilt for now, but more to come in the future.

I followed the same initial process as I did with the Memory Quilt – I sat down and put my thoughts on paper. I used my art journal (see posts Creative Inspiration: Peek Inside My Journals and Creative Inspiration: My Journals) to jot down ideas and sketch out ideas for the layout of the quilt.

My art journal where I sketch out ideas, I made a cover for it to make it special

Ideas about the quilt are not just focused on how the finished quilt might look. They are also about what I’d like a viewer of the quilt to see, experience, think about, etc. What feelings and thoughts so I want to evoke when someone looks at the quilt? What do I want the quilt to say (or try to say). What is the theme of the art quilt, what is it about. I might also start to write a draft Artist Statement for the quilt to really get me thinking what I want the quilt to “say”. See my little “side bar” below for more discussion on this concept.

*** SIDE BAR ***

For example, all of quilts I’ve made for the Women of Color Quilting Network (WCQN) shows that I’ve been in had specific themes so I had a starting point. I knew what the quilt needed to in general “be about” and from there I had to narrow it down to what I wanted to share about that topic. Example below with the quilt I did for the WCQN show “Visioning Human Rights in the New Millennium: Quilting the World’s Conscience“ which was inspired by the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I was assigned (actually I got to select which Article from the Declaration I wanted to use) Article I: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” 

So that was my starting point. I knew what I needed to portray in the quilt, I just had to figure out how to get there.

Here is an early sketch from my journal as I was working on the quilt:

And here is the completed quilt:

I am not sure how to put in to words how I got from the sketch to the completed quilt but it was through trial and error, and lots of experimentation. But I knew I wanted it to be a classroom with a person who looked like my father in the 1970s teaching because he was the one who taught my two siblings and myself the values in Article I. Also I come from a long line of teachers and I wanted to honor education/teaching.

If you know what you want to accomplish with the art quilt, then it helps you have a clearer vision.

Okay that the end of the side bar, so back to the current art quilt in progress….

This time the quilt was inspired by a collection of machine embroidered blocks a friend gave me years ago along with coordinating 10 inch x 10 inch sections of coordinating fabric; as well as a group of fabric printed “trees” I designed and printed years ago in a fabric ink printing class.

What I want to accomplish with this quilt I am still working out. I am thinking through whether I want it to be a deeply personal piece about grief based on the somber colors of the quilt and the tree images, or it if I want it to be more uplifting (or some blend of both).

After I came up with my initial concept/idea/layout, I laid out all the fabrics I’d selected for the piece on my cutting table in my studio:

All the fabrics I am considering laid out on the table

Then I put up a sample of each fabric and the special blocks (the embroidered blocks and the printed trees) up on my studio’s design wall:

One of each laid out on the design wall

Having the fabrics up on the wall helped me think about addition and subtraction (what I need to add to the design as far as fabrics, and what I need to take away) and I decided not to use the gold tinged fabrics in my design. I decided to just stick with muted grays, browns and taupes.

Here is a close up of some of the embroidered blocks I am using in the piece, one of the printed trees, and an example of the cool fabric my friend gave me:

If these fabrics looks familiar (and you’ve been following my blog a long time) I first shared them back in 2018 in a post called What’s Simmering on the Design Wall. But I abandoned the project as something else caught my attention (I guess I let it “simmer” too long and the inspiration evaporated away!).

Here I am with the quilt design right now – I am thinking of a medallion quilt layout…

Okay time to move on to the next question…

What is one thing you do that helps you focus and get rid of all the noise and clutter that come with color, design, prints, etc.?

Writing down my ideas on in my art journal, that is the number one thing that helps me focus. If my ideas change as I play with the fabrics on the design wall or the table I have them laid out upon, then I write down my new ideas.

As far as eliminating “the noise and clutter”, for me that is reduced by having a clear concept of what I want to accomplish (see “SIDE BAR” above).

I usually select a color palette early on in designing a piece. I’ve noticed that I am attracted towards “Southwest” and “Desert” type colors – rusts, beiges, greens, sky blues, etc. and I have repeated that palette in several art quilts. I read somewhere that if artists select a palette that they usually work from it can become a signature of their work.

Here is an example of an early art quilt I did called Central Oregon is Central to Me which uses that palette:

And then you can see I repeated this palette years later in a quilt I made for the WCQN show Yours for Race and Country: Reflections on the Life of Colonel Charles Young”. The name of this piece is Giant Among the Sequoias.

Color is very powerful and I’ve read a couple books about select coloring in the design of quilts. Two that I highly recommend were written by one of my teachers when I lived in Central Oregon – Jean Wells Keenan: Intuitive Color and Design and Journey to Inspired Art Quilting.

It was actually in her Journey to Inspired Art Quilting Workshop series that I took at the Stitchin’ Post in Sister, Oregon that I began the quilt Color Story V: Abandoned Water Structure, which was the first of my art quilts purchased by the City of Seattle for their Portable Works Collection (the City of Seattle now owns 4 of my art quilts made from recycled silks which they rotate through their municipal offices).

If you want to know more about this piece, see my post “Your Body of Water” Exhibit, Seattle Municipal Tower Gallery in which you will see the photo of an actual. abandoned water structure that inspired this piece.

I might be rambling at this point, but I want to take a moment to share two additional major things that have helped me “get rid of all the noise”: 1) reading books about art quilting; and 2) taking classes with experienced art quilters (ongoing workshops are especially helpful – a series of classes with the same instructor helps you build upon concepts learned). You can also find a mentor and that can come from joining either a local or national art quilting group.

You cannot become an art quilter on your own (well maybe you can but I couldn’t) – you need mentors and teachers and it is very helpful to learn some formal art quilting concepts and techniques so you have them in your “tool bag”.

I know I need to take some more in person classes in the future. For now I just read art quilting journals, watch YouTube videos, and read books. So many awesome books have been written by some very talented art quilters!

Now on to the last question.

There are so many complicated variables (in making an art quilt),  how do you start?

See above (smile).

So those were my answers to the three questions:

  1. What do you find successful when you are creating a design? 
  2. What is one thing you do that helps you focus and get rid of all the noise and clutter that come with color, design, prints, etc.?
  3. There are so many complicated variables (in making an art quilt),  how do you start?

I INVITE YOU TO SHARE YOUR ANSWERS AND FEEL FREE TO RAMBLE AS I DID 😉