Saturday, February 27, 2010

Lights of Las Vegas

"What is important is to keep learning, to enjoy challenge, and to tolerate ambiguity. In the end there are no certain answers."
Martina Horner

I'm not sure I enjoyed every part of this challenge, but I did keep learning while working through the process. I was reminded as I so often am that when working with quilts as my medium, there are indeed no certain answers, but many options that might work equally well. The key is to remain flexible and open, taking cues from one's source of inspiration, not becoming married to it. I tried the mantra, "It's only fabric," and I am getting so much better about cutting into "special" pieces, and more importantly, discarding them for something else if they are not working as anticipated. I still cannot discount my time invested, so after a certain point I find I cannot abandon a piece that is going awry. Giving up is not in my nature; I must work through to a satisfactory resolution, and many times I am so glad that I did.

Case in point: I could see that the bottom portion of the quilt was lacking definition - those squiggly lines merging into a more or less equal value section. Mere quilting would not pull out the separate sections, yet the individual colors were exactly what I wanted. To define them better, I used a rayon embellishment (narrow tube or braid) from a collection of Oliver Twist "One Offs'." I've used this before, stitching it down with a zigzag and didn't like how it changed the look of the braid. Although very narrow, I decided I could straight stitch down the center with invisible thread and maintain the flat look of the braid. Although a rather slow process, it worked!

The sky also needed more than just quilting to make it balance better with the rest of the design, and I happened to have that same braid in blue. I liked the idea of bringing the curves of the lower section up between the straightness of the rays by quilting the braid in an undulating line. The whole thing has an art deco feel to it, which seems appropriate for thoughts of Las Vegas.

It was easy to apply the braid along the edge of an applique piece, but I needed a guideline in this sky section. I drew it on using a Clover White Marking pen. I've used this before on quilts I knew I would wash, but this is the first time I've tested its claim to disappear with the heat of an iron. By golly, it does just that. I have my training wheels, I mean my walking foot on, and I was surprised how easily I could guide the braid and hold it in place with the tip of my seam ripper while the walking foot assured that there'd be no "snow plowing" or shifting of the quilt top. In places where I was not applying braid, I used either a navy thread or a dark invisible thread, all with the walking foot on.

So it is done...I think. As I studied it this morning, I wonder if I should run more navy quilting lines in the side triangles. And I haven't quite decided if this will go in a black frame like some of the others in this challenge, or if I will bind it. I'm leaning towards a dark blue binding, applied above through the magic of Paint Shop Pro. The plum is also an option, as well as something similar to the off-white & brown accent fabric. What do you think?

And again, for comparison sake, here is June's inspiration, "Seeing Las Vegas 2". All pictures click to a larger version.

Related posts chronicling how I got from June's painting to my finished piece:

Breaking a Block
February challenge progress
Bit of a breakthrough

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Bit of a Breakthrough

As you probably gathered from my posts about June's challenge, I've been struggling and frustrated with executing my concept. I could barely do anything on it yesterday I was so depressed about how it was going. As I dropped off to sleep last night, I told myself I could not waste anymore time. Today was a totally free day, so I promised myself, one way or another, I'd finish the thing today. I woke early (a good omen), and continued my mulling over morning coffee. I was ready to run from the challenge, to junk this and start on something totally different. An easier (hopefully) but more predictable idea I had early on. But I gave myself a stern talking to, a pep talk as it were, and it worked. In the studio earlier than usual, I pushed through the unpleasant parts, focusing on the immediate task at hand instead of focusing on my worries about the outcome. I added the accent applique to the top portion, taped off the finished size of the quilt on my cutting mat, and positioned the top and bottom so that I could add those side triangles and everything be square. It's tricky keeping things lined up when you're not working with a grid pattern and this worked better than any other method I've tried.

I was already feeling better about the piece when I started this morning, but the real turn-around came as I was contemplating how to add some patterning to those side triangles. I wasn't sure I wanted to cut narrow pieces of fabric, but I also wasn't sure just quilting thread would do enough. Then I noticed the squiggly bit of dark blue that I'd cut out from under those applique shapes between the sky and sides. I free hand cut strips following the general curves of the cut-off, laid them over the plum and liked what I saw. I tried one in the dark purple I thought I would use, but it simply didn't contrast enough. I pinned these in place, appliqued them down with a zigzag stitch and invisible thread, gave it all a good press and layered it up for quilting.

Remember me saying I was working too hard, thinking too hard? Today, I was just doing, observing, noticing what was at hand, acting on gut feelings. Once those dark lines were added, I realized what was bothering me so much before. The design as I was rendering it in fabric had lost the energy of the original computer-generated design, and I had lost my energy too. Now the energy was back, both the design's and mine. I wish the colors photographed better but I think the photo does show how there's a lack of definition in the lower part. I have an idea for the quilting that should solve that and with any luck, really bring this design alive. Again, wish me luck!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

February challenge progress

I bandied about several approaches to working with June's painting, but try as I did to break from the landscape image, I ended up right back with my photo-manipulated landscapey designs. Above you see the one I chose (printed in grey scale at full size) along with the fabric I chose for the "sky." I wanted to render the rays with thread painting, and since I planned to do this with the feed dogs up, I reasoned that starching the fabric and pinning it to a starched piece of muslin would be sufficient stabilization.

Here I'm auditioning fabrics that might go in the lower portion as well as threads for the rays. If you click on the picture, you might be able to make out the soapstone markings to guide my stitching.

I used just three colors of thread for my rays - the pink is an Oliver Twist hand-dyed cotton; the other two are King Tut variegated cotton thread. As you can see, I was wrong about the starching and muslin foundation being enough stabilization.
In retrospect, I'm not sure why I thought it would be. I only know that I didn't want to back this with a heavy interfacing as has become my habit, or use a tearaway or water soluble stabilizer. There's quite a bit of distortion and pulling up that I was unable to press out, even with steam. But I still think it is salvageable.

Time to move on to the lower portion. I'm trying a collage approach (or at least, that's how I'm thinking of it) to avoid using fusible web. To get the shapes, I'm using a take-off on a Suzanne Marshall applique method she dubs "takeaway applique." Your pattern is traced or printed onto ordinary paper and one section cut out. Trace around the paper section-turned-template placed on the appropriate fabric and cut out. By placing the uncut portion of the pattern into place, it is easy to position the applique shape by lining it up in the place where the pattern was "taken away." Hope that made some sense - it's really a handy lining up method.

The rust fabric is my base but in the center of my design there's a different color. Here you see that I've cut a rectangle of that different fabric and positioned the applique shapes on it so that I can deal with this as a separate unit. I stitched along the inner curve of the applique with invisible thread, then trimmed away the plum batik close to the stitching. I have to admit that I'm struggling with this color palette, at least as it was presented in the photo manipulation. and may or may not be represented in my fabric stash. I kept wanting to tend toward more peachy tones and had to remind myself that I didn't have to stay true to the printout. I knew I needed to darken the value of the side triangles and it was on the third time through my stash that this plum batik emerged as a possibility. There's hints of it in the rust batik. I think I need to incorporate some of the darker purple (on the right) with it to get the right balance. It actually looks like it works much better in real life than the way the camera presents it.

But first, it's time to finish up the bottom portion. Once my center unit was prepared, I decided to break from my careful positioning of the other pieces and work from the center out. Plus I decided I liked the back side of the rust batik better. Using my original printout as a visual guide, I eyeballed the placements and pinned them down. I'd intended to use a straight stitch in invisible thread along the raw edges, but opted for a narrow zigzag instead. Had all my fabrics been the tightly woven batiks, the straight stitch would have been ok, but the browns are a looser weave and I could see fraying was going to be a problem. Yes, one minute I can loosen up, the next I'm back to my normal up-tightness. Once everything was stitched down, I could cut away the excess base batik on the upper left and right.

Enough for today. This has been much more work than I'd anticipated. My brain doesn't seem to be on board with this project and I'm thinking hard when confronted with fabric and technique choices. It is not flowing, it is not going quickly, and at each step I see more that will have to be done or resolved in order for this to be effective and really work. I hope I can get there.

Friday, February 19, 2010

I really must stop...

I wish I could say my focus has been razor sharp the last two weeks, but that has not been so. This past week has been a little more focused than the week before, but I really find it hard to be productive with the Winter Olympics as constant backdrop. And once I start playing in Paint Shop Pro...well, it's like eating potato chips, only there's no bottom to this bag. In the process of printing out a full size pattern in multiple sections, I suddenly saw a new image emerge because of the crop. Wow, rushing to Las Vegas, I thought.

And look what happens when I rotated the design I felt was off balance value-wise. The rays I thought of as emanating from the distant Las Vegas became streams of traffic headed into Las Vegas. So many options, so little time.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


I'm still playing with June's image as altered in Paint Shop Pro, & am getting closer to a final design. A part of me would like to print one of these manipulations out on a piece of fabric and embellish with thread, but that feels like it would be skipping a step. I'm very close to pulling some fabric and giving a bit of fabric collaging a go. The latest play involve overlaying part of one manipulation over another. It's a start.

I thought those two points angling across another design would be interesting but it wasn't as pleasing as I thought. Guess I'm too into symmetry because adding another set angling the other direction across the ribbon-like rays pleased me more. I also rotated it as I see more of a landscape image that direction.

And I wondered what it would look like if it was tiled like quilt blocks set side by side. Pretty cool. But doesn't fit the theme I'm working with.

Next I considered removing the points at the top and layering it over another manipulation. Here it is over the straight rays that look part of a sky.

I liked this manipulation as the sky too, and in this version stretched the image to fit a new landscape orientation. I'm really drawn to this one.

Finally, I took my two favorite versions and changed them to grey scale. This confirms what I was sensing that the one with the rays is unbalanced in terms of values. I'd definitely use different colors/values in those side parts. We'll see which version wins out over the next few days. Oh, and I suppose I should show you June's painting (called Seeing Las Vegas 2) that started all this:

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Filling the Space

From an article in the January issue of Smithsonian Magazine comes this Australian Aboriginal art "Big Cave Dreaming with Ceremonial Object" by Mick Namararri Tjapaltjarri. As a quilter, I recognize many of the filler motifs as ones frequently used to quilt contemporary quilts. I found the variety fascinating and a wonderful lesson in how to fill space with marks. Click on the picture for a larger view to study the details. Read the article "Painted Dreams" by Arthur Lubow to learn more and view more Aboriginal art.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Breaking a Block

Sometimes it's not good to be too enamored of a piece of art whose purpose is to provide inspiration for your own original piece. I love the painting June has sent along to provide my February challenge inspiration and, as a result, find my creative musings over it are stuck in a rut.

A little play in Paint Shop Pro can often break that block by letting the random effects modes pick and choose colors from the painting and arrange them in surprising ways.

The kaleidoscope reflection effect remains my favorite, and I saved over 20 different versions.

Would you think that any of these versions started as a desert landscape, let alone the same desert landscape? They are definitely helping me to think beyond the obvious.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

It's Valentine's Day

Hope someone special has made your day full of delights (or perhaps you are the giver of delights!). This cupid pin belonged to my mother and I thought it would be fun to wear it today. Mom was a true romantic and so sentimental. She loved holidays and all that went along with celebrating them, including wearing holiday-specific jewelry. I believe my father gave this to her in the 1950's. If the brothers know differently, please let me know.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Recapturing Focus

I really lost my focus last week, allowing too many distractions to get me off-track until I ended the week in a heap of "I give up." Hate it when that happens, endeavoring to do better this week. What that ultimately meant was that I did not get as much quilting done on the nephew's wedding quilt as intended. It didn't even make it into the sewing room until Friday, at which point I procrastinated with testing stitches longer than necessary. Oh, just DO it! And so I did. It wasn't long until I was reminded that there is enjoyment even in machine quilting (and since this part is being done with a programmed stitch and walking foot, I'm in more of a comfort zone than if I were free motioning). This is the final chance to go slowly over every inch of your creation, to soak in the beauty of each individual fabric and its interaction with surrounding fabrics, to following the intricacies of the pieced or appliqued design. It can become a meditative process, not just grunt work. I thought about my last post on barriers and the way the subconscious can talk us into avoiding what can be a positive experience by convincing us it will be negative. I thought about how focus can help narrow the conversation with the subconscious, telling it that all that old info isn't applicable to the current situation. Focus can help block the undermining fear or dread.

I'm worried again about running out of the Oliver Twist thread I've been using, (ok, so I can't block out all the fear) so rather than stitch those serpentine lines through all the diamonds in a star point before moving to the next star point, I'm doing a few rows in a point then moving on to the next point to quilt the matching rows. That way, if I have to finish with a slightly different thread, it will be uniformly spread, not clumped in one area, and thus, less noticeable. I started by quilting down the center row of diamonds and then down the rows on either side of each star point. You can see the squiggles in the yellow fabric, and if you click for the larger picture, you may be able to spot them in the darker diamonds. I'll methodically continue working my away around the star points until all the diamond rows have been quilted, something I should be able to accomplish by the end of the week (if I don't lose my focus).

Part of my dithering was about that dark thread in the yellow fabric, my usual timidity coming to the fore. Buoyed by the results of my bold thread decision on the January challenge piece, I threw my usual caution to the wind and let fly. The squiggles echo those not only in the yellow fabric but in some of the dark blue fabric as well. I think it helps integrate the yellow a bit more into the overall design.

Saturday, February 06, 2010


Here are my daily sketches from January, my self-made sketchbooks unfolded and laid flat. As you can see, when you cut and fold a piece of paper in this style, the images on every other row are upside down. If any are worth framing, you can cut them free, nothing having been drawn on the reverse side. I'll be keeping mine as books and may fuse something around the outside and over the "spine" as well as applying a little glue to the backs of pages so that they stay together better.

Did I actually sketch every day? Almost. There were a few days when for whatever reason, the day got away from me and I didn't make the time. But when that happened, I'd catch up as soon as I could, doing two in one day. About halfway through the month, I noticed that I was reflexively reaching for the sketchbook instead of reminding myself it was something I had to do. It was becoming a habit, not a chore, and a welcomed one at that. I had that brief period when I resisted drawing because I couldn't find an interesting subject and didn't want to be drawing just to draw. But that passed when I found a book full of stimulating pictures (see this post). Sometimes I would know as soon as I'd completed one drawing, what I wanted to try the next day. Other times, something would just present itself when I was ready to sit down with sketchbook and pencil. Some days the drawing was quick, other days I'd find several hours had passed while I added details, shading, color.

I was right about the value of having a dedicated sketchbook for this exercise, but I didn't figure out why it was helping me sketch every day until the month was nearly over. I'd been looking down the bike trail, trying to burn the image into my brain so I could use it in an exercise on value. But later, when I sat with the sketchbook, I momentarily froze. My brain was saying that this was the wrong sketchbook to be doing this in. This sketchbook was for copying from a picture, not from memory. I almost got up and pulled out my regular sketchbook where I work out design ideas (as part of the purpose of choosing this scene was to work out perspective issues). And that's when I realized I'd been subconsciously compartmentalizing my sketching into practicing and "the real thing" - designing, and for some reason, I didn't think the two could co-exist in the same book. I knew at that moment why I had not been sketching more often. The old subconscious was putting up barriers based on the invalid premise that if the sketch wasn't coming directly out of my imagination, it didn't belong in that book. But it was ok to do the "workbook" kind of sketching in a workbook, but only if I had free time. Silly but true. It reminded me of how regimented I can be, how hung up I can get on the task-specific function of items to the exclusion of considering they might also function in other surprising ways. How I even stop myself from working on something because it isn't the "right" time of the day. So often I don't even realize I'm doing this.

This got me thinking about what else my subconscious was keeping me from doing that I very much want to do. I thought about the collection of silk ties and other silks in a drawer that I had every intention of using last year but didn't. I thought about the hand quilting on the wedding quilt that I finally got back to last month. I thought about a piece of painted fabric that I've known for a very long time how to exploit, yet continue to avoid taking the first step. Why do I keep avoiding working on these and other seemingly benign things?

This procrastination, I decided, has nothing to do with regimentation, but more with dread borne of memory. The silks are not ready to use, the ties still needing to be taken apart and interfaced - a lengthy and tedious process. My excitement in using them immediately wanes when I remember this. The wedding quilt is big and heavy, a wrestling match to get to some of the areas, the needle hard to manipulate through the layers. And it has a lot of white in it. I instinctively remember the body aches and finger pricks of previous sessions and the fear of getting something on those white areas that will not come out. I never think of the enjoyment the rhythmic quilting gives me once I get going on it, or the motifs as they emerge until I am actually in the midst of doing it. And that piece of painted cloth? It is the fact that I cannot reproduce it coupled with past failures that makes me hesitate to begin. I never think of all my successes, the similar projects that have gone well. My subconscious won't let me. It tells me to fear ruining irreplaceable cloth, not forge ahead to reap the rewards of my experience.

So I'm putting my subconscious on notice. At least I'm going to try. I'm tired of it ruining my fun, so I'm telling it to butt out the next time I want to try something and it can only think of negative things to say.

Monday, February 01, 2010

January Challenge

12 x 16 Art Quilt
Sheila Mahanke Barnes copyright 2010

June and I have resumed our monthly challenge - creating an original work in our respective mediums one month to serve as inspiration to the other for the next month. This is my January challenge to June which I've been working on the past week or so. (And you thought I'd been slacking off on the art quilt stuff, didn't you?) As per our parameters, it is 12 x 16 inches and is mounted in a black gallery frame. There's a lot going on here, believe it or not.

The inspiration for this came back when I was working on "Emily Carr Skies." While working out the sky pattern, I had to be very careful of value because of the different tree fabrics I'd used. In one of those "duh" moments, it occurred to me how much easier it would have been if the trunks had all been white. So I made a mental note that next time I worked with tree trunks, I would try the white trunks set against a blue sky. The idea appealed as a subject for our challenge. I had a big enough piece of sun-printed fabric leftover from "Jockeying in the Queue" for a background (albeit not a solid blue one) and set it aside for this project. The trunks could come from my string drawer.

Sometimes I am able to cut my trees on the bias and not worry about fraying or shaping with scissors, but since I was using up strip scraps, I decided I'd better fuse them on. I'm still not crazy about Misty Fuse, but have it around and keep hoping it will behave in the way that makes everyone else love it. I applied it to three of the "strings" but to my surprise, I was able to get all of my trunks out of the larger wedge shaped piece. I've never been comfortable cutting shapes free-hand, but decided to just go for it here since I had so little to lose. I visualized hard, placed a pin where I thought I should quit cutting and went for it. That cutout piece had nice curves to follow for the next cuts, and I trimmed a little off the outside of the first forked tree shape too. As I said, it provided all the trunks I needed and I must admit I did enjoy just cutting as I went along rather than drawing everything out beforehand. The only guide I allowed was a chalked line around the outside to indicate the approximate dimensions of the piece. If you click on the picture for the larger view, you can just make it out.

Here I've overlaid my paper "window" to get a better idea of how my placement is going. The fabric is resting on my June Tailor cut and press so that I don't have to disturb anything when it's time to fuse the trunks down. It also allows me to place a straight pin in each trunk to prevent undue shifting during the design process. This is looking pretty good, but a transformation is about to happen.

I had made another connection while working on "Emily Carr Skies." Standing on the bike trail looking up at a stand of trees and noting the great contrast of the white against the blue skies, I noticed something else. There was quite a shadow running along one side of all the trunks and branches. I seriously don't remember noticing this before and wondered how I had missed it. Maybe I see it now because of some of the exercises from my drawing class. Maybe I was just primed to notice it because of what I'd been working on. No matter, now I saw it and knew it was just the thing that could improve my naturalistic designs. I even considered adding shadow to the Carr trees, but thought better of it. Save it for the January challenge.

The shadow is applied with a satin stitch. This would not be the only way to do this, but since Misty Fuse doesn't keep the edges of applique from fraying, I was going to have to stitch along those edges anyway. I considered several close rows of straight stitch along the length, or that with back and forth lines of straight stitch over it like cross hatching, but both of those options struck me as timid and not able to give the coverage I knew this look demanded. I also considered using a Sulky grey & black rayon twist, but again, after stitching up a sample, I knew that was my careful conservative nature wanting to be safe. I thought about what Felicity had recently said about her own timid use of color and the decision to be brave to bring more vivid color to her work like an artist she admired. You're right, Felicity, I thought. I too make timid decisions all the time and then wonder why I am disappointed in the results. This time I will be bold and do that stitching in black. I was not disappointed this time. I also ran satin stitching along the other edge but in white so it is more functional than decorative. This was all done before layering for quilting (the background fabric being stabilized with Decor Bond before stitching). The fine black line you see in the picture is the quilting, and mimics what else I observed from those trees along the bike trail. In real life, there was a dark outline on the sun side of the trees.

I would have liked to have stopped right there with the quilting, but even with a thin batting of Thermore, that sky needed some stitching to make it look right. I don't know what you see in that background fabric, but I could see the swooping boughs of pine trees, so basically stitched along the places where green and blue meet.

Could I have added more to this art quilt? I'm sure I could have, but there was plenty going on anyway (in terms of trying ideas out if nothing else) and sometimes keeping it simple is best. Besides, any additional ideas can be played out in the next quilt. I'd really like to pull off the sensation of looking up into the trees rather than straight at them, and I don't think I managed that here.