Saturday, December 03, 2016


I have some hard and fast rules about things Christmassy within my home. There will be no playing of Christmas music, no writing of Christmas cards, no setting out of decorations before the calendar flips to December. I did none of these on December 1st, although as I headed out on errands I realized I needed to switch out the cd's in the car for holiday ones. Instead, there's been a bit of straightening up going on this week, making way in the studio for work on a few Christmas gifts - another basket, a small art quilt, perhaps a fabric postcard. Also a bit of unearthing in the office, where I tend to stack things I've printed or articles I want to reference in a blog post on the futon couch which sits too close to my computer chair. Perhaps if it were a longer reach, I'd just tend to these things right away. Instead, here at the bottom of a pile is a The Artist's Magazine from April 2015 with an article earmarked that I know was on the couch because I wanted to share. (I don't think it has been sitting there that long - I got way behind in my reading of this magazine I subscribe to so likely it has been there just this year.) And that article coincidentally addresses the very thing I've been struggling with regarding this gift of an art quilt.

Just like the candle, or so I thought until I saw it again

It started with spotting a wickless candle (shown at the top) in a catalog. An LED light flickers inside, back lighting the design on the translucent cylinder. It is bare tree branches against a sunset. I am so about trees and immediately envisioned a companion piece made by me that could hang near this candle. The person receiving these would get the connection to one of my artistic signatures. I started looking through my vast archive of photos, knowing I'd taken a photo similar to the image on the candle. There it was, but I'd forgotten that the sky was not the vivid orange.

Playing with camera settings - saturation not true to life

But no matter; I also have ones with that orange sky, taken from my upstairs window, looking out over the houses in my development. Scraggly pine trees poke up above the roofs, I cannot shoot the sky without these other things intruding. While waiting for the candle to arrive, my mind started seeing it like this photo. I started thinking I could take the easy way out and just print one of my photos to fabric, then enhance with some stitching across the sky, up the trunks and out the branches, maybe add a few more trees. Call it "View over Lupine Street". Would leaving the dark corners of the rooftops add or detract? And then a whole lot of insecurities flooded in, mostly about the worry of ruining the printed photo with stitching that might not look right, black thread that would not blend, having to stop and start the sky stitching at the trees, on and on. I got very attached to the photos, did not want to alter them. But if I didn't add stitch, what would be the point of printing on fabric? Why not print on photo paper, frame and be done? Well, because I am a textile artist. Panic and freezing up set in.

Fading colors and scraggly trees - boring now

Then the candle came. I put in batteries to try it out. The sky was not as rich in color as I remembered. It was more like the photo above. I was disappointed, thought the candle must be misrepresented in the catalog and online, and I took another look there. To my surprise, it was my brain that had started to misrepresent it. Worse yet, when I went back to dredge up the reference photos I'd found, they too didn't look like I remembered. By now I'd worked myself away from the idea of printing unaltered photo to fabric, instilling a bit of confidence that I could indeed find an appropriate piece of hand-dyed or batik fabric and do a bit of thread sketching of the trees. But still, I wanted to work from one of my "perfect" photos. And none of them were perfect anymore. I wanted to trace the tree branches onto the fabric so I would "get it right" but the images weren't what had settled in my head. Now I wondered why I ever thought the one with the scrawny pines was compelling as is. I've been set free a bit to pursue that image that has developed over time in my imagination. A scary bit of freedom for me, but one that may lead to something exciting, or at least, more gratifying. And perhaps a throwing away of crutches.

A wider shot of a previous photo - an urge to copy

Which brings me to the article in the magazine. It was about Alyssa Monks who teaches classes in how to "consult photos while creating paintings that have lives of their own." (A rather extensive description of this class can be found here and worth the read.) "The aim of this workshop is to help students create a painting that surpasses the intrigue of the photograph and does not rely heavily on it as an image simply to copy or as a barometer against which to judge the final painting. The painting is its own journey; the photograph is merely a tool in the process." I readily admit, this has been my issue with starting from a photograph, that attachment that leads to copying. I really needed to hear this right now.

Photo-manipulation of snow-covered branches - a step away from preciousness

I remember feeling most uncomfortable when I read this article detailing the process she puts her students through. I would not be starting with a photo if I did not wish to end up with something similar (at least, that's what I tell myself), but Monks is pushing her students to go farther, to almost abandon it or at least look past the obvious details for a more spontaneous rendering, capturing "the essence of the subject and ...the intimacy of the human touch beyond the smooth photo-realistic image." She ends up doing a lot of layering which obliterates in a way that "helps create atmosphere and lessens the preciousness of the drawing." Ah yes, the preciousness factor. My precious original photo.

A different orientation - which way should I go?

But this particular piece I want to make is inspired not just by my photos but by that candle, and in some way needs to be fairly similar if this will work as I intend, as side by side companion pieces. I can see now that I need not copy, but I do need to have something similar. And I can see the wisdom of Monks' final words in the article: "Once the medium and material are understood, the photograph holds you back as it influences too strongly toward a specific and limited finish. Too heavy a reliance on it disallows for much creativity or discovery, hindering the flow of experimentation beyond merely copying and honing a skill. For this workshop, my goal was to help you see the possibilities and to move beyond the photograph into invention and imagination and more discovery. That's what we enjoy about seeing and making art when the craft is inevitably no longer satisfying on its own." 

A different kind of tree shot from a different perspective - potential!

As I thought more about how to approach this little piece, I did experience that inevitable spark of variations I could pursue. Granted, it was partially in response to an attempt at a cavalier attitude should my initial attempt end up badly. My skills are fairly honed (but in some cases rusty) at this point, so it should be no surprise that my mind flits from technique to technique, format and finishing options, and perhaps to things I've not tried. I need to keep fear in its proper place and approach this with curiosity. As Monks says, "There are amazing discoveries that will only happen if you let go of your expectations. I like to paint something just because I'm curious enough about what it would look like made of paint." And isn't that what drives so many of us working with fiber, that thought of how we can capture something in our own medium of fabric and stitch? It's our curiosity that begins our journey, and our letting go of expectations that allows us to go fabulous places with it. I may not go far down this particular path of working with this tree image, but I am a bit more ready to give it a go.        


The Inside Stori said...

A very enjoyable and informative post Sheila….thank you for expanding my creativity with this new approach

Chris said...

Oh my goodness....what to do? Painting is a good option, but I think I would sketch the trees first to see how much detail would be needed. The trees in the photo have a ton of branches. Painting is certainly an easier technique than appliqué. If I was going to paint them on my "good" sky fabric I would be vey nervous. I might even try that out on a scrap piece of fabric. I do like the vertical composition more than the horizontal one. I will put your photo in fragment app and send to you.