Saturday, January 21, 2017


Willow Leaves II - Sheila Mahanke Barnes 2007
Brace yourself - this is a long one. I had several lightbulb moments last year. I find these can be one of two kinds, either an "aha!" moment when a bit of information or visual input helps all the other pieces fall into place such that I finally understand what ever it is I've been struggling with, or the head-slap "duh!" one when I realize the information was right in front of me the whole time, and I can't believe I did not see this before.

The one I'm sharing today is of the later. I was reading yet another blog post about the basics of good design when it hit. The author stated that even abstract art needs a focal point, maybe several, be it a shape, a color, something. But of course (head-slap). And how many times have I read that same advice about creating a focal point? Numerous, to be sure.

As the lightbulb glowed, I realized this answered two questions I'd been struggling with for years: 1. What is it about so many art quilts that leave me cold and unimpressed as I view what looks like whatever was on the floor tossed on a background and stitched down, or a dozen clever techniques combined with little rhyme or reason? 2. What is it about several of my own quilts that leaves me uneasy and unsatisfied? The answer to both being, NO FOCAL POINT. 

In the case of my own problematic quilts, I realized that without focal point, what I had created was not so much a piece of art as a pleasing piece of wallpaper. And sure enough, when I went searching for that post mentioned above, I discovered that someone had already made this connection and blogged about it back in 2015 - Elizabeth Barton - who gives excellent advice on how to avoid the wallpaper look. I'm sure I read it when first posted but didn't make the connection to my own pieces. My years as a traditional quilter may be partly to blame. It's rare that a bed quilt really needs a focal point, although medallion-style designs create one by virtue of a centered main motif surrounded by one or more borders. Things that might fall into the category of decorative art also might not need a focal point - think wearable art, hand-bags and totes, padfolios and fabric bowls, placemats and tablerunners. Again, they might have a focal point but it isn't necessary to their visual appeal. But if it is going up on the wall as a piece of art, whether representational or abstract, it will really benefit from having a focal point.

Willow Leaves I - 2005
I think I've been more concerned with other aspects when creating my more abstract pieces, primarily balance. Years ago I worked on an idea inspired by willow leaves scattered on the pavement after a rain. I'm fuzzy on the details of this first one but I'm pretty sure I marked leaf placements on the background before freemotion embroidering them. I know I spent a lot of time and angst on arrangement to avoid repeats in angles, then equal time in color placement. The leaves certainly do look scattered, but I don't think you can say there's a focal point. This piece did sell, and I was glad to see it go because I was never fully happy with my composition. My second try seen at the beginning of this post, came out better I think, and I do really like this version, done by using actual willow leaves to stamp the image onto the background with acrylic paint. Still, I've always viewed it with furrowed brow, sensing something was lacking. Oh yes, a focal point.

Bishop's Close Meditations 2009
Here's my other piece that always bugged me. I was attempting to do an abstract of a painting of Bishop's Close in Portland OR by June Underwood. We had challenged each other to create original works that then would be the inspiration to the other for a second piece. I was so dissatisfied with this piece that I did a second, more representational piece to counter my disappointment. You can read about both of the quilts and find links to the challenge here and here. I don't know if anything could have saved this piece, but if nothing else, I think if I'd grouped together smaller versions of the "meditations" floating upward, I could have created a focal point to make it more interesting and less wall-papery.

So really, abstract art isn't easy to design. Wassily Kandinsky said, "Of all the arts, abstract painting is the most difficult. It demands that you know how to draw well, that you have a heightened sensitivity for composition and for color, and that you be a true poet. This last is essential." David Hockney goes farther: "All painting, no matter what you are painting, is abstract in that it's got to be organized." In other words, as Sara Genn continued in an e-newsletter in 2014, "Balance, vibration, weighting, form and eye control, mastery of colour, areas of visual excitement and areas of paucity, grey to rest the eye and gradations: These design elements, when intuitively understood, can create a stand-alone magic. In abstraction, this intuition gets your work into the "best" pile." Oh, my poor Meditations quilt is so lacking in these!    

I more recently ran across a link that sent me to this: 5 Art Lessons from Bauhaus Master Paul Klee. Although the following quotation doesn't reference focus per se, it does once again, reinforce that abstract art isn't anything goes, but needs thought and observation from the real world. 
When Klee hosted classes in his home, he often required that students spend time observing the tropical fish in his large aquarium. The artist would turn the lights on and off, coaxing the fish to swim and hide, while encouraging students to carefully take note of their activity.

For those who know Klee as the “father of abstract art,” this lesson may seem surprising. However, Klee was deeply concerned with creating movement in his compositions. And he asserted that all artworks—even the most abstract—should be inspired by nature. “Follow the ways of natural creation, the becoming, the functioning of forms,” he taught his students. “Then perhaps starting from nature you will achieve formations of your own, and one day you may even become like nature yourself and start creating.”
I love this idea of learning how to create movement in a design by observing nature. If nothing else it validates all the time I spend taking photos and looking closely and sketching the natural world around me. This also reminds me of something Picasso said along the lines of you have to know what something looks like and can draw a realistic version before you can draw an abstract version of it. Whether that thing becomes your focal point or not, your composition best include one (or more) somewhere.

Azalea Mosaic 3 - In The Garden - Sheila Mahanke Barnes 2009
As I've written this post, I've taken a look through my quilt files to remind me of my abstract efforts. I have many that I think work fairly well, partly based on whether my initial reaction when the photo pops up is one of cringe or unease, or relaxed and smiling. I've tried then to take the ones that please me the most and see how they stand up to the design criteria mentioned throughout this post. I think my most successful are from my Azalea Mosaics series (1: still in progress; 2: Garden Path; 3: In The Garden; 4: Broken Promises - below; 5: Slippery Slope). I love how each turned out, but especially "In The Garden" and "Broken Promises". It was intuitive work which doesn't always end well for me, but with each one, I felt like I knew where I was going and when I'd arrived. I'd love to capture that again, maybe in my long dreamed of water series, and avoid making just wallpaper!

Broken Promises - Sheila Mahanke Barnes 2009



Living to work - working to live said...

You should be an art critic - and I mean that in a very positive way. You read; you have a real intellectual approach to art whereas I just crack on. You're super critical of yourself and I started out thinking " oh Sheila, why be so hard on yourself because these are good" but by the end I was reading this more as a piece of real 'criticism' or perhaps it would be truer to say 'comment'. Your writing and critical talents are fabulous.

Feel free to critique some of my work. I love what you write!

Should I send you a photo of something you could comment on?

H xxx

The Inside Stori said...

What a well thought out post….thank you for digging deep and sharing your observations along with those of the renowned artists you mentioned.

Chris said...

This is such a good and thoughtful blog. I will have to check out all of your links. I do remember the one from EB. We certainly don't want to make wallpaper. I think the lack of focal point is why I don't like some abstract the ones where a canvas is painted all black or white. And I don't mean different shades of black. I mean solid black.

Now I will have to begin to look at my quilts and see if they have focal points. I already suspect that some do not or some have more than one which did not aid the design. And since I have not made that many abstract quilts yet I am talking about things like landscape quilts.

Thanks for your post.

The Idaho Beauty said...

Oh Hilary, you make me blush! But you can't imagine how much I appreciate your praise, and that you stuck with my writing and understood my point. Often it is more difficult to see what is good or bad in one's own work than in someone elses work, especially if the world is trying to console you by telling you how great it is even when you know something's off. So yes, if you'd like to send me something to critique, I'd be willing to give it a try. My goal is always to learn and then make better work, and to help others improve too if they are open to it. BTW, nothing wrong with cracking on - I really should do more of that!

The Idaho Beauty said...

Thanks, Mary and Chris. When I have these epiphanies and run across such good information, I'm happy I have a place to share it and readers who appreciate it. :-) Chris, I bet you will find many of your quilts will have a focal point, especially if you accept the broader definition that includes anything that catches the eye and holds it there, which could just as easily be a line of shapes, a splash of color, or a highlighted windmill. I found it a good exercise to review photos of my quilts with an eye toward focal points.

Lucia Sasaki said...

Dear Sheila, thanks to your "long" update!
I liked it very much, it is so good to have this kind of insight in the beginning of the year!
You and your art inspire me so much because you show that art, as the life is a path and a learning process and it is so good to see the art made years ago and seeing that is possible to improve.
I liked your picture of the leaves (the first picture).
Thanks a lot!

The Idaho Beauty said...

Thank you Lucia! Glad you liked this post and found it helpful. I too really do like that first quilt of leaves, even if it DOES lack a true focal point. Maybe some day I'll return to this idea - I had meant to make more than just two of these, work in a series trying different ways of rendering the leaves before working up the design that would look more like a street scene. I've still got fabric and notes set aside! I think I've got too many ideas. ;-)