ELAINE QUEHL, Quilt Artist, Teacher, Dyer, Designer

Sunday, June 3, 2012

My Favorite Design Tool and A Word About Design

Ten years ago when I decided to make art quilts I had a huge hurdle to overcome.  I didn't know a thing about composition and design.  Every time I present my Retrospective digital presentation to guilds around the country I have the opportunity to see the evolution of my work since the early years, as the images get displayed on the screen.  Now I can look back and often see how I might have improved many of my designs.  I consider every one of my works as practice pieces that were a necessary part of the learning process.  As with any other skill, learning about composition and design takes practice, and this is still the area I feel I have the most to learn. 

I'd like to share with you my favorite design tool, that I have come to depend on over the last several years.  No, it isn't original or unique to me, but is a common artist tool for cropping compositions.  It is just two L-shaped pieces of cardboard that are used as a view-finder.  They help to isolate compositions.  They can overlap to isolate a small area, or expand to take in a larger area.

Below is an example of how I use this viewfinder, moving it around to hone in on a better composition. 

Often I use a more virtual viewfinder.  What I mean by this is that I use an on-line cropping tool to hone in on compositions.  That is exactly what I did for the following design.  I first used the photo below as inspiration for a quilt called "Standing Ovation", as the hostas appeared to me to be standing up and clapping.
I made the quilt below based on this photo.

However, there was a section of the above photo, just a bit in from the right-hand side, that really intrigued me.  I played with the cropping tool in Microsoft Photo Manager, and isolated the following composition.  Why?  Because I loved the flow and the diagonal nature of the composition, which implied movement.
That cropped section of the original photograph was the inspiration for my quilt "In the Act", which won a Judges Choice Award last week at Quilt Canada.

Here are just two examples of how I struggled with composition when I was a new art quilter.  Below you see Flower Power 1 and Flower Power 2, made in 2001.  Flower Power 1 was made before I knew anything about design.  There is confusion about what the focal point is.  Is it the three bright yellow flowers that make your eye jump around the piece, or is it the larger red flower in the centre?  One can't be sure.  Normally a focal point is the aspect of a work of art that draws your eye first.  Well the larger motif draws your eye, but so do the three small ones, perhaps even more.  Moreover, a focal point placed dead centre results in a very static piece.
After putting in a little effort to learn a bit about composition and design, I made Flower Power 2 below.  This time my largest flower is also my lightest and brightest flower, so there is no confusion about what the focal point is.  It is also placed slightly off-centre, to avoid the static centre position.  The eye first is attracted by the large yellow flower and then moves around to explore the rest of the design.  Would I put in the bright checkered border today?  Not very likely, as it competes for attention.  In fact, I might avoid a border altogether now.

I'm not so sure about the composition below either.  I do know that at the time I made Sweetlips, I was preoccupied with design.  I wanted to make this piece look like a natural slice of the Caribbean ocean.  So I included very carefully placed fishtails moving off the left edge.  Maybe it does give a sense of movement, but it also competes with the fish faces of the Sweetlips fish.  With only the three fish faces, the viewer's eye would have been drawn to them first, and moved in a diagonal direction from upper left corner to lower left.  Again, that would have implied a sense of movement.

To learn a little more about design, I read a lot of books and made a lot of work.  Practice, practice, practice!  Here are two of my favorite books.  The first one I use in my 5-6 day Art Quilt class.  I encourage students to read it prior to class.  It is a good basic introduction to design, but I also love the encouraging tone of the book.

I really like the book below as well, as there are a few tidbits that make you question conventional wisdom about good design.  A few surprises thrown in that basic books just don't deal with.

Another activity that helped me learn a little bit more about design was the purchase and viewing of art magazines.  I think that seeing how artists put compositions together helps train the eye.  You could get the same benefit from visiting galleries, although I confess that isn't a frequent activity of mine.  I always feel a bit overstimulated, as though I have ADD when I walk through a gallery.  I'm much better being able to sit down with a book, magazine, or website.  


  1. My design books are the most important tool I own. I never stop studying them. Before every project I read over the chapters I need to review. I wish more art quilt beginners could study design. Of course, it is a big subject, as you know.

    1. Very big subject indeed Judy. Making art is about practicing design for the rest of your life! There are certainly lots of resources available for those who are interested. A one day class just barely even scratches the surface, so one needs to add self-study.



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