Design Advice to Improve Your Art

kinard treesTeaching workshops at last month's Cloth Paper Scissors CREATE art retreat just proved to me once again how much I love to share techniques. There's something so satisfying about watching someone create something, like a screen print, for the first time. Their whole body seems to light up with joy and accomplishment. 

One of the reasons why I enjoy teaching techniques is because it offers instant gratification–like eating a delicious piece of chocolate. One bite, and you feel the pleasant effects immediately. On the other hand, teaching–and learning–design principles is a little more like eating your vegetables. I mean, I love a great salad, but it's the long-term health benefits I'm after.

But design principles are to art what vegetables are to your diet: they may take longer to digest, but they're essential for achieving optimal beauty and function.

When people ask me questions about design principles and strategies, I usually defer to the experts. One of my mainstays is the "Art Design Primer" series by Lyric Kinard that appeared in Quilting Arts Magazine during 2006 and 2007

expanded squareI consider Lyric's series the gold standard for explaining the basic principles of design and how to apply them to art quilting. Written with Lyric's trademark wit, these articles are loaded with imagery and examples to help you understand the concepts. Each one ends with a list of fun exercises to help you practice and explore each concept. For example, here are Lyric's exercises for establishing space, motion, and rhythm in fiber art for you to try:

  • Play with the size and placement of several shapes and create the illusion of depth.
  • Use a vanishing point at the horizon line to create a simple landscape with perspective.
  • Create a piece that implies motion with angled lines.
  • Use your stitching and perhaps some paint to create a piece depicting movement.
  • Create an artwork that depicts the rhythm of your favorite song.
  • Visually interpret the sound of a train or Pachelbel's "Canon in D".

In looking over the issues that include the Art Design Primer articles, I noticed there are several other series on design principles and strategies that cross over the same issues of Quilting Arts. In "The Art of Abstraction," Liz Berg shows how to strip images down to their basic elements of line and shape to create abstract designs.

In the "Design Tools" series, surface designer Jane Dunnewold shares many of her tricks for creating visual elements using simple concepts. I especially like her article on using the expanded square to make intricate patterns.

One of my favorite series we've ever done is "Notions to Consider" by innovative mother-daughter team Linda and Laura Kemshall. From their methods of using a sketchbook as a design tool to their exploration of the stitched line as a way of imbuing the quilt surface with shape, movement, and meaning, they offer real insight into what turns fiber into art.

If you have these back issues from 2006 and 2007, I highly recommend you take them out and reread these design articles. Take out a few examples of your artwork and see what principles you've incorporated and which ones you might still need to work on.

If you don't have those issues, I have good news: You can now get all the Quilting Arts magazines from 2006 and 2007 on one economical and space-saving CD. Each issue is just the same as published in the print version, but you can zoom in and out and skip from article to article or issue to issue right on your computer. Now, that's instant gratification!

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