Thursday, June 30, 2005

Pictorial Quilting

Gee, posting that teapot and my comments about how people use Photoshop seem to have engendered some interesting discussion! I got this email from Melody (which, she warned, resulted in part from general crankiness about not getting time to work in her studio) and I excerpt it here with her permission:

I agree that you could do this without Photoshop but that Photoshop offers other options that the artist can use or not.... Here’s my rant:
What is it with all the pictorial quilting! Geesh! Must we make everything into a quilt? Why can’t just stop at the drawing/painting/photograph?
If we must make a picture, can we please remove it a few more steps from the photographic level? Can we bring something original and new into the imagery. Something of ourselves? Something one step above representational? Or two steps?
It all seems to be an exercise in making fabric into pictures that end up just being recognizable. SO???
That to me is like adding 2+2 and getting 4. Formulaic, certain, predictable, finite.

Good questions, yes? How would you respond?

Here is my reaction. Why NOT pictorial quilting? Isn't that like asking "why still life painting?" Isn't there art in creating something in one medium that fools the eye into thinking it's something else? Isn't there artfulness -- beyond the skillful technique -- in using fabric or paint to create an image of an object that looks so faithful it could be mistaken for a photograph? I've seen "pictures" that I thought were photographs, until I stepped closer and realized that it was a painting. And that surprise, along with appreciation of the skill it took to create that illusion, always delights me.

Maybe the point of Melody's comment is that whatever medium you work in, you need to make it say something original, and not just have the result be a copy (however faithful) of the original thing. I agree with that. But to my mind, it's valid to have the statement be "here's an image that reflects stillness and peacefulness through ordinary objects" or "a peach sitting on a table is beautiful." I'm not a trained or educated artist, and I suspect that those of you who are have thought about this stuff far more than I have. But that's my reaction.

And as for translating this sort of thing into fabric, I also think that this sort of work plays an important role in moving public perception about quilt-making into recognition of art quilts. We've all encountered people who think of "quilt" as something their grandmother made to throw on the bed, and who can't grasp the concept of "art quilt" or imagine how fabric can be used to make art. Maybe a still life or pictorial quilt rendered in fabric presents those folks with a recognizable "artistic" image, while expanding their concept of how fabric can be used.

For me, personally, I love seeing realistic images rendered in fabric. It delights me and causes me to marvel over how versatile fabric is as a medium, and now there is such diverse talent out there doing such amazing things. Actually, my favorite images are the ones that do in fabric what Melody was suggesting: they depict something real, but they say something more, too. (Ruth McDowell's quilts come to mind.) But hey, I'm just learning. This teapot was an exercise in trying something new, and seeing how to make a real thing look fairly realistic with fabric. As an exercise, it's fun, and I'm happy. I'm not saying this is big art.

In the workshop, Daniele looked at my fabric choices (mostly stuff I've dyed myself, which I chose thinking it would add a glow of light to what might otherwise end up being sort of flat looking) and said "I'd like to see you go home and try this with printed commercial fabrics." I couldn't help but let out a snort, as I'd love to have the time to do that sort of thing too. Life these days isn't permitting much art time. But I think her suggestion was to encourage me to step away from fabric that created a more realistic look, and try using fabrics that would force the picture to become something else. And while it struck me as virtually comical in light of all the unfinished things I have in my studio, not to mention all the other things in my mind that I want to start, I did recognize the suggestion as an appropriate effort to move me beyond being satisfied with something that just looked real.

I have to add here (as long as I'm rambling away) that I don't have a style. Melody, Gabrielle, Pam, Liz, and all sorts of amazing quilt artists have an identifiable style that shines through their bodies of work. I feel like I'm just doing all sorts of things and trying all sorts of techniques on the way to figuring out what I like to do, what works for my working style, and what helps me express what I want to say. For the moment, "Hey, look! I made a shiny blue teapot!" is enough for me to say.

What do you think about this subject? Does using photo software seem like cheating? Are realistic images art?


  1. I just used a similar technique (with the photocopier, not photoshop) to create a self-portrait. I used commercial fabrics, but eschewed prints for the harsh lines they brought to the facial contours. I am going to make more (this was for a deadline) out of the patterned fabrics to see how far away I can get it from realistic yet still make it recognizable.

    I think the software is great as a jumping-off place. Maybe the answer is to go deeper, explore more.

    As for your style, I'll bet if you put a bunch of your work together and had someone else look at it, they could see a style. Sometimes we're too close to the subject ourselves.

    And for what is art? It's whatever YOU say it is.

  2. Of course, we should put part of our heart and soul in our work but you can do that in any number of ways. Your fabric and color choices are way beyond what was suggested for the class so that was the way you expressed yourself. There is room for all art: representational, non-representational, abstract, and the list goes on.

    You are doing absolutely the right thing adding skills to your bag of tricks so that you can discover what style works the best for you.

    Dara's right you probably already are on the way to developing a style. But what if you never are making this stuff for yourself, to feed your inner creative urge. All style comes from the voice of the artist....just's there.
    Rant, rant, rant!

  3. Yes, I like realistic representations too, but artists like Ruth McDowell do not take a photo and do a color/value separation in photoshop and then make a quilt out of it. They create a unique piece of art which is translated into fabric and thus has an edge or some imperfections that make it interesting and not just an exact copy of a photo.

  4. When I did my City & Guilds course, whenever we started a new design board the tutor first got us to make a copy of it - sketch it, paint it or possibly do it in fabric. I suppose this is so we had a starting point to discover what the subject means to us and so we can take it further with the design, if we want to take it further... And each medium will help us to discover different things about the shape or the colour or whatever... Hope this makes sense.

  5. "I feel like I'm just doing all sorts of things and trying all sorts of techniques on the way to figuring out what I like to do, what works for my working style, and what helps me express what I want to say."
    You put into words how I'm feeling too. I am still working on developing a style. I might use the Photoshop as another trick in my bag. For me though, I would want to develop my own picture, whatever that may be. I agree with Melody, bringing something of ourselves is what makes an "art quilt". Rather than just a copy of something. Then again, if you look at artists through the years, there's a whole lot of pictorial art. So guess there's room for all types of art.

  6. Art, to me, is a subjective thing. It is also something that evolves. I have no problem with Photoshop or anything else, because it is the self-expression of the artist and the feeling that it evokes for them--not necessarily the viewer.

    When I was an intern at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, I once saw a large shark in formaldehyde encased in a clear plastic box. Did I like it? Wasn't sure. Was it art? It was there, so someone thought it was even if I didn't necessarily agree.

    Art is for the artist, we viewers are just there to experience it.

  7. Great topics. I've posted some thoughts on my blog. Thanks, Diane!

  8. I'm writing and revising and editing and rewriting my reaction to this. I will send an early draft to Diane on email... and post something hopefully more carefully thought out on my blog by Monday.

    but there is one line I wrote that someone else also kinda said... and I need to refind that line. I see a possible blogring challenge coming outta this...

  9. My comments were long enough that I just posted them on my own blog.

    I know Diane already found them, but I thought I'd mention that here too in case anyone was following this whole discussion and wanted to check it out.

  10. I think I will blog about this, GREAT question for us to consider. Jen

  11. Anonymous6:31 PM

    Well, Mel is entitled to her opinion. Personally, I lke to use PS as a jumping off point. Sometimes I even use it like you did for the tea pot. What Melody forgets is, if we ALL worked liked she does, how would we each have our own voice? I am not totally comfortable working as she does. I'm working on it but, let's face it, she's been doing this longer and is further along in her *evolution.*


  12. Anonymous5:51 AM

    I found this discussion this morning starting at Debra's blog and wanted to add my bit to it, which is over on my blog. I hadn't seen blogs interacting before. This is fun!