When talking about the wool arts, I often hear from others how they regret that they are not artistic or that they can't draw well enough to make their own patterns. I wonder how often a person who feels this way may not ever try to make a pattern, because they 'know' from past experience that they won't be able to do it. Well, in this entry, I would like to encourage those who see themselves as non-artistic, by helping them form a new definition of 'artistic' or 'creative', and by providing some pointers for making simple patterns that might be used for applique or hooking.
First, here is a definition of 'creative' that I learned some time ago, and I related to it so much that I have always remembered it. Here it is:
"Creativity is the art of not revealing your source."
So simple, yet so profound. Thinking in theoretical terms, it would be very difficult for the human mind to form creative ideas in a vacuum -- with no one else and nothing around him but white walls, ceiling and floor. We draw ideas from everything we see, hear and touch. Yes, we may make them 'unique' by human standards, but in their simplest form, our creative ideas come from external stimuli, often in the natural world, and as art and ideas have developed, from the work of others that we see, touch, or hear, and appreciate. In a sense, today's artists are standing on the shoulders of giants in the arts, those who have gone before us and contributed their tiny part to the giant historical world of the arts.
The earliest human beings developed rudimentary art forms based on what they experienced around them in nature. They might have made small whistles built to emulate the sound of a bird; woven mats from the long fibers or strap-like leaves of plants; cloth dyed using ingredients made from the bright colors seen in plants and other materials. Others coming after them built on those ideas, adding new ideas formed from their own awareness of their surroundings, and so on. As cultures formed, some ideas crossed the barriers between these cultures, out of necessity. All cultures have clothing, drinking and eating vessels, textiles for everyday use, such as bedding and linens. All cultures certainly have buildings and transportation equipment. But beyond that, the ornamentation of all these necessities becomes quite diverse. Historically, cultures have developed collective 'styles' that are identifiable. Asian, Egyptian, Greek, European, and Hispanic art all have their own distinctive style.
And this helps to prove my point -- ideas were built upon, but remained similar, across many artisans in a culture, rather than radically different styles of ornamentation developing from different people in one culture. In any cultural art exhibit, one can see where they were sharing ideas, altering them somewhat, while keeping them similar. There are certainly exceptions to this, to be sure, but in general we see small universes of ideas being shared within cultures, and these ideas might not be present at all in other cultures. Only when there was commerce or other communication between cultures was there an exchange of ideas that might lead to the adoption of a style into one culture from another.
In today's world, there is an ongoing and increasing trend to blend artistic styles from many sources, with the advent of easy transportation around the globe, and the mixing of ideas through modern communications, such as the internet. This is especially true in the U.S., which has been a melting pot of ideas for a couple of centuries. Now we are all borrowing ideas from each other, and adding to them or twisting them to make them our own. This is creating an explosion of styles and ideas that is really pretty amazing, and enjoyable to witness. But we are still taking ideas from others, altering them and making them our own. In many ways, what the great thinker Solomon said is true, way back in the days of the Bible, "There is nothing new under the sun."
So lest you think that 'creativity' means 'creating' something entirely new and unique, I hope you see my first point. This is important, because it puts you in the ballgame. Anyone, to some degree, can look at an idea, change it around a little and produce something new. It's not as hard as you might think, so please start considering yourself able to do this, even to a small degree. This is a skill that you can cultivate, with a little effort.
Personally, I don't consider myself to be particularly creative, although those who know me will tell you that I am very creative. I can't say I have ever produced something truly unique from anything else--something completely new that has never been done before. Some variation of everything I have ever done is already out there. But by simply borrowing ideas from what I have seen, adjusting the color, or the proportions or perhaps the media used, I have made it my own. Others see the results of this, and pronounce me 'Creative'. I just smile and say, 'Thanks', and I don't generally reveal my source! There are some traits and skills, however, that the 'creative' person may have that others don't, and I will discuss how to cultivate those traits now.
Step One The most important thing that 'creative' people have that other less 'creative' people may not have is a passion for the beauty found in art of all kinds, particularly painting and textile art. I have this passion, so I have spent time practicing reproducing the things I enjoy seeing, reading about them, and trying my hand at manipulating ideas I have taken from others. Here is an important principle to keep in mind:
A passion for learning a new skill or acquiring new knowledge is the main requirement for doing so.
Notice that I say passion, not talent. Talent is very overrated in my opinion. Even great artists, like Rembrandt or da Vinci, became accomplished in their art because they worked at it. Granted, having some natural ability is certainly a help, but it is not that ability that makes someone accomplished, nor is it the only criteria for becoming accomplished. The passion that fuels the effort to learn and grow is far more important, and it is passion that can make a person with mediocre natural ability able to excel beyond the person with great natural ability. The passion I have makes me work hard at learning the thing I have a passion for, and that work will make me better at it, regardless of my natural ability.
Naturally, there are some limitations to this. For instance, at my current age, it is unlikely that any amount of passion is going to make me a brilliant gymnast. (Can I get an 'amen' to that, all you 50-somethings?) Just getting out of bed some days can be dangerous business for me. Likewise, we all have our mental limitations that may prevent us from being the brilliant scientist that would find the cure for cancer. So I'm not going to tell you that 'you can do anything if you put your mind to it', because that's not strictly true. But we aren't talking about gymnastics or medical science here. All we want to do is manage some simple sketches that will make our particular art even more enjoyable. Honestly, this is well within the mental and physical grasp of most women, with effort and persistence drawn from a keen interest in making it happen.
Now, there is nothing wrong with saying that you just aren't interested enough in something, even drawing patterns for your wool art, to learn how to do it. So the first decision you must make is whether or not you care enough to learn. If the answer is 'no', then there is no harm in that, and it is perfectly fine to continue as you have, perhaps feeling better for having said, 'I just don't care enough about it to learn', rather than, 'I'm really not very creative.' Do you see the difference? The first statement puts you more in control of what goes on with your creative endeavors, while the second attitude may leave you feeling intimidated and unable to accomplish what you want because of a 'lack of talent'. And the first statement, in the end, is probably truer than the second statement. So if you just aren't 'feelin' the love', carry on as before, but by all means, change the conversation that goes on in your own head, and that you have with others about yourself. Don't continue to believe that you just don't have talent.
If you feel that you do have enough interest to try to learn, focus on cultivating your passion, and don't worry about this nebulous thing called 'talent'. Get the passion! It is difficult to say sometimes what creates a passion for something in a person's heart. Something will just grab you, and you can't understand it -- all you know is that you love it. And it's probably true that it's hard to generate passion where none of this 'natural, unexplainable' passion exists. But I do believe with the proper stimulation, it's possible for some to develop a passion, by just trying something new. I never would have guessed that dyeing wool would become my passion, had I not tried it. Who knows? If you try some of the things I suggest below, and have some success, the drawing part of your wool art may become your passion! You will never know unless you give it a try.
So begin by telling yourself that you can draw something that would turn into a lovely piece, a rug, or wall hanging, or chair cushion. Try to imagine what you could do with a new-found skill, that would allow you to create your very own one-of-a-kind works -- anything you want -- rather than having to rely on what you can find in patterns. Let me tell you, that is a very empowering attitude and one that can really change your whole art career. Let yourself dream big, but agree with yourself to start heading toward your dream with little steps, designed to encourage you along the way -- small achievable projects, one at a time. If you truly can internalize the things I'm suggesting, that will also help you get the passion. And above all, stop telling yourself that you can't.
Step Two It's a huge world out there, with an infinite number of ideas, and it can be overwhelming. Bring it into proportion for yourself by learning to identify those themes and motifs that you like and finding sources to borrow ideas -- fantastically easy in this modern age. This step will also help you build your passion, as you take ownership of 'your own style'. After all, if you are going to become an artist of sorts, it would be a good idea to know in what direction you would like to head. We've all seen works by more renowned artists, and they generally have a particular style, or preferred subject matter, even if they do dabble in other styles as well. It's the very rare person who excels in many disciplines. Most specialize in one, or at most, a few things. Think of Thomas Kincaid, or Anne Geddes, or Taylor Swift (for Pete's sake, if I hear one more song about being a teenager in love, I'll have to kill someone). These and many others found a style and worked it until it was very good. For me, (as you will read elsewhere on this blog) medieval or other antique and rustic motifs, animals and birds, simple human figures, soft, heathery primitive colors, leaves and trees, fruit, and textures of all kinds are a few of the motifs and styles that have always grabbed my attention and caused me to surreptitiously rip out a page from a magazine in the doctor's office, or confiscate one of my kids' cameras to snap a picture. (They hate it when I do that.) I am in the beginning stages myself of formalizing these preferences into a style that I plan to work at, develop, refine, and make my personal style. You will see it emerge in the next few years in my own work.
It's also overwhelming to think of having to learn to become 'an artist' in order to draw the things you want to draw. You may imagine having to take a lot of classes, or having to learn a whole new art form to feed your wool arts. But if you narrow down your style, then you might be able to imagine just focusing on learning to draw barnyard animals, or trees, or human faces, or buildings, etc. This might seem much more manageable to you. Developing your own style will help you to narrow down the options in the big world of the arts to those that you can actually fathom being able to do, and specialize in.
So spend some thoughtful time to develop ideas of what your own style is. Perhaps start by making a list of those themes and motifs that you like. Think about your own style and color preference. Do you like modern, with bright colors and abstract motif? Or do you prefer cute country teddy bears, pumpkins, and frogs in primitive style and color? Landscapes? Human figures? Personal themes that have meaning for you? Dark, brooding colors? Identify a small universe of colors that you like to use, perhaps 100 or so colors, light and dark. You could go to your local sewing store, and collect all the colors in embroidery floss that you like. There are so many thousands of colors out there. Narrowing your choices down to those that you really love will help you in the early stages. Keep the colors simple the first few small projects you do -- give yourself every chance for success by using colors that you love. To choose some subject matter that you like, look through all kinds of media -- books, magazines, architectural elements on your tour of that old estate, snap photos of real life objects, and the web is the most amazing resource imaginable. Maybe you could build a scrapbook of color swatches, pictures, textures and lists of things that you like, to keep you grounded in developing your style. Something you can return to when you find yourself wandering or drifting in your design process. Naturally you can depart from it whenever you want, but if you concentrate on this more narrow definition of your style in the early stages, it will sharpen your focus, and nurture your passion for what you do. And in repeating the use of similar themes and color combinations, you will become more practiced, more quickly. You can always branch out later, but for now, I would suggest keeping things as simple as you can, while you learn.
Step Three is to become better at looking at something and deciding whether it would make good subject matter for the media in which you work. For instance, in wool applique, one can only put in so much detail without it looking too busy, so I force myself to look for simpler forms and less detail, because I do appreciate a certain amount of detail put into a work -- it signifies time and care spent. I start with simple, and then I find ways, here and there to add a little detail, often with embroidery. Other subjects may look better rendered as a rug. I have learned over time what subjects will look good in my particular art form.
If you have an idea of the motifs that you like, when you see something that rings the bell for you, try to get a photo, or other rendering. I have even taken rubbings from objects when I was without a camera, just to get the shape and general idea to work from. Or, better yet, if you have a teenager with you, they will inevitably have their cellphone and can take a picture for you, and email it to you, all of which can be accomplished in about 10 seconds for a 16-year-old!
Collect your ideas in a folder or in your scrapbook, and ruminate on them, letting ideas form in your mind of how best to use them. You may like the shape of a tree in a picture, but would need to simplify it for your rug or wall hanging. Rendering a face may be more effective in a rug, than in applique, if you like to shade and provide a lot of detail. Or maybe you have a technique to make a face look good in applique, in which case a face may work well. A detailed landscape might be better done as a rug. I simple medallion design with few colors might be more interesting as an applique project, or part of a quilt. When looking at a photo that you have taken, work on your skill in deciding whether it might make good subject matter - you may have found the subject beautiful in person, but it may lose something in the translation to art. Often the real thing is so much better to you than a photo, because you recall the mood and atmosphere that you were experiencing when viewing the subject, and that may not carry over into a photo. Is there a focal point to the photo, or is it a landscape with little detail, albeit pretty? Do you have a photo of a beautiful sunset? Maybe you can add a black silhouette or two from somewhere else to create the focal point. Or your subject matter may have personal meaning to you -- in that case you have more latitude in making it work, in my opinion, and if it might not be the best subject for your piece, that is less important than the significance it has for you.
Talk with other experienced wool artists that you may know and get their input. Consult some books and magazines to see what subjects are generally used in particular arts, and which are used across many, and if so, are they altered? Perhaps given more detail in some forms? In particular, look for examples of motifs that you are considering for inclusion in your 'style'. Rug Hooking Magazine and other fiber magazines are also a great source of ideas for motifs that you can be certain will work. You may never, in fact, do anything with your ideas, so don't feel pressured to make everything happen. You are just giving yourself options. Occasionally, I go through my folder and discard those ideas that are no longer interesting.
Yes, this is a skill that can be cultivated, but I'm sorry to say that it is one that is often cultivated by making mistakes -- by getting most, or all, of the way through a project, only to see that it doesn't look as good rendered in paint or wool as it did in real life, or in a picture. If you are working on subject matter that has personal significance, again, this may not be an issue, but it is true that some things will make better subject matter than others, depending upon your media. Over time, your eye will become better, perhaps from having learned a hard lesson on a previous project. You will learn to pass over those images or models that you know will not work, and narrow your focus even further to those that you like and know will work.
Step Four is to develop your awareness of proportion. For instance, if you are preparing a photo to be used in a project, knowing where to crop it is important, to take best advantage of the subject matter, and create balance in the picture. Or perhaps it might be better to move the elements in the photo around to improve it for your purposes. When sketching a figure, it is important to be able to see that the head is too big relative to the body, or that the slope of the roof on the house in your sketch is much steeper than the one in the picture, and that is what is throwing it all off. Often just measuring the elements will help. If the head is 1" and the body is 4" long in the photo, then recognize that this proportion must be the same in your pattern -- the head should be 3" if the body is going to be 12". Or if the roof is too tall, measure its height at the peak as that relates to the width of the house in your model. When you bring that into alignment in your sketch, then everything else will work. Simple geometry is a wonderful tool that will help you to accurately mimic in your medium what you are seeing in your model, or photo. It's simple math, and it all comes into play when dealing with proportion. The good news is that if you had any geometry in school, you can, pretty easily, resurrect those skills. I use a lot of math in my own drawing. Learning how to position elements in a picture may be more difficult, but trust me, it's not beyond you! There are good books out there, and a book and a little practice may be all you need to get you on your way.
Step Five is to develop your sense of color and contrast. Narrowing your color universe will certainly help you in this, and there are other resources and books available to help you, as well as many magazine articles in RHM and others. But again, practice will ultimately be your greatest help. I also offer a tool on my hand dyed wool website that helps many of my customers. I have many, many colors, and I divide them up into primitive, country, modern, and vibrant colors. Selecting colors from one or two of those color families will help you in creating a project containing colors that are compatible with each other. I find that most customers do this, selecting from only one or two color families.
At some point in this process, you'll have to finally put your pencil on the paper and give 'being creative' a try. I won't go into a full-blown sketching lesson here. My intent is just to give you a push in the right direction. If you would truly like to cultivate some of these skills, start with some practice sketching, without the intent of turning the results into textile art. Just sketch. Or take one or two beginner's drawing classes, get a couple of good art books on sketching, or there may be some workshop on the subject at a rug camp--honestly, that is all you would need to give you the skills to make patterns for projects that you could really enjoy. There is no need to become Rembrandt. Learning to draw simple shapes and outlines, and learning how to place objects in your pattern are enough to get you going. Start with some small projects that will be easier, and will give you some success to encourage you. Honestly, giving yourself a little 'sketching class' may only take a few weeks of concentration, in between your other activities--in the evening, or during your lunch break, or on the weekends. This is not a big commitment, and one that will give you so much freedom in your art -- a big payback for a relatively small outlay of time and effort.
Here are some techniques that I use to make myself look 'creative'.
When borrowing ideas, shapes or proportion from images, one valuable tool I use is the photocopier, and I also have a 'Photoshop-type' program that I can scan images into and then manipulate. An all-in-one printer is ideal for both of these tasks. I find many images in catalogs, magazines and books that I know I can borrow from, and I drop them in my 'Creative Ideas in Wool' file. There are always one or two projects in that file calling out to me at an given time, until I relent, pull them out and do something with them. When the time comes to use one or two, I decide the size of my project, then the size of the objects I will put in it. I may make a very simple outline of the overall plan, just to get proportion. Then I will start to manipulate the images that I'm planning to use. First of all, the picture I am borrowing from is almost never the size I need it to be. So I will enlarge or reduce it on the photocopier. Simple math is all you need here. I just measure one dimension of the picture, say, the height. If the picture is 2 1/2" tall and I need it to be more like 3 1/2", I just divide 3 1/2 by 2 1/2 and get 1.4. I translate this for my printer into an enlargement of 140% and I have the size I need. Likewise, if I want to go from 3 1/2" to 2 1/2", I do the opposite -- divide 2 1/2 by 3 1/2, giving me .71 -- this translates into 71% for the printer.
Once I have an object the required size, I go to a window, (or a lightbox if you have one), and literally trace the parts of the object that I intend to emulate. It may be the general outline, or just the head that I am going to stick onto another body from somewhere else, etc. I use light sketchy strokes so that erasing the inevitable mistakes is easy. I always plan to do a lot of erasing and redrawing. I may want to adjust the actual shape a bit, so I experiment, sketching and erasing as needed. Sometimes I will trace several copies so that I can experiment as much as I want while still retaining clean copies of those that I liked. Do you see how much of what I do is measuring, copying and experimenting? I never sit down and draw a nice sketch out of the air, and you don't need to, either.
When I was younger, I expected to get it right the first time, and I would become frustrated if that didn't happen. Now I understand that it is a longer process for me, and one that often involves laying down the work for a time -- an afternoon, a day, a week, or even a month -- and coming back to it with fresh eyes. I find this invaluable, and some of my best changes come after having put it down for awhile. I even enjoy this process now -- working, stopping, ruminating and working again. I smile to myself sometimes while I am taking a break because I have come to understand that this period of doing nothing may, ironically, be the most productive part of the development process. (In fact, even the writing of this entry has been done using this technique, and the best editing that I do comes after I have left it for awhile, then returned and reread the whole thing to get the big picture. I move a lot of text around then. I rarely write a piece in one sitting.)
I keep my sketching light until I am seeing lines that I like, so that all my experimental lines can be easily erased if needed. As I get closer to seeing a finished product, I will darken the lines, and maybe even add a little shading to see what it would look like. So in this way I slowly finish my pattern. Then I put it down again and come back to it. If I still like it, then I know it's ready for use. If not, then I keep working. Now understand, at this point all I have are simple outlines of the elements in my designs. That's all I need to worry about for now. All the shading, color planning, and addition of those details that will give dimension, are in the future. Some may want to add shading or even color to further develop the idea, and you can, but it's not necessary at this stage if you are already working hard to get to this point. Remember that the outline, or a simple rendering of the pattern or motif is all you need to accomplish for now.
For those who have always used a pattern, it's the drawing that daunts them. For others who have relied on kits, the color selection may also be intimidating. So if this is true for you, take it a step at a time. Perhaps you could develop the pattern yourself, then get help with the color planning for your first few projects. Try to participate in that process as much as possible, and soon you will have the extra confidence needed to try the color planning yourself. And remember that working with colors that you have pre-selected as favorites in Step One, will greatly narrow down the options, making deciding easier for now. You can branch out later as you become more experienced.
Leonardo da Vinci said,
"Art is never finished, only abandoned."
I believe this is true. From one germ of an idea, through your pencil, and later, through your hook or needle, an infinite number of results are possible. At some point, you have to look at your work, be satisfied, and stop. This may sound strange to some, but I had to learn this. I always felt in my heart, when working on any project, that there was one perfect result that I was looking for, but I never knew what it was -- I only had a general idea. I found this very frustrating, and I would have a hard time feeling satisfied with the finished product. This quote helped me, seeing a great artist like da Vinci saying this about his own work. Now I can look at a finished piece and see it as one of many ways I could have done it, and enjoy the one option that I chose. (Da Vinci was, incidentally, one of those few who excelled in many disciplines. He truly was a genius.)
What if you hate the results of your first efforts? Excellent! Give them to that sister-in-law that bugs you. Or better yet, keep it, and the others that come after, so that you can track your progress as you improve. Or at least take pictures and put them in your scrapbook. The only way to truly appreciate where you end up as an artist is to compare your later works to the pieces you did at the beginning. Wouldn't it be fun to have a historical record of your journey from 'helpless non-artist' to 'accomplished artisan'? If nothing else, your children may enjoy having it someday.
And I would love to have your pictures, too, so please feel free to share any results you get, after reading this post. It would encourage me!
In the next few days, I'll write a post that will bring you along with me as I develop a pattern from idea to sketch, ready to transfer to wool. This is the project that has been calling out to me from my 'Wool' file for the past few months. You'll get to see all the cheating I do! Hooray!