Learning to See

One of the things that I often find the most frustrating about my work is trying to explain to people what I’ve got “in progress”, what stage it’s in and where it’s headed next. I’ve tried for years to elaborate on my plans for pieces, insofar as even I know them, as sometimes they have lives of their own. For the most part, it doesn’t work.Initially, I blamed my inability to describe the terrain clearly – obviously the problem was that I was a faulty map-maker, right? If someone couldn’t see where I was going from my directions (and I’m not short-winded), then the fault was with me.

Then I started talking to people who had fibre arts training about my projects and they clicked right into what I was saying. Previously, most of my conversations had been with friends and family, the kind of kind people you ask when you really want a pat on the back instead of a thump on the head.

So it wasn’t me. It was somewhere between me and the listener that things went south. Hmm. I gave this a good bit of thought and tried to work with a more conscious eye to what I was making and how. If I documented the process of a piece, it would be easier to explain how I’d gotten there. What I found was that it was indeed easier, but most people couldn’t make the leap from a piece of white fabric and the glimmerings of an idea to the piece itself.

So I surmised that it was about seeing. Not just seeing, in fact. Visualising.

There are lots of different ways of visualising, if we take that word to mean formulating a picture or image of a thing inside one’s head. Some people can visualise in colour. I’ve met people who only visualise lines and black and white. Some folks “see” music, complete with sound. For many, these images flash through like memories, but they are static, meaning they’re fixed in whatever form the person’s mind acquired them.

This, of course, explains why people have difficulty following the untrodden path that artists (and probably musicians) take with a work in progress. Not only will some people lack the art-specific vocabulary, but they have not trained their minds to manipulate images or sounds. They haven’t learned to add layers on top of layers and to see or hear how the subsequent layer of paint, fabric, stitching or even framing will alter the effect of the whole.

Remember when you we a kid and learning to mix colours? You had red and dumped in some blue… magically there was purple. Eventually you learned to predict the purple. You could probably even add some black for a darker purple. But if you had watercolour paints and layered the rich purple over a very soft yellow, what would it become? If you then added royal blue beads and a swirling silver thread in patterns of the wind brushing the tops of waves, could you see it before you tried it?

And that’s the trick. We train ourselves to see what is, so that we can translate it into artwork or manipulate it in some personal way, but we also train ourselves to see what might be.

That was, perhaps, the hardest part of teaching a workshop on landscape techniques. I’ve gotten to the point now where I can usually grab a bunch of fabrics knowing that they’ll work together, more or less. I know what sky will convey what mood. I can paint or select from my painted fabrics an ocean to compliment it. I have also learned, through trial and error, how to visualise the physical steps needed to complete the visual image. Basically, I’ve learned to map things out in my head.

Teaching people who have good traditional sewing skills and open minds is actually harder than it looks. I have figured out a basic approach, however, mainly by remembering how I worked when first I started out and providing the steps for that process and for progressively teaching yourself to think ahead to the next step. The caveat is this: there is no shortcut and it will take time.

Sidenote: Too often these days we want an instant fix, a medical or workshop cure for our lacks or the instant ability to do something by simply spending money. The stuff really worth being able to do takes time. No workshop in the world will instantly let you see, visualise or conceptualise projects in their entirety. If if were that easy, wouldn’t art be cheaper? The fact remains that this is an acquired ability; one that takes practice, time, thought and often large quantities of frustration. Think of playing a musical instrument. You can probably learn to hammer out Twinkle, Twinkle on the piano in a day, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll be playing Carnegie Hall anytime soon. 
Right. Deep breath before plunging.

Start with an image of meaning to you. I usually tell people to pick something simple for workshops but, to be brutally honest, you can pick whatever you like. The more complex it is, the longer it may take and the more frustrated you might be. But if you like it enough to finish it…. well, that’s the key. This was my first landscape quilt:
Took me a good while, but I finished it. During it I learned a bunch of things:

  1. Visualise one step at a time at first.
  2. Pick your sky first. Pick your ocean to go with your sky. They will set the tone of your piece.
  3. If you can’t find the fabric you need, paint some.
  4. Pin your sky and ocean to a design wall. Use paper (I had a big roll of newspaper mill end) and cut out your points of land. Cut out your buildings.Pin everything up. It’ll look something like this:
  5. Decide, as you work, which details are worth doing in appliqué and which are too fiddly. Some details can be painted on and some can be stitched. Some can be embroidered, some can be beaded. In many ways, practicality will dictate your course of action – there is no merit in doing fiddly work for the sake of the Gods of Knitpicking. Trust me. Draw the teeny, tiny, little windows in with a marker or embroider them. Appliquéing 1/8 inch squares won’t get you into the Quilt Martyrs’ Hall of Fame.
  6. Start thinking of the colours in your buildings, trees, landscape, etc. Work back to front (start with what’s furthest away from you). Things get darker as they get closer to you. They also get bigger. The things further away will need to be underneath the things closer. Think about your perspective, but keep your contruction in mind.
  7. Make an ongoing list of what needs to be done and the order in which is has to happen. This is especially good if you have other distractions in your life (like toddlers spraying orange juice around the kitchen or dogs peeing on your husband)
  8. There will come a time when you lose sight of the end. There will come a time when you cannot stand the look of the piece for another minute. Then you have two choices – junk it or finish it. I’ve tried both. Finish it. The feeling of malaise and frustration is a good sign. It means you’ve reached the point where the piece is really becoming something. You have this one hurdle to work through and then it’s smooth sailing. Pin it up and think.
  9. Possibly, this is the point at which you can contemplate the borders. Often they’ll suggest themselves. Do paper mock-ups in much the same way as you did for the landscape. Here’s the start of a border on an unfinished piece showing fog:
  10. At this point you more or less can see the end. Keep chugging through.
  11. Keep a record of where you’ve been, good ideas you have and neat techniques and how they could be effective in certain pieces. Knowing where you were, where you went and how you got there are great tools for making sense of the map of the road ahead.

Basically, the only way to learn to see in this way is to try, fail, try again and repeat. Eventually you will get to the point at which you can look at a piece and see what it will look like if you took one path versus another. There are tricks and tools for helping you to work through various stages. Some people swear by reducers (make things smaller so that you can see the forest for the trees). Some swear by red filters that allow you to see shade differences within a range of fabrics. Some people trace their stitching patterns onto tulle and lay it over the piece, to see what the final product will look like. Others use their computers to a similar effect. If you use any of these, more power to you. Eventually, however, it is more accurate to be able to rely on your mind’s eye because your mind’s eye provides not only a preview of how things will look, but also your unique twist of possibility.

Learn to see the layers. It’s worth it.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. julia says:

    Thanks this was a good tutorial. It’s very helpful to have some of my thoughts and questions answered in such a logical manner.

  2. arlee says:

    “Learn to see the layers”—now *that* is going on a piece for sure as daily inspiration! :}

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