Wednesday, April 6, 2016

What does your design process look like?

Recently I came across a fascinating interview with fiber artist and activist Mary Fisher.  Mary was asked to describe her creative process "from conception to conclusion" and this is how she responded:

"This is such an interesting question because it assumes, fairly enough, that the process of design has a beginning and an end, and that getting from one to the other is a linear process. Perhaps for some people that’s true: they have an idea and they go execute it. But that’s typically not my experience.
For me, my art emerges as I’m doing it. I don’t start with a guaranteed final product in mind. Rather, I start to see what I might discover by combining these fabrics, those colors, this photograph, that idea or word or image – and I see what results. As the work emerges, I refine it, shape it, change it…sometimes dump it.
It feels to me, honestly, like I grow art and design. It’s an organic process of allowing your soul to express itself without limiting that expression to a pre-conceived idea."
Mary Fisher at work; photo from 
Molly here.  I admit it: until quite recently, I've been one of those artists who has an idea and then goes to execute it.  It's been a fairly linear process for me (sometimes the line forms a circle or spiral), often involving a pre-conceived idea followed by research, sketches, samples, and lists, circling back to refine the idea, etc.  Check out my recent post for more on this. I will say that I never assume the end product is "guaranteed!"

Whenever I teach this process--which was taught to me when I did my Master's degree in fibers fifteen years ago--I often get "you gotta be kidding me" looks from students.  Their process is more like Mary's, intuitive, organic and full of serendipity.  Research, sketching, and sampling sound an awful lot like homework. You want to just plunge in and start playing with yarn or fabric or paint or whatever, making it up as you go and enjoying that blissful flow of creativity.   My process sounds like the opposite of loose, free and intuitive--a huge buzzkill, actually.

Hey, I get it!  I LOVE that jolt of endorphins and adrenaline when you start a new project too (that's why I have so many projects going right now)!  All those intermediate steps--making sketches and samples, researching what other people have already done in this medium or with this subject matter, figuring out what techniques I might have to learn or refine in order to realize my vision--they do slow down that blissful flow a bit.  But they can also be undertaken in the spirit of joyful exploration too. 

Many artists, like Mary Fisher, work intuitively all the time and it obviously suits them and suits their work.  My hunch is that they are so experienced that what feels like intuition and instinct is actually long-internalized, hard-won knowledge that operates almost subconsciously.  When these artists are asked about their process and artistic decisions, they respond that it's intuitive, forgetting that at some point way back, they had to learn this stuff.  It's also true that certain mediums, those involving collage-like processes for example, almost demand an intuitive, improvisational approach.

But other mediums seem to call for more planning and forethought.  For me, tapestry work--and before that, handwoven wearables, art quilts, embroidery, handmade paper pieces--these all seem to require some preparatory work.  Now, many artists do work in these mediums entirely improvisationally and intuitively--once they've achieved some level of mastery.  But before you get those mythical 10,000 hours of experience that supposedly equal mastery, if you're like me, you may find yourself making mistakes and re-inventing the wheel more than you would like.  If all you are going on is your native intuition and trial and error, you may not be able to put your finger precisely on what your piece needs.  You may not know that a lack of value contrast is the issue, say, or that colors opposite each other on the color wheel interact in specific ways, some good, some not so much.  You'll just know that something isn't working.  I decided to go to grad school in art because I realized that it would take me a lifetime to learn by trial and error the things that are readily accessible in a formal program.

Our fibers professor assigned us to do an embroidery, after doing library research first.  I chose Amish quilts as my inspiration.  Here are a few of the dozen or so sketches I made before I got approval to stitch the final piece.  

Midway through the process I realized I had to work out the value scheme before deciding on colors.

For me it was a huge help to learn the words and concepts for the basic building blocks of design.  Once I had the words in my head--terms like value, complementary harmony, pattern, rhythm--then I could apply them to any given piece, in any medium, to understand what factors were at play.  I could diagnose and evaluate my work with some confidence.  The down side of working purely intuitively is that without the words and concepts at your fingertips, you may not have control over your work when you want it, when you might want to reproduce something that works, or avoid making the same mistakes again. 

You might say that you make art for pure enjoyment, to learn and experiment and have fun, and if some things don't work out, it's all part of the grand journey.  You don't care about fancy art terminology or the color wheel.  You are a Zen master, and more power to you!  Go in peace.

On the other hand, you may want to be sure that your investment of time, effort and materials is likely to succeed on a regular basis.  You may have a lower tolerance for failure.  You may be at the point with your work where you are trying to meet deadlines for shows, and you have no time to spare for detours and dead ends.  You may have a limited budget for supplies and can't afford to waste materials on full-size experiments that don't work out.  You may simply want to know how to describe, understand, and control what's happening in your art so you can hit the home runs more often.

The embroidery in the sketches above eventually ended up in a juried show and on the cover of the Embroidery Guild of America's magazine.  (Apologies for the reflective glass in the photo). 

The moral of this story is not that everyone needs to go to art school (though if that is a possibility for you, go for it!).  You can learn a lot about the elements and principles of art and design elsewhere--like from me!  In my design module classes we do lots of fun, hands-on sketchbook exercises that reveal the words and concepts that lead to better artistic choices. These principles apply to all forms of art and craft design, not just fibers.  And here's the best part:  knowing this stuff actually increases the bliss quotient of your art-making!  Putting this knowledge into practice gives you more competence, more confidence, and ultimately an informed intuition that you can call on throughout your process.

It's not too late to sign up for my Design Kickstarters class at the Chattahoochee Handweavers Guild on Sat. April 23.  Click HERE to learn more and to register.

Starting May 22, I'll be offering an in-depth series of classes in design principles at Southeast Fiber Arts Alliance (SEFAA) in Atlanta.  These 3-hour workshops will each focus on one or two aspects of the design process or elements of art.  Each class stands alone; you don't have to take them all.  The first session focuses on Shape and Line (May 22); then we'll look at Color and Value (June 5), Pattern and Rhythm (June 26), Composition (July 10), and finally the whole design process itself (July 17).  Click HERE for more information and to register.

If you're attending Convergence, we'll touch on these themes and ideas in my Art Journaling to Kickstart Creativity class--there are still a few spots open there. Don't hesitate to contact me with any questions you might have. 

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