Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Continuing the Conversation: Using Collage to Design Tapestry

It was so exciting to see so many interested and interesting comments on my post for the ATA Blog Tour last week.  This week I want to respond to some of the themes that came up in your comments.

Clearly, many of us, especially newer weavers, are looking for ways to design our work that don't rely on experience with drawing or painting.  There is so much more to say on this subject!  But for now, let me just say this:

First, many very accomplished weavers do design work by painting and drawing, obviously.  Some of the tapestries I admire most have the look of drawings or paintings.  I enjoy seeing how the drawn line, the gestural mark, translates into tapestry.

Thomas Cronenberg, Missing Home
handwoven tapestry 138.4" x 39.5"
cotton, wool, silk, linen

I also enjoy seeing how layers of translucent watercolor can be interpreted in tapestry. 

Jo Barker, Dark Shimmer
75 x 87 cm
wool, cotton, embroidery threads
I have learned the hard way, though, that it takes skill and experience to know how to translate (that word again) a painting effectively into woven tapestry.  One has to keep constantly in mind what tapestry does best and what it should not be forced to do.  That's why, for me, collage has been so useful as a design strategy.

Second, drawing and painting skills are not something we are either born with or not born with.  They can be learned, through practice and patience!  Many of us are tempted to let ourselves off the hook by saying we just weren't born with this or that talent, and I'm here to say that's bullhockey.  Again and again in my 20-odd years of doing fiber art, I have realized that basic drawing or sketching skills are just the quickest, easiest way to get an idea down on paper--and I've regretted that my own skills aren't more developed than they are.  You don't have to make museum-quality drawings, you don't have to make drawings you'll show anyone else--just get down something that makes sense to you and moves your design forward.  The sketch below was based on a selfie that is so unattractive I will not share it here. 

Molly Elkind, preparatory sketch for Mater Dolorosa
 I often use drawing in conjunction with collage to fully develop a design. 

Molly Elkind, preparatory collage for Mater Dolorosa

Several of you mentioned last week how you know you should make samples, you just hate doing it.  I get it!  You've got a design, you've got your yarns picked out and your loom warped and you just want to start weaving.  Why bother to stop and make a sample?  Well, in your heart of hearts you probably know why. . . but to recap:

  1. You get a chance to see how those yarns you've picked really weave at the sett you've chosen.  
  2. You get a chance to see how those yarns' colors and textures actually look when you weave them next to each other.
  3. You get a chance to practice weaving the tricky parts of the design or practice new techniques.
  4. If you don't like how your initial choices are weaving up, you can try something new, on your sample. 
I did the sample below to test all these points before starting the actual piece.  

Molly Elkind, sample for Mater Dolorosa
The fundamental point is this.  Sure, you can skip doing samples.  But. . . 

How much do you like unweaving on your "real" piece?  

Molly Elkind, detail, Mater Dolorosa 
wool, cotton  (c)2017
Here is where I insert a shameless plug  reminder that you can take a deeper dive into how to use collage to develop a cartoon in a two-day workshop with me at Convergence this summer.  Click HERE for more information. 

And thanks to each of you who read and commented on last week's post.  I am grateful.  

Monday, January 22, 2018

Using Collage to Make a Tapestry Design: The ATA 2018 Blog Tour

If you're a fairly new tapestry weaver, you may have done a sampler or two to learn techniques.  You feel sort of comfortable weaving shapes and angles and know the basics.   Now you're ready to start a "real" tapestry. . . but how?  In our field, there really isn't an abundance of ready-made patterns out there for you to follow, as there are for embroidering or quilting.  You pretty much have to dive in and make your own design (and really, that's much more satisfying in the long run).  But if, like me, you are a little. . . insecure about your drawing or painting talents, you may be at a loss for how to begin.

I'm here to help!  You can design your own tapestry!  Even if you think you can't draw or paint.

I do much of my designing by making collages, cut-and-pasted arrangements of paper and sometimes photographs and other objects.  It makes sense when you think about it, because tapestry is largely an arrangement of shapes and colors, just like a collage.  Also, tapestry is all about texture, and often in collage we are putting together papers and other elements with different textures.  For me, the collage process also keeps me from getting too bogged down in fine lines and fiddly details that can happen in drawing.

I'm going to walk you through the process I've used for some of my own tapestries.  Some of them are large-ish, and some are quite small, so you can see that collage can work in a range of sizes.  You might even use collage to design your own small format piece for ATA's unjuried small format show.  I hope you will!

Molly Elkind, Mary (a sword shall pierce), collage, 6.25" x 11.25" excluding mat
This is a collage that came together very quickly and that I was able to translate with few changes into tapestry.  The central image is a torn-out section of a black-and-white photocopy of an icon of the Virgin Mary, a painting that has inspired my work for the past few years.  I layered it on top of some textured pieces of handmade paper and painted paper I had on hand.  I drew in tiny crosses on the dark blue field in the upper left with a silver gel pen.

Notice that I said that I translated  the collage into tapestry.  Turning a collage into tapestry is a process of translation, an interpretation from one medium (paper and glue) into another (woven yarn).  Adjustments will need to be made.  And that's where it gets really interesting.

With this piece, these are the translation decisions I had to make:
  • Whether to try to try to render the embossed linear textures that you see in the gold and the light blue papers. (I decided this was irrelevant detail.) 
  • What level of detail I wanted in the face.  Would I try to reproduce every speckle and scratch on the worn surface of this ancient icon?  (No, I would not, but I did include some speckles in the final piece.)  
  • Whether to reproduce the torn white edges of the central eyes section?  (Yes, I  like the reference to collage in the woven piece.) 
  • Would I change the size?  (I wove the piece almost exactly the same size as the collage, 6 1/2" x 12".)
  • And of course the big questions:  which yarns would I use?  At what sett?   
To figure that out, I traced the collage to make a first draft of a cartoon.  

You can see how I outlined every major shape and identified the different areas of color.  In the eyes section in the middle, I simplified the image into areas of different values (light and dark) and labeled them with numbers from 1-9, with 1 being the darkest and 9 the lightest.  (For excellent information about working with value, see Sarah Swett's post from last year's blog tour.)  If I were to do this again today, I might simplify the values even further, into just three or four.

Then I marked two narrow vertical sections of the design to weave as samples.   I am a huge believer in making samples:  they give you a chance to try things out, to see what works, before you start on the piece for real.  You get a chance to practice weaving the tricky parts, so I always choose to sample the hardest or most complicated section of the design, which in this case was the eyes section of the face.  Keep in mind my sample below was for my informational purposes only--it was never intended for anyone else to see!

Molly Elkind, samples for Mary (a sword shall pierce)
In the sample on the left, I used Brown Sheep's Waverly Woolcolors for the areas of color and the red sword shape.  I used DMC cotton floss for the eye area. I also experimented with a wider sett (4 epi instead of 8) in the gold, blue, red and white areas, while sticking to 8 epi for the eyes.   In the sample on the right, I used Waverly wool (2 strands) throughout, and did not vary the sett.   Being a lazy sort, and this being only a sample, I did not sew up the long slit between the two strips.

My sampling told me that I preferred the look of using all wool. I moved ahead, tracing the cartoon again, this time on vellum.

I labelled the background areas with letters to indicate color, and continued to use numbers from 1-9 for the grayscale of the eyes area.  I decided to stick with the epi of 8 that I had sampled with, and used 12/9 cotton seine twine for the warp.

Molly Elkind, Mary (a sword shall pierce) in progress; collage visible at left. 
Molly Elkind, Mary (a sword shall pierce), cotton, wool, 6.5" x 12"  mounted on gray cotton to 10" x 16"
Let's look at another collage-to-cartoon translation.  Here's the original collage as it appeared in my sketchbook (9" x 12"):

Molly Elkind, Huh? collage
I painted question words with watercolor on the paper, then I adhered torn and cut sections of paper over the words.  My plan was to do a series of four small, 4" x 6" tapestries that featured words and text, rather like contemporary illuminated manuscripts.  I found an interesting section of the collage and cropped it to 4" x 6".  I liked the cropped version much better than the whole piece.

I traced the cropped section, shaded in some basic light-medium, and dark values, and started pulling out different yarns.

Molly Elkind, cartoon 1 for Huh? tapestry
 I decided my first set of colors was too bright and happy for a collage that was about questions and confusion, so I tried some others:

Molly Elkind, cartoon 2 for Huh? tapestry
I liked these colors better.  You can see by my note to self that I wanted to try to convey the feeling of collage by using yarns of different weights and sheens.  I was wondering again about using DMC floss in combination with wools. I ended up just using various wools.  I did use doubled warps in some areas, weaving at 5 epi instead of 10 (on a 12/6 gray cotton seine twine warp).  I traced the cartoon one more time, on vellum, and began weaving.

To summarize, for this piece my key collage-to-cartoon translation decisions were:
  • to crop and weave only the most interesting section of the original collage
  • to use a single and double sett (10 epi and 5 epi) for textural contrast
  • to use only wool yarn, but to contrast thick Churro singles yarn with thinner wools
  • to use double half-hitches at the edges and allow the fringe to show.  Turning under the hems on a small piece would make the edges lumpy.  
  • to mount this 4"x 6" piece on a larger, 8" x 10" background (gray cotton stretched over stretcher bars) to give it presence

Here's the finished piece:

Molly Elkind, Huh?, cotton, wool.  4" x 6" mounted on gray cotton to 8" x 10" 

Are you still with me?  In this last example you'll see how the initial collage was just the kernel of an idea that needed to be expanded and refined into a resolved composition.

Molly Elkind, Mary (greater is what she bore in her mind), collage

This was my original collage.  I was still working with the face from the Mary icon, and I was also inspired by a quotation from St. Augustine:  "the truth of Christ is in the mind of Mary; greater is what she bore in her mind than in her womb."  In the photo above you can see how I juxtaposed my  photo of a cave opening with a color copy of Mary's face from the icon, and a strip of gold-painted paper on the right side.  To begin to simplify the cave image, I broke down the rock faces into light, medium and dark sections and assigned value numbers.

A hugely important part of translating a photo into tapestry is simplifying it into basic shapes and areas of light and dark values. Value trumps color every time!

While working on this design I had the opportunity to take a wonderful workshop with Scottish tapestry artist Joan Baxter.  Joan quite rightly suggested that the collage needed an overall compositional framework or structure.  I did a number of simple thumbnail sketches in my sketchbook.  These are more like diagrams than drawings.  I was focusing only on major shapes and lines, trying out different framing designs.

Eventually this is the vellum cartoon I settled on, after many tracings and revisions.

Molly Elkind, cartoon for Mary (greater is what she bore in her mind) tapestry 
At the same time I was developing the cartoon, I was also weaving samples to test combinations of yarn colors and weights for the different sections of the tapestry.  The two processes inform each other.  You can see that I tested lots of yarns in the black-to-light gray range for the rocks.  It was challenging to find combinations that would make similar-sized weft bundles.

These are some of the decisions I made while translating this collage into tapestry:
  • to frame the central image with a set of concentric arcs or partial leaf shapes, especially on the left.  I also decided to make the edges of these leaf shapes irregular, fading in and out around the central image.  
  • to use metallic gold Lurex yarn for the gold area on the right and in small amounts on the left
  • to use a variety of green wools for the leaf shapes on the left
  • to use a range of seven values from black to very light gray for the rocks and cave opening
  • to add some lines of soumak in the lower left, and half passes in gold near the top, which were not in the original cartoon. I made these decisions on the fly, while weaving.

Molly Elkind, Mary (greater is what she bore in her womb)
cotton, wool, Lurex.   12" x 9" mounted on gray cotton to 16" x 12" 
I hope these examples have shown how collage can be an accessible entry point for designing your own tapestries.  There is so much more to say on this topic, but I want to leave you with just two more thoughts.

First, not every collage will translate into a weave-able design (ask me how I know. . .).  Collages with lots of fine lines, tiny shapes or marks, and lots of fine color gradations can be fiddly to weave unless you're very experienced.

Second, weavers each have their own attitude toward the cartoon.  Some of us say the cartoon should be as detailed as possible and once finalized never wavered from during the weaving.  For others of us the cartoon is only a starting point, a pretext, and we feel free to improvise along the way.  Both are correct! This is a matter of individual preference and experience.  Each weaver will find their own way.  For me the point of the cartoon is to give me a road map to follow to start with.  It shows me the major decisions about shape, color, value and line that I need in order to begin weaving.  But I like to leave room to improvise along the way, to keep the journey interesting!

Want to know more?  Join me this July in Reno, Nevada at Convergence, where I'll be teaching a two-day workshop From Collage to Tapestry Cartoon.  We'll dive deep into the collage, design and cartoon process and you'll leave with a design ready to weave!

January 22nd: Molly Elkind : Collage as research
January 23rd: Ellen Bruxvoort - Vlog on Instagram about her design process
January 24th: Tommye Scanlin: Literature as inspiration
January 25th: Debbie Herd: Digital design tools
January 26th: Barbara Burns : Documenting your design for promotion

Follow all the stops on the blog tour to increase your chance to win one of the following
prizes: $50 toward a Mirrix Loom, a Hokett loom kit , a Hokett Tiny Turned Beater , a project bag from Halcyon Yarn containing rosewood bobbins and a voucher for their online shop, a voucher for
Weaversbazaar’s online shop , a free entry into ATA’s 12th international, unjuried, small
format exhibition and a free one-year membership to ATA.

Here’s how to enter to win. Comment on this blog post then go here to let ATA know that you
commented. The more blog posts you comment on the more chances you have to win so be
sure to follow along. Ellen Bruxvoort is doing an Instagram video for the tour and if you
respond with a photo or video on social media describing how you design tapestry you get
five extra entries in the giveaway. Let the sharing begin!

To win another 5 entries into the giveaway enter to exhibit in The Biggest Little Tapestries
in the World , ATA’s 12th international, unjuried small format exhibition, and then let us know
that you entered by going here by Sunday January 28th. For this exhibition all entries get
accepted to exhibit as long as your tapestry fits within the size requirements!

The Biggest Little Tapestries in the World , ATA’s 12th international, unjuried small format
exhibition is open to all weavers. We invite entries which fit more traditional definitions of
tapestry, and also entries that expand upon the core principles of the medium as they
explore new techniques and processes. Multimedia work is welcome. The Biggest Little
Tapestries in the World! will hang July 2018 at the Northwest Reno Public Library, 2325
Robb Drive. The entry form (intent to participate) is due February 15, 2018. The tapestry,
and an image of the tapestry is not due until March 31, 2018. Find more details here.

The American Tapestry Alliance is a nonprofit organization that provides programming for
tapestry weavers around the world, including exhibitions (like Tapestry Unlimited), both
juried and unjuried, in museums, art centres and online, along with exhibition catalogues.
They offer workshops, lectures, one-on-one mentoring and online educational articles as
well as awards, including scholarships, membership grants, an international student award,
and the Award of Excellence. They also put out a quarterly newsletter, monthly eNews &
eKudos, an annual digest. Members benefit from personalized artists pages on the ATA
website, online exhibitions, educational articles, access to scholarships and more.

You’re invited to exhibit! The Biggest Little Tapestries in the World, ATA’s 12th international,
unjuried small format exhibition is open to all weavers. We invite entries which fit more
traditional definitions of tapestry, and also entries that expand upon the core principles of the
medium as they explore new techniques and processes. Multimedia work is welcome. The
Biggest Little Tapestries in the World! will hang at the Northwest Reno Public Library, 2325
Robb Drive. The entry form (intent to participate) is due February 15, 2018. The tapestry,
and an image of the tapestry is not due until March 31, 2018. Find more details here