Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Exploring Design at the North Country Fiber Fair

I'm just back from the North Country Fiber Fair in Watertown, SD, where I was honored to be the "featured instructor."  I had never attended this event and I was pleased to meet so many friendly fiberists and to see the beautiful big sky country of that part of South Dakota.  (Hoping there's just a little bit less "big water" out there in the coming days and weeks--they've had some serious flooding.)  Attendees came from the Dakotas but also from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and even Canada.

I taught four three-hour classes about the design process that were intended to be useful for fiber artists of every stripe, not just tapestry artists.  Most of my students signed up for fall four sessions, and as the weekend wore on, this allowed our conversations about the elements and principles of design to go deeper.

In the first session, Design Starters:  Make Friends with Your Sketchbook, students did a series of activities designed to get past the terror of the blank white page and get comfortable with mark-making.  Students also worked with lines, linear patterns and "drawing with scissors" to generate cut-paper shapes and arrangements of shapes and lines.

Overview of the classroom for Design Starters
In the second session, Design Focus:  Color and Value, students endured listened to my favorite sermon about how value trumps color ("Value does the work but color gets all the credit") and did a number of exercises in which they practiced seeing and controlling value.  Here, they are working together to put these cones of yarn in value order.

The Mono filter on the iPhone shows that they were pretty near perfect in their value sequence!
Students also created monochromatic and complementary palettes of colors and were challenged to create a palette using colors they strongly dislike, and then making it more palatable (sorry) by changing the colors' proportions or adding an accent color.

In the third session we explored Composition, looking at various types of compositions (Landscape, Icon, Allover or Crystallographic, S-curve, and so on) and at ways of creating a focal point if that is what your piece calls for.  We discussed balance and various types of contrast (color, scale, line quality).

Working with contrast of scale
Exploring a composition based on a radial format
Finally, in Pattern and Rhythm we considered how repeating elements can create movement and feeling in compositions.

Here students were asked to create a plain pattern and then to disrupt it
With stamps we experimented with layering pattern over an existing image
In one of the last exercises, students created collages that juxtaposed various found patterns in an interesting way.

Generally students enjoy doing these kinds of exercises, just playing around in their sketchbooks, but they also ask, How does this translate into what happens when I'm making my own work?  Great question!  I have a few answers.  First, just knowing the terms and concepts of the elements of art and principles of design is useful when you're looking critically at your own work.  Knowing about value contrast can help you diagnose what might be not quite right in a piece you're making, for example.  Secondly, these kinds of exploratory exercises that are not focused on a particular outcome can be a great way to warm up for studio work, to make that shift from ordinary daily thinking into a creative frame of mind.  Third, sometimes you surprise yourself and something you generate in an exercise can turn out to be worth developing further.  Every artist finds out for herself how design concepts can be useful to her own work.

Thank you, fiber artists of the North Country for allowing me to explore design with you last weekend.  It was a pleasure to be with you!