by Christine Barnes
First, a bit of business: a place has opened up in my workshop “It’s All About Color!” Check out the Workshops page for details and examples. I’m so excited about this new class and I’d love to have you join us!
Back to the title of this post: What? You want me to steal??? That’s terrible! Those were my thoughts when Sue Benner recommended the best-seller Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon in her workshop “Driven to Abstraction.” I just had to buy this little book, and I’m glad I did because it has opened my eyes to new ways of working creatively. There’s a lot of meat here—note the subtitle. For me the most important message is this: Nothing is truly original, and it’s A-OK to emulate or be influenced by another artist (or many artists). You will learn more than you can imagine through the work of others, and in doing so, find your own path.
Think about my colleagues: Sandra is wildly successful (you go, girl!) with her mind-blowing quilts inspired by the work of Chuck Close. Ask Mary where she gets ideas for her exquisite garments and bags and more, and she will happily tell you, Pinterest. (Haven’t we all saved clippings from catalogs and magazines in the past? Now we have Pinterest boards.) And Heidi, wow, she’s like a sponge, absorbing ideas from all around her, 24/7, and growing them into fun, one-of-a-kind wearables and accessories.
So, I have a confession: A number of quilts ago, I stole from my artist uncle. Below is a mixed-media piece he did while getting his MFA at one of the art schools in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, in the mid-60s. It’s acrylic, with translucent paper and torn pieces of Mexican street posters.
I had always wanted to try to interpret what he does in fabric, and this was my chance. Below is the pattern I made for teaching my quilt as a workshop. It resembles the painting, but I altered and added shapes.
My quilt is raw-edge and was constructed with Misty Fuse. At 28 by 36 inches, it’s somewhat larger than the painting:
Once the quilt top was fused, Carol Walsh, an amazing machine quilter, worked her magic:
So is my quilt legit, or am I a fraud? According to Austin Kleon and Sue Benner, it is mine. When I explained my quilt during a show-and-tell session in Sue’s class, sort of apologizing for it being based on my uncle’s work, she piped up, “Oh no, you were influenced by his work. Yours is different. You’ve made it your own.” I admit I was relieved. His painting gave me the framework—the freedom, really—to focus on color and pattern and visual texture, and allowed me to grow in the process. Here are a few concepts that played a part in that process:
• As you hunt for fabrics, strive to gather different values. If the values are too similar, the pieces will blend into mush. I bet I auditioned four or more pieces of fabric for every piece you see in the quilt. It was the only way to get the contrast I needed.
• When the values are similar, different colors save the day. How? Your eye sees different colors as distinct pieces, even if they are the same value.
• The most important fabric in this quilt? The three pieces of batik stripe. That “geometric” fabric makes the design snap. As much as you can, vary the type and size of patterns to differentiate the shapes.
• Balancing visual temperature is always pleasing. In my quilt, cooler colors balance the mostly warm ones.
• Buy more Elin Noble hand-painted fabrics. (There are two of her fabrics in the “sky” areas.) They are magic.
• And finally, you need a really good pair of small scissors.
So I stole like an artist, only the artist happens to be in my family tree. Would I do things differently if I had it do over again? Yes. I’d use a wider variety of fabrics—rayons, silks, especially organza, tulle, and perhaps cheesecloth—for a more ethereal effect. I would do my own quilting. Will I make another quilt inspired by my uncle’s work? Probably, because I learned so much from this one. Besides, it was fun!
If you aren’t convinced that it’s all right to use other artists’ work as a starting point, I heartily recommend Kleon’s book. His list of tips is a step-by-step, how-to guide to creativity. It’s full of quotes, some of them funny. One of my favorites is from Mark Twain: “It’s better to take what does not belong to you than let it lie around neglected.” On that note I will leave you—and invite you to steal like an artist!
p.s. To my retreat students, watch for the next issue of my newsletter, Christine’s Color Connection. I’ll be writing about my Japanese X and Plus blocks and the quilt I just finished from them, “Spumoni.” The pattern is one of the possible projects in our workshop.