Design Challenge Art Quilts

Painted Hills 1 art quilt

Design Challenge Art Quilts

For a number of years, I have had the privilege of gathering with a talented group of fiber artists that studied with Lorraine Torrence. The “Off Grain Stitchers” continue to retreat to a camp in the foothills of the Cascades where we set up our sewing machines, cutting mats, pressing stations, fabrics, threads, fusibles, embellishments, sketch books, light pads, computers, tablets, dress forms and design walls. And for about a week, we collaborate, commiserate, congratulate and cross pollinate on a design challenge and whatever we choose to work on.

There is usually a class taught by a respected artist, as well as brief sessions where members share their considerable skills with each other. And I’ve heard rumors of wine and spirits being consumed near a warm fire.

But the common thread throughout the week is the Design Challenge. Prior to arriving, everyone receives the same open-ended challenge assignment based on principles and elements of design. We arrive with projects in every stage of development, ranging from the best of intentions to fully completed works of art. Then after breakfast on Sunday, we gather to share how we visually interpreted the assignment and ask for critique input if we want it.

Painted Hills Art Quilt

I had never seen a total eclipse. And I really wanted to. In August, 2017, my brother generously hosted a family reunion at his Central Oregon ranch, right smack dab in the path of totality. The house is small, so the clan gathered in tents and trailers to share the rare event. The visit inspired Painted Hills Art Quilt.

The day before the eclipse, we ventured to Oregon’s nearby Painted Hills, and I couldn’t stop taking photographs! The unique landscape with vivid natural colors called to me and insisted that a quilt be made to emphasize line and value. The next design challenge for Off Grain Stitchers was to focus on line, so this would be my assignment.

I pondered how to do it – appliqué, fused, curved piecing, straight piecing, templates, foundation paper piecing? I considered my options and decided on appliqué. After drawing it out (and thinking about it with each pencil stroke), I decided that appliqué, fused or stitched, would not capture how I felt about this landscape.

Back to the drawing board, I pulled out a couple of  books by Ruth B. McDowell and dusted off my memory of a workshop I had taken from Ruth over 15 years ago – and never finished the project! But I knew that this method would be perfect for what I wanted to achieve, even if my technique wandered a bit from Ruth’s intent.

If you have ever attempted to make a “Ruth McDowell quilt”, you know that the process includes lots and lots of planning before you take the first stitch. The first step was tracing the major seam lines suggested by the photo in such a way as to make the final piecing go together more smoothly, trying to avoid drawing myself into a corner with inset seams.

Once I had my tracing from the 8- by 10-inch print, I took it to a copy shop that had a large-format printer, enlarging my diagram 250%. That gave me a final map about 25 by 20 inches – pieces large enough to work with. Mostly. Some pieces still turned out to be kind of tiny, but I wanted to make the map work.

Colored pencils and highlighters helped me divide the map into manageable sections that could be pieced together as the quilt grew. It would have been nice if all of the piecing lines corresponded to the elements of the landscape, but that was unlikely. So each section, and each piece within every section, had to be labeled clearly. I gave each section a letter designation, then added numbers in a logical piecing order. So I would first sew piece A1 to piece A2, then add piece A3, etc. But not yet! No sewing yet – not ready to select fabrics, as much as I want to. Too soon. Must add hash marks to each and every piecing line to guide construction. And determine where each piece would fit in a light-to-dark value scale and label every piece before cutting into the pattern.

If I lost track of which piece went where, a world of frustration awaited me. So it was very, very important to keep the original marked piecing map intact. It guided me throughout the process. To make templates, I taped two pieces of freezer paper together to make a new, full-size tracing. The freezer paper diagram would become my templates. I wanted to be able to see how each fabric choice affected the composition, so I traced onto the shiny (back) side of the freezer paper to give me reverse image pattern pieces. This allowed me to adhere the templates to the backs of the fabrics so I could pin individual pieces to my “master plan” and see how the colors and patterns would flow in the finished quilt before stitching. Less unsewing!

I needed fabrics in a range of values for this landscape, from very light to very dark. As any quilter knows, the super-lights and uber-darks are less plentiful. So once I had my colors selected, I needed to supplement what I already had to get a good range. All the pieces are small, so shopping for fat quarters was enough.

Then I arranged the fabrics for each section (sky, faraway mountains, vivid painted hills, grassy foreground) in value order. Value can be tricky – yellows get me every time. And I tend to conflate intensity with value. So I used my smartphone camera to help. I arranged fabrics in what appeared to me to be value order, then snapped a pic and converted to grayscale. I rearranged, then snapped again, repeating until I had the order right.

Then I was ready to put fabric to the design! I picked the foreground section to start because I knew that the first section I worked on would probably be the one that would need the most changes. (I was right – more on that later!)

Pinning both color and grayscale photos of my inspiration near my map guided me as I selected each piece of fabric for color and value. Ruth McDowell’s books provide detailed instructions on how to construct each section, then join them to create the quilt.

Painted Hills Design Challenge Quilt

I enjoyed watching the quilt evolve, section by section:

I continued to build my landscape, section by section. So I made a purple mountain, then added pale blue and yellow mountains in the distance. Then came the clouds and a fun floral sky! With the pieces sewn together, I was ready to show my quilt top for critique. Feedback was positive – except – the pieces of foreground with the little red and teal flowers glared with distraction. When I covered those pieces, the rest of the composition came together. So with some creative cutting and substituting, I achieved a happy composition ready for quilting. The resulting Painted Hills 1 hung in a juried art show with paintings, photographs and digital art and appeared in a calendar.

Painted Hills 1 art quilt for a design challenge

American Pi

This challenge was to design a quilt inspired by a number. I picked pi, as in 3.1416…… But I didn’t want to use the numerals. I thought the symbol was more interesting for my art quilt. So three cropped images of “pi” inspired the red and white appliqué strips for “American Pi”. The blue fields echo the flag. Three different reds, whites and blues add a subtle variety to the piece. The curvy machine quilting lines are the wind that makes the flag wave.

I started with some open source clip art, then tilted it and cropped it in photo editing software until I got “pieces of the pi” that I liked and that I thought played well together visually. The red pi slices became appliqué templates when printed on freezer paper in reverse. With the templates ironed onto the back of the fabric, I cut out the pieces about a quarter inch larger than the templates and turned under the edges. A narrow blanket stitch on my sewing machine attached the appliqué pieces to the backgrounds securely. Then I could remove the freezer paper – it came out without any problems. The pieces were large enough and open enough to allow me to reach in and pull out the paper templates.

American Pi design challenge

Just My Type – The Letter G

The negative space challenge was, well, and challenge. And I had to overcome my own negativity about the assignment. I struggle with the negative space concept, so I just decided to pick something and work with it. “G” is my favorite letter – my dad’s initials were GGG, and anything so noted always meant business! His “original laptop”, a 1945-ish portable Royal typewriter, lives with me now. The “g” on that typewriter (anyone remember typewriters?) resembles this one. I cropped edges and played with positive and negative shapes to create Just My Type – The Letter G Quilt. I played with several versions of the cropped letter to preview distinct shapes in the positive and negative spaces. My final selection overlapped the edges of the frame to provide enough individual pieces to vary the compositions.

To keep each design easy, I selected contrasting fabrics, one pure black and two bright, multi-colored hand painted batiks. For each “g” composition, I used black and one of the colorful fabrics. I thought that using more than two fabrics in any one composition would detract from the graphic design. Once I cut the pieces, I simply played with composition. I moved and adjusted the pieces in search of balance and interesting lines. I composed each piece on a pressing surface to avoid shifting them out of position. Wonder Under fusible web made it easy to keep the pieces in place once I decided on an arrangement.

Since there is a whole alphabet to explore, there may be more letter quilts in my future!

Just my type - the letter G design challenge quilt

Machine Embroidered Self Portrait

A thousand years ago, I challenged myself to learn fly fishing. My husband and I spent many an Idaho weekend tying flies on barbless hooks and practicing our fledgling casting skills on catch-and-release streams in Idaho, Montana, and Yellowstone Park. We’re not sure, but we think the trout laughed at us. And we laughed with them. We knew we weren’t very good, but we had a very good time. We captured one of those Yellowstone River good times in a streamside snapshot.

Fast-forward 35 years to our self-portrait assignment for retreat. I challenged myself to digitize the photo in my Bernina Embroidery Software and stitch a self-portrait. I call the Machine-Embroidered Self-Portrait “Fishing Shades of Grey”.

Machine-Embroidered Self-Portrait design challenge

Stitch-out in progress. When I completed a stitch-out, I checked for areas that did not work. Did I need to simplify the image to get a good likeness? Maybe I used too many layers. Or not enough. Did my thread choices match the values in the original photograph? When stitching a commercially designed embroidery pattern, the manufacturer includes a list of recommended threads by brand and color number. When you design your own embroidery, you “get to” pick your own thread colors. Or, to put it another way, when you design your own embroidery you “have to” pick your own thread colors. It can be daunting to get the shadings just right.

Machine-Embroidered Self-Portrait design challenge

Many, many stitches and background fabrics later, I have a version that is closer to what I want, but not quite there yet. More tweaking, more stitching!


Revealing Context Art Quilt

Here was the challenge for design retreat: pick a noun and a verb from random pages in the dictionary and make a quilt. I know I must have a page-turning dictionary in the house somewhere, but using an online random word generator was faster! I searched for random nouns and got “context”. Hmmm…. Not exactly a thing I could picture, but definitely a noun. The verb search gave me “reveal”. Now what? How to get from there to Revealing Context Art Quilt?

I thought about how important context is to perceived reality – we don’t always see what’s really there. The quilt design didn’t take shape until I did a Google search for “reveal context”. One of the first hits was an article about a memory study that measured word recall by recording electrical impulses in the brain. The context in which the interviewers presented the words impacted the accuracy of memory. And the study had charts and graphs! I sketched this art quilt in Electric Quilt based on one of those graphed results. Revealing Context Art Quilt is 29 by 24 inches. It has a faced binding.

Revealing Context Art Quilt design challenge

Browse through more art quilt inspiration and ideas on Create Whimsy.


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