A Practical Design Book

I’ve carried on about how important design is in quilting, especially in original quilts.  In previous posts I’ve noted quilt specific design books such as Elizabeth Barton’s “Inspired To Design,” Joen Wolfrom’s “Adventures In Design,” Sandra Meech’s “Connecting Design To Stitch,” and Jean Wells’ “Intuitive Color & Design.” Then, I came across “Create Perfect Paintings” by Nancy Reyner and realized that good design transcends medium, duh! So why should I disdain a resource just because the word quilt appears nowhere in it.

The book’s blurb says, “As a painter, your two main objectives are to draw the viewer to your work and to sustain their attention long enough to create a meaningful viewing experience.” I inserted quilter for painter throughout the book and learned a lot.

With the exception of about 20 pages (out of 144) very specific to mixing paint colors and applying paint, the advice Reyner gives works as well for quilters as for anyone who creates original art. Again, from the publisher’s description, “This solution-based guide offers ways to identify and overcome the common problems faced by all painters in every medium. To create the perfect painting, analysis and editing are critical.”

While Reyner gives helpful advice about creating art, for me her book is valuable for specific ways to analyze my work and fix what’s wrong. She gives a 10 inquiry self-critique method to help you evaluate and improve your work. The usual suspects are there – value/intensity/hue, focal points, design and movement, etc. – but I haven’t found other design books that use digitally altered paintings as examples and show specific steps to fix issues. It’s amazing what a difference a red flower and an upper right detail make in the painting below.

One type of inquiry that has puzzled me is what Reyner calls hot spots, areas of a work that carry “strong viewer expectations,” such as corners and edges, the center, and sky and ground. She cautions against locked corners, where forms or objects are placed directly into corners and along edges. The viewer’s eye will use these to make a quick exit rather than travel around your work. I had been told by an artist to keep my diagonal lines away from corners, but I had no idea why. Now I do.

This altered painting by Pierre Bonnard shows what happens when forms are shoved into the corners. Showing, not telling, seems to help me get it.

In case 10 steps are too much, there’s a 4 step critique shortcut: finish the statement “it’s too ___ (insert adjective here,) figure out the adjective’s opposite (that’s the solution,) choose best techniques to carry that out, and keep an unequal ratio between the opposites. Fifty-fifty ratios and 100-0 ratios lead to boring work. There’s also a critique quick list and pairs of opposites to help you get started.

Beyond specifics this book offers timely (for me) advice such as “Take the necessary time out from painting quilting to periodically think about and clarify your intentions.” I find it all too easy to get swept up in the creative flow. I forget to step back and think about what I’m trying to convey and analyze my progress toward that. One of my goals is to develop a broad intent for each work as I create it – a mood, a feeling, a memory, an impression, etc.

Reyner closes her book with a short section on critique groups. Quilters I’ve been around tend to skirt actual critiques with broad statements like “that’s great” or “love the colors.” I understand no one wants to hurt someone’s feelings, and it’s hard to know if your thoughts are being solicited for an honest critique or simply praise. However, comments by others in a critique group can give you clarity, inspiration and a broader viewpoint, even if they do nothing more than identify problems. I think Reyner expresses well what should be the spirit of a critique:

Each person has vastly different work than the next, and it doesn’t matter whether you prefer that type of work or not. It only matters whether you think that artist has succeeded in doing what they set out to do.

I added the emphasis to remind myself that whether or not you like someone’s work is immaterial to a critique.

I’ll leave the rest of this book for you to make your own discoveries. It resonated enough with me I bought a copy. I consider it $21 well spent.


Filed under Books

10 responses to “A Practical Design Book

  1. I’m working my way back through the last several days’ of posts. I have or have used a few of the quilt design books you’ve mentioned. Though I haven’t looked farther for books like the one you’re reviewing, I’ve often thought any good text on 2-D design could be instructive. The examples you show from this book are not ones I’ve seen before, and I can understand why they’d set you to thinking. I like the idea of the question set — I use one in my medallion design class booklet to try to spur some analysis. I really like the 4-step shortcut!

    Also on critique groups, in writing groups the workshopping method is useful. The critiques may be in writing or out loud. The writer being critiqued is not allowed to respond or defend themselves, and of course they can take or leave the comments offered. One big problem with quilting as opposed to writing is that back-tracking isn’t just a matter of “erasing.” Often what’s done is largely done. (Though I often backtrack and re-do, as I know you do.) It just can be a bit harder to incorporate what’s learned ON this piece IN this piece. Most of those lessons have to wait until they’re needed for something else, and then we can only hope we remember…

    • One type of critique group that could be helpful before all the seams are sewn is an “in progress” one. That’s what Elizabeth Barton did in her master class. A real problem with some critiques is that the person whose work in under consideration can become defensive. It’s probably all in how the comments are couched. The book I reviewed is designed as a self-critique guide.

  2. This is a great review–from reading it, I know I’d like this book and learn from it. Would it be useful as a tool for building art appreciation as well, or is the focus really entirely on making?

    Regarding critique groups, I took fairly advanced courses in metalsmithing/jewelry-making and one of the things the faculty member taught was how to give useful critiques, to get away from “I love it” to more useful feedback. The group critiques ended up being fascinating!

    • Hmm, I think you could use the same principles to understand a piece of art as to create one, though the book’s focus is on the creator. I always enjoy a docent led art museum tour when the guide talks about what makes a painting work. As to critiques, it’s an art to learn constructive critiquing, and some people will get defensive about their work no matter how positively the comments are worded. I’m intrigued by how others see my work.

  3. Thanks for the recommendation! I will see if my library has it.

  4. Jane

    As so often happens, Joanna, you have given me something to ponder. Thanks for the mental nudge.

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