Notes on Design Styles
I read a lot of books about defining one’s artistic style, and I just came across a very helpful guide, Joen Wolfrom’s Adventures in Design: Ultimate Visual Guide.
This book specifically addresses design in quilts, rather than in all kinds of art. My other art books tend to place art styles into just three large areas — realistic, abstract, and non-objective — but Wolfrom lists more specific categories within those areas. Looking at my own quilts within her framework is helping me to assess them and to think about how to improve my designs.
I’m going to go over her style categories, adding a few notes from the textbook Design Basics (8th edition) by David A. Lauer and Stephen Pentak. (Both Adventures in Design and Design Basics consider these design style categories in their chapters on Shape.)
Design Style 1 — Representational
Realistic — similar to a photo in clarity
The only quilt where I have even attempted a realistic style was the animal quilt I made at my daughter’s request, and for that one, I cheated and just sent Spoonflower a Photoshop creation, because there is no way I was going to try to achieve the image with applique.
Design Basics calls this style naturalism, and gives a sub-category of idealism — reproducing the world with all its flaws and incongruities “corrected.” In my quilt below, I have to admit that all these animals did not actually appear together in real life, so this quilt may count as idealism. 🙂
Impressionistic — recognizable subject for the viewer, but more of a visual suggestion
I think, in this style, the artist allows her attitude towards the subject to be made clear, and that becomes an important trait of the finished piece.
This is where I would place a lot of the mini-quilts I have done for the online group The Endeavourers.
As I look back on all these pieces, I know that they are not technically perfect, but I think they captured my feelings of happiness as I worked on them.
Abstract — based on something in reality, but presented with some ambiguity
Wolfrom says this style is more like a picture puzzle. A viewer may spend some time trying to figure out what the artist is trying to say, or what it alludes to.
Design Basics says that in abstraction, simplification is obvious and important to the final pictorial effect. “Abstracted form does not always lead simply to an alternative representation of a naturalistic form. Abstraction often arises from a love of shape and form for its own sake and from a delight in manipulating form.” (p. 161)
In The New Creative Artist, Nita Leland says, “Artists are able to express strong feelings with abstraction. Many abstract works have figurative subject matter or recognizable graphic symbols. Some express intangible emotion through gesture, color, and other elements of design. Both positive and negative energy can be released and expressed this way.” (p.128)
Surreal — dreamlike, unbelievable, or realistically impossible
Fanciful, whimsical — imaginative, light-hearted, charming
Cultural (sometimes called primitive) — based on a specific culture
I have not made anything in this style, but I would like to re-create some Middle Eastern carpets in quilt form.
Design Style 2 — Geometric
This style is not mentioned as its own category in mainstream art books (they might include it under abstract or nonobjective). It encompasses the traditional patterns of weaving and quilting.
Of course most of the bed quilts I make and collect are in geometric designs. I love the interplay of color, value, secondary shapes, and so on.
This little art quilt was made to portray my dream of someday doing every single technique from an old needlework book.
Design Style 3 — Nonobjective
Wolfrom says, “The art does not represent any idea or object.. a visual symphony of color, line, value, texture, direction, shape, balance.”
The book Design Basics says that nonobjective shapes are “shapes with no object reference and no subject matter suggestion.” Their visual example is a canvas with shapes made by flowing and pooling paint.
According to this definition of nonobjective art, I would have to say I have not done made any quilts that could be called totally nonobjective, although I have made some panels that were incorporated into other pieces.
And when I look at the quilt pictures I keep as inspiration, they almost all fit into this category!
And of course all these design styles may be combined.
It was interesting to me to sort my pieces into Wolfrom’s categories. I do not think of myself as a whimsical person, but I have a few pieces in that category, and I enjoyed making them. I also noticed that the pieces I would call impressionistic or whimsical are in a very light palette, and the pieces I would call abstract are all dark.
I really don’t care for any of these mini-quilts in the geometric category, but maybe I would like them better if I had used fabrics that balanced with simple, geometric shapes, with more organic patterns, blending, drip effects, and so on. It might be worth an experiment, or maybe I just need to avoid that format and rely on the design styles I like better, impressionistic and abstract.
My favorite piece is “Wish Drops,” which I would put in the surreal category. It is rare for me to come up with ideas in that style, but it would be fun to go in that direction.
It was really valuable for me to learn about these categories, sort my quilts into them, and consider how I could use each definition to strengthen the visual impact of my pieces. I hope this has been useful information for all of you, too.
This has been just a small amount of the material found in Adventures in Design. The quilts that illustrate the concepts show every variety of style, and every chapter has a list of assignments to help you strengthen your design skills. I highly recommend it as a design guide for quilters and other textile artists.
This was an interesting read. Of course, the first thing I noticed is that you’d described one of my favorites, “Color Play,” as geometric. I would have placed it in the abstract category, as the first thing I saw was an urban landscape, such as the tenements of the Morningside Heights area in NYC, some of Madrid’s old neighborhoods, and so on.
It would be fascinating — although probably quite a bit of work — to select a few quilts other than those you’ve shown here, recapitulate the categories, and then ask others to choose a category for each. I’d bet some would land in several categories.
You make such a good point about how the viewer brings an interpretation to a piece! I have never been to NYC or Madrid, and as I was working on that piece I was thinking only about getting *something* done by the deadline, and in my mind I was seeing just color swatch exercises. But with your interpretation, I can see a much more interesting direction to go in! Now I am thinking of Edward Hopper tenement paintings done in a more colorful, less detailed style, etc. So thank you so much!
And I did think of doing a poll along with each category too. Maybe soon!
Sure enough, I have that book, but stopped reading part way through because it seemed to me more encyclopedia than inspiration. I like your idea of viewing past works through the lens of her categories, though, so I may go back to it.
Yes, she is very thorough! But that is what I needed, some good solid advice on making images stronger.
I always learn something from your posts. I’d have to think a bit on categorizing my quilts, which seem to be all over the place – haha. I may have to find that book!
I initially borrowed it through the Hoopla app (which my library offers), and then I liked it so much I bought it used. There are a lot of copies out there for about $3.50 plus shipping! 🙂
Whereas that was interesting, my favourite is your little Wren quilt. Guess I am too old fashioned when it comes to quilts or maybe I don’t have the imagination for the new ones.
I like that little Wren quilt too, but you may have more modern tastes than you think! That quilt has free motion quilting and textile paint — I am not sure when free motion quilting started, but I do remember the hubbub about machine-stitched quilts appearing in shows, and the book The Painted Quilt came out in 2008. 🙂
Also, I love to make traditional quilts, but I make these little quiltlets once a quarter, just to spark my brain and to try new techniques. Just a palate cleanser! 🙂
I purchased “Adventures in Design after taking an on-line class from Annette Kennedy, whose work is featured in the book. It has helped me to understand design principles as they are utilized by quilters. I learn so much everytime I pick it up.
I am so glad I came across it, and I know I will learn a lot from it too!
I enjoyed your post on design styles with textile examples! I have that book by J. Wolfrom but have yet to read it – this post was a reminder to dig it out 🙂
Your designs are so interesting and attractive; I bet when you read it, you will be thinking, “Oh yeah, I already do that… and that….check…” But I always feel like my art quilt results need a little more unity between elements, and for me it was good to find spelled-out definitions and steps to take.
Totally different from how I categorize mine, I think. Traditional patchwork. Traditional applique.. in traditional repro fabrics… or as near as I could find at the time. Early on I’d drawn my own version of an applique butterfly as seen in an old quilt book with no patterns. Not having access to reprints yet then I used small floral prints for my butterflies and embroidered the body and anthers. Later in my guild we would make a quilt for each new Habitat for Humanity house owner. I was in charge of designing the quilts while I lived there. Guild members would make house blocks, I would set them around the center square where I pieced a large house, with landscaping and florals in the garden. Representational I guess.
Those sound lovely, I bet the new homeowners cherished them! It must have been tricky to blend so many people’s work together.
For most of my quilts, I just choose fabrics that I like together and go from there, and I too love putting together the traditional patchwork patterns. But for these little art quilts, I usually start with trying to get an idea first and then choosing the materials. Wolfrom’s way of categorizing designs will help me with making my ideas stronger visually than they have been, I think.
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Not only do people see different things in a work of art, but they are struck by different things in a book. I own Wolfrom’s book, and have always been far more focused on her discussion of proportion and scale than on quilt style. I think she does a good job of showing diverse examples of quilted work, though I suspect a revised edition might feature digital work more. The copy of the book I have was published in 2011.
I think I have the same edition — the copyright page was clipped for some reason.
I looked again at the chapter on proportion and scale after reading your comment this morning. I’m sure I will learn a lot there too. I want to just work through all the exercises and see how my work changes as a result.
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