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.

“A Tiny Touch of Nature,” a wren in impressionistic style.

Pieceful Trellis,” an impressionistic design of a trellis and a garden path.

art quilt representation of Chihuly's Fiori Boat

Fiori Fun,” an impressionistic view of Chihuly’s Fiori Boat.

Soothing Sea,” an impression of some aquarium fish with ribbon “coral”.

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)

A Sewist’s Universe,” or “Big Bang Hits the Sewing Box,” an abstract take on the universe.

art quilt of computer and old photos

Rainy Day Recall“, an abstracted view of a computer screen and old photos.

Relentless Static,” An abstract design alluding to feelings of stress.

Delight,” an abstract image of an emotion.

Surreal — dreamlike, unbelievable, or realistically impossible

Wish Drops,” a surreal (dreamlike) design about wishes made and granted.

Fanciful, whimsical — imaginative, light-hearted, charming

Memories,” a whimsical design incorporating some of my favorite textile treasures.

Tea for Three.” The teapots are realistic but the handkerchief butterflies throw it into the “whimsical” category for me.

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.

bird motif from carpet

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.

Vintage quilt top with great geometric patterns.

This little art quilt was made to portray my dream of someday doing every single technique from an old needlework book.

Dreams,” A geometric design.

Opposite Day,” a geometric design based on an old book cover.

Color Play“, a geometric design based on color interactions.

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!

Detail of a nonobjective piece- interesting shapes, lines, and colors, with no reference to a subject matter.


And of course all these design styles may be combined.

Artist’s Alchemy” – a piece with abstract, geometric, and nonobjective features.


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.