I usually start with some crazy idea that pops into my head – like a joke or a pun, or some life situation that bothers me or I find strange and interesting. Then I start doodling and sketching. I try to sketch in places and times when I’m relaxed like on a trip, or when I wake up in the middle of the night because my imagination is more free.I scan the sketches into my computer, iPad, or iPhone so that I can trace the image, play with different colors and perspectives, and combine images. Often I work back and forth between the hand drawing and computer drawing stage, until I arrive at a design that I can enlarge to make a paper pattern the size the quilt will be. During this process, I try to retain the spontaneity of the original hand drawings, because I feel that’s what gives the quilts their unique quirky personality and also helps me to achieve the handmade quality that draws me to quilt-making in the first place.Once I have the big paper pattern ready, I trace the elements onto fabrics, cutting and pinning the shapes like a big collage on a soft design wall in my studio. I don’t permanently attach anything until I have the whole composition pinned together, because I am always adjusting fabric colors and patterns to achieve good composition.Once I have the composition complete, I temporarily fuse the whole thing together so I can sew it. I sew free-motion quilting on a Bernina and Viking machine. My sewing patterns are all designed for the specific quilt. If you look at faces and body parts, you’ll see kind of strange stiching that reminds me of tattoos or tribal body art patterns. The backgrounds will sometimes have thematic symbolic shapes stitched in them, such as wind, water, stars, or made-up hieroglyphics.Because I change colors of threads often to match the fabric on the front, on the back of my quilts you will see a ghost image of the front. So I like to use coordinating batiks for the back that allow this ghost images to show up.
A while back I wrote a post about collecting old wooden spools. Why does any collector collect?
I don’t know the answer to that — I just know that because thread is now sold on plastic spools, they aren’t making any more wooden spools. So I save them and sometimes reuse them. Sometimes they inspire me.
After hearing the phrase “Keep Your Head in the Game” at a meeting, I spent the weekend thinking about what it meant to me. I suppose it’s probably a sports term, but the phrase reminded me how I’m sure that my subconscious mind can work on creative projects, event when my body can’t.
This list isn’t really about time or project management. It’s a list of some techniques that I use to try to “keep my head in the game” — to keep my brain working, thinking, and developing ideas for creative projects or problem-solving, even during times when I can’t physically work on them. Using them, often later when I do get back to working in body and soul on that delayed project, I’m gifted some new ideas or insights that help move the project forward.
1. Walk around and look.
Even when you’re not working on a project, it helps to look at it frequently. I keep projects up on my design wall for weeks, sometimes months, occasionally walking by and looking at them from different viewpoints. This could apply whether you’re working on a painting, a graphic design, a sculpture, your garden, or part of your house you are wanting to improve.
Research shows that exercise and movement is good for the brain, and it’s hard to have new ideas when you just sit in one place or look at something from the same angle all the time.
Get up from your desk to look. Look for something that’s broken that you can fix later. Look for something ugly you can improve. Look for problems and what causes them. Look for surprises.
Or you could take a walk in your neighborhood or down a street and just look for things are that beautiful, wonderful, or noteworthy. Because sometimes something totally unrelated to your project will inspire you to add a new element to your project, something you didn’t plan or expect, but that can make the project better and uniquely yours.
2. Make notes or sketches.
While you’re walking around looking at stuff, it’s good to take notes in a notebook, in your day planner, in your moleskine, on a napkin, on your mobile phone. My notes are pretty scribbly, and sometimes they are just doodle drawings. But I can look back at a doodle drawing and instantly remember the time and place I did, who was there, and what I was thinking at the time.
Later when you need material for your blog post, action plan, or turning a sketch into a final drawing or work of art, those notes or doodle drawings are invaluable.
3. Take photos – lots of them.
Photos help record things as they are, so taking photos over time and studying them can help you to see how there have been changes in places/projects you want to effect. Photos help you to see details that you’ve forgotten, or to see things are they really are, not just how you remember them. A series of photos over time can help you see if you are improving something, or if you have made a mistake, at what stage to go back and re-direct.
I organize my photos in different ways for different projects using Flickr, Aperture, and iPhoto. Other good possibilities to collect and save photos according to projects or themes are Picassa, Pininterest, Tumbler, and Instagram.
4. Use mobile devices.
Mobile devices such as smart phones, pocket cameras, iPads and tablets are great for quickly recording ideas or notes on the go.
A main point here is to spend some time when in a relaxed environment learning to use the device, so that when you want to really want to use an app or tool, you are ready. If you wait until a high-stress situation when your project depends on it, it will be difficult to both learn how to use it and get the results you hope to achieve.
When I’m learning or considering using a new device or app, I imagine what for what situations it would be useful or fun to use — and then practice, play, experiment!
The other important point about mobile devices is to be sure you can get your information out of the device. Smart phones and iPads have lots of apps that allow you to draw or edit photos. Just make sure you can email them, sync them, or upload them to your Flickr, Tumbler, Blog, iCloud, Dropbox, or Facebook account. Or know that you can download them to your computer hard drive to study or print them out on paper.
Because many of the apps I use are drawing, art or photo-related, it’s a big part of my criteria what photo resolution or what drawing file format that app will be able to export so I can use it later on another platform.
5. Build a bridge.
This is a technique that I learned from Twyla Tharp’s most excellent book The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It For Life, one of my all-time favorites. The idea is that large creative projects cannot be done in one sitting or connected time period. So when you are preparing to end a work session or work day and you will not be able to finish, don’t work until you are dog-tired and out of ideas. Stop a little before, at a point where you can see the next immediate step.
Then when you come back to the project the next day or next week, you know exactly where to pick up and getting working again. You’ve built a bridge for yourself, so that you can move into the next work session without facing a writer’s or artist’s block.
6. Keep the project open.
If you have the space, it’s very nice to be able to leave a project open and ready to work in a different room or different part of your desk. I like to do this because for me, out of sight is out of mind. I need those visual cues to keep my brain working on something. A visual cue can also be small, like leaving my sketchbook open to a page I want to remember or small sketch on a post-it.
7. The brain is the best mobile computer, use it.
Back to using mobile devices, we’ve got the best one with us all the time. The brain is the best mobile computer ever!
There are precious minutes everyday, when we’re stuck somewhere, trapped by circumstances or waiting for something. These are great times to work on creative projects in your mind or to stretch your creative mind, play with it, and experiment. Write a poem in the shower. Make up a joke during a meeting. Imagine a cartoon while you’re stuck in traffic. Imagine taking a photo at the post office. Write a one-act play in the grocery check-out line…
If you have any more tips for Keeping Your Head in the Game, please leave a comment. I’d love to hear them!
Or perhaps I should have said, Preoccupied with Octopi. This is the second of two blog posts about making a big quilt featuring PaMdora and an octopus. The first one is Occupied by Octopi, part one.
While I’m working on a drawing of my idea, I am also going through my collection of fabric developing a palette. Sometimes I just throw fabrics on the floor, but eventually I may pin wads of fabric to the design wall. In this case, I want the octopus to glow from a dark background. If the abstract pattern and palette looks good, I feel I have a good backbone on which to build the final piece.
The way I work on the design wall is similar to how I work on the computer. I pin all my reference sources around the edges of my work space.
This is the pattern that I’ve printed from my drawing. I used to tile dozens of 8.5 x 11 pieces of paper and tape them together to make patterns. Now we have a large format printer, but this design still took two tiles. Since big patterns tend to slip off my cutting table, I like to use old irons to hold them in place.
The octopus needs a lot of fabric, so I have to careful I’m not going to run out. It took a lot of fiddling with the patterns to get it all to fit. You can see I’m playing around with colors for water in the background.
Just trying to make sure that I’ve got all eight tentacles covered! I did write one blog post about cutting this monster. It took me three days.
Like working a painting, I’m trying to keep the entire surface in mind. Each color choice affects every other part, so I’m just pinning things together and nothing is permanent. As I cut and pin, I also am constantly thinking about how I’m going to sew this monster together. Because of the many layers, it’s going to be technically difficult to quilt.
Starting to add the digital toys. Even though they are small, I want them to pop out to the viewer, so I’m using bright bits of turquoise. I’m also improvising waves at the top and sea grass at the bottom, and added that blue polka dot rock bed at the bottom to give myself a little more space to work.
Because I got in a hurry to finish this quilt, I didn’t take any photo of sewing the details. I usually sew the faces and small details on a Bernina sewing machine because I like the control it gives me. You can see me sewing another big quilt on my Bernina here.
After getting the octopus, PaMdora, and the digital toys sewn, I moved to a frame to finish the background with my Viking sewing machine.
This was one of the hardest pieces I’ve ever quilted. Because of the many layers and intertwining parts, I had to really concentrate and plan my method of attack to keep it flat. It may have turned out a little too flat — I would have liked a little more texture in the background, but we learn something from every project we do!
Looking back on the project, I realize it was challenging, but also lot of fun. I like making things like computers, old TVs and remote controls out of crazy patterned fabrics.
I barely finished this quilt in time to take photos and submit it to Quilt National. At the time I called it “Dancing with an Octopus” because I was in a hurry and needed a title. Since QN is strict about pre-exhibition photos on the internet, I never put any of this on my blog or website. By the time I found out this quilt wasn’t accepted, I had moved on to other projects.
The other day I realized I still haven’t put the final image on my website. Maybe one reason is I never really felt that title was right. Over the years, there have been so many great comments posted on PaMdora’s Box, and I get ideas and inspiration from all the input. So maybe you can help me out again. And thanks, all you readers who have stuck with me all these years — I really appreciate it!
Here’s the first post about this project: Occupied with Octopi, part one
On a street corner outside a noisy concert, a friend pulled out her phone to make a call. I was shocked to see the front of her phone was shattered, yet she was still using it. When I asked, she started screaming at me.
“It’s just so easy to use this one. I have a brand new iPhone 4 at the office, and I just can’t bring myself to switch over. I just can’t deal with all this new stuff, having to keep up with the latest thing. I just can’t deal with it.”
I had to laugh because that was exactly what my last quilt was about — feeling underwater, struggling to keep up with the latest thing, and so many new tech devices, toys, and software being continually presented to me that I’m not sure where to direct my distracted attention.
Usually it’s not hard for me to title my work. The title is usually in my mind from the very beginning. But in this case, it was just a feeling I had and no words came to mind. I just drew.
Lots of them. Then I became a little obsessed with octopi, as I usually do when working on a project. Big ones, spotty ones, happy one. Looking at more photos of real octopi, I was amazed at the wide range of colors and patterns, the way their tentacles make such beautiful lines in the water.
I found this photo from our trip to Japan last year, and it reinvigorated my interest in drawing.
Randomly searching the internet, this image of an Austin-based band The Octopus Project came up and when I saw their electrical outlet heads, it made me wonder if I should draw the octopus with outlets instead of suction cups on his tentacles. (tried it later – no, too complicated)
It’s funny how when we are focused on something, the universe seems to drop little clues for us to follow. About that time Paul, the World Cup predicting octopus became popular. Then I heard this Beatles song playing on the radio and couldn’t get the tune out of my head for a week:
“I’d like to be under the sea
In an octopus’ garden in the shade…
We would be warm below the storm
In our little hideaway beneath the waves
Resting our head on the sea bed
In an octopus’ garden near a cave…”
Since the octopus was going to be handing, or rather tentacling me, a lot of high-tech devices, I decided to make him smart. I put a college t-shirt on him.
Next I started looking at old computers, phones, and electronic toys to line the bottom of the ocean bed – the “octopus’ garden.” Russ happened to walk into the studio one morning with this Prehistoric Laptop and I wrote a blog post.
Looking at photos of old swimsuits, snorkeling gear, and flipper feet was fun. I found some in this retro Jamese Bond Thunderball poster, but I wasn’t interested in the spear gun.
Here’s how all this crazy stuff finally starts to come together on my drawing wall inside my computer.
Tomorrow I’ll post photos of making this in fabric, because I need help thinking up a good title.
update: here’s the second post about this project: Occupied with Octopi, part two
Kerry wrote me, “my friends and I took a brief online course with Jane LaFazio...about sketching/watercoloring in public…we did just fine…most probably because there is safety in numbers…your recent sketches have all been in situations where you were known…do you feel more pressure when sketching around people who know you vs people who have no clue who you are?”
I feel a lot of pressure drawing where people know me, because they want to see what I’m doing and there seems to be some expectation for the outcome. I guess I also have to fight my own exceptions as to outcome, especially if I’m just trying to experiment with new techniques or just try to get better at sketching.
When people know me…
When I am with people I know, I try to be sort of casual. I don’t start drawing right away. I watch the scene for a while. Then I pull a sketchbook out my purse and look through it, all the while watching for something to draw and thinking of a composition or what the mood feels like. A little later I get out a pen and start drawing. In the end people still notice, but if you do it often enough, I guess they get used to it and excuse you, kind of like they excuse or humor their friend who’s always texting or Harriet the Spy, who was always writing notes in her journal.
As a stranger…
When I’m a stranger somewhere, I usually try to pick a place where I’m kind of hidden or not easily observed. I like that better because most people are afraid to approach a stranger and ask to see what they are working on.
At the same time, I think you have to be careful about their feelings because people don’t really like strangers staring at them, so I try not to be intrusive. It may be better to pick someplace were there’s a lot of activity that attracts most of the attention away from you. I also like drawing people from the back or side so they can’t see me.
I read one artist who said just pick a comfortable place to sit – it may have been Robert Genn of the Painters Keys, because he said then you can always look around and find an interesting scene once you find your place to sit.
Sketching someone by the pool
For the drawing above, I was sitting by a pool and wanted to draw the woman reading, but I figured most people wouldn’t want to be drawn in their bathing suit. So I started with the building and the tree behind her. That way it didn’t look like I was staring at her. I sketched her sitting in the chair reading a book at the very end, but I had allowed room for that on the page because that was the whole purpose of the drawing. In the end I was happy with the result because doing the entire scene instead of just the woman alone gave a sense of atmosphere of the afternoon.
A good place to see lot of nice drawings that people have done in public is Urban Sketchers. Artists all around the world contribute to this site, and there are also links to their personal blogs and flickr sites.
Celebrating Labor Day by working with my hands today. Sometimes I wish I had extra hands, but these won’t really be much help.
While up in Columbia, I was interested to watch a documentary on giant squid research with my mom, except for the fact that the scientists who had never seen one (because they live so deep in the ocean) were happy to catch one huge tentacle on a hook that was used to hold the squid near a camera. They didn’t seem to mind that it had been torn off as the squid tried to escape. But I keep thinking, that’s like tearing off the poor squid’s arm.
Speaking of monsters, I think I’ve created one. It took me almost three days to cut this out – because of the complexity of the design and because I only had barely enough of the fabric and don’t think it would be possible to get more. In these cases, be very very careful about cutting out curly shapes, because it can be easy for one of the curls to get snipped off by the scissors if it slips back behind another piece.
That’s how I cut off my dog’s tail once. It was a fabric dog, so don’t worry too much.
Had to get the antique irons out for this one. Some patterns that I draw are either so big, or the dimensions are such that the drawing is always slipping off my work table. So I found that these old irons are perfect for weighing down the edges — and they have nice handles to move them around as needed. I can’t imagine heating on of these things up on a fire and using it to iron clothes. But maybe moving them around a lot will also help tone up my arms:)
Sometimes it’s a little scary at the beginning of a project, facing a big wall of raw fabric wondering if you’re ever going to be able to make something out of it. Wondering how it’s all going to come together. So you just sort of have to jump in and have faith that it will work, or that you will indeed be able to improvise and adapt to whatever problems you have set yourself.
Here’s some more colors that I plan on using. Earlier I had picked a safer, easier palette of mainly blues with a few teals, but then Russ challenged me to use a combination that would really pop. Sometimes it’s also good to have someone behind you, pushing to try something new. Do you have any tricks to push yourself past fear and inertia?
Kimonos have always fascinated me and influenced my work. Not as a piece of clothing, but as a form of expression. If you look at kimonos both in real life and art (such as Japanese wood block prints), they are often a combination of sophisticated and sometimes surprising choices of contrasting patterns and color. I’m not sure of the proper terminology, but I’m talking about the under-layers around the neckline, the outer gown, the obi, even the shoes can have color and pattern.
Likewise my attraction to pattern in origami paper and later old-time patchwork quilts when I discovered them a few years ago. I try to remember the surprising contrasts between organic and geometric fabric patterns in kimono design and the sponteity and scrappyness of patchwork quilts when I’m designing my own work.
In addition when I’m telling a story, I think about the symbolic aspects and scale of pattern I’m using, all the while trying to layer in depth and keep a clarity of design. Sometimes the possible combinations of pattern seem infinite and perplexing. Other times I don’t know why something works, but it just makes me happy and feel light when I look at it.
I take a lot of photos while I work, because the camera helps me to step back and see how a print is reading visually in terms of tone and color. Here’s my current struggle on the design board, and below that, a screen-grab from my iPhoto library. I try not to re-cut things because it seems like I’m just spinning my wheels. But many times, it’s unavoidable.
Luckily I have a great technical support team. Russ is my main got-your-back guy. He coaxed the big printer into producing a pattern for my next quilt even though it was reluctant and wanted to only produce bits and pieces. Mochi handles the panting, drooling, and waiting very well.
Meanwhile, I cleaned my studio. Previously this wall was filled with old quilts to decorate for the Mariachi Hasta laVista studio party we hosted a month ago. But I’ve found it’s good for me to start with a clean slate for a new project. I left one quilt on the wall as reference because that one was selected for the San Jose Quilt & Textiles Museum’s International TECHstyle Art Biennial that will be on exhibit August – October of this year. The other quilt is in process.
I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time getting back to a blank wall. There’s usually all sorts of little things that I collect and pin to walls, and I really don’t know what to do with it all when it’s time to clean up. For instance, these old button cards. I probably could never bear to take the buttons of the original display cards to actually use them for something, so I’ll just move them to another part of the studio…..
And so it’s on to the next step. Those little dots in the corner are some other buttons and beads that I leave up in case I need an extra pair of eyes or drawer pulls.