Design Challenge

This week was my daughter Emily’s birthday. The last time we saw her she mentioned that she would like to have some kind of art work for the wall above her bed. To surprise her, I got to work on something to fill the bill. I decided to make a wall hanging from linen with cyanotyped birds. The weather has been so beautiful the last couple of weeks that conditions were excellent to create lots of blue birds. I could print all morning long for days at a time without a cloud passing by to obscure the sun processing.

I printed out various sizes and varieties of birds onto transparency to use as my negatives. I also made positive versions as well, so that I could make white birds on a dark ground and dark birds on a white ground. I discovered quickly that photographic images of birds were not as pleasing as simple abstract bird shapes, so I colored in all the bird details with a sharpie.

I also tried tea dying some of the cyanotyped images, which I never really attempted before. It involves mordanting the cyanotype in sodium bicarbonate and then soaking the cloth in a strong tea bath. It worked very well.

But I decided I wanted the finished piece to be monochrome. I made lots of various images and then tried to piece them together in a pleasing way. I didn’t have an ultimate plan. It was a process of moving things around until the individual images came together in some kind of cohesive or logical whole. At last I came up with a design that seemed to work for me, although it’s really hard to look at something on a table which is ultimately destined to be on a wall. I never feel fully confident with my choices.

I arranged the cyanotyped bird images on top of some hand dyed blue cotton fabric which I sewed together on the machine. It was much easier to look at the collage on a blue background than on the white paper template I had begun with. I decided to sew the birds to the blue cotton, allowing the background to show through in spots. I pinned it all down and sewed the birds by hand.

Once it was all together I began to think about doing some sashiko stitching on top to dress it up, but ultimately decided it would detract rather than add to the total. I also tried placing a few spots of color here and there, but determined that the blue was better on its own. So even if I was still a little uncertain, we made stretcher bars and stapled the finished piece on to them. The wall hanging is about 5′ X 1.5′. Once it was all completed, I felt disappointed. Something about it just bothered my eye.

I decided that it had something to do with the placement of the large while rectangles. I tried adding a few scraps and very soon found a simple solution that seemed much more pleasing to my eye. By adding just two small blue pieces, the design suddenly seemed much better to me.

Of course stitching those two pieces on was quite difficult since it was already stretched onto the wooden frame. Rick and I had to stand one on each side and pass the needle through one stitch at a time.

There must be a design principle here, but I couldn’t articulate it.

In other news, we have begun doing our spring cleaning… spring really does seem to have arrived here. These days it’s like being in Portugal or California in mid-February, completely unusual for our part of France. Rick helped me hang my basket collection from the downstairs kitchen ceiling, something I have wanted to do since 1983 when I saw a photograph of Martha Stewart’s restored Connecticut Farmhouse kitchen in Entertaining.

Keeping busy

I spent another week in the atelier experimenting and playing, while outside the snow was falling. I tried some slightly larger bird collages, the crow being my favorite result. We have many crows in our village throughout the year, and I must say I am very fond of them. They are extremely intelligent creatures.

I made some dyes using avocado pits and onion skins. I have been collecting both in a little cloth sack I leave hanging in the kitchen. I had several months worth of both. It’s quite easy to mix up a dye. You simply put a couple of cups of either onion skins or avocado pits into a big pot, cover with water and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat and allow the dye to develop overnight. In the morning bring it to a boil once again, turn off the heat and it is ready to use once it has cooled down. Yellow onion skins make a very nice bright yellow dye. Avocado pits make a soft pink.

I prepared some random papers and a few bits of cotton scraps, by soaking them in a mixture of two cups water and two teaspoons soy milk, as a mordant. Once dry I dipped them into the cooled plant dyes. It was a quick experiment to see how the paper would take the dye. I have it in mind to use the resulting scraps in some eco-dyeing projects in the spring. Meanwhile, the onion and avocado dyes lasts for a couple of weeks in the refrigerator, and I will certainly use them again. I have a few people I communicate with through the post, so I intend to dye some envelopes and paper for my correspondence.

Another technique I experimented with this week was some monoprinting. There are many ways to create a monoprint, but one way many people like is to roll ink, usually black, onto a plate and then remove everything you wish to be white or gray. It’s a good exercise since it is backwards to how one usually creates an image, so it strains your brain a little. Once the image is created, you run it through the press onto a damp piece of printing paper. The untouched black areas print very richly with this approach.

I oriented myself by first drawing an outline into the ink and then wiping away the black I wanted removed with small rags, q-tips and dry stiff brushes. I wiped softly to make a gray and more vigorously to make the whiter areas.

It’s not easy to “see” in negative and the results are quite bold and imprecise. You really can’t add any black ink back, so you basically have one shot. It is definitely not my usual thing, but I enjoyed it and hopefully will give it another go.

Another monotype technique, which does not require a press, is to ink up a plate with black and then lay your dry paper on top of the ink, you then lay a piece of tracing paper over that and make your drawing. The pressure transfers black lines onto your paper. You get nice bold black lines on your paper using this approach. Once the ink has dried, the image can be colored in with pastel or pencils or paint. The reason to make an image in this backwards way, rather than just drawing directly in the first place, is that the quality of the line that is achieved is not possible in a direct drawing. This style is much more within my comfort zone. I like the vibrancy of the pastel color.

I also try to keep up with my sketchbook/journal. I began a new one this week that has a different purpose than my daily report, which I have been faithful with for several years. The new one is a bit more quirky and much less regular. I intend it to be a place to visualize some thoughts and ideas that I have trouble expressing in words.

Staying Home

The past week dished up rain, fog, and blue skies with temperatures ranging from cool to frozen. I spent the entire time at home, only venturing out as far as the post office down the street. We had no visitors, no clients, no interruptions. I suppose for some people that might sound a rather depressing description of a week of one’s life, but for me it was just the right thing and an unusual treat. I spent almost every waking moment in my atelier, which has been reorganized for the winter. I managed to accomplish quite a few projects.

Early in the month I had organized all my beautiful papers. Before then I simply put everything into a big stack and whenever I wanted something, I had to paw through a huge basket. Now I have decorative papers in one basket, maps in another, old documents in a third. It makes it so much easier to see what I have to work with. I have been wanting to do some more little collages. Last year I developed a technique which pleased me. I start by cutting pieces of paper into a design, in this case a series of birds.

I glue them down with PVC glue, paint the backs with glue as well and allow them to dry. Then I run them through the press on top of etching plates, using a damp piece of paper which enlivens the glue and adheres to the paper. The etching plates make a nice emboss around the images.

I made two of these composite bird images. The glue is archival quality so once they come together, they remain fast.

I was also able to finish a tapestry I have been working on, made from some of my eco-prints. I sew the scraps together by hand, and then add a classic sashiko pattern on top with special sashiko thread, a little finer and tighter than embroidery thread. The pattern I used is made with rows of offset circles which create a four petal flower design. I recently discovered a very cool turquoise specialty pen which is used to draw a pattern right on top of the fabric. When finished you simply spray the pen lines with water and they magically disappear without causing drips or stains of any kind.

On sunny days I made various cyanotype products. Since the sun is at a low angle this time of year I had to triple my exposure times.

Another revelation this week occurred when Rick tried to sharpen my prismacolor pencils. I have a large collection and I really enjoy using them, but I can never keep them sharp. They wear down instantly and when trying to make them sharp again, the very soft lead breaks more often than not. We’ve tried hand sharpeners which are laborious and usually minimally successful as well as xacto knives, which work only marginally better. Rick found a new electric pencil sharpener this week, called an Office Pro and something about it makes the task fast and effective. I have never had my caddies of pencils filled with such sharp ones.

I took advantage of them in my daily journal. I have been wanting to develop my watercolor/prismacolor drawing skills this year, it’s one of my resolutions. It just got a whole lot easier!

Another resolution for the year is to add more variety to our meal planning. I found a few recipes this week that allowed us to add some new tastes to our repertoire. I am not an enthusiastic vegetable consumer, but if I could have them prepared as wonderfully as this dish, called Sesame-Soy Cabbage Stir-Fry, I would eat a lot more of them! It involves several quick steps. First you fry up the spices; ginger, garlic and red pepper flakes, removing them from the heat after infusing the oil and putting them aside (so they are not over cooked). Then you fry up the harder vegetables; the carrot, pepper and onions, giving them a few minutes head start before adding bok choy, green onions, snow peas and cabbage, one vegetable at a time, cooking for a minute or two before adding the next. At the end you add back the aromatics, some strong chicken or vegetable stock and a bit of soy sauce and finally some corn starch. Voila! A fabulous tasting mélange. It was even delicious the next day cold for lunch.

One morning I woke up to a blazing sunrise which was beautifully reflected in the windows of the castle behind our house. All in all, it was a very gratifying week!