Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Lessons from the purple orchid


This is my piece, Purple Phalaenopsis, today, after major changes. I almost burned it in a ritualistic bonfire a few days after Christmas. In the process of reworking this piece, I have learned some important lessons about art, the critiquing process, and about how much to trust myself as an artist.

Want to hear the whole, sad story? Okay, here goes.

This is how it looked about a month ago, when I took it to a meeting of Fiber Art Options, a group of fiber artists in the Charlotte area:


Purple Phalaenopsis on 12.12.09

I was generally pleased with it overall (okay, to be honest, I was pretty excited about it), except for the labellum. That’s the fancy name for a specialized petal that acts as a landing platform for the pollinator. It is sometimes called the “lip.” It’s right below the column (or “nose”), which is usually a white waxy structure in the center, and contains the male and female reproductive organs of the flower. On my quilt, it is that elongated darker purple blobby thing below the white area.

I showed the piece to my group, and they confirmed my suspicions.

They told me that I had quilted the labellum too heavily. (Lesson 1: Quilt heavily on areas that should recede; quilt lightly on areas that should come forward.) It also didn’t help that it was darker, because dark things also appear to recede, while light things appear to come forward. Part of the reason for this problem was that I was trying to faithfully reproduce my photo. (Lesson 2: As an artist, you have the right and the duty – and the artistic license – to change things so that that your piece works better.)


Purple Phalaenopsis (detail) on 12.12.09

Then they moved on to other problems. They told me my background colors were too bright and too clear, and popped out too much, and needed to be toned down. They told me that there was visual confusion as to where my petals were, because the colors along the edges were too similar. They told me a bunch of stuff, and one person suggested one solution, and another suggested a different solution, and before long, my head was spinning and I considered running from the room. I stayed because I like these people, and I respect them. I trusted them to tell me what they really thought, and they did. (Lesson 3: If you ask for a critiqué, you have to be prepared for criticism. But you still have the right to draw a line in the sand, and politely explain that you’ve had as much as you can handle for that session.)

And so, after leaving that meeting, over the next week or so, I pondered what to do. I lamented my lack of formal art training, which might have helped me see what I needed to see, and avoid these pitfalls. I stopped thinking about the joy that creating the piece had given me – the process – and obsessed over the finished piece – the product. I let all the criticisms from others, and my own negativity, get to me, and I started hating that purple orchid staring down at me from my design wall. (Lesson 4: In the end, it doesn’t matter what others think as much as what you think about your own work.)

And then, determination set in. That orchid was not going to defeat me. I was going to fix it. I would rebuild it, better than before. (Cue the theme song from "The Six Million Dollar Man.”) I got out my paints and made some places lighter (the edges of some of the petals), some places darker (the areas of the petals that were going behind other petals), and some places muddier (the green background areas).

I repainted that d**n labellum. I put it back up on my design wall and pondered some more. Nope, still not right. I took it down the next day and tried again. And again. And then I cried (just the littlest bit). In the darkest hour, I started seeing it going up in flames in the backyard, and toasting marshmallows over it on a cold, clear winter’s night. A revenge fantasy. Go to hellum, labellum! I went to bed that night despairing.

Morning came, and, rested and more hopeful, I decided on a different tack. It didn’t make sense to burn it. Its image was already being used in online advertising for our groups’ exhibition. No, I would admit defeat, and with proper humility, begin again. Not on the whole piece, but on the most problematic part: the labellum. I re-sketched and painted that piece on a fresh piece of white fabric. I cut it out, leaving a seam allowance, and pinned it in place, and appliquéd it to the background, covering the hideous part. I stuffed it with a bit of fiberfill, so that it would physically stand out a bit more. Appliquéing was difficult, since the paint had made the fabric very stiff, and since it was in the center of the quilt, it was impossible to scrunch up the fabric as I worked. My fingers were literally bleeding while I worked. But I persevered. Next, I quilted it, but only a little bit, to emphasize the folds and curves. (Lesson 5: Things are always better in the morning. Sleep and a fresh perspective can work wonders. And “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”)

Did it look better? I wasn’t sure. I was so frustrated that I didn’t know whether to trust my judgment and my instincts, and frankly, I had reached the point where I didn’t care. My goal was to sew the new labellum on there and hang it up for a few days. If I still hated it, there was plenty of time for that backyard conflagration. I’m still not sure what I think. Probably it is better. I haven’t burned it yet.

***

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” — Samuel Beckett

***

Here’s the next piece finished (except for the facing) and ready to enter the fray. As my husband is fond of saying, “We soldier on.”



Some detail shots:





22 comments:

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  2. Oh, my, please don't burn it! Phalaenopsis is just beautiful, and I think that your changes have improved it to an even lovlier look. Your thoughts on "asking for criticism" and on "trying again" are good advice for me, too.
    The little pink ruffley edge on the orange and yellow orchid is wonderful!

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  3. Hello Susan! Thanks so much for your openness and showing the behind the scenes emotions and process of your fabulous pieces! I'm such a fan! I've printed this blog out and put it on my bullentin board of my studio to inspire me to "Soldier On!"

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  4. Oh, thanks Ellie and Debbie. I'm a believer in sharing both success AND failures, and lessons learned. I also blog partly to record my thoughts and feelings; it's very cathartic.

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  5. You've learned some very valuable lessons that will take you far. Even though they hurt like hell to learn at the time. (trust me, I know! ;>) I've had visions of midnight sacrificial bonfires over a few pieces along the way)

    I was talking to a painter the other day and something she said stuck with me. Paraphrasing here because her exact words elude me, but if the photo is already perfection, why replicate it? Our goal as an artist (if you're working realistically with photos) is to improve upon the original photo, which means to change and alter what you need to in order to suit your vision.

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  6. Absolutely, and very well said, Judy. In some pieces, I try to replicate the photo as carefully as possible, because I am trying to learn those skills, and it is a valuable exercise. I think as I continue to learn and grow as an artist, I will be able to step away from this more and more, and trust my instincts about what I want to change.

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  7. First, thank you for sharing your struggles. Perspective in the creative process is always helpful. Second, thank you for not burning this beautiful piece! If you really can't stand looking at it after the exhibition, I have the perfect place to make it's home. And third, Wow! I saw it before you started 'fixing' and I am amazed at how you made those petals jump off the quilt!!! Big difference. You did a great job.

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  8. Thanks for letting us see the process. I think your changes have made the piece much stronger and the depth perception is so much better. I wish I had a critique group such as yours, you've really learned some valuable lessons. I am currently reading a very good book about painting as I am trying to improve my design skills (I don't have an art background either) called 7 Keys to great painting by Jane Hofstetter. I found it at my local library and it is by far the best book I've found so far. The book also explains about "artistic license" and making the painting better than the photo by changing things instead of being realistic to the photo. I highly recommend it. Thanks for sharing and I too am glad that you didn't burn it.

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  9. Thanks for sharing the info about that book, Ruth! I'll be sure to look it up.

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  10. i am not a quilter...just an admirerer...so take my thoughts with that mind. I love what you did to the orchid. My first thought when I saw it was WOW it looks so real and just pops off the screen. I like that it has less stitching on the long purpley/ white thing and the fluffy white edges up at the top add so much. Love the changes...

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  11. i am not a quilter...just an admirerer...so take my thoughts with that mind. I love what you did to the orchid. My first thought when I saw it was WOW it looks so real and just pops off the screen. I like that it has less stitching on the long purpley/ white thing and the fluffy white edges up at the top add so much. Love the changes...

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  12. And that is why I do not plan on putting my pieces in shows or for critiques, lol. I make things because I feel like it and if I am happy, then I did good and if others find it pleasing to look at, even better;) I do not use art rules when I work on things, I just look at it and say, do I like it? A lot of times I wish I had done things differently, but that is the fun of creating.

    Debbie

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  13. I have looked at this closely and thought about this several times before coming back here and saying anything, lest my lack of experience reveal itself. But I say this now: While I understand the changes made and why from a technical standpoint, somehow the reworking appeals to me less, and I can only think that it is because there is less of the original life in it. Don't get me wrong, there are things I love about the reworked image, but what I loved about the original working is that sense of spontenaity that is your sense of self in the piece. The second and newer image, in reds and orange and yellow, is easier for me to look at, because all the things you were trying to work out on the orchid had been internalized by then, and made more a part of your inherent style. The reworked orchid is hard to look at in some respects because there is a sense of constant pushing and reworking in the work itself, of forcing the image to be something it was not ever intended to be. And so maybe this is an incredibly naive statement for me to make, but while technical perfection is something always to be striven for, it is equally important for your own intentions, your own soul to still live in the work, or else that emotional connection with the work for the viewer becomes static. It does no good to grow technically if you lose the soul of the work itself and your own in the process.
    With deepest respect for the lessons you have shared and your experiences...

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  14. Thanks so much for this comment. You made some very valuable obsrvations, and I appreciate your feedback!

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  15. "As an artist, you have the right and the duty – and the artistic license – to change things so that that your piece works better" -- loved this learning that came out of your beautiful quilt!!! What an amazing learning process and I can't wait to link my readers to this post so that can connect with spirit of artistic fortitude :)

    Honestly, I suppose I choose to work small so that starting over doesn't feel Herculean. To be able to work a large fiber piece and then have the willingness to rethink it is truly inspiring. I use to give myself permission to make a hundred mistake pieces for all the spot on art that comes out of me. Purple Phalaenopsis is amazing and one of the fiber pieces that caught my eye, so don't sell yourself short. It's the road to your next beautiful artwork!

    All the best,
    Beth

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  16. Thanks so much, Beth. We have quite the mutual admiration society going, don't we? ;-)

    One of the things I love so much about art is the learning process, not only about my materials and the technical stuff, but the emotions and psychological challenges that come with it.

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  17. Hi Susan. I do admire your work so very much, and appreciate you sharing your process. It helps many of us feel not so alone when we do our own pieces. As for your orchid, I have to say that not only is it beautiful and gorgeous, but also has inspired me to go look for a picture of my own and practice my colored pencil work/fun. Thanks again, Diane

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  18. So glad you didn't burn it. It was lovely the first time around but your friends gave you great feedback. Now it really pops. I, too, am going to print this post for my work area. I need it. Very encouraging to know others go through this and persevere. Thanks for sharing your experience. Gloria

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  19. OOPS! See that you text is copywrited so not printing after all. Have saved to my favs though for reading again later. Gloria

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  20. Gloria, You are welcome to print it out for personal use! I'm glad you found it inspiring. :-)

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  21. If you ever decide to burn anything this beautiful, I will get on a bus and come to Charlotte and snatch it away from you! It is lovely. I liked both editions, actually.

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  22. Susan, the work is wonderful. Love the old and new. And the new is better in my eyes. Glad you are happy with it. Nancy

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