Digital technologies, the design process and tapestry weaving: from the ordinary to the extra-ordinary.
In 1998 we took delivery of our first scanner in the Art department of the Coventry secondary school where I taught in the UK. We’d had a couple of very basic BBC computers for several years which, thankfully, had recently been up-dated. Computer manipulation programmes were becoming more user-friendly, the earliest ones certainly hadn’t been; and our newer computers no longer crashed at the drop of a hat, losing all the work because no-one was in the habit of saving anything until the very end of a lesson.
So, we’d got this scanner. We knew how to plug it in, we could switch it on, but that was about it. I volunteered to spend a day during the October half term holiday, hopefully working out how to use it, and writing ‘the idiot’s guide to scanning’, never realising for one second what a life-changing decision this was to be.
Ring of Brodgar, The Orkneys
A couple of months earlier I’d spent 3 weeks of the summer holiday travelling around Scotland and the Orkney Islands visiting and photographing prehistoric stone circles – a theme I often return to. I’d got masses of photos, some of which I’d been using to make photo montages a la David Hockney, one of my heroes, but nowhere near as brilliantly as his.
I selected a few photos at random and set about working out how this wretched machine worked, which only took a couple of hours to sort out. I’d got some time left so I thought I’d have a go with this new-fangled all-singing, all dancing Adobe program we’d recently bought and see what that could do as I knew I’d soon have to use it in my teaching.
Unfortunately I never thought to save any of the manipulations at the time but, thankfully, I did print some of them out although I don’t have the whole sequence.
The results I got from manipulating were so dramatic and exciting that I instinctively knew this was the way forward. After a childhood accident, when I nearly lost two fingers, I find drawing and painting really difficult because it’s virtually impossible to make my hand do what my eyes and brain are telling it to, and drawing for any length of time is very painful.
Here was a way for me to design the sort of tapestries I wanted to weave, and from designs I hadn’t seen any other weaver producing. I just loved this pixellated design, especially the movement and colours. I thought building up a design using squares and rectangles would be fascinating, but could be problematic in terms of weaving technique. I knew I wanted to work on – for me – a large scale, but all those slits would make the actual fabric of the tapestry unstable, rather like the body of a ripped concertina.
Luckily at the time I was taking monthly workshops with the Scottish weaver Joan Baxter when she had a studio at Welbeck, in the north Midlands. She showed me the ‘sew-as-you-go’ technique, which I later modified. It does take longer to weave a tapestry but gives excellent results, and I’m not sure I could have faced sewing up all those slits once a large tapestry had been cut off the loom anyway.
“Ring of Brodgar: No.4”, completed in 2000, is 103 X 152cms and, like most of my tapestries, has an 8 strand Appletons crewel wool weft on a No. 12s cotton warp.
What dawned on me yesterday during Diana’s presentation was that my pixels are simply a twentieth century version of the Roman tesserae. I find pattern drafts for cloth, such as rosepath and honeysuckle, fascinating, and I made a series of small pieces based on some of those pattern drafts a couple of years ago. I haven’t included them because I felt they were completely different from the works I’m showing today. What I now realise is they’re not different at all because the tesserae shape is the common factor.
The next thing we bought at school, a few months after the scanner, was a digital camera. I cannot even begin to explain the feeling of utter luxury in immediately seeing the photo I’d just taken. Whilst in Scotland I’d taken over 30 reels of 35mm film, with a number of photos not being worth the paper they were printed on. Now I was able to delete, or keep, an image at will.
I’ve had my own digital camera for several years and rarely print out, although I’m rigorous in archiving every image onto CD. In terms of consumables, once you have the memory cards, digital is so much cheaper than film, and more convenient in the speed at which images can be ready to work with.
Reflections, whether in water or on buildings, is another recurrent theme running through my work. My husband and I have visited Chicago a couple of times, and I just love the tower blocks there.
On our first trip I took photos of those glass-fronted buildings with interesting reflections, sometimes groups of buildings or, as with this image, a detail. I particularly like the way the character of the building changes with each manipulation. From this group of buildings I cropped a detail to work on. Unfortunately I only have a couple of the print outs of manipulations I made.
”Skyscraper: No. 1” completed in 2002, 26 x 30.5cms, evolved from the second manipulation and is a cotton and silk weft on a fine cotton warp.
On our second trip we took quite a long city tour and passed by a quite low but wide, mirror-fronted building with a gas station, burger bar and other buildings reflected in it. Poor John just looked at me and said: “We’re going to have to go and find this building, aren’t we?” But I’m afraid he really didn’t need an answer.
I decided to crop single windows, or two or three adjacent windows, from the images then manipulate to see what would happen. After several false starts with other cropped windows, I was amazed by the colours that appeared this time. I’d never worked with reds before, so this would certainly be a challenge.
”Window Series: No. 2” is 97 x 188cms, and was completed in 2003. I really enjoyed weaving this piece, although it fast became known as ‘The Monster’ as it very quickly took over my life. The squares and rectangles were much smaller than those on the Brodgar tapestry, and it was a really engrossing experience watching the design grow.
I liked the design resulting from these two windows, where the colours are so different from the previous tapestry. I’d never woven a diptych before and was surprised to find it wasn’t that difficult working on two separate warps, side by side. Each piece of “Window Series: Nos 3 & 4”, completed in 2006, measures 58 x 101cms.
Reflections: Pool Series
Swimming pools, especially if they are lined with tile patterns, are such wonderful things. The pool at the school where I taught was a particularly fine example, with a checkerboard pattern in the deep end and a wall along the length of the pool with floor to ceiling windows. The combination of tile patterns and the sun shining through the windows onto moving water creates some exquisite effects.
I took a crop from this photo of the sun shining onto the surface of the water, then tried a range of effects, especially experimenting with colour in the last three. I next took a small crop from the chequerboard section, and rotated it by 180 degrees. “Pool reflections: No 1”, 6.5 x 13cms was completed in 2005, using a linen, cotton, silk and lurex weft on a cotton warp. I love the colours and was interested in experimenting with raising the black shapes, using a double warp technique and lightly stuffing the resulting shapes.
When I first began designing digitally I’d simply sit at the computer, clicking away until I came up with a design I liked; only then did I save it. But I would often manipulate for too long, and what I’d come to realise was that I needed to be meticulous in saving every step in the process. I also began printing out the whole series, in order, so that I could see the complete sequence. Very often it wasn’t the last manipulation I’d use as a design, which I would have missed had I not saved each step.
For the touring show: ‘RE:DESIGN’ members of the exhibiting group Coventry Contemporary Crafts linked with another member to produce a piece of work based on that member’s work. My partner was the ceramicist, Pauline Upton, renowned within the group for her quirky pots. Initially I had no idea how to approach this partnership.
I began by taking photos of different views of her ceramics and, back in the studio, simply sat at the computer and looked through the images. I soon realised it was the surfaces that interested me most, not the shapes. I decided to take a crop, or ‘slice’, from the body of the cylindrical pot ‘Calm Sea’, to see what would happen when I manipulated it using a combination of Paint Shop Pro and Adobe Photoshop 4.
Whilst designing digitally can sometimes be tedious, generally it’s so exciting and often the most unlikely images yield the most promising designs. Some of the resulting manipulations are quite astonishing. It was the green slice I particularly liked, so I decided to pixelate it to see if it could work as a design. This reinforced the importance of saving each step in the process.
I could see the original design was very complex, and would take more time than I had available to weave. I tried pixellating the image using various sizes of squares but, in order to be able to weave this design in the time available, the squares would need to be quite big. This, I felt, resulted in the essence of the original design becoming somewhat compromised. I tried cropping the original design hoping, when pixellated, it would retain that ‘essence’ I was looking for.
I repeatedly experimented with different crops but, at the time, I still wasn’t happy; and felt that ‘essence’ I was looking to retain just wasn’t there, especially after pixellating the crops.
‘Torn Rock’ looked interesting; again I took a slice from what I felt was an interesting area of the pot. Why this particular slice? There was something about the shapes and range of tones that looked promising. And the very first manipulation more than fulfilled that promise.
In the end it was the second to last manipulation which became the design for “Surface Slice”. As I wasn’t happy with any of the other designs I’d worked on, I decided to move away from squares and rectangles to weave a tapestry full of fluid, organic shapes. ”Surface Slice”, completed in 2005, measures 117 x 208cms. Although I love my squares and rectangles it made a refreshing change to weave such wonderful swirling shapes.
Reflections: Scarf Slices
The RE:DESIGN exhibition travelled to three venues in all, and at each venue I photographed the show for the Coventry Contemporary Crafts portfolio. For the final venue several members decided to produce more work, with a new partner. At the second venue a Barbara Fidoe scarf was lit by a small spotlight at exactly the right angle to cast a lovely shadow-cum-reflection, which I just couldn’t resist.
When I began manipulating the ‘Scarf Slice’ I immediately got this incredible image. I brightened, rotated and cropped it, resulting in a potentially very promising design. I tried again using a different effect, which really enhanced the reflection. I rotated the slice, and continued manipulating. I love the vibrancy of the colours. It’s all too plain to see the completely different results I got this time, although I used the same program but different effects.
Time to make new work, as usual, was an issue so I experimented with cropping areas from the design. I wondered what would happen if I added a mirror image of this last crop, making it twice the size. I rotated it and created a negative image of it. I’ve been paper weaving using manipulated printouts since 2005, and decided this could be quite a successful Print Weave. In the end I produced a series of print weaves for the final RE:DESIGN show, but came back to this design in 2007. “Colour 5”, completed in 2007, is 143 x 111cms.
It’s interesting that not only do my pixels link with Roman tesserae but another speaker has also used the word ‘metamorphosis’ A close up of beautiful stones on a wet Clovelly beach in Devon was the starting point for “Metamorphosis”. I’d already manipulated this image, producing two different Print Weaves as part of the ‘TaP…off the wall’ touring show. TaP [Textiles and Paper] is a Midlands based textile group I’m involved with.
I took a small crop then changed this into a negative version. I knew “Metamorphisis” would be a quartet of small tapestries, and that I wanted to experiment with combining squares and rectangles with more flowing, organic shapes. I pixellated the original crop, made the image the finished size of 25 x 25cms, and repeated this with the negative version. I then printed the original and pixellated versions out, and experimented with combining them.
I decided to begin with the original crop, which I first rotated by 180º, and gradually change it into the negative pixellated version. This means not only do the colours change from positive to negative, but the shapes also change from flowing to pixellated. “Metamorphosis”, completed in 2007, is a quartet of pieces.
Because I use digital technologies the design possibilities are endless, and I see the effect on both my designs and weaving technique as incredibly positive. What is so exciting about designing digitally is knowing my designs are mine. Even if two people were to manipulate the same image using the same program, the results would be completely different. Whilst like all of us I am influenced by other weavers and artists, I do not want to merely imitate or reproduce someone else’s work – I want my work to be distinctly mine.
There will always be elements of what has become my ‘signature style’ of squares and rectangles in my designs, but this won’t ever remain static. I’m only too aware design style can be mimicked and weaving techniques learnt, but knowing my designs are completely unique to me is a significant benefit of using digital technologies.
Over the years I have refined my working methods, now often working on ‘slices’ from digital images, and ensuring each manipulation is saved giving me a full overview of the whole design/manipulation process.
New technologies are central to my work but it’s still the process of tapestry weaving I love, and why I’m an artist/weaver. For me, tapestry is painting with colours mixed from threads providing the means to interpret a digitally produced design. Although crucial, new technologies are a means to an end - ensuring I can spend my days sitting quietly at my loom, listening to the radio, creating tapestries from the boxes of yarn around me, completely oblivious to anything else.