Figure taking shape for a nursery cushion The Hare and the Tortoise.
It doesn’t happen often but when it does it’s a real treat. I’ll have just about done as much as I can with a design for the day. If I continue, I’ll make mistakes. I always do when I’m tired. But it’s not time to go out, and for a while I can have some fun. For half an hour it doesn’t matter whether I do something good, or something to bin. I can just mess about, and sometimes that’s when the best projects start.
At this point, I don’t worry too much about colours. I just start to click away and build patterns. As I usually work on a fairly large scale I don’t tend to think of these patterns as ‘designs’, but as fragments of designs, to be saved for future use in something larger. And after working very intensely on a design all day, there’s a sense of freedom when I’m able to just play…
Normally though, I have a definite idea of what I hope to achieve when I sit down to work. Some of the simplest designs can turn out to be the best but I do find that the smaller the design is, the more limiting it can be. I prefer to work on cushion size or larger. And I often feel that it doesn’t necessarily follow that the best designs are the prettiest. But design is such a personal thing and we all have our own approach and tastes. At any one time I tend to have quite a few ideas rattling around in my head –more than I have time to work.
I’m particularly interested in eastern art but, like most designers, I find inspiration anywhere and everywhere. All my adult life I’ve kept boxes full of magazine cuttings, photographs, sketches and fabric samples. Anything I felt ‘had’ something.
The type of design often dictates the way I approach it. Those that are entirely arrangements of pattern are usually worked entirely on screen, from scratch, with the help of the program’s copy, flip and rotate functions.
Unless you are using a scanner or digital photograph, designs such as realistic portrayals of objects, people or animals benefit from a little preparation. In these, the success or failure can depend a lot on getting the proportions right, so if I am, say, working from one of my animal paintings or photograph, I make a drawing roughly the size I’d like the finished design to be. I normally work on 10 count canvas which relates, more or less, to regular graph paper. Before the days of PCs, all my needlepoint designs were created on graph paper, with coloured felt tip pens. As a cushion could contain more than 30 thousand stiches all needing to be plotted it made for a BIG job just producing the chart! Now, on PC, plain areas can be flood-filled in seconds, something that might have taken many hours to do with felt pen.
You don’t have to be good at drawing, as you could always trace your picture then have it enlarged on a photocopier. Once this is the right size, trace it onto your tracing paper, concentrating on important landmarks such as facial feature and outlines.
Once I have things at this stage, I very roughly fill in some of the squares that follow these basic lines –as much or as little as I feel I’ll need as a ‘map’ –then manually copy them onto screen, using colours that are fairly similar to my source material. These colours are likely to be played about with later, so I don’t worry too much about them at this point.
I find it helpful to zoom out to level 1 now, to see an overall view of the work so far. I’m often surprised by how much of an image I can see in just these few lines. Half closing my eyes, I can almost see the design I hope to achieve. I think it’s important as a designer, or painter, to be always looking forward, always aiming at something you can’t yet see but know to be there. It’s about solving problems and even now after I long ago passed my millionth stitch; it can sometimes be a struggle. My quickest cushion design took a week, but that was a fluke. Four or more weeks to design and make up the model are normal.
From here on, it’s a case of constantly refining the design. I work over it time and time again, flood filling areas and trying colour changes, working on the shapes of particularly strong light and shade, all the while adding stitches to break up areas of solid colour with more detail. Stitches sprinkled in add life and richness to the forms and shadows.
Some days part of the design will just fight me all the way. I keep a mirror handy, placed somewhere so that I can keep glancing at the reverse image. I do this with paintings too. It’s easy to become blind to what I’m doing, simply by looking at it too much. The reverse image helps me to spot all kind of improvements that could be tried. In the design program you could also use the flip function for this, but I tend to glance at the mirror image dozens of times in the course of a design.
In any case, every so often it’s a good idea to get away from the screen or painting entirely, have a cup of tea or feed the cat, and come back to it with a fresh eye. Sometimes the answer just hits you the instant you return.
Perhaps the most important tool, to my mind, is having one second opinion you feel you can really trust. I find it’s a mistake to ask everyone around you what they think of something that doesn’t seem to be going right. You get as many opinions as there are people, and end up more confused, or even doubting the parts you felt were good.
Over the years I’ve had to develop something of a thick skin. As a designer you have to be prepared for everyone to give an opinion whether you ask for it or not. And you have to accept that you can’t please everyone all the time. Having said that, there’s nothing as wonderful as feeling you’ve created something good, and the positive feedback, letters and messages always make the difficulties worth working through.