Learn Design Principles through Fabric Art Exercises

Aside from Art Appreciation 101 in college and my brief childhood stint at Cranbrook, I've had no formal art training. In fact, much of what I've learned about fiber art and mixed media art techniques has come from editing Cloth Paper Scissors and Quilting Arts magazines over the past several years.

fabric art design principles rhythm
From top to bottom: Symmetrically spaced stripes create regular rhythm; breaking up a few lines creates alternating rhythm; and the change of square sizes represents progressive rhythm. From Art + Quilt.

I have to say I learned the most from Lyric Kinard's series on design principles that ran in Quilting Arts. The basic elements of design do not change from medium to medium and once you know them, they provide a shortcut to achieving the effect you want from your artwork.

In her book Art + Quilt: Design Principles and Creativity Exercises, Lyric expands on the information she included in her articles, drawing from her wealth of knowledge in the design and fiber arts fields. As the title implies, there are exercises throughout the book to help you understand and apply the principles to visual art, specifically fabric art.

Some principles of design are easier to "get" than others, so the exercises are invaluable. For example, I'm pretty quick at establishing balance and using texture. But I have more trouble with perspective and rhythm.

As Lyric puts it, rhythm is a unifying principle in art as well as our lives. Visual rhythm involves the movement of our eye from one element to the next in a regular pattern. This principle of design can be used in art to convey calmness, frenzy, playfulness, and so on.

A regular rhythm is like the steady beat of our heart or the gait of our walk. Think of repeated vertical stripes or the rising diagonal of a bar graph.

Alternating rhythm is the variation of a repeated pattern between two or more elements, such as the pattern of night and day or a chorus repeated between verses of a song.

A progressive rhythm is often found in nature when the size or shape of something gradually increases or decreases. Picture the growing concentric layers of tree rings or look at the gradually diminishing pattern of ocean waves as your eye moves toward the horizon.

If you keep a sketchbook or art journal, it's helpful to record design elements such as rhythm when you encounter them. Draw a basic sketch or snap a picture to capture these elements for future use. You can use tracing paper or photo-imaging software, respectively, to break the sketch or image down to the basic components if you like.

Here is an exercise to help you convey rhythm through repetition. The example uses fabric in a quilt sandwich, but you could substitute paper or found objects in a fabric collage.

Rhythm Through Repetition Exercise

1. Make an 8" x 10" batting sandwich, with solid-color fabric or muslin on top.

2. Using a solid contrasting color, or black fabric, cut at least four strops of each width, from ½" to 2".

3. Arrange them in regular patterns on your background to create a rhythmic pattern.

Ask yourself:

  • What is the feel of the rhythm you've created?
  • Would it feel different if you rotated your composition 90 degrees?
  • What if you thought of your background as your foreground?
  • How many different rhythms do you think you could create in this manner?
  • How could stitching or embellishments further enhance the rhythm of this piece?

4. Stitch or embellish this work if it will strengthen the rhythm you've created.

5. Take notes on which exercise you were working on and what you learned.

6. Add this piece (or a picture of it) to a sample notebook or art journal.

Just reading this exercise helps me understand the principle of rhythm better. Playing around with the elements to create different rhythms helps me internalize the process so it comes more naturally and quickly the next time.

Even if the closest you ever get to a "quilt sandwich" is having lunch while you read this book, if you need to shore up your design knowledge or you're in a creative rut, you would benefit from Art + Quilt.

P.S. What design principles give you the biggest trouble? Line? Unity? Balance? Shape? Contrast? Do you have an exercise that helps you that you could share with everyone? Use the comments section below to elaborate.


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