ART + QUILT: A Primer in the Visual Language

on May 12 | in Books, Quilting | by | with 1 Comment

Lyric Montgomery Kinard is an award winning textile artist with a passion for sparking the creativity in her students. She was recognized as the 2011 International Association of Professional Quilters Teacher of the Year and is the author of Art + Quilt: Design Principles and Creativity Exercises.

From the publisher:

    Secrets for quilting success are presented through a variety of techniques, exercises, and insider tips to inspire novice quilters and experienced textile artists to make genuine works of art. Simplifying the basic fundamentals of art and teaching the underlying principles of the visual language, this guide explores texture, shape, line, color, and value with examples and hands-on exercises. Essential principles– such as focal point, balance, repetition, scale, and space– are paired with creativity exercises while guest essays, guest artwork, and inspiring artwork from the author allow readers to analyze how other artists utilize key artistic elements or principles and see how to successfully use these elements in their own work. Both a personal creativity coach and a guide for a hobbyist or professional artist, this reference clarifies quilting goals and takes the craft to the next level through design and composition.

We’re pleased to learn a little from Lyric about the “visual language” of art quilts. If Lyric is speaking to you as a quilter and artist, pick up a copy of her book and check out her site!


I’ve loved to sew since, well, forever; I was making all my own clothes by the time I went to high school. I learned to quilt shortly after my first baby was born. I chose to stay home caring for her and a good friend saw me going a little crazy, and took me to a quilt bee with her. I was hooked like a fish who didn’t realize she was starving for water.

Learning to cut up cloth and piece it back together in a beautiful mosaic of color and shape was soothing and soul saving. It was the only thing I accomplished each day with tangible and immediate results. My kitchen counter “studio” (with a first shelf on the cabinet storage space for fabric) allowed me to sew a stitch or two then run off to nurse or play or rescue whatever disaster was in the making. It’s amazing what you can do with two minutes at a time.

Several years later I saw my first art quilt and had a revelation. I could use cloth as a medium for expression that was as deep as my soul could dive. I found the voice I lost when I chose to give up my career aspirations for my children. Four more children and many years of fitting my art around their lives, I am thankful for the beauty and joy that can be found in the lovely confluence of cloth and creativity.

So what exactly is an ART QUILT? Whatever you want it to be, my friend! In my very-much-not so-humble-opinion quilts have been always been art. Long before John Holstein decided to hang his collection of 19th and 20th century quilts on the bare white walls of the Whitney Museum, women were creating beauty with what was often the only medium available to them. Their masterpieces were objects of utility. Who, exactly, gets to decide that only work on a wall is ART? Call me a rebel, but I believe quilts can be art no matter what label you choose for them– modern, traditional… Divisions are arbitrary and subjective, as is all art, and your voice and vision are just as valid as any critics’.

There are however a few simple skills that will give you more confidence in your creative abilities. They are the most valued skills any artist possesses– the ability to truly see and to interpret the world with your own unique viewpoint. Learning a few of the basic elements of design is like putting on a pair of glasses you didn’t realize you needed. Learning the visual language is much easier than you think, with only five letters to its alphabet. Even better, you already know what many of these letters sound like and might need just little structure in order to read and write the visual language with your quilts.

Element 1: TEXTURE

Think about the actual texture of cloth as a medium. The softness and malleability of textiles, the sheer physical pleasure of its touch. Don’t you just love the way people cannot resist reaching out to pet a quilt? That doesn’t happen the same way with a painting. Fabric as a medium for art has such a beautiful connection with the viewer.

Texture is also the visual patterning of the cloth– the prints on the fabric. Light against dark, colors and contrast all come together when we choose our cloth. I find the feel of the cloth and thread in my hands, coming together in some semblance of order, is a beautiful thing.

Element 2: SHAPE

Quilters and sewists of all kind know all about shape. We take our cloth and cut it up into pieces then create new shapes. We measure and cut and form new patterns out of our shapes. Our shapes can have geometry and rhythm and order…

Or they can be organic and full of movement. Shape has activity. The stolid, heavy, stable geometric shapes of classical architecture are echoed in the quiet and powerful bar quilts of the Amish. Wide open BauHouse and mid-century Modern architectural spaces flow with the negative space and asymmetrical geometry of the modern quilt movement. The sinuous forms of organic life moves the eye with fluidity and rapidity through a quilt depicting the natural world.

Element 3: LINE

In the visual language the element of line has an important function. It takes your eye on a journey around the work of art, leading and guiding its path. When most quilters think “line” we think of the threads that hold top, batting and backing together. There are lines everywhere you look in quilts. I not only stitch lines but paint them on my cloth.

The hard edges of shapes, the striped cloth you use, the sashing in a block quilt, the collection of bits in a group– they all become lines that lead your eye from one point to the next.

Element 4: COLOR

If I looked at your stash your favorite color might be obvious. Color tends to bypass rational thought and go straight to your heart. Color as an element of the visual language is all about relationships, and learning just a few tips about those relationships work might help to expand your circle of color friends.

Color relationships can be quiet. They can feel like an actor alone onstage monologuing away when a monochromatic scheme is used. One color, from light to dark. Add in a few of its best friends, say a wedge of pie from the color wheel, and the actor’s three best friends have joined him for a little mischief, or perhaps a quiet evening on the beach with a glass of wine.

Spread three colors out in an equilateral triangle and you’ve got the main, the girlfriend and the villain all on stage at the same time. This triadic color scheme packs a visual punch with its contract and activity. Switching to two colors opposite each other on the wheel and you’ve got something amazing about to happen. Opposites attract but they also set each other off. The hero looks ever more like good old Captain America when you stand him next to the bad guy doesn’t he? Opposite colors are called a complementary color scheme because each sets the other off and makes it look better and more intense.

Element 5: VALUE

Color gets all the glory but value does all the work. It’s like the poor neglected Cinderella of the visual alphabet, but when you figure it out your reward is a visual evening at the ball! Value is how much light or dark is in a color. Punching up your value contrast is a sure way to add sparkle and zing to the quilts you make.

The background of this piece might be low value colors, but look at the rings. Not only do they float off the surface because of a complementary color scheme, but they appear to have depth and dimension because of the way they fade from light to dark. Pushing your colors a little more into their light and dark values helps them jump out or fade away as you create emphasis in some places, quiet places in others.

The next time you reach into your stash and fondle your lovely fabric put on your Artist’s eyes and think about your creations in a new way. Choose a color scheme, and think about line, shape and texture. Push your value choices just a smidgen outside your ever-so-cozy comfort zone. You are a quilter and a creative! Forget about what anyone else says when it comes to what is or isn’t ART. Give cloth it’s due as your luscious, colorful, wonderful medium to express yourself as an artist!

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One Response to ART + QUILT: A Primer in the Visual Language

  1. Brenda says:

    What a great capsule description of art theory and practice. Beautiful job.

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