Take Your Best Shot

My grandmother was a professional artist who worked in oils and watercolors. Her work was widely exhibited and sold. Though she took many photos, I would have to say that she was not a gifted photographer (despite her many other fine qualities!). The truth is that the technical quality of the photograph was not important to her. She was simply trying to capture the moment, whether the joy in a family gathering or an eye catching composition.

I’ll never forget sitting at our kitchen counter together one day drawing simple houses, flowers, and trees with markers. As she demonstrated the magic that happens when you paint a little water on the lines, I told her that I envied her ability to draw anything. Nana looked at me in surprise. She said that not only had it required a tremendous amount of practice, but she couldn’t draw much of anything simply from memory. She relied on sketches and photographs to reliably produce work with the correct proportions, scale, and lines. Wow! That was truly a light bulb moment for me.

We are lucky today that many of us have a camera, in the form of a phone, with us everywhere. We can easily use the photos we take as a reference for many aspects of quilt design, no matter what style we prefer. Whether we want to replicate a photograph as closely as possible, or simply use it as a reference or guide, the sky’s the limit.

This month’s cover artist, Cynthia England, used a photograph she took in Capetown, South Africa as the inspiration for her award winning piece Reflections of Capetown.

Cynthia England's original photograph
Cynthia England’s original photograph used to create the design for Reflections of Capetown
Reflections of Capetown ©Cynthia England
Reflections of Capetown ©Cynthia England

As you can see, Cynthia recreated her original photograph in great detail with her picture piecing technique. (You can see more info about how Cynthia creates her work in our May/June 2017 issue of the magazine.)

But what if you just want to create an appliqué that is reasonably accurate and recognizable as, say, a bird? Just take a photo and work from there. It doesn’t have to be pin sharp or perfectly composed to do the job.

Here’s a not so great photo I took through the dining room window. What is great is how the bird is posed. (And I do realize that some of you don’t like grackles, sorry!)

©Diane Rusin Doran
A quick shot of a grackle, taken through a window. (©Diane Rusin Doran)

If you enlarge this photo you’ll see that’s it’s grainy, and it has some extra birds that detract from the subject. However, if I’m using it for reference I can just ignore those extra bits. Here I’ve traced the outline of the main bird and the bird feeder. I simply printed the photo on an 8.5″ x 11″ sheet of paper, placed a transparency on top, and used a marker.

A simple tracing of the photo above.

Voila! By just outlining some key parts of the photo, I have a reasonably shaped bird that’s well proportioned relative to the bird feeder. The beauty is that I can take what I want from one photo, and combine it with bits from others, or draw designs that are uniquely my own.

Here’s one of my favorite tricks, photographing or scanning a leaf or other flat object on a plain piece of paper.

Locust Leaf

The stark contrast makes it super easy to outline the leaf and create a design, whether appliquéd or stitched.

And, of course, you can also take pictures simply to remember a color combination or shape that you love. (See the blog posts here and here for more on that.)

I’ll always be grateful that Nana shared her artistic “secret” with me. We can’t all be world class photographers, but it’s not a necessary skill for creating pleasing and successful designs. Next time you’re having a bit of difficulty creating the right shape, line, proportions, or colors, just “take your best shot” and work from there.

3 Responses to Take Your Best Shot

  1. Sorry for the miss spelling. Love the cover quilt this month. Is there a pattern for the cover quilt?

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