Sunday, December 10, 2006

To embellish or not

About a month ago there was a discussion on the QuiltArt list about embellishments on quilts, such as beads and sparkly fibers. I rashly asserted that I didn't think such "stuff" usually worked. People took exception and sent me links to embellished quilts in an effort to sway my opinion. Some of the embellishments I saw really did work, in my opinion, surprising me. Others simply proved to me my original point—that good design doesn't need a lot of gooping up. (And gooping up won't save a poor design.) In the end I resolved to challenge myself to make a small embellished piece, try to make it "work" and report back on the experience. I also challenged the embellishers to try making a piece that relied only on the color, design and fabric choices to provide the kind of visual impact they were relying on sparkly stuff to provide. I haven't heard if anyone took me up on that challenge, but I did follow through with mine.

First I have to tell you that I had early plans to combine the embellishment challenge with my recent shy hat lady piece, but when it came down to it I was not happy with the idea of adding anything more to that piece. It just didn't seem right. So I designed a piece with a subject that seemed more likely to provide embellishment opportunities. She is a saint or an angel, sort of loosely based on the idea of old religious icons that traditionally used gold leaf and other precious materials. The first photo shows St. Pearly before embellishment. The second photo is the finished piece, embellished with some of my collection of shell buttons, silver and gold beads and a bit of silk embroidery on her collar.

What I learned:

  • When I started adding the buttons and beads I found that the soft, subtle face faded away to blandness. I could see that the face needed to be stronger, with great contrasts to hold its own against the embellishment. I actually completely redid the face for the embellished version.
  • Adding embellishments, especially reflective ones, brings all focus to the foreground and tends to flatten the image. See how that halo lays back behind the head in the first photo? Now, when you look at the second with all the buttons and beads, everything appears to be sitting on the same plane. Good to know and explains to me why pieces I have seen that have little beads sewn on a night sky to represent stars never look right. The "stars" are sitting right in the foreground and they always will. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but something to be aware of and use to advantage or not.
  • I tried using just a few buttons and a few beads in the halo and found that they looked half-hearted and tentative. If you are using embellishments, I think you need to be bold with them.
  • I tried adding more beads—to her hair, and to the background. No way could I make that work. It just became schizophrenic with competing foci.
I gained a greater appreciation for nicely embellished quilts and no more appreciation for thoughtlessly embellished quilts. I am not convinced of any real need for embellishments of this kind and still believe that, in most cases, the addition of beads and crystals and sparkly stuff serves mostly to cheapen the appearance of a piece and moves it into the realm of decoration and away from acceptance as art. Granted my embellished piece is more interesting than the same piece without the beads and buttons, but if I had not intended to embellish those areas I would have used more interesting patterns and color in the same areas and probably liked that approach as well if not better. I don't expect this to be the beginning of my embellishing phase, but I will never say "never" and you might see some "stuff" show up on my quilts from time to time!


  1. Anonymous11:17 PM

    Good for you to challenge your preconceived notions! We should all do more of that (and in more aspects of our lives than just our art). I think you definitely hit the nail on the head when you distinguished between a piece of art with stuff added to it and one made specifically with embellishment in mind. One does need to be mindful of how the final product will be effected.

  2. You seem to have the ability, and willingness, to adjust the elements as you go make each enhance the other. I've noticed a lot of embellished pieces simply look like a layer of 'stuff' laid over a quilt, with no thought to integrating the two parts to make it a whole. Your embellishments on the halo definitely don't look like an afterthought.

  3. I think you are right . Embellishments can enhance a quilt that is designed to be emebllished but won't do anything if just added on as an afterthought. I like both your angels but would probably prefer the plain one if you had used the more interesting patterns and colors. Actually, I probably like it better even as it is.

  4. Anonymous4:52 AM

    who says you can't teach an old dog new tricks! I love the embellished one, it is tastefully and thoughtfully done, but still fun and surprising, which is a good thing in an art piece.

  5. Both quilts are very well done, but I am attracted to the embellished piece. Probably because the halo actually glows. You are right...never say never. Now you know, if the opportunity presents itself, you have the option and the ability.

  6. Interesting experiment. To me the embellished piece looks more like she is wearing a hat - as you say the embellishment visually comes forward. Del

  7. Anonymous10:18 AM

    They are both wonderful--you pulled off the embellishing to perfection. And I can't say which one I like best--they have become two very different pieces. Thank you so much for the thought and insight into what happens to the piece as sparklies are added. I think the missing element in many embellished pieces is the THINKING--and without that, is it really art?
    I'm glad you've opened yourself up to the possibilities of some embellishment but, knowing you, I feel confident that we will continue to see work that is strong in design and color coming from your studio. And that's the best of all.
    [BTW--Christmas is coming. *hint* *hint* Does St. Pearlie need a home? *hint*] :o)

  8. Anonymous11:33 AM

    Very interesting essay. I tend to agree with you re: embellishment. When it's an afterthought--it looks it. I don't often think it helps. But an angel's (or saint's) halo? Perfect opportunity and I like it better than without. But, like Joyce, I like the first one very much, and might like it better if you'd planned NOT to embellish it (meaning, made a stronger selection of color for the halo.

  9. Anonymous12:46 PM

    The embellishment really adds to this portrait! but the subject matter rather called out for some glitz? don't you think? I think when embellishment doesn't work--sometimes it has to do with the subject matter not matching the glitz of the embellishement. I made a self portrait entiredly with buttons and beads--(more a beaded piece than a quilt), and in that case "over embellishing" the portrait worked---I think I like embellishment on a quilt more when there is alot of it, like you did here. What the embellishement does here is make the whole figure pop out more from the backgound, which is good, I think. At the same time, it also emphasizes the face more--so the embellishment really does complete the piece.

  10. Anonymous1:10 PM

    It looks great, Terry. Your point that embellishment doesn't work as an afterthought or an attempt to save a failed design is absolutely valid. I think the real truth here is that embellishments aren't needed to execute most Terry Grant designs. On the other hand, they seem to be critical to all recent Larkin designs! As I watch Larkin's pieces come together, it's clear that each layer she puts down is important and they play on or against each other to get to an image that isn't possible with fewer layers. But not all images, or all artists, need to work up those layers to reveal their vision. Heck, look at Rodin, all he needed was a mass of bronze.


  11. dangnabit...the second image is showing up on my screen...just the red x. i'll come back later.

  12. Oh Beck--I don't know if I could impose St. Pearlie on you. After all there is a fair amount of purple in this piece and I know you have a problem with purple! Unless--you wanted to take a page from my book and *Challenge yourself* to reconsider the color purple. (Hey, that would be a good name for a book--The Color Purple)

  13. okay, i can see it now...of course i see the halo first on the embellished one but the halo also makes the eyes glow which i personally like.

  14. Terry, your talent amazes me. You could probably turn out a masterpiece using mud, sticks, and leaves.
    What a good woman you are. If you make a statement that ruffles some feathers then you challenge yourself to see the world from another point of view.
    We should all learn from you "never to say never."
    I love the pearly saint.

    on an island in the California Delta

  15. Terry - the embellished piece is more rich and brings out the colors of the entire piece more. The background actually looked different from the button-less piece. I think it's absolutely beautiful. It gives you a good feeling when you view it! Good for you for challenging yourself. I love beads and buttons, but I don't embellish everything. BUT when I do it's the icing on the cake!