Monday, October 2, 2017

Still Life in Needlework, Part III

Still life shapes
In Part II, I promised to show you a technique in which you could do a still life in black and white only. This is one of several related embroidery techniques which spread across parts of Europe after the Renaissance and eventually found their way to the Americas. It is called Spanish blackwork. Its patterns can be used in other styles of single-color embroidery, such as Russian redwork and Scandinavian whitework, as well as a multicolor style like Holbein embroidery. My choice of objects to portray is shown above in a photo that J.D. took at the beginning of the project.

I'm going to take you step-by-step through a still life picture in blackwork. The original 16th century blackwork was done in black silk and gold thread on white linen. I urge beginners in any of these monochromatic stitch techniques to begin with black floss on quarter-inch checked gingham because it is so much like graph paper. It is easy to work out the individual patterns (called diaper patterns) on graph paper and then repeat each individual line with a single stitch.

"Cat Nap," blackwork embroidery on 1/4" checked gingham
"Cat Nap," blackwork embroidery on 1/4" checked gingham

If you have done counted cross-stitch, you may want to work on the smaller “baby check” gingham to get more complex-looking patterns. I prefer pastel checks so the blackwork design stands out dramatically. If you are working on “baby check”, you may want to divide your floss and use only three strands instead of six. The stitch used for the patterns is a simple back-stitch.

Hot iron transfer for still life
Hot iron transfer for still life
In order to have a truly black and white (and gray) design, I'm going to work on white monks' cloth, where the squares are indicated by tiny spaces in the weave at each square's corners. I begin with a piece of monks' cloth that I have backed with interfacing and basted around the edges. I find the vertical and horizontal center lines of the fabric and mark them with a running stitch in a color other than black. This is to center my design; the colored stitches are pulled out after the design is worked. I made a hot-iron transfer of my design outline and transferred it to the fabric. (The transfer will reverse the design, so I studied mine carefully from the back against a bright light to make sure it worked well in reverse.) I chose the area to begin and used an embroidery hoop.

You will need a sharp-pointed crewel needle with an eye large enough to accommodate the floss and several skeins of black six-strand embroidery floss. I like to have several needles so I don't have to stop as often to thread my needle. I was working on monks' cloth, which is comparable to “baby check” gingham, I divided the floss to use three strands. Here is a picture of the first completed section, and close-up of the pattern used for it. Each line on the pattern is a single stitch. Stitches begin and end in the same spaces at the corners of squares.

Blackwork embroidery, Step 1: the Vase
Blackwork embroidery, Step 1: the Vase

Stitch pattern for the Vase
Stitch pattern for the Vase
Tip #1: The Vase. When you are stitching a pattern over an object with a complicated shape, begin at the widest part of the object. Start at one side and work the pattern line to the other side. Then stitch the pattern lines in order both to the top and the bottom of the object.

The next series of pictures show each of the other sections as they were completed, accompanied by a close-up of the graph-paper pattern for each. The lighter I wanted the section to be, the simpler the pattern I used; the darker I wanted it to be, the more complex the pattern.

Blackwork embroidery, Step 2: the Pitcher
Blackwork embroidery, Step 2: the Pitcher

Stitches for the pitcher
Stitches for the pitcher

TIP #2: The Pitcher. When you are stitching a radiating pattern like this one, find the exact center of the place you want it to be and mark it lightly with a pencil. Begin there at the center of the design; work outward, one step at a time.

Blackwork embroidery, Step 3: the Cup
Blackwork embroidery, Step 3: the Cup

Stitch for the Cup
Stitch for the Cup
Tip #3: The Cup. As you reach the border lines of the section, make as much of the pattern stitches in each square as you can without crossing the border-line. When your outline of the shape is completed, there may be small gaps where the pattern doesn't quite reach the outline. Fill these in with tiny stitches.

In this project, I concentrated on shape, pattern, and perspective only. If objects of the same size are placed side by side, the one with the faintest outline will seem the furthest away. If you make the objects overlap, so that the more faintly drawn objects are partly covered, you have started the illusion that they are behind the darker figures and are farther away from the viewer. This is called “recession in space”. This illusion can be considerably increased by combining it with lighter outlines. Because I wanted to draw your attention to this visual device, I used gray floss for the two objects “behind” the front three. You will also notice that their bases appear to be on a higher plane. You can use all these devices in your own still life projects.

Blackwork embroidery, Step 4: the Birch Bark Box
Blackwork embroidery, Step 4: the Birch Bark Box

Stitch for the Birch Bark Box
Stitch for the Birch Bark Box
Tip #4: The Birch Bark Box. Instead of back-stitch for this pattern, I used a simple running stitch. The marks on the birch bark appear in clusters on the box, but I didn't think that would show up sufficiently so I used the stitches for the entire pattern. I left an empty space for the line indicating the bottom of the box lid.

Blackwork embroidery, Step 5: the Candle
Blackwork embroidery, Step 5: the Candle
Stitch for the Candle
Stitch for the Candle

Tip #5: The Candle. Here the back-stitch is used vertically. Be sure that your stitches are as straight as possible. To make the wick more visible, I stitched it in black instead of gray.

Finally, I covered the outlines with solid lines of stitching. I wanted a bold, modern feeling to the picture, along with many contrasts, so I used the full six strands of floss for the outlines. I chose chain stitch, but I could have used back-stitch, outline stitch, stem stitch or any of several other stitches. I outlined the gray objects with the same number of strands of floss that I had used for the black ones. You might prefer a more delicate treatment. J. D. has shown here how it would look outlined in three strands of floss in a back-stitch or outline stitch. I then removed the colored centering stitches. A quick hand-washing in the sink with dish-washing liquid removes the remnants of the iron-on pattern. Follow this by a rinse and pressing with an iron set on 'cotton', and it's done.

How the still life might look with narrow outline stitching
How the still life might look with narrow outline stitching

To make your own blackwork still life, start with a simple outline pattern. Follow the directions for preparing the material. Use the patterns I used, see additional patterns on the posts for October 6, 2013, October 18, 2013, February 21, 2014, and January 15, 2017 or make up your own.

Now, you are ready to transfer those outlined areas of your design to your fabric. You can place your outline on a light-box or tape it to a sunny window-pane and trace it directly on your fabric., or you may want to use a hot-iron transfer. For directions to make one, go to the post for October 6, 2013. For more on monks' cloth, see see the post for April 30, 2014.

Go make something black, white, and beautiful!

Finished Blackwork Embroidery Still Life
Finished Blackwork Embroidery Still Life

Updated October 10, 2017, to replace all the illustrations Google Photo somehow lost :-p

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Sunday, September 17, 2017

Going a Step Farther with Still Life

A Simple Still Life Composition
A Simple Still Life Composition
I'm happy to see that there is so much interest in translating still life from painting into needlework. It is evident that some of you are eager to learn how to set up your own still lifes and work from them. To help you with that, I'm going to turn the instruction over to our editor/photographer, J.D., to help you make and choose a pleasing still life arrangement.

[Gnome, grumbling] Okay, so here’s the story: Annake tells me, “I need you to take a series of shots for some points I’m trying to make on the next blog post about still life in needlework. Just find some interesting objects, make an attractive arrangement, and then shoot it from several angles. Here’s what I’ve written for the blog. Oh, and J.D. – keep it simple, please.”

Make an arrangement of 4 or 5 objects on a table or other flat surface. Move the objects into a grouping that pleases you. Try to use a variety of shapes –- some linear, some angular, some curved. Look at it from different angles: above, different sides, eye level, etc. If possible, take a few photographs from these angles with a camera or your cell phone. Here is a montage of photos J.D. took before choosing the one above. Notice how he has used light to emphasize reflections and shadows.

Montage of still life photos
Montage of still life photos, taken from different viewpoints
[Gnome] First part of the assignment completed: I shot these four pieces of pottery of different sizes and shapes, all with matte finishes in a limited range of colors against a plain off-white background so that you can concentrate on the shapes, placement, and point of view without any extra distraction. However, since I was not sure what Annake had in mind for the final product here, I was a concerned about the distortion of the colors under the artificial lights. (Those of you who seldom photograph under artificial lights may be unaware of how much different light sources can affect the color of your photos, but when you live in a hole in the ground you get used to compensating.) So, I used a variety of portable lighting to try to true up the colors. The photo on the right below, taken under a fluorescent grow light plus flash is the most accurate color representation.

original composition next to corrected colors
Still life composition (left), with adjusted lighting (right)
[Gnome] And, while I had all my portable lighting out, I decided to take some shots with unusual light directions, just in case Annake wanted to do something different with the composition before I cleared it away. Not exactly in keeping with Annake’s dictum to keep things simple, but I already had everything in place...

Montage of special lighting effects
Composition photographed with various light placements
Then I trekked up to Annake to show her the results, and find out what the next step was. She said, “Turn it into something that can be put on canvas or fabric for a needlework project. Here’s what I’ve written for our readers: ”

Make a sketch of your favorite view. If drawing is difficult for you, have a print made, enlarged if necessary, of your favorite photograph. Outline the most important features in a dark, bold marker.

TIP: Take this opportunity to simplify your design. Don't try to include every detail. Remember you are going to have to “translate” these lines and shapes into some kind of needlework. What you leave out is just as important to your final picture as what you leave in.

[Gnome] I do a lot of different things here in the Garden, which call for a lot of different skills; however, drawing isn’t one of those – that I leave to the boss lady. Tracing – now, that I can handle. Here’s a trace of the photo at the top of this post, ready to be transferred to whatever sort of material you want by one of the methods Annake has shown over the course of this blog.
Tracing of still life composition photo
Tracing of still life composition photo
Need anything else, boss?

At this point, I like to look at my design through frames or mats of different shapes: horizontal rectangle, vertical rectangle, square, oval and round. (Embroidery hoops are helpful for the ovals and circular views.) This helps me to decide whether to crop the background, how much to crop it, and what shape I want the final picture to be.

Still life tracing under a frame
Still life tracing under a frame
[Gnome] No sooner said than I’m going to go play with some of these shots I’ve taken (not all of which have been shown in this post!) to see what I come up with. This still life stuff is kind of fun!

You ought to try it.

J.D., Annake’s Garden Gnome (filling in for)

Updated October 10, 2017 to replace the mysteriously disappearing photos.

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Thursday, August 31, 2017

Late Summer Questions and Answers

wild asters
Wild asters in bloom
I know you have been busy with the Still Life posts, but what else have you worked on lately?

I've been finishing some projects that were put aside while I worked on others. One of these was a mirror-image piece done in upright Gobelin stitch on needlepoint canvas. Here's a picture of it shown horizontally. The pattern is mirrored both from side to side and from top to bottom. Seen in this way, it is pure geometric pattern in design.

mirror image needlepoint horizontal
Needlepoint, horizontal view
mirror image needlepoint vertical
Needlepoint, vertical orientation
But look what happens when it is shown vertically. Now it is a stylized representation of the fields and forests, mesas and mountains of western Colorado. I don't usually do a design that leans this far toward the abstract, but this one was fun.

I'm thinking of framing it with two hangers on the back of the frame, one on a long side and one on a short side. Then it could be displayed either way and changed back and forth as desired. What do you think?

You showed a picture of a basket of strawberries at the top of Part II of the Still Life series (August 21, 2017), but you didn't tell us anything about it. Are you going to tell us about it?

Certainly. Here it is again:

still life of a basket of strawberries
Needlepoint still life of a basket of strawberries
There are a great many things to consider in doing a still life painting or its equivalent in needlework. Here is a cheerful little needlepoint of a small basket of strawberries on a blue-and-white checked tablecloth. It is done in a poster-like style with little indication of depth and no highlights or shadows. The emphasis, instead, is on line, shape, color, and texture. Still, there is a good deal of pattern involved. Something like this is a good exercise for a beginner taking up still life needlework. This is the sort of design that can be found in a child's coloring book, for example, for anyone not yet ready to make an original design. The design is done in acrylic yarn on #10 needlepoint canvas. The checked tablecloth is a simple bargello pattern done in upright Gobelin stitch.

sample of stitch for checked tablecloth
Sample of stitch for checked tablecloth
The body of the basket is a simple needle-weaving pattern that is shifted every other row. The yarn is brought up from the back of the canvas. Working from left to right, the stitch pattern is over 6 threads, under 2 threads, over 6, under 2, across. The return stitches from right to left are under 6 threads, over 2, under 6, over 2. The sample has been done in two colors to make this easier to see. The stitch pattern is continued until a block of 6 rows is completed. The next block of 6 rows begins shifted 4 threads to the right of the first one. The third block is just like the first one and the fourth is like the second one. Incomplete blocks can be filled in once the pattern is established. Each stitch begins and ends in the same squares as the adjacent ones. No canvas threads are left uncovered.

sample of stitch for basket
Sample of stitch for basket

The strawberries are done in Parisian stitch to indicate their surface texture. The sample is done in two colors for clarity. For more on Parisian stitch and related stitches, see the post for April 10, 2014.

sample of stitch for strawberries
Sample of stitch for strawberries
The ribbon-striped wallpaper is done in continental stitch, but the rows are done vertically rather than horizontally. To do this, do downward vertical stitches in the standard continental manner (lower right to upper left) and upward stitches in the return method (upper right to lower left).

Sample of stitch technique for wallpaper
Stitch technique for wallpaper stripes
Although this is a simple pattern, it still contains some information. The strawberries indicate that it is probably late spring or summer. The lighting indicates daytime. The checked tablecloth indicates that the room is a kitchen or dining room. The bow on the basket handle suggests that the strawberries are a gift. We don't know whether the gift has been delivered to someone in the household or whether it is a gift being prepared for someone else. Either way, it is a pleasant picture. (I like to think the basket is a gift for a friend.)

Are you still doing new crochet projects?

Yes, I am still doing crochet projects. A while ago I started a new line of baby afghans and “loveys”. Loveys are soft stuffed toys based on my puppet designs. I will admit that I have never been fond of the “Pink is for girls; blue is for boys” school of thought. For one thing, babies do not readily see pastels for quite some time. The first color that most of them notice is bright red. Toy-makers have known this for centuries and painted their toys accordingly.

baby afghans with lovies

I try to make bright-colored afghans that will appeal to toddlers (and also allow parents and caregivers to teach the children colors and words), and toys that can be used along with storybooks, made-up stories, and even songs. For example, here is “Cottontail's Garden” and its “lovey” (at the left side of the photograph).

Detail of "Cottontail's Garden" afghan and lovey
Detail of "Cottontail's Garden" afghan and lovey
The rows of different colors can be associated with the vegetables and fruits the child eats or sees in visits to the grocery store. The lovey could be a good companion to the child when books like the Peter Rabbit series are read or songs like “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” are sung. (Incidentally, J.D. says he feels hungry every time he looks at this afghan.)

This question is for J.D. You mentioned a hot drink made from dandelion roots. (July 16, 2017) I sure have plenty of dandelions. What can you tell me about the hot drink?”

(The gnome grumbles...) Okay, for reasons too complicated to go into here, I once had to come up with a hot drink made from ingredients easily available in northern Europe a thousand years ago. After some experimentation, I settled on:

4 parts roasted malt barley
1 part roasted dandelion root
1 part roasted chicory root

Grind together to the size and consistency that matches whatever apparatus you use to make coffee - or tea - and brew. No caffeine kick, but it tastes pretty good on a cold morning.

Enjoy the rest of the summer!

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Monday, August 21, 2017

Still Life in Needlework, Part II

needlepoint of a basket of strawberries
A simple needlepoint still life
First of all, let me say that I was delighted by the positive response to the first post in this series. I hope you will continue to be as enthusiastic about those that follow. Let's begin where we left off last time.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, still life painting lost its popularity until about the 16th Century in Europe. The genre was probably most popular in Spain and Holland. The main art centers in Spain were Italian-influenced Seville and Madrid, site of the royal court. In Spain, the credit for renewed interest in still life usually goes to Juan Sanchez Cotan, who painted very realistic fruits and vegetables hung from strings against a jet-black background. Like many painters who followed him, he painted so realistically that people reached out to touch the objects in his paintings, believing that they were real a style we now call trompe l'oeil, meaning “fool the eye”. The greatest artist of the period, Velasquez, painted tables of delicious-looking food. Even Goya and El Greco did studies in still life. Most followed the use of the black or very dark backgrounds, which can be dramatic.

If you are working on any kind of needlepoint or tapestry canvas, black backgrounds are easy to make. You simply do all the design of your picture, no matter what the subject, and then fill in the background with a simple tent stitch in black that doesn't draw the eye away from your central design. You can see the effect in the geometric bargello design below. Working on dark or black cloth is more difficult a problem we will take up later.

Four-way bargello, "Hearts Afire"
Four-way bargello, "Hearts Afire," with black tent stitch background
Today I am going to take you step-by-step through a simple still life composition. The background is #7 plastic canvas. I chose this because the work will show up well in photographs. Also, the materials are inexpensive something to consider until you are sure that you want to make one of these projects. The yarns are acrylic leftovers from some of my knitting and crochet projects. (If you do the design on needlepoint canvas, monk's cloth, or Aida, the detail will be finer, the stitches smaller, and the curves more rounded. You will need to use finer yarns or flosses.) The needle is a blunt tapestry needle with an eye large enough to accommodate the largest yarn. I used continental (tent) stitch throughout because it is the simplest stitch that we will use for these activities.
prepared canvas for fruit needlepoint still life
Prepared canvas for needlepoint still life
 I found the center point of the canvas and drew the vertical and horizontal center lines through it lightly in permanent marker (red lines). I marked those same centering lines on my design sketch. Finally, I traced my pattern onto the canvas with a permanent marker and removed any excess ink with a tissue. Now I am ready to begin stitching.

step 1 for fruit needlepoint still life
Step 1


STEP 1: I outlined the shapes of each of the fruits with one or more rows of stitches in the defining colors. Features that did not require much modeling like stems and leaves were filled in completely.

step 2 for fruit needlepoint still life
Step 2

STEP 2: The shapes were filled in completely with continental stitch. Additional colors were used where they were needed.

(I'm sorry that I can't show you my “live models”. I should have had J.D. photograph them. I get hungry when I work, so as soon as I completed one of the kinds of fruit, I ate the fruit. By the time I finished Step 2, I was left with a few leaves and a tangle of grape stems! Not a very interesting picture!

But J.D. has become very interested in the still life project. He has been collecting interesting objects and photographing them from different angles, in different lighting conditions, etc. We will share some of those with you in a future post. Here's a sample of his work:

Photo still life, "No Rhinestones"
Photo still life, "No Rhinestones"

step 3 for fruit needlepoint still life
Step 3
STEP 3: The tablecloth that the fruits are arranged on is worked and a shadow of the banana is suggested with straight horizontal lines. Shadows of colored objects always contain a hint of the object's complementary color. The yellow banana's complementary color is violet, so a violet-toned yarn was used for its shadow. The leaves also cast shadows, but they are much thinner than the solid banana and move with the slightest breeze, so their shadows are less well-defined. They are indicated here where the blue stitches are over-stitched with one strand of dark red (green's complement) yarn. Knowing and applying these simple facts will make your embroidered compositions more lively and realistic. The other complementary colors are: red/green, red-orange/blue-green, orange/blue, yellow-orange/blue-violet, yellow-green/red-violet.

finished fruit needlepoint still life
Finished needlepoint still life

STEP 4: The remainder of the background is completed. I visualized an old plaster or stucco wall behind the arrangement. To get that effect, I chose a color of yarn that was halfway between a dark ecru and an antique gold.

This simple pattern is very versatile. With very small changes in the lines of the original design, you can make extensive changes in the finished picture. Here are some examples to consider:

  • Remove the center curve and change the peach to an apple;
  • Do a red apple with green grapes or do a green apple with red grapes;
  • Make the pear yellow, red, or light brown;
  • Add more leaves or omit the ones that are there;
  • Change the banana to an ear of corn or a crookneck squash, the peach to a tomato, the pear to an avocado or an eggplant;
  • Replace the grapes with a head of cauliflower, leafy green lettuce, or blue kale;
  • Use a variegated yarn for the tablecloth, make it striped, or give it more texture with a patterned stitch like Hungarian or Parisian;
  • Use a light color for the tablecloth, but work the upper background in solid black like the Spanish artists did.

I'm sure you can think of other variations.

Not all still lifes are made in color. Think of all the black-and-white media for making pictures: pencil, charcoal, gray-toned pastels, pen and ink, block prints, etc. Here is J.D.'s photograph as a pencil drawing (left) or a mixed charcoal and pastel rendering (right).

BW photo variants of photo still life
Black and white variations of "No Rhinestones"
When we return with Part III of this series, I will introduce you to a design on fabric with floss that is done in a black-and-white technique called Spanish blackwork. If you are not familiar with blackwork, I recommend that you read some of my early posts that described the technique particularly those of October 6, 2013 and January 27, 2014. Use our search engine to find these posts.

Play with the pattern and combinations to find ones that you like. As always, have fun!

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