I’m done. I’m done, done, done with the portrait which has been kicking my rump since May. Thank goodness: one more hour with it and I would have gone stark raving mad. Funny how one’s own creation can have that effect. Now I get to photograph it, show it to everyone, write a postmortem, and celebrate, right?
Well … sort of. I finished it just in time for a show deadline, that well-known exhibit in Ohio which showcases “contemporary innovative quilts” and routinely breaks 90% of applicants’ hearts. There’s just one thing about that show: they like their work super fresh. As in, not seen by much of anybody before it’s in their show. Oh, you can post photos on your own website, but if the images show up elsewhere, you’re disqualified. We all know how that goes, especially the celebrities who just had nude selfies stolen from their iCloud data: once it’s out there, it’s out of your control. Images can spread like malaria, with other users either willfully or innocently ignoring one’s copyright. I personally have had my photos spread around over the years, and there wasn’t so much as a titillating depiction of a nipple in the lot. During one particularly low point, I found my work being used as page backgrounds on MySpace; the images admittedly looked pretty amazing when juxtaposed with photos of drunk young women making duck face.
I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer to be deep-sixed from a show because my work doesn’t fit in, not because of silliness like my images getting reposted. Even though the risk may be minimal, it’s still non-zero. So. Compromise time. I’ll go ahead and write the postmortem, but illustrate it with pictures drawn by my son. (I’ve paid him $1/illustration. That seems fair; it’s about what high end publishers and stock photo agencies pay these days.) Then, come early October when notices go out, I’ll either celebrate and keep the portrait under wraps, or post the portrait and move on.
So here it isn’t, my newest work, Why Knot?
Simulacrum of Why Knot?
Why Knot? was inspired by watching my son practice knot tying, an exercise designed to torment the uninitiated. Knot tying is a Cub Scout rite of passage, along with using outhouses and hacking blocks of Ivory soap into crude golems of Polar bears. The Scouts have an unlimited supply of these activities, which are intended to somehow frustrate young men into becoming responsible citizens and members of society.
In Why Knot?, the metaphorical nightmare of becoming hopelessly engulfed in one’s own knots is made real. A docile length of rope should submit to being transformed into a half hitch or a sheepshank. Instead, the child’s hands are enveloped by a hideous tangled mass which threatens to swallow him up like a rope leviathan. His predicament is reflected in his expression of dismay.
Although most of my work begins with a series of sketches, that wasn’t the case here. I knew I wanted a straightforward composition which honed in on the action. I needed a head-on medium shot, from the waist up, with one source light. Once I collected props and a white backdrop, I called in my son for a modeling session.
The boy is a good sport about modeling, even when one takes into account his innate greed and the fact that I pay him. He has a “rubber face”, able to assume any expression I could want.
After getting my camera set up, I came out from behind it and shot with a remote shutter control. This allowed the boy to relax a bit rather than concentrating on the camera. To encourage sincere facial expressions, I engaged him in unhappy topics such as “After this, I need you to pick up the dog feces that’s in the back yard.” and “How are those nine times tables coming?” The remote also made it easier to adjust his arm position as we worked, so that the mass of rope was neither blocking his face nor drooping out of the photo.
I took a lot of shots. My philosophy is that it’s better to have too many than too few. Sometimes one strikes gold with a single shot, and sometimes it’s necessary to composite multiple shots.
Retouching and compositing
After the photography session, I headed to the computer to review the photos and begin the compositing process. Thanks to the use of a white backdrop, knocking out the background was trivial. Further edits would require thought.
One of my goals with this piece was to try combining stitch with photo-printed fabric, a technique which is faddishly popular right now. However, I was concerned about avoiding the appearance of simply sewing on a photo, which so many pieces of this type have. Although I can absolutely see that working if, say, one is making an editorial statement – imagine playfully sewing devil’s horns over a photo of your least favorite politician – it isn’t the effect I strive for in my own work. I prefer to have the stitch and image layers unobtrusively meld into a harmonious whole.
I concluded that that there are two or three key factors at play. One is background/composition. Most people don’t have the luxury of staging photos exactly as they’d wish. They may be working with a single shot of a fleeting moment or a significant photo of a deceased loved one, an image which may have sentimental value for them. They can’t control the fact that there’s a hot pink Airstream trailer or a pair of belching smokestacks in the background, nor do they have the wherewithal to digitally blur or edit them out. Unfortunately, these are the types of distracting details which shout “photo”.
Another factor is the level of detail. Although some painters and other artists are photorealists, it’s unusual to see detail down to the level of individual blemishes or nostril hairs in textile art. Such information sends a signal to our brains that the base image is a photo. Also, when we have that level of fine detail in our base image, we often don’t know how to complement it with stitch. This can result in our obscuring the area with thread, leaving the area unstitched out of a sense of intimidation, or using a stitch which fights with the base image for attention.
A third issue I’ve seen is poor color or dynamic range, in which the source images are muddy or washed out and no correction has been done. Although that may not signal that the base image is a photo, it can drain much of the life from a composition.
With these factors in mind, I adjusted the dynamic range of my image, then edited it to have a more painterly appearance. Using Photoshop, I carefully brushed and smoothed out areas of unnecessary detail while retaining crispness around the eyes, mouth, and base of the nose.
The infamous “Pretzle” knot
The final step in image preparation was selecting a background. I wanted the boy in the foreground to be juxtaposed against a knot-tying guide, one of those instruction cards which depicts a dizzying array of unlikely-looking knots for every occasion. The canonical knot guide is, of course, the Boy Scouts’. However, I didn’t want to violate their copyright by simply reproducing theirs. Instead, I searched for knot illustrations through stock agencies and actually paid money for a piece of stock art. Guess what? When I compared it to the Scouts’ after the fact, the illustration was exactly the same!
However, the names on the knot guide seemed a little tame. Who wants to tie a Double Overhand when you can whip up a Squid’s Beak or Lord Baden’s Scowl? With the assistance of my spouse and a glass or two of wine, I came up with my own list of suitable knot names, which I composited into the image.
Before I forget, I should acknowledge the similarity between my composition and Norman Rockwell’s Tattoo Artist, which depicts a figure against background full of tattoo designs.
I didn’t have his painting in mind when I began my portrait, but once I remembered it, I did inspect it for ideas. I didn’t end up modifying my design as a result, but it was nice to have Rockwell’s company along the way.
In the illustration above, we see a dog passing gas. This has nothing to do with the topic at hand, getting the composite image for Why Knot? printed on fabric. After reading reviews and considering my options, I outsourced the printing to Spoonflower. Although there are a number of businesses which will do a good job, I was pleased with Spoonflower’s online help and their ordering mechanism, which meant that I wouldn’t have to interact with another human being.
Printing and shipping took approximately forever, which is unsurprising given the popularity of Spoonflower’s service and the fact that I paid the bare minimum for shipping and production. Want it faster? Pay more. When the fabric did arrive, I was quite pleased with the general quality of the print, which was a crisp reproduction of the file I’d submitted. Now all I had to do was sew.
Although the stitching was in some sense the least complex part of the project, it took weeks. I guess that makes sense given that the stitching is in some sense the heart of making a quilt-based portrait, the reason we’re using fiber rather than some other medium. Stitch gives us an opportunity to enhance the base image and add texture.
I spent many, many hours listening to NPR and TED talks while I stitched, learning about the hideous spread of Ebola and wondering why I’m a slacker compared to those people on TED. TED speakers are out piecing together solar arrays from sticks and used aluminum foil, asking why the universe exists, and making fungus-embedded suits to decompose their bodies after death. I’m just sewing away while my weiner-basset passes gas beneath my work table. (Maybe I could do something with that, harness the dog’s flatulence as an alternative energy source. I can see myself on the TED stage, showing slides of a group of dogs with gas-collecting funnels duct taped to their rumps.)
After stitching, I made adjustments with ink and paint, enhancing shadows and highlights. Did the boy’s hair look bristly enough, reminiscent of a hedgehog? Check. Did he look appalled enough? Check. Did the rope have a convincing texture? Check. Had I beaten the portrait into submission, so that it laid flat? Mostly.
Although it can be hard to know when a piece is truly finished, sometimes we reach a state of exhaustion, can’t see straight, and conclude that it’s “done enough”. After five months, I’d reached that state. It was time to send the portrait off into the world to seek its fortune.