Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Two Odes to Kandinsky - Paint and Beads

When I learned about the Etsy Beadweavers Team's April 2014 Challenge, I just knew I had to participate!  Themed, "Inspired by Kandinsky," this challenge provided the opportunity to try to speak to the style and aesthetics of one of my favorite artists, the Russian painter, Wassily Kandinsky.  This is one of my favorite pieces, from 1913, titled Composition VII (image in public domain).

File:Kandinsky WWI.jpg

I have loved Kandinsky's work from this period, as well as some of his later pieces from his Bauhaus period, for a very long time.  However one of my art courses back in the late 1990s really helps cement my appreciation for his work.  Our assignment was to paint a still life in the style of one of the works at the Milwaukee Art Museum.  I of course selected their Kandinsky painting, Fragment I for Composition VII, from 1913, which was part of the preparation for the painting shown above.  

I selected a still life grouping of instruments for my reference because his work from this period is very musical, looking often like a symphony.  I could also see suggestions of shapes that looked like instruments, so I brought these elements out in my interpretation, including a violin, keyboard, horn, and drum - can you see them?

Trying to achieve a similar feel for my work proved to be extremely difficult.  If you compare mine to the original in the link, you can definitely see the differences.  I gained a new level of appreciation for Kandinsky's masterful use of color and ability to create unity and harmony out of such frenetic shape and movement.  There is great subtlety in his brushwork that only becomes apparent when viewed up close - subtle shading and layering of color that lend a great deal of depth and richness.

Fast-forward to 2014: If it was not difficult enough to achieve a similar result in paint, constructing a piece from beads that evoked his art was going to be an even bigger challenge!  This raised all sorts of construction problems: How do I achieve the bold shapes and subtle areas of shifting colors?  How can I create visual balance while incorporating the broad range of colors typical of his palates?  How can I make sure it is still wearable?

I decided that it was fitting to move forward about 15 years in Kandinsky's career, as I was doing so in my own artistic career, so I started by looking at a number of works from his Bauhaus period - click here for some examples.

I decided to figure out the construction of the piece as I went, and began with a sketch that captured some of the motifs common in his work from this period - geometric shapes, sharp lines and angles, layered elements. 

Then I began pulling out materials from my over-sized bead stash, paying careful attention to shapes.  Once I had some likely candidates, I began pulling together a color palate reminiscent of some of his color schemes from the 1920s, which often featured bright bold colors mixed with glowing pastels and jewel tones.  I strove to include enough color variation to be true to his aesthetic and still maintain enough visual focus to create an aesthetically pleasing piece.

I shifted over to construction, but left many questions still unanswered about how it would all hold together in the end.  I made a point of constructing individual elements with different stitches, including peyote shapes, bead embroidery bezels on cabochons, square stitch, and shaped herringbone.  Here is an example of how some of these elements came together:

For this piece, I used different bead sizes to create a herringbone circle, than whip stitched a bezeled cabochon into the hole in the center - I'm pleased to say it was a perfect fit!

As I worked, a made a point of switching frequently between elements, often laying partially completed elements on the sketch.  In this way, it felt a bit more like painting with beads, and also allowed me to try some different layouts along the way:

Brick stitch provided the perfect technique for making the squiggly line that meanders around the design, while other techniques solved different construction problems.  The two hair sticks I used for the bold linear elements so typical of Kandinsky's work from this period provided a particular challenge.  If I just wrapped beads around them, they would easily slide out, but I certainly did not want to just glue them on.  After days of puzzling over this issue, I came to a solution.  I added glue to the insides of a couple of large-holed turquoise beads, which gave me something to anchor beaded elements to.  At last, after many hours, it was time to try to put it all together:

This step was tricky because my thread was constantly tangling around the spiked elements of the piece, but with some perseverance it all came together.  It is actually surprisingly comfortable, as it lays nicely and doesn't flop around.  Here are a few shots of the finished product:

Have you ever tried to emulate a favorite artist with beadwork or a different artistic medium than the original?  Please share your experiences in the comments!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Dissertation Amulet: Writing and Designing Together

It has been a long time since I last found some time to sit down and write about beading, but it has certainly been on my mind quite a lot, particularly the issue of how it relates to other aspects of my life.  Thinking about those connections recently inspired my to create a special piece commemorating a milestone, the completion of a full draft of the first chapter of my dissertation.  I titled it Dissertation Amulet and have started wearing it often.

This piece is an embodiment of the close connections between my work as a writer and as an artist over the past five years.  During this time, I have worked on jewelry design and my dissertation in the same physical, mental, and emotional spaces.  This has begun to change in some regards, as beads continue to encroach on the space of my home office, which is now primarily my studio.  In the process turning my desk on campus into my hub for writing.  While these spaces are now separate, I still carry the same energy and emotions through both processes; when my creativity dries up for a time, it usually impacts both areas of my work.

Dissertation Amulet makes these interconnections explicit.  I preserved segments of text from my newly minted chapter under glass cabochons:

I also worked to make the piece evocative of my aesthetics as a writer.  In my training as a historian, I have increasingly come to appreciate the literary elements of my craft; writing about the past is a form of storytelling that demands imagination and creativity.  These skills and my writing aesthetic translate over into many of my jewelry designs in highly abstract and deeply personal ways.  I've realized that in my writing I work to build complexity, with layers of analysis and narrative.  At the same time, I strive to balance these with sharp, incisive arguments that speak to the bigger issues at stake in understanding a given aspect of the past.  I also like to write in ways that circle back to important themes and show both changes and continuities over time.  For these reasons, I chose to combine curving elements, intricate beading, layered construction, and sharp, bold elements into the necklace design.  

This was one of the rare times in the past year that I have made a piece that is really and truly for myself, and it was a great reminder of how all the pieces of a busy life interlock, and when approached mindfully, can flow together in beautiful and rewarding ways.  Hopefully soon I will be producing another piece capturing another chapter...

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Cathedral Spire Kits and Colorway Decisions

Its always a tough call making decisions about color when designing jewelry.  I so often find myself drawing on what I learned about color theory in my art classes many years ago when pulling beads together for a new project.  While I no longer get to mix my own custom colors, beads offer an extra dimension that I did not usually have to worry about in my days of painting with watercolors and acrylics.  This is the issue of the finish of beads - everything from matte to metallic to Aurora Borealis.  As Marcia DeCoster's recent blog entry on Color Decisions and the conversation it sparked illustrates, color choices have to go hand-in-hand with decisions about bead finish.  A matte finish bead can have such a different impact than a metallic or Ceylon finish, and these decisions can definitely impact the way the colors interact in the piece.  Too much of the same finish can even sometimes make variations in color hard to see.

Questions of color and finish are always an important part of my design process, but usually take place during the planning and design phase of the work.  Last week I took some time to come up with new colorways to create kits for my Cathedral Spire Earrings Tutorial.  Finding new ways to make the same pattern work with different colors is a different kind of challenge, and I found it both fun and instructive. 

As I was pulling materials together, I found that substituting certain components and seed bead finishes helped pull together a cohesive look for a given colorway.  Because some degree of contrast is needed to keep the exterior embellishments and details visible against the other bead, I had to think in terms of contrasts in either finish or color or in both. 

The original red version has a very bold, regal look:
I went with a white and silver version for my first variation.  The formality of the metallic finishes on the seed beads and the sparkle of the faceted crystal rondelles translated well to this colorway, creating a very dressy look.  I think this version would look lovely on a bride!
However, when I turned to a green and brown variation, I wanted something that worked better with casual fall fashions - these earthy tones are classics for this season.  I chose matte metallic and matte iris finishes for many of the seed beads to help with the shift to a casual look.  I decided that the crystal rondelles were a bit too sparkly in this context.  Then I remembered my stock of glass pearls.  These light green pearls really fit the look and feel I was going for with this colorway.  Luxurious but still appropriate for day-wear:
I wasn't sure if the switch from rondelles to round pearls would impact the seed bead counts in the embellishment stitches, but was pleasantly surprised at how well the switch worked - there was no need to alter the pattern and instructions!

Finally, I wanted to design a pair in shades of blues and purples.  Both my mom and sister love these colors and I often think of what they enjoy when I'm designing.  I chose to combine glass rondelles and pearls for this pair and again made a few substitutions to get the finished effect right.  Its always good to remember that size 8 seeds and 3mm rounds are pretty interchangeable - that knowledge certainly helped with this colorway:
I decided to stop here with the new colorways... for now.  What colors would you choose or like to see?  How do you make decisions about color - do you use tools like Color Scheme Designer or just grab a pile of beads and see what works?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Challenges of My Sea Adventure: Technicolor Tide Pools Necklace

**I am pleased to announce this piece won in both the public and team polls for the August Etsy Beadweavers Team Challenge, themed "Sea Adventures."  Photos of the piece are featured on the Team's Facebook page and you can learn more about the voting results on the team's blog.

Last week I wrote about losing the first version of this necklace in a lake and the hard lessons that accompanied that experience.  It was a particularly painful loss because this design had required multiple innovations and experiments with techniques, bead types, and stitches.  This week I'd like to share with you the techniques I developed and the inspiration behind them.  The in-process photos shown below are from the first version of the necklace...

When I was young my family made an annual trip out to Roseburg, OR to visit my grandparents.  Each year we would make a side trip to explore some of Oregon's natural beauty, and many years we visited the coast to see the dramatic, rocky coastline, watch the sea lions, and explore the tide pools.  Working on this piece brought back many fond memories of those trips and that feeling of awe when I caught my first glimpse of the strange and alien creatures that inhabited the tide pools.  I designed this piece as an abstract amalgam of the colorful anemones and spiky sea urchins that inhabited those tide pools.

The idea for this necklace emerged after a couple weeks of thinking about the August theme for the Etsy Beadweavers Team's monthly design challenge, titled "Sea Adventures."  At first I thought I would do something evocative of waves by reworking one of the many incomplete pieces littering my studio, yet I didn't find any of these particularly compelling.

I had started to give up on competing in the August challenge when inspiration struck.  I had just purchased this beautiful turquoise faux suede cord and was trying to pull together some supplies to experiment with this new material.  Here's what I came up with

 As I collected materials to build the color scheme, the agate spikes and dyed howlite spikes made me think of the sea urchin spikes in my collection:

All of a sudden, I had a design idea for the competition!  I came up with this quick sketch:

The actual urchin spikes seemed too literal for the piece; I prefer a more abstract interpretation, so I decided to stick with the more colorful agate and howlite spikes.

At this point, the challenges shifted to execution.  I started with the central urchin by capturing the largest carnelian cabochon with a peyote bezel.  I stitched in the ditch around the bezel to give it a textural feel and added visual richness.

I then began adding the spikes, working around each one with a similar bezel.  This proved to be difficult, because each new spike seemed determined to catch and tangle my thread.

After getting three done, I realized that I didn't like the angle of the spikes at all.  The result looked more like a bear paw with long claws than a sea urchin, and the angle of the spikes was going to make the piece awkward to wear. 

After much deliberation, I took the bold step of cutting the pieces apart.  I decided I would try to create a sloped section of bead embroidery around the cabochon to set the spikes off at an angle.  I haven't seen this done before, so I had to experiment.  I settled on using multiple layers of beading foundation.  I discovered that by edging new layers with brick stitch before adding the next layer, I could create the slope I was looking for.  Here are a couple images of the process, showing how I constructed the angle. (Sorry about the photo quality, I was working on this piece on a road trip and didn't have the best lighting conditions!)

I continued working in this fashion until I had constructed a large enough angled area to attach the agate spikes.  And to my great fortune, it turned out that the rounds of beads I had stitched in the ditch on the cabs and the spikes interlocked, offering an effective and visually pleasing way to attach the spikes and integrate them into the design:

I was also quite pleased with how well I was able to make these angled spikes interlock between the components:

Now it was time to start attaching the graduated howlite spikes along the edge.  This also posed a challenge because I wanted these spikes to lay flat, not flop forwards or get caught behind the rest of the design.   I found that by using the new two-hole beads I could construct a net around the base of the spikes that holds them in place: 

I was very pleased with how well this construction worked out.  As you can see from this composite photo of the second version, it keeps the spikes from flopping forwards, yet allows them to fall backwards to some extent so that they can contour the body when worn:

I'm very pleased with the results, and although I was initially devastated by the loss of the original, I think I improved the design with the second version.  It is currently for sale in my Etsy shop and I am hoping to do other sea urchin pieces in the future featuring different color schemes and arrangements.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Secrets of Bay Lake

There is now a small family of beaded sea urchins living in Bay Lake, here in beautiful Minnesota.  Here's the story of how it got there and the lessons I learned along the way:

I had just finished a necklace with an abstract interpretation of sea urchins titled "Technicolor Tide Pools" for the Etsy Beadweavers Team August challenge, which has the theme of "Sea Adventures."

I thought getting some pictures up at the lake with the water in the background would be great for the Etsy listing and my portfolio.  The weather and timing didn't quite work out for the photo shoot, however, but I foolishly left the necklace on when we headed to dinner via the boat.  I was so proud of it, I wanted to get the test wear in that night (I always wear my pieces for a day before selling them so I can send them off confident that there will be no malfunctions).

To my absolute horror, as I was getting on the boat, the clasp failed and the necklace fell between the boat and dock. It was by then too dark to really see where it had fallen, so I spent a sleepless night wondering whether we could get it back.

The next morning, it was visible, floating in the water on top of some weeds.  It was so close, just a few feet down!  And yet, when I reached for it, it only fell deeper and sunk into the thick layer of muck below.  My friends and I spent hours trying to find it, feeling around, staring into the lake.  I knew if I could get it back it might not be salable, but at least salvageable.  I've had some of my handmade jewelry items from my personal collection survive trips through the washing machine, submersion in dirty dishwater, and other mishaps, so I know my products are tough and can hold up to dirty water and some rough treatment.

Our efforts were in vain; the necklace was gone, only to be seen again by the snails and fish that make the lake their home.  One of the saddest things about losing this piece was that I had no photos of the completed piece yet.  I only had some in-progress shots, these are two of the most complete ones:

I doubt I will ever let a piece leave my house again without first taking multiple photos of the completed item!

I also will not trust that kind of hook and eye clasp again, particularly for a bib-style necklace with a heavy front.  I think that the front portion of the necklace caught on my jacket, creating slack in the neck strap that allowed the back to unhook.

After finding some red jasper cabochons in my stash that I could substitute in for the carnelian cabs in the original, I resolved to remake the piece in time for the competition, even if it meant working day and night. I'm happy to say I got it done with time to spare, especially since I'd already figured out all the bead counts and techniques the first time around.  Here's the new version, up for sale in my Etsy shop:

I'm pleased with how the new one turned out, even if its not the same.  I still achieved the edgy, modern look I was working to achieve and the construction on this version is actually superior as well.  I will share more about the techniques and process behind this piece in my next post. 

Do you have any unusual or interesting stories of lost jewelry or costly design errors?  Where do you think your lost pieces are living now?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Cathedral Spire Earrings Tutorial: The Making Of

I'm happy to announce that I have completed my first tutorial and listed it on Etsy:

 I've been working on earrings using modified herringbone for some time and have many variations listed in my shop, but this was the first version that I felt warranted a tutorial.  This pair has layers of intricate detail and I had finally worked out the system for getting the embellishments to come out just right, both in terms of spacing and placement.  I originally learned about the basic technique of adding extra beads in herringbone to cover visible threads from Jill Wiseman's Beautiful Beaded Ropes.  I have since then played with it extensively and made it my own by experimenting with different types of embellishment beads and ways to incorporate those beads into exterior structures on the work.

Creating a pattern is a surprisingly different process from simply designing/creating one pair of earrings.  It definitely required multiple parts of my brain to work at the same time.  After each stitch, I had to write down exactly what I did and snap a couple photos for the illustrations. Here's an example of my detailed directions for tubular herringbone. 

Beading is usually a fairly flowing and intuitive process for me, but the interruptions required to make detailed and accurate instructions led to a few mishaps, including picking up the wrong size/shape of teardrop beads at one point:

I was so focused on trying to explain the stitches in writing and photography that I didn't notice for a few more rounds!  When I finally realized what had happened the earrings had become sloppy and unwieldy, so I had to start over.  I think it was worth these types of headaches to make sure that each step in the directions were clear and easy to follow.  And I love the final product; they are striking and dramatic, with a classic elegance:

I also realized that not everyone likes or can tolerate such long earrings, so I made sure to include suggestions on variations in length as well as suggestions for color variations and other options.  These are things that I always appreciate in a pattern.  What things do you particularly appreciate/look for in beading patterns/tutorials? 

My next pattern, also for earrings, focuses on using the new rulla and rizo beads I bought from Whimbeads at the Bead and Button Show.  I'm enjoying the challenges of experimenting with them and am hoping to figure out something effective and attractive in the coming weeks.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

A Multi-Faceted Challenge: Swarovski and WireKnitz in Bead Embroidery

UPDATE: I am pleased to announce that the piece I describe below won the competition!

Back when I started beading with patterns years ago, I used to substitute out crystals for other materials whenever I could.  I love beads that shine, gleam, shimmer, and glow, but the sparkle of crystals wasn't really part of my aesthetic.  Later, on a whim I decided to enter the Fire Mountain 2011 Swarovski jewelry design contest with my creation Night Queen's Crown, and in the process, ended up gaining a new level of appreciation for crystals.

When I saw that Swarovski Create Your Style was running a bracelet design competition in connection with this year's Bead and Button Show, I was excited for a new challenge with crystals.  As soon as the marketplace opened, I hurried around the showroom floor acquiring my individual beads from the participating vendors. Here's some of what I collected:

These faceted beauties eventually became part of this piece, titled Modern Baroque Cuff:

My boyfriend described the finished piece as "chaotic," my  mom thinks it looks "messy," and my sister kindly noted that it is "different from what you normally do."  It certainly is more busy and less cohesive than most of my work, yet I am personally quite fond of it.  While it isn't necessarily a complete visual success, competing was nevertheless a valuable challenge and I learned a great deal from the process, particularly about combining different materials into bead embroidery in ways that were new to me.

First, the piece had to be 80% Swarovski crystals, and when I pulled together my stash, I found that I mostly had bicones.  The shape of these beads make them fairly uncooperative for bead embroidery, but I did find ways to coax them into laying attractively on the foundation.  The that worked for me was to backstitch multiple rows with a little bit of room between each bead.  This allowed the next row to nestle in between. For curves, using graduated sizes created pleasing results.

However, the part of this challenge that I found most exciting and useful was my experiment using knit wire in the bezels for crystal rivolis.  At the Bead and Button Show, I stopped by and chatted with the helpful ladies over at WireKnitZ   I asked one of their sales reps about using their product in bead embroidery, but she didn't have any examples of that type of application.  I decided to pick some up anyway and forge ahead on my own.

For this piece, I was trying to find a way to use crystal rivolis as cabochons.  I remembered how the WireKnitZ products could be rolled up and wondered if it would be possible to make little "nests" for the rivolis.  I came up with this meandering design to start the cuff design:

The product is remarkably easy to form into different shapes and effects and is quite forgiving if you decide to manipulate it multiple times.  The circular shapes were the "nests," while I intended the sections of knit wire between them to peek through a richly encrusted free form bead embroidered design, serving as a unifying element that would run through the cuff.  I used a few stitches along each ring of knit wire to attach it to the beading foundation, making sure they just picked up some of the bottom of the knit so the thread wouldn't show.

 I then used a bit of E6000 adhesive to temporarily set the rivolis.  Once this dried, I did a standard peyote bezel, starting by working back stitch around the rivoli.  I stitched up straight through the knit wire so it remained visible around the base of each bezel.  I loved the way this looked, but sadly much of the knit wire around the base of each bezel got hidden as I stitched more beads onto the foundation.  I plan to try this technique again, but use seed beads around the base of the knit wire bezel so it remains visible.    You can see a couple of the bezels in this photo below:

I have more WireKnitZ left and am looking forward to trying this technique again, hopefully with more finesse and a better finished design.  Have any of you been experimenting with this product, in bead embroidery or otherwise? I'd love to hear about your techniques and what you've learned about this material.