By Dolores Andrew
This article first appeared in NANthology, the NAN newsletter, in summer 2002.
A needleworker who selects a project to stitch makes an artistic decision. This decision can take several directions. It can be an original design or it can be a painted canvas, a counted cross stitch design, or it can be a crewel design or some other technique. Whatever the choice, it is an artistic decision, and the more knowledgeable the stitcher is about art, the better the decision.
For the most part, the creative arts involve the manipulation of simple elements to create more complicated objects. The composer works with a limited number of musical notes and arranges them to create a piece of music. The result can be anything from Gregorian Chant to Rock and Roll. The writer starts with an alphabet–twenty-six letters in English. The letters are arranged into millions of words and the words can be juxtaposed to form prose or poetry, serious or amusing. There are unlimited possibilities. The visual artist begins with a mark on a surface. The mark can be a line as thin as a pen scratch or as thick as a wide brush stroke. The marks can be spaced or can blend into each other. They can be colored in a way to reflect any combination of light frequencies within the visible spectrum.
The visual artist can create a line with any device that comes to mind. Traditionally, lines are created with brushes dipped in oil paint, acrylic paint or colored water. Some artists may use sticks of charcoal or sticks of pastels. Others may use a pencil or a pen. In fact anything that can mark a surface is permissible. An artist can scratch on a surface or dip a sharpened stick into ink, some other colored liquid to mark a surface, or dribble a line of paint from a can. The artist can even make lines on a computer screen with a mouse and place the result on paper with a printer.
Given this variety of line making, it should come as no surprise that an artist can create using a line of thread stitched into a piece of fabric. In fact, the needleworker has a great many choices when creating a work of art with a line of stitches. Broad areas can be covered with repeated lines of long and short or fields of cross stitch or canvas stitches. The texture of the object depicted can even be simulated with stitches such as turkey work or bullion knots. Stitch configurations are limited only by the imagination of the needle artist. Additionally, the ability to supplement the thread with things like sequins and beads only adds to the variety.
There can be no doubt that stitchery is art, but does this mean that the needleworker must always be a “Trained” artist? Of course not! Just as the untrained create paintings and drawings by copying existing works, painting from photos, painting from life, and even paint by numbers, the stitcher has a number of available methods to create an attractive and rewarding piece of needle artwork. Whatever the technique, because needlework is art, it is helpful if the needle worker has some familiarity with the principles that apply to all art.
These principles include rules which the artist may apply in order to make the piece of art look like the thing that is being portrayed. They include the use of perspective, color theory, value, methods of expressing the different textures of the objects in the picture, and the way to show light and shade patterns from an assumed light source, to name a few. The needle artist who can use these art principles properly can better employ the unique qualities of the stitched line to produce a result that looks like the object it purports to show.
But, suppose you do not want your needle art to be the work of a “realist?” That is all right, too. You just emphasize the rules differently. Andy Warhol followed the rules, Salvadore Dali bent them, Picasso stretched them even farther, Mondrian emphasized color and geometry, and Jackson Pollack ignored most of the rules altogether. The wonderful thing about art is that you can follow the rules, follow some of the rules, or ignore most of them. As a needle artist, your creations are limited only by your imagination. Your work can be a geometric design such as bargello or hardanger, it can be stylized like Jacobean crewel, it can be a realistic scene, or an abstract medley of color. You can follow or disregard whichever rules you wish, but it helps to know what they are, so you know which rules you are breaking.