Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Research Trip: Stitching with Monet at the Art Institute of Chicago

Last summer I began to focus my research of Monet to his repetitions and most specifically his Grainstacks series.  This decision was in part due to my experience of seeing his Meules, fin de l'été at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris and how it glowed off the wall in their Impressionist Gallery and stole my attention from everything else.  In this series, it is interesting to see how he has broken up time and rendered the same motif(s) in such numerous iterations.  This idea of an artistic series like this was quiet a novel idea for the time, unlike today where artists fairly regularly will address a similar motif and topic in a series format.  

By choosing a simplified landscape and the fairly simplistic shape of a Grainstack, Monet focused his attention to capturing the color and experience of light and atmosphere and removed narrative as an artistic element.  Removing this narrative was important, as that forced the viewers to be seduced into these snapshots of time, experiencing the subtle changes of light and color of each moment of day and season.  As the field with grainstacks was located right behind his house in Giverny, it was easily accessible and very familiar to Monet, allowing the subtle details of the changing light to be evident to him. 

In the Art Institute:
On Wednesday, after my time in the Textiles Collection, I visited the Impressionists Gallery to view the 5 Grainstacks that they have on public view.  I had arranged with the European Painting department to have time to stitch before the museum opened on Thursday and Friday so this time on Wednesday afternoon allowed for some preparatory observation of color and photographing the paintings.  

I chose to focus on studying Monet's Stack of Wheat (Thaw, Sunset),1890/91, (Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Daniel C. Searle, 1983.166).  Why this one you may be wondering?  Honestly I chose to focus on this one as it had 1 grainstack, a fairly abstracted background and colors that I found both interesting and challenging.  There was a nice mix of smooth gradation in the sky with more textural optical mixing in the ground. 

I contemplated a number of different approaches to this.  I landed on 18 count monocanvas with cotton embroidery floss.  I chose specifically to use cotton embroidery flosses (from Weeks Dye Works and Valdani) as they have a fairly dull sheen or matte finish.  Monet and most of the Impressionists chose not to varnish their paintings so their paintings do not have a glossy finish to them and are fairly matte in appearance.  I thought since he made that conscience sheen decision that it was important to match it with a thread that also had a matte finish to it.  

I have also deliberately decided to utilize all variegated thread colors.  This was a decision that was the result of all the square samples I have stitched the past few years.  Solid colors do not blend as well together and can many times result in a stripey appearance.  The variegated colors blend beautifully together and create a more painterly result.  It is also a good challenge that I cannot fully control where the variegation lands on the piece so there is a natural spontaneity and looseness that results. 

Just a side note on the floss:  The Weeks Dye Works cottons have a really beautiful sheen to them, almost like a semi-gloss.  The Valdani cottons are very matte.  I am assuming there is a difference in finishing processing, though I have absolutely no clue - just my guess.  Why is this important?  Well, it makes a difference when mixing your colors and it makes a difference within the composition.  The shinier flosses come forward visually and can jump up in dominance within both the thread mixture and overall composition.  If you are cognizant of it, you can use this to your advantage when stitching pieces. Sometimes the shine can make a thread read lighter than it actually is and sometimes it can reflect the surrounding colors. 
Now to the Stitching!:
 On the first day of stitching, I focused primarily on getting the colors to match.  After photographing the painting and creating a number of different sketches that recorded notes on composition and brush stroke direction, I started mixing my threads.  I only had 1.5 hrs. each morning before the museum opened to stitch so I had to be very deliberate about my time.  The Art Institute of Chicago has an amazing online publication on their Monet collection, Monet: Paintings and Drawings at the Art Institute of ChicagoI knew that the hardest aspect to do from a distance would be to match the colors as digital and printed colors are never the same as what they are in person with the actual painting.  Brushstroke direction and overall composition were something that I could reference from their online publication.  Color was the trickiest part and therefore had to command the use of my time.
I decided to stitch the color mixtures like paint swatches instead of my normal grid of squares. The "paint swatches" are created with 8-9 strands mixed together.  I have recorded each color recipe on a matching map in my sketchbook (it looks a little bit like a crazy mind map!).  Each color mixture is stitched twice--once with cross-hatched or overlapping stitches and once with a smooth diagonal satin stitch.  I thought it was important to record and compare the same thread combination with different textures.  It is very interesting to me the difference that just the stitch direction and type makes on the perceived color.  It's not dramatic but it is a noticeable difference and one that needs intentional observation.  On Day 1, I focused on the colors in the sky and on Day 2, I focused on the colors in the grainstack.  These were the two areas that were the hardest to see "true to color" in photographs or from digital or print resources.  They were also the anchor areas in that the sky had the highest value colors and the haystack had the lowest value colors in the composition.

On Day 2, I used the last part of my time to stitch quick directional stitches that matched Monet's brushstroke directions.  I did these stitches in the highlight or key colors of each section.  On the canvas, I am using two different techniques.  The paint swatches are 8-9 strands mixed together in the needle.  The stitching on the composition is stitched with 1 strand at a time but utilizing the same mixture of colors that are in the paint swatches.  I intend to stitch this composition both ways to compare the finished results both for final appearance and speed.  
Overall, the experience of stitching a Monet while looking at the actual painting was an unimaginable treat.  While talking to my Dad on the phone while walking back to my hotel, he asked me what made the Monet's so special.  All I could say is that it couldn't be verbalized.  You have to see a Monet to understand.  The most beautifully printed books still pale in comparison.  The greatest digital resource still feels flat.  But standing in the middle of a gallery with 5 Stacks of Grain, a few scenes from London (Charing Cross Bridge, Houses of Parliament), a couple scenes from Vétheuil, and a few Waterlilies, that experience cannot be distilled into a few sentences or descriptive words. 

Many, many thanks to Devon from the European Painting department for arranging this stitching time up for me and to Isaac in the Textiles department for connecting me with Devon and arranging the time in the Textiles collection. 

Stack of Wheat (Thaw, Sunset), 1890/91, Claude Monet, Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Daniel C. Searle, 1983.166.

Selection of Resources and Further Reading:
Brettell, Richard R. "Monet's Haystacks Reconsidered." Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 11.1 (1984): 4-21. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web.
Callen, Anthea. Techniques of the Impressionists. Secaucus, NJ: Chartwell, 1982. Print. 
Holmes, Caroline. Monet at Giverny. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Garden Art, 2011. Print.
Shaw, Jill. "Cats. 27–33. Stacks of Wheat, 1890/91." Monet Paintings and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago. Art Institute of Chicago, n.d. Web. May-June 2016.
Schaefer, Iris, Caroline Von. Saint-George, and Katja Lewerentz. Painting Light: The Hidden Techniques of the Impressionists. Milano: Skira, 2009. Print. 
Smith, Paul. Impressionism: Beneath the Surface. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995. Print.
Thomson, Belinda. Impressionism: Origins, Practice, Reception. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 2000. Print.
Wildenstein, Daniel. Monet, the Triumph of Impressionism. Köln: Taschen, 2015. Print.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Research Trip: Textiles Department at the Art Institute of Chicago

Last week I had the amazing opportunity to take a research trip to the Art Institute of Chicago.  It was an amazing 3 days and I am now trying to reflect and process all I saw and studied.  I already am hoping to go back again!

I met Isaac Facio (in the Art Institute Textiles Department) at the TSA Conference in Savannah when I presented my research poster.  He graciously offered to coordinate a visit for me to see some of their pieces in the textiles collection and connected me with the European Paintings department to arrange some stitching time with Monet.  If you are interested in weaving, I highly recommend looking at Isaac's website for his research, The Fabric of the Universe, combining 3-d weaving techniques and astrophysics.

At the Art Institute Day 1: 
I spent the first part of the day with the Textiles Deparment and Isaac.  They had pulled a number of pieces of stumpwork and ecclesiastical embroidery for me to study.  I've put the links to of a couple of the pieces that I was able to view below.  In addition to the embroideries I studied, I was able to look at 2 tapestries as well that incorporated a good bit of metallic threads in them.  I was excited that they had left these pieces out for me as I have been interested in extending my research into comparing the color interactions in embroidery to those in tapestries since my trip to France a couple years ago and reading some of Michel Eugène Chevreul's writings on color theory.
Opus Anglicanum Fragment, 1400-1450, Art Institute of Chicago, Grace R. Smith Textile Endowment, 1995.385
English Opus Anglicanum Panel, 1995.385
I have to say I was particularly taken by this Opus Anglicanum piece and kept coming back to it and taking more detailed photos.  The split stitch was just stunning and tiny, tiny, tiny.  The color in person of the threads was really well preserved and there was a rich example of different techniques in this "small" piece.  It allowed for some wonderful study of the shading techniques.

It was interesting to observe how the metals and the stitched techniques were blended on this piece.  For example, Christ's hair and beard were rendered in stripes of modeled split stitch in yellow and green, a technique often seen in Opus Anglicanum.  Mary's hair, however, is rendered in stripes of yellow split stitch alternating with stripes of couched passing with a yellow couching thread.  Both faces and crowns were stitched in similar fashion allowing the difference in hair rendering to be both subtle (due to the repetition of yellow used) and easily comparable due to the anchors of similar surrounding techniques.  Observing from a small distance, it created a slight visual bounce and lightness (or feminine quality) to Mary's hair while Christ's hair was much more static feeling. 

This piece also offered a wealth of opportunities to study colored threads interacting with metals.  The background was created with areas of metal passing couched with red to create an interesting diamond pattern that changed in scale inside each connected area.  The bottoms of the columns had areas of red and blue couching and areas of colored laid work with a trellis of metal over the top.  The garments, rendered in modeled bands of split stitch, had a scattered pattern of metal crosses formed with couched passing and tips of metal purl and metal twists and passing trims.
Picture Depicting the Queen of Sheba before King Solormon, 1601-1650, Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Mrs. Laurance H. Armour, Sr. in memory of her mother, Mrs. Henry Malcolm Withers, 1962.773
Stumpwork Picture Depicting the Queen of Sheba before King Solomon, 1962.773
This piece of stumpwork had some really incredible sculptural qualities and some wonderful trims on the character's garments.  Specifically, there was a hammered metal trim that I have seen before in little details but not in this quantity of use.  These garments were really covered in metals including the hammered trim, spangles, purls, and smooth passing. I kept imaging how "blingy" it must have been before the metals had tarnished!

The way the crowns on the King and Queen were created was also very interesting as it mixed smooth purl with sead pearls in a looping technique that made the crown both pop off the surface and poses a kind of electric, mangled quality that created an overall charming feeling.

The scale of people to composition of this piece was also interesting.  There were 2 buildings in the background and a couple floral and fauna motifs, however the characters, due to their size and intricacy of detailing, were by far the stars of this panel and commanded the viewers attention.  In most of the stumpwork panels I have seen, the size of the people is not quite so dominant.
Casket Depicting Scenes from the Old Testament, 1668, Art Institute of Chicago, Restricted gift of Mrs. Chauncey B. Borland and Mrs. Edwin A. Seipp, 1959.337
Stumpwork Casket Depicting Scenes from the Old Testament, 1959.337
This casket was huge and had tons of different techniques (especially needlelaces) on it.  It was so intricate and honestly so much fun to look at! One of my favorite techniques in stumpwork (and I know this is an odd one) is how the shadows of the needlelace flowers and butterflies are stitched in a matching satin stitch behind the needlelace.  This casket was covered in examples of this on the flowers, leaves and butterflies.

Another technique that I paid particular attention to was the use of pistol stitch (a french knot at the end of a long straight stitch done simultaneously) in some of the leaves.  It was noteworthy in the density of use and the banded shading that it was used for.  It is interesting to me that the banded shading was still used in a technique that could have easily not been banded.  With the needlelace, couched colored purls and satin stitch, I understand the use of banded shading is much easier/kind of the default required as it would be very difficult to have multiple needles going.  With the pistol stitch I think it is interesting that this visual banding is maintained as it would not have been difficult to swap out needles.  Same goes for the areas of cut colored purl, I wonder why they chose to align the cut bits in linear color formation.  This is something that I have seen a number of times in my different research trips and that I have been pondering for a while and this large casket has rekindled this curiosity in my mind.
Retable (Depicting Madonna and Child, Nativity, and Adoration of the Magi; Altar Frontal Depicting the Resurrection and Six Apostles), c. 1468, Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Mrs. Chauncey McCormick and Mrs. Richard Ely Danielson, 1927.1779a-b
Spain, El Burgo de Osma Retable, 1927.1779a-b
This piece is on public view inside the Medieval Gallery.  Just a note if you want to go see it, it is only lit for 5 minutes at the top and half of each hour.  And yes, if you are wondering, I totally stalked it and returned multiple times to the point that the security guard finally came up to me and asked if I was a researcher and what I was looking at!  Thankfully the day I stalked it, the museum was fairly quiet and not too crowded.  The Thursday and Friday I was there, the museum was very packed, so just a note for future viewing!

Isaac also sent me the link to this video about this piece as it was just recently conserved:  The Retable from Chicago .  The video offers some great detail shots, so I highly recommend watching it!

Further links of Interest:
I also met Dr. Erica Warren, Assistant Curator in the Textiles Department, who will be speaking on Embroidery and the Arts and Crafts Movement at the International Embroidery Conference presented by the EGA in Chicago next spring. 

Thursday, June 1, 2017

City & Guilds: Counted Thread

For the longest time I avoided counted thread techniques.  I don't know if I was afraid of their constraints or what it was.  I totally underestimated how much fun they are.  My intense attention to detail loves the constraints of these techniques.  It is so much fun having the patterns and then figuring out how to manipulate them.  When I did my RSN Canvaswork piece, I fell in love with the texture of the counted technique and the larger scale of the stitches and threads used. 

For this module, we had to do samples experimenting with blackwork, pattern darning and canvaswork techniques. 
 Blackwork Lily: 
Ground: linen
Threads:  silk 6-strand embroidery floss, super fine silk
I'm pretty happy with this piece.  I still need to work on getting my shading better but for the first try at a motif, I was pretty happy.   It's only about 5"x7".  I think I would like to try this again but at a larger scale to allow more room for shading. 

 Contemporary Pattern Darning
Ground fabric:  burlap
Leaves:  ribbon, yarn, wool roving, silk floss, gimp
Buds:  lace hem tape, ribbon, metallic + white braiding, baking twine, gilt smooth passing + ostrich feathers
Stem:  ribbon

Canvaswork Sampler:
Ground fabric: 14 count canvas
Blue Straight Stitches:  threads used include cotton, silk, rayon, wool and 
Yellow Cross Stitches:  threads used include
Red Diagonal Stitches:  threads used include cotton, silk, rayon, wool and