Monday, March 11, 2013

Life as a Needlepoint Project

Last night, I was chatting with a friend on Twitter, and we started talking about how to know what you really want out of life. It's an ongoing process for me. Every so often, I have to spend some serious time taking stock of where I am, getting my bearings, and figuring out what's next. I'm now in the process of transcribing my journal notes into a digital document, with the intention of combining them with my blog postings and making the whole thing into a book. I'm working on my mid-December notes right now, and I came across an extended metaphor that I thought was worth posting here. This explains my process much better than a series of tweets ever could. Or at least it explains me to myself. I hope it's helpful to someone else, but really, it's enough just to remind myself of where I've been and how I tend to navigate long ambiguous processes.

Life as Needlepoint
If I work on kits, they turn out looking really nice. Someone with a real talent for perspective, shading, and composition has produced a canvas painted in great detail, picked out just enough yarn in all the right colors. All I have to do is fill it in. I get a little impatient toward the end, filling in background and putting in the finishing details, but I stick with it until it's done. But it's still a kit.

When I design my own stuff, I get an idea in my head. Then I go online and look for someone else's images that I can combine and adapt in my own way. Drawing is not one of my more developed skills, but I can do collages. If I work from photographs, I have to simplify them down to work with the stitch-pixels of a needlepoint tapestry. I try to work with the yarn I already have, but I always wind up buying more because I need some other colors, or I run out of background yarn.

It always takes more yarn for the background than I think it will. If I have to buy more yarn mid-project, the color never quite matches. I have to be very clever to work that in in a way that doesn't just announce "I ran out of yarn." Complex backgrounds help with that, but you don't want to clutter up the design. Better to get enough yarn in the first place. Learn from experience how much you need.

PhotoShop lets me play around with the designs and colors -- much better than crayons on paper. I only have a black and white printer, though. And I just sketch my design onto the canvas in black sharpie. I suppose I should paint the colors onto the canvas in acrylic, but I'm too impatient. I just sketch the broad outlines and keep a picture handy to refer to for the details. That lets me experiment and change things on the fly, but it also means my designs are much less refined than the kits. Experience is making me a little better about putting in shading and details. I don't know if I will ever have the artistry of the kit designs. I don't know if I want that.

I look at some of my past projects, and the best ones are the simple designs. Not too jam-packed with detail. The Alphonse Mucha design was fun, but it's cluttered. The moon behind the clouds and its partner sun in a red sky over water are very appealing. Maybe my style is Art Deco or Craftsman?

I have a pencil sketch ready for a 25" x 25" canvas. A female crescent moon embracing a male sun. Two shooting stars in the corners and a starry-night background. The night sky will have to be aubergine instead of navy if I want it to go in my bedroom. Do I dare try to do realistic faces? Will it ruin the design if I try to make the colors harmonize with my green-and-brown decorating scheme? If I'm going to invest the effort, I want to know.

It seems as if all the pieces fit in better when I'm working on a kit. Everything works, it's smooth. But it's a kit. Finding kits that I haven't already done and that I want to work on is getting harder and harder. Not that many people do needlepoint. I don't want to do pictures of cute kittens or country scenes or religious platitudes.

If I want to have a design that really means something to me, I'm going to have to make it myself. I can use bits and pieces of what's already out there. I can use my experience to plan and anticipate. I can be diligent about my preparations. I can know what I'm strongest at and learn from my failed experiments. I can push the envelope a little.

The results might not be as detailed as my grand imagination. I might have to compromise to get the pieces to fit, or to have a design that integrates with my decor. I have to balance living with my constraints against having something grand enough to make me happy.

I have to try new things, supported by the old standbys. I have to have the diligence to rip out the parts that don't work, redo them, and keep moving ahead. Some of my projects wind up in a box. They didn't work, for one reason or another. Some are just abandoned sketches, some are small completed squares. One is a large canvas, eventually completed just to say that I completed it, but it no longer goes with anything. I should give that to a craft sale or something. Let it be useful for someone else. Some of my designs are good, but they don't go with my stuff. I should let those go. Maybe take photographs to remember them by.

I want to know as much as possible before I invest the money and effort in a large project, but I can't know everything in advance. I take my best guess on what is worth moving forward on, and I plunge in. I take stock at various points -- move ahead or drop it? Change the plan? Once I'm in it, sometimes it's worth it just to finish up for the sake of finishing up.

That kit I did of the butterfly on the parchment scroll was beautiful and complex. Lots of work, but worth finishing. Even all the detail-work. And then it sat in a box for years because I didn't know what to do with it. Finally, I said what the heck, bought a simple frame, blocked and mounted it myself, and hung it in my bedroom. And it's perfect. (OK, maybe mounted a little crooked, but that's wabi-sabi.)

My best efforts involve learning and borrowing from what others have already done or what others are better at than I am, and then customizing and re-assembling the pieces to suit the image that I have in my mind. I can play around with ideas and attempt small trial efforts that are intended only to help me think things through. Eventually, though, I have to just plunge in and begin. I have to simplify the grand mental images to fit my talents and limitations without losing the delight in making something really wonderful. The simple designs usually look the best, anyhow, and "simple" is not the same as "amateurish".

I have to make a design that fits in with the parts of my life that are already in place (the parts that I want to keep, anyhow). Inevitably, some aspects of my project don't look like I wanted them to. If it's bad enough, I have to rip that part out and do it over again. If it's good enough, I keep it and enjoy the serendipity. As much as I would like to complete my project using only the resources that I already have, it never really works out that way. I have to go out and get what I need to move ahead.

Sometimes it's worth it to persevere and just finish for the sake of finishing. Sometimes it's not. Sometimes, by the time I finish something, circumstances have changed and the finished piece no longer has a place. Sometimes, a finished project is just what I need at the time, but circumstances change and it no longer fits in. Every now and then, a finished piece that I didn't have a place for at the time re-emerges from the storage closet after many years, and it's exactly what I need right here, right now. I don't really know in advance how things will turn out. All I can do is make the best preparations I can, and then begin.


  1. We all have our own 'stash' in life...pieces that are too good to throw out and we keep as an 'in case I need it someday'...Some 'in case's come in handy.The trick is always to discard what we won't need.Hard to do isn't it!That's the way with life's ideas...keep the good ones,let go of the nonsense.You sound like you are doing well!

  2. Similar process would be found in just about any creative process -- learning to play the piano, paint, cook... first, start out with some basic things that introduce you to the craft -- then imitate the masters to learn what they've already found out -- then take bits of each lesson, recombine, throw in your own ideas... try, mess up, learn, try something else, keep watching what other ideas are out there and add them to the mix. You can't help but come up with something of your own this way.
    I can't imagine enjoying a life that just completely follows someone else's pre-defined formula. I guess it's safe and secure, and that's got to be appealing to a certain mindset, but for a creative mind, the idea of endless repetition is galling! I'm glad there are those who prefer the formula because that means we can count on consistency for medicine or orange juice or whatever. But that's not for everybody. (I remember how you were ready to climb the walls doing quality control for photo chemicals. ARGHHH!! Nothing new!!!)


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