A whale of a design.

I think it’s fun once in a while to talk about a design and how I put it together. When I teach classes, this is an exercise that we often do: deconstructing a design so you can understand how it goes together.

One of the recent design challenges at Spoonflower was a limited color palette design. There was no theme, just a set of colors to use in your design: navy, orchid pink, maroon and black or white. I am not sure where my humpback whales inspiration came from, but when I posted the challenge on Facebook many of you also had watery/nautical suggestions: lighthouses, coral, semaphore flags. So we were all on a similar wavelength. I didn’t actually love this color combination. I am not a real fan of red and I do not like that orchid pink at all. So I knew I had to do a design that was primarily navy.

I decided to draw the whales by hand. I like to draw on plain cardstock and for this I used a black rollerball pen. I drew each of the whales on a separate sheet and didn’t worry about what the repeat was going to look like yet. I only drew the outline and filled in the solid black part of each one in Photoshop. (It was easier to do it that way than color it in with a sharpie.) For inspiration, I did a google image search of humpback whales. I like to bring up a bunch of pictures, spend some time studying them and then go draw without the photos in front of me. Details I noticed about humpbacks were the distinct stripes on their bellies, bumps on their “nose” and fins, and the fact that I think they always look like they are smiling. I scanned the whales after I drew them.

For the background I looked up a repeating “zentangle” pattern on Pinterest and sort of followed the directions. I wanted the background to also be handdrawn to match the style of the whales. I drew it originally in black on white, but realized as I put this together that I needed it to be white lines on a dark background, so I ended up using the invert filter in Photoshop once I had it all done.

The most time consuming part of this was making that background pattern seamless and matching up all of the lines so you couldn’t see breaks or gaps. If you have done any experiments with seamless patterns, you have probably seen tutorials about cutting a piece of paper and taping it back together again to make a seamless pattern. I just watched a Facebook Live post by Spoonflower doing this same technique. That’s exactly what I did with this one, but I realized after I did it that it is nowhere near as easy as those tutorials make it look. (Spoiler alert: I am planning to make that the focus of my next online class: how to finish a design done that way and why it sometimes still doesn’t look seamless.)

When I layered these elements together (waves, whales, fish) I realized that the fish and whales needed to pop out from the background just a tiny bit more, so I added a white stroke (outline) around all of them.

I didn’t worry about arranging all of the pieces until I had the colors and layers all figured out. There’s a lot of math/planning to do when you are figuring out how to make layers work together. My waves background was drawn on an 8×10 rectangle, so the rest of my design also had to fit proportionally in an 8×10 rectangle. (I wouldn’t be able to make it a square without distorting the design or cropping, which would make it no longer seamless). I did a lot of tests to check the repeat on a much larger canvas to make sure I liked the way it was repeating and about midway through I drew a few more fish because with the very large whales and very small fish it wasn’t feeling balanced.

Here is the 8×8 inch swatch of fabric that I got to check out the design. You can see only a bit of a whale chin. I made this a large repeat, which seemed appropriate for whales so you can only see a bit when you only print a swatch. I think it will make really cute tote bags with just a whale or two on each side. I am planning to order some of this design on canvas later this week to try that out.

It’s never not about marketing. (More things they don’t tell you about being an artist.)

It’s been 3-and-a-little-bit years now that I have been doing this gig as a full-time artist instead of trying to squeeze in some art around a full-time job. There are a lot of things about it that I love and I am feeling like my system (Etsy + teaching + exhibiting/grant projects) is working for me and my little business is keeping me busy and sustaining itself. Let’s be honest, I am not making enough to retire on, but I am making enough to not need to wonder if I need to be out job hunting because I need the steady paycheck.

But one of the big surprises for me in this journey is realizing just how much of my time I spend marketing myself. (Spoiler alert: It’s way more time than I spend making art.)

The idea of going to a cocktail party and having to make small talk with people I don’t know is about the most horrible way I can think of to spend an evening. I hesitate to fall into the introvert/extrovert cliché, but I absolutely don’t enjoy social gatherings meant for networking. I would rather stay home and scrub the bathroom, seriously. But I have realized that as an independent artist, I pretty much need to spend some part of every week (probably more realistically, every day) in interacting with somebody I don’t know and telling them about me. Posting something to Instagram. Writing an engaging post on Facebook. Remembering to tweet something. Writing something thoughtful for my blog. Adding something to my Etsy shop. Planning out a newsletter. Going to a meeting. Pitching a new class. It’s like a series of tiny little cocktail parties looking for someone who’d like to chat. Every day.

Because the only way I get to DO projects/classes/sales is by connecting with someone and getting my stuff in front of them.

According to all of the marketing gurus and “10 steps to being a successful artist” posts out there, I am pretty much doing all of the right things. I have an email list. I have an up-to-date website. I post on social media as much as I can stand to. I co-wrote a book. It’s even ranked #15 on Amazon’s best seller list for Books > Crafts, Hobbies & Home > Crafts & Hobbies > Needlecrafts & Textile Crafts > Fiber Arts & Textiles. (Which sounds more impressive than it is, I think.) I do the rounds of local shows and have taught at a bunch of national fiber art conferences. I’m doing the stuff I am supposed to be doing. (I’m not always doing it great, but I am doing it.)

There is a marketing tenant that says that 80% of your social media presence should be “lifestyle”. Things that are related to the brand you want to convey but aren’t all all “me me ME!” posts. People get bored with “buy my thing” posts all the time, so you have to engage them in other ways. I totally get that. I unfollow accounts that are constant sales announcements and I bet you do too. But there is also another marketing rule that says you have to get your stuff in front of people 7 times before it makes an impact. ie. You would have to see my zipper bags on Instagram seven times before you would be motivated to do something (click through, buy one, share it or whatever) If we do the math on all of that quick, that means I need to post 28 things that are not zipper bags (and not necessarily about me but about the lifestyle) for every 7 posts that are that zipper bag. I am just exhausted typing that sentence.

Instagram and Facebook have also recently tweaked their algorithms for what posts you get to see as a follower of someone. Both are favoring posts that generate interactions. Instagram even goes so far to say “meaningful interactions”, which means a comment of more than 4 words and not just “great post!” or “love it!” You have to actually type a complete sentence. On average when I post something, only about 20% of my followers see it. I think. (It’s difficult to track down a real number and understand what all of the stats are really telling you.) And according to the new Instagram info, if the 20% of the people that see that post don’t interact with it, the algorithm won’t bother to show it to the rest of you. Don’t you love algorithms?!?

Why am I telling you all about this? Because I really think it’s important to be real as an artist. I think it’s easy to be just getting started trying to get your art out there and to get really discouraged. It is HARD to put yourself out there and have it feel like no one cares. I know so many people who enthusiastically started an Etsy shop only to get discouraged after four months and let it drift off into internet-oblivion because they couldn’t get any momentum. I get discouraged too. All. The. Time. So many feeds are so highly curated, polished, and perfected that it makes many things look easy. And those “10 step” marketing plans make it seem like if only you followed directions, you too would be an instant success.

What might not be obvious is that the perfect looking picture that you are seeing in your feed could only be making it to 10 people. You probably don’t think about it when you click, but every time you click that “like” button on one of my posts, I see every one of those clicks. I get a report of stats and percentages and engagement and so on from every one of those platforms telling me how many of you are willing to chat at the cocktail party. By liking something, you are telling the dumb algorithm that maybe it should show that post to other people who follow me too. Basically the algorithms favor the people who are already established. Instagram and YouTube even limit features available to you if you have fewer than a certain number of followers. That means if I don’t already have lots of people liking and commenting, then it won’t show it to other people who might want to like and comment. The algorithm makes it harder. It’s not just you doing it wrong.

Comments are like a gift. I read every comment. I try to respond to every one. (I don’t always catch them, but I try.) A share of a post is like winning the prize on a scratch off lottery ticket. Why? Because that part of the job is way harder than making the art. Your share just bought drinks at the cocktail party for 200 people I’ve never met before. Woohoo! I am putting together a set of new classes right now and the part I worry about isn’t the prep, the teaching, the photos or the pricing, but the marketing. How do I get the word out there to the right people that this thing is happening?

I want to know. What’s the hardest part of getting your art out there? What do you wish was just a little easier?

 

 

 

Exploring the Black, a dye reference e-book

I was invited to present a talk about dyeing with black to a weaving study group this weekend. They knew that black was a challenging color and wondered if I could provide some tips and tricks for working with black dyes. I usually skip over black in my beginning dye classes because it is challenging and I think it is confusing for beginners when one color breaks all the rules.

So I spent a couple of days dyeing and photographing samples. I worked with 3 dyes (2 for plant fibers and 1 for animal fibers) and 27 different substrates (fabric, roving, ribbon, yarn). I asked friends of mine, who have years of dyeing experience, for their tips for working with black and I incorporated those into my samples. When I got done, I realized that I had way more information than would reasonably fit in a class handout, so I put it all together into a 28-page e-book. It’s not an instruction book about how to dye, but it is a reference manual for how black dyes are influenced by fiber choice, temperature, salt and more. You can get it at my Etsy shop and see sample pages and more info there.

Tutorial: Make a valentine cut-out design

Since Valentines Day is just around the corner, I thought I would post a quick tutorial for making a heart shaped cut out design. You can use any image or pattern and “cut it out” to make it into a heart shape. (Or any other shape you want to use. The steps are the same.)

Make a heart

The first thing is to create your heart. I want a nice smooth shape that is basic black and white. You could use some clip art, but I really prefer to make my own “clip art”. (pun intended) With my own art, I never have to worry about using a copyrighted image or inadvertently stealing someone else’s design. I could draw something in Illustrator or use the vector tools in Photoshop, but I think it is so much easier to just start with a piece of paper. Seriously.

Why? I like the quality of the shape. Vector designs often look too perfect to me. It is really fast and easy to use the circle tool and the pen tool to create something that is symmetrical and has perfectly smooth lines, but I think that’s boring. It is also fast and easy to use scissors and a piece of dark colored paper to cut out a shape, and get all kinds of imperfections: little wobbles of the scissors, curves that are more irregular and so on. It looks less computer generated to me and I like that.

So I sketched a heart with an arrow design on a piece of black paper and cut it out. I used a paper punch to make the little dots. Then, I scanned it. I adjusted the scanner so it was scanning it black and white and I bumped up the contrast. The scanner DPI settings aren’t very important here, so I chose 150 dpi because that should be plenty of pixels to work with.

If you have Photoshop, you can use that do do this next step, but it is also really easy to do in PicMonkey and that’s what I will show you in this tutorial.

Use PicMonkey

Go to picmonkey.com and choose Design (t icon) from the menu at the top. Then create a custom canvas. I am going to make mine 600×600 pixels. That’s a great size for a blog post or email and by making it square, it will look great in my Instagram feed.

Go to the Overlays menu (butterfly icon at left) and choose Add your Own at the top of that column. Then find your scanned heart design.

Next choose the photo or image that you want to “cut out” with this heart. I will use a picture of my dogs as my example. Choose Add Your Own in Overlays again and find that image.

To make it “cut out” you just need to select a different blend mode for this new overlay layer. Look in the Overlay pop up palette that should have popped up somewhere in your editor. (It’s on the right side in my screen shot) Under the Blend Mode dropdown, choose Add.

I can adjust the size of the overlay by using the bubble toggles at the corners or rotating with the handle at the top until I have the image and the heart cutout aligned the way I like it.

You can also use another repeating design instead of a photo; in fact any .jpg image will work. How about a sushi valentine? For this one, I just took a screen shot of this sushi stripe design that I created and used it to make an overlay.

And here I took the same idea with a different design and then uploaded it to Spoonflower to make a repeating pattern for a fabric design. This one would be cute as wrapping paper!

If you want to learn more techniques like this for designing your own patterns and fabrics, be sure to check out my online classes. There is even a free one to get you started and it builds on some of the ideas in this tutorial. Or check out my events calendar for in-person classes.

Work in progress and origami design inspiration.

I talked a few posts back about goals for 2018 and one of those was to design more fabric. My goal was one new design a week and so far I am way ahead of schedule! First, I expanded my oboe fabrics line. It went from 1 print, which I originally designed in 2009 to 24 oboe and oboe-themed fabric prints available. I did six different designs in 4 different colorways. Because someone always asks the question when I use that term, a colorway means the group of colors that make up the designs. I use the same colors in all 6 fabrics so that the colorway all coordinates and you can mix and match. So my colorways are Tango (grey/red/pink/black), Duet (blue/green/purple), Salsa (orange, lime, turquoise, grey) and Blues (blue, grey, black). Those are all now printed, proofed, tweaked and available for sale in my Spoonflower shop.

And then I printed a slight variation on those same designs onto note cards so that I have sets of oboe postcards available now in my Etsy shop called Oboe d’Amore. It ends up that the repeating oboe instrument print is my favorite from the collection, although I am thinking about making a dress from the music staffs print with the wavy lines.

Then as another part of that “design more” goal, I have tackled the Spoonflower weekly design challenges. You can see my Spanish Tile, Greek art, and Kilim designs by clicking those links. Even though I loved my stegosaurus kilim design, it placed #328th, so I have a ways to go before I crack the top ten. I love the contests and I talk about them when I teach, but it isn’t something I ever made time to participate in. I am so glad I put that on my list for this year. I am really enjoying the challenge (and the deadline).

Something I have noticed about my Spoonflower Challenge entries is that I tend to design for the scale I would actually like the print to be printed at, but many contest entries seem to scale for what is going to look awesome in the fat quarter preview that is voted on, even though that would make somewhat exaggerated oversized prints on fabric. Maybe because I am such a fabric person/sewist that I am thinking always “what would this print be good for” and making my design with that scale in mind. So I am going to try a little experiment and for the next few entries, I am going to upload for the contest at a larger scale then I would normally design and then go back and revise them later to scale it down where I think the print belongs (or upload a second version).

This week the contest theme is “Origami” and I thought I would tell you a little about my design, because I love to talk about the process. You know if you have read my blog for any amount of time, that I love origami. I have used it in several exhibitions and I have several fabric designs that incorporate origami.

So for this challenge entry I thought I would start by using the butterflies that I folded for an installation this fall. They are super pretty and I had already photographed them.

But as pretty as they are, I just couldn’t make them look like a cohesive design. I layered them with black and white patterns, dots, clouds. I overlaid them with another color to tie them all together that way. I spent several hours noodling around and just felt like nothing was really working. Bleh.

So, I bagged that idea and started something else. I posted a video about how to fold these butterflies, and I thought it might be interesting to photograph each step of that process and see if I could make a fabric design from that. I wanted to simplify the patterns on the paper, which I think was one of the problems with my previous idea, so I pulled out some construction paper and a little indigo colored craft paint, a pencil eraser and a popsicle stick.

Simple, bold patterns on one side, plain color on the other.

Then I set up my mini photo box and folded and took a photo at each step.

I thought it would be fun to line them up in order of steps, so that you could follow along and see the way it transforms. (Follow Along became the title of this design.)

I felt like it needed one more thing to make it feel finished; some kind of texture in the background so it wasn’t just “things on a white piece of paper”. I love to add layers, so I drew a pattern of arrows. In origami diagrams there are often different kinds of arrows to help tell you what to do with a piece of paper. A zig-zag arrow says fold-and-unfold, a loopy arrow says flip-it-over and so on. So I drew origami-style arrows, scanned and made it into a repeating pattern for the background.

Here is the final finished design.

If you want to see all of the other origami designs (and if you’d like to vote for mine!) you can check out the Origami Challenge page. I think it is really inspiring to be able to see how hundreds of other artists choose to interpret the same themes. There is always something that makes me say “why didn’t I think of that?” and something that makes me say “I wouldn’t have made that choice.” and several new favorites. There’s a dog origami design in this batch that I particularly like.

The next challenge theme is “Significant Otters” and I can’t wait to show you that one!

I think I forgot to eat breakfast this morning.

You’d think by this point in my life that I wouldn’t miss things like this, but there it is. I was focused on a project (taking photos for some new classes) and then I had a meeting to run to and I am pretty sure I didn’t even finish my cup of tea. So then this afternoon, I was kind of scatterbrained and not very focused and suddenly I realized that all I have eaten today is a bowl of lettuce and a hard-boiled egg. That explains a lot.

Forgetting to fuel up, in the metaphorical sense, came up in a couple of conversations today. Back in the late summer, when it was time to schedule teaching gigs for this winter, I was 100% apathetic. I scheduled almost nothing. I was busy and the thought of scheduling one more thing was just completely unappealing, no matter how far away it was on the calendar or how easy it was. They were all classes I had taught before and venues where I know all of the quirks. I was so bogged down in the boring details of contracts, descriptions and logistics that it was just easier to say “no, I’m just too busy” and know that I was really just bored.

And that was kind of the conversation that we had today. Being so caught up in the “getting it done” part of your job, that you don’t have time for the reason you were there in the first place: because it is something you love.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I taught a class at a new venue to a new group that I haven’t worked with before and it was like a breath of fresh air. It was a beautiful space, the class was engaged and asked good questions, and the things that went wrong (like wonky wifi) were things I am well prepared to deal with. (I can’t tell you how many classes I have taught tethered off my phone.) I am booking some new classes at some new to me venues because I realized that I needed to get out of my rut, go to some different places and talk to some new people. I need some new fuel.

That design up above is another source of fuel I have discovered: the Spoonflower Design Challenge. I have been a huge fan of the challenges for years, but rarely took the time to participate. I decided that designing more was a goal for me this year and this has been a great motivator. I like deadlines. That’s a little detail of my design for the “origami” theme this week.

What has been bogging you down lately? Have you found some new fuel to get you going?

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