“You’re too hard on yourself.”
“Quilters are famous for pointing out the flaws.”
I’ve heard both of these many times. I heard both these ideas yesterday in comments, when I posted about a recent finish. If you don’t think about it, they sound like the same thing, that pointing out flaws is the same as being hard on myself. That pointing out flaws is an unnecessary burden on my self-esteem, reinforcing bad thoughts about myself.
While it’s possible that quilters are famous for pointing out flaws, there can be more than one reason we do so. Perhaps it happens when someone is uncomfortable with praise, and seeks to minimize it (and herself) by criticizing her work. Perhaps it happens when someone is seeking praise, hoping that by pointing out problems, a chorus will arise denying it.
But for me, pointing out flaws is neither of those. For me, self-critique isn’t about you (or what you think of me or my quilts.) And it isn’t about me (and how good or not good of a person I am.) It’s about the work. It’s part of the process of working. It’s how I improve in what I do and how I think.
I’m not a perfectionist. My piecing is pretty good, generally, but there are too many variables that aren’t controllable to think I can “perfect” it. Starch has its place, but I won’t soak my fabrics in starch, as some people do, trying to deny fabric one of its most important characteristics: plasticity. The ability of fabric to stretch and ease is part of what makes it pleasing as a medium. Otherwise I might as well cut and paste paper into designs. And often, once a piece is quilted, small errors fade into the texture of the quilt, becoming nearly invisible. Even so, there will always be ways to improve my piecing, and I try to move in that direction.
Quilting, stitching those three layers together? I can do a serviceable job. But I have no expertise and probably never will.
My focus is on design. For me, piecing and quilting are always in service of the design. And to improve at designing, as at anything else, I need to practice. “Practice” is not simply doing something over and over. After all, doing the same wrong something over and over simply entrenches bad habits.
To practice with improvement, I need evaluation of my designs. And to evaluate them, I need to understand the characteristics that can lead to a pleasing composition.
We call those characteristics “design elements and principles.” In quilting, the elements are the tools of design, such as color, value, shape, pattern, and line. The tools are used to create the viewer’s experience, such as unity, movement, repetition, balance, and proportion. These are the principles.
As I learned more about the principles and elements, my designs became stronger. Coincidence? Perhaps. But along with learning about those factors, I also started to assess how successfully I’d applied them. What do I see? Why does it seem static, or too chaotic? The balance seems wrong; what happened, and how could it have been better? That color seems out of place; the value contrast could have been stronger here. Ooh, I really like the way this element echoes that one…
Self-critique, assessment, evaluation. Whatever you want to call it, describing — for myself — my design successes and failures, taught me to apply those design components.
When I point out the same positives and negatives of my designs to you, it is not so you will either confirm or deny my view. (Of course if you have opinions to share, I welcome them.) My hope is that what I’m learning will be of service to you, too.
My goal is not perfection. There will always be varying levels of success and failure within any quilt I make. My goal is to learn and to become more powerful in my art.
Self-critique is part of my work process, and part of my learning process. As I learn to see more clearly, I don’t learn to succeed. I learn to fail better.