Monday, November 2, 2009

Making Faces: Ginny Greaves discusses fabric choices

I'm a sucker for a furry face and this fabric portrait by Ginny Greaves of her mother's faithful companion brought tears to my eyes. Yes, she chose the right title for this creation : Unconditional.

Ginny's  work is all about love, just like this little guy. Love of fabric, love of creating and love of her subject are just a few samples of her dedication to her art. Please welcome Virginia 'Ginny' Greaves to Subversive Stitchers. She has some important techniques to share about fabric choices. -- Dawn

When I was a little girl, I used to make faces behind my mother’s back. If I didn’t like what she had been telling me, I would stick out my tongue and scrunch up my mouth and eyes and throw a nasty look at her back. But one day she caught my reflection in the china cabinet – and I never made faces at her again!

My mom is an impressionist painter, and throughout my childhood, I watched her make oil landscapes. She would make large canvases from scratch that filled the entire studio because she couldn’t buy the size she needed. If she didn’t know how to do something, she worked until she found a way.

Mom was a great influence on me and I owe her a lot, but when my children were young and I was looking for an outlet of expression, I couldn’t paint. It felt too much like my mom’s work. Luckily, I was given a sewing machine at that time and I fell in love with fabric. I realized that I had found my medium.

Thankfully I inherited Mom’s eye for color and her problem solving ability. Now I spend my days making faces and working out problems – all of it in fabric.

I don’t really remember what led me to make my first quilt from a photograph – but an old photograph of the dalmatians from my childhood surfaced in an antique secretary, so I gathered my fabrics and started.

Dalmatian Downs
(See photo)

It is always easier to look at value in black and white, and starting with black and white dogs gave me a gift I didn’t understand for some time. The understanding of value and then color are the basics of creating realism in any media – and it is as achievable in fabric as it is in any other media. We typically envision paintings when we think of illustrative work, but I’ve seen portraits made from trash artfully poised and photographed aerially from a crane. Anything that you can dream you can achieve.

There are many ways to construct the face, but over many mistakes, I have found that the hardest part isn’t the construction or even developing the initial pattern – it is choosing the right fabrics. Not only do you have to have value change between fabrics, but they have to be good jumps. Subtlety isn’t good enough. The good news is that you can remove many of your worries about pattern. I have used hand-dyed fabric, but it really isn’t necessary. You do have to look at fabric differently however.

Faces in Cloth IV

I’d like to say that I magically pick the right fabrics but the truth of the matter is that I use my camera. I line up the fabrics in value order that I think will work and look at them in black and white, either on my camera or on my computer. There are always fabrics that don’t work that I think should. Sometimes a subtle pattern like a batik will throw a fabric from one value into another. I used to trust my eyes and make adjustments when the piece was all fused together – but as much as I love the cutting and fusing, I don’t do anything now until I have the fabrics right – and I know if I have them right or not by looking at the value of the fabrics in black and white.

Interestingly, just like the pattern in the batik that shifted the value unexpectedly, I’ve found that some types of pattern can shift value in the direction I’m looking for. A black or blue pattern on top of the color I need can give the illusion of a value change.

I’ve also learned to look in unexpected places. I have bins where I store fabric by color, but I’ve learned to look beyond how I’ve organized – and if I need a particular color, to look in the complementary color bins for possible matches. Although a fabric may come home from the store as one color, it can look different when placed against other colors.


This is best explained by my quilt Chameleon – which is essentially a color study. It is one simple profile shot with four values reproduced in six primary colors. These profiles are then mixed with each other so that the mixed profiles have two values of light from one color and two values of dark from another color. For the most part, the same fabrics used in the primary profiles could be repeated for the lightest and the darkest values of the mixed profiles, but the two middle values required adjustment and better understanding of how the values changed with the introduction of new fabrics.

But color matters some, right? My early portraits are monochromatic, but lately I’ve been making more realistic color choices.

Chameleon taught me that color is less important than value, but my latest series of faces has taught me that understanding of value within color families can contribute significantly to realistic portrayal.

The trick is to step back from your work and evaluate its impact before you invest too much time in it. It is easy to fix mistakes in the planning stages and much more complicated during construction. We work so close to our work – sometimes we need to step out onto the crane to see it properly (or use a reducing glass or even the computer).
Photo: Adelpho, a portrait of another Ginny.


Virginia a.k.a. Ginny lives with her husband and two children in Atlanta, GA. She is most often working in her studio but can be found occasionally roaming fabric stores. She is easily distracted by shiny objects, refuses to listen to the naysayers of fusibles, and sometimes runs with scissors. Her work can be seen on her website  and her in progress adventures are documented on her blog.

And here's Ginny's self-portrait monochromatic in purple.


CodyBCleo said...

Perfect timing! I spent last night ironing and arranging my fabric for a new project by value. I usually just stand back and squint but taking a black and white picture is a great idea. I am going to try it out tonight!

The realism acheived in these pieces is incredible. Thanks for the post.

Linda Cooper said...

Your work is exquisite! I can't imagine the time that went into "Chameleon". Thanks for sharing some of the techniques you use.
Thank you, Dawn, for highlighting her work.
Linda Cooper

Anonymous said...

Ginny, I have always admired your work.. Really amazing. You really give me inspiration.