Monday, 23 June 2014

Stitchy Portraits

Framed on a wall - in an exhibition? My work? Really? Yeah...
Me (Sally a.k.a. nbnq / nearlybutnotquite/ nbnqnbnq) with my Herman ze German range of embroidered portraits.
Here's the story of the final project of my year at college and my self-chosen goal to create a modern embroidered portrait. Contemporary male subject, nothing twee, 'girly' or cute. I'd had a crack at something similar in an earlier project (see below) but had been pressed for time and I wanted to do better.

Carlos Acosta embroidery
Working from your own drawings from life seemed to be what the staff at college would respect most and I discovered a real love for it. So I sneakily did a few pencil sketches of my friend Dre whilst he was absorbed in one of his favourite tv shows and started to stitch them up.

Dre from life embroidery
More than one of my tutors at college suggested I do "someone we all know"... but really that's fan art and I don't do that. After a twitter interaction with Hoop-La where I was torn between reading the F1 Racing Magazine or Hoop-La I did stitch up an embroidery of Lewis Hamilton and I thought about doing one of Valentino Rossi... Anyway it turns out 'everyone' doesn't know who he is* anyway.

Lewis Hamilton 
Embroidered portraits - there must be loads of them, right? Uh... not so much. I created a Pinterest Board named 'Stitching Portraits' to help me to gather inspiration... but my best reference and inspiration came from PUSH Stitchery - the Mr X Stitch collated collection of contemporary stitchers.

The V&A's embroidered items on display when I visited were those with one-colour flat fill for flesh and outlines for definition. Lovely though they were, that's not what I was looking for. I was determined to create a painterly embroidery... and I was thirsty.

Bratwurst at Herman ze German's 
Making the most of the trip afterwards it was out to Herman ze German for lush beers and bratwurst with London loves after and, since I had my proper camera (and was out of Oxford), I snap,snap, snapped away.

Bratwurst, Stein of Beer and some Sauce - at Herman ze German
Loving my photos I thought if I worked from them I'd have all the colour references I needed! Not only that but Cayce Zavaglia whose work I had drooled over says (in the PUSH Stitchery Book) that she only ever embroiders friends, family and fellow artists, and I thought yeah, that'd be nice; so that even when it's tricky, if I'm looking at the face of someone I love, I won't want to shred it.

I used the same process of tracing the original image with a pencil over my lightbox, picking out the lines I wanted to keep (inspired by Frank Quitely's process that I saw on What Do Artists Do All Day), then I took the pencil tracing and repeated the process with a black fineliner, and then onto fabric with a water soluble pen.
'Bratwurst' pencil drawing from photo by hand
Wanting to try new ideas and stretch myself is part of the reason for doing the course in the first place, so needless to say I didn't stick with the standard cotton on cotton embroidery. Instead I used a butter yellow coloured faux suede that my mum has previously used for upholstering chairs. I tested it with a continuous line drawing I did from life. The effect is great, a tactile surface that makes the embroidery seem touchable and appealing in a way that cotton doesn't, also the faux suede has more rigidity so appears less crumpled. Great.

Continuous(ish) line Dre on butter yellow faux suede (IRL) 
I had originally tried a small sample, working on cotton and using a watercolour to match colour, to test the time, difficulty level etc.. I learned from this sample that a full stitch fill would take longer than I had time for and also that it actually didn't give the contemporary look that I was after, but rather back to a religious style of embroidery.

Nosey noses
I started off winging it; colouring in really as I always had done before but I ended up unpicking the shading on the hands, and at that point, I decided to sit with my coloured pencils and actually plan out a stitch map. I don't know if that is a thing that folk normally do since I don't know any other embroiderers in real life.**

Stitch plan of 'Stein' using coloured pencils
The Stein embroidery uses unlinked chain stitch for the foamy head on the beer.
Stem stitch in satin, metallic and normal floss for the hair.
French knots for pupils.
Multiple embroidery flosses used including satins and metallics on butter yellow faux suede.
'Stein' - the colour portrait
My aim was to create a contemporary, embroidered portrait with a painterly use of colour and using stitch size and direction to create texture instead of an embroidered outline as I felt this had been a failing of my earlier samples including my Carlos Acosta. Unlike Cayce Zavaglia and others I was seriously pressed for time, and though I would have liked to have created a full fill of colour, I just couldn't guarantee being ready for the deadline in that case. In fact I would have liked to create a full set using the colour method I chose for Stein... but it would have broken me.

Picking up and putting down of stitchy projects does however seem to be the norm. Certainly whilst I was working on 'Stein' I also started stitching 'Bratwurst' just using a plain dark floss for a tiny, fussy, neat back stitch. My 'Eureka!' moment came upon seeing the back of the embroidery was so much more interesting than the front! Strong dramatic eyes and a fierceness that you don't get from the 'front' or from the original photograph. Rats! I thought at first. It's going to be hidden behind a frame. Oh Globbits!

Detail from 'Bratwurst' whilst in progress
Taking that lesson I started 'Sauce 2' aiming for the same effect working from the rough side of the faux suede, using my fussy little back stitches but making my knots on the side upon which I was stitching - total counter-intuitive and a real wrench!

'Sauce 2' the 'back'
But... I got the effect I wanted.
'Sauce 2' (mid framing)
With the set ready to frame I was torn over 'Bratwurst' I so wanted to show the dramatic back and was told I could just put photos in my sketchbook but no - then I realised oh yeah... I'm on an ART course - a broad one - if folk can have abstract paintings with rough edges then I can certainly just show the back!

'Bratwurst' embroidery (mid framing)
After a bit of spray-painting frames (to the perfect shade of grey) and cutting mounts at home, mounting my embroideries for the first time ever, hanging them on wires on a wobbly board and a bit of an anxious wait... it was the show! Lots of my lovely loved ones came from all across the UK to see the show and I was chuffed to little meatballs. Especially when my unwitting models J&R saw themselves! That was a a tough secret to keep!
J&R see themselves as embroideries for the first time!
Photo heavy and wordy blog combo I know... but you can see my Flickr for more pictures if you like!

Comment here or reach me as @nbnqnbnq on twitter if you prefer.

nbnq x

*I KNOW right!? (or if you actually don't know click)
 **Though I hope to make it to the &Stitches Picnic in the Park and change that!