Becoming a quilt artist: inspiration, tips, talk

Oak--King of Trees quilt

Ask any quilting artist how they became one and they’ll likely say the same thing: practice, practice, practice. It isn’t always easy to jump off the pattern page and go your own way. It’s a risk. And it can be a challenge to find your own style, your own voice. But one thing’s for sure: if you’re willing to try (and yes, try again), there’s a quilt artist in you just waiting to make her debut.

Today we’re sharing the different ways in which four quilt artists approach their work. Along with an exhibit of beautiful art quilts from each designer, you’ll get a peek into the processes they use. We dedicate today to the budding art quilter—could it be you?


Landscape art quilts: Pat Durbin

Author of Fabric + Paint + Thread = Fabulous

Pat Durbin--Fabric + Paint + Thread  = Fabulous“Aah . . . fabric, thread, beautiful colors, and patterns! The quilt is my way to express the joy I feel observing creation. And I use mixed media—fabric, paint, and thread—to create my art and infuse it with texture and depth. You certainly don’t have to be an expert quiltmaker to try any of the techniques in this book. Just jump in and give it a whirl! I think you’ll be surprised by how much fun it is.” –Pat Durbin

Pat’s goal is to take the images of nature around her and make quilts that look as much like those images as she can. Through painting—first with paint, and then with thread—she exceeds her own aspirations. First, Pat walks you though painting a simple background to set the scene:

Background fabric for Island Sunrise quilt
Background fabric for “Island Sunrise.” Partial horizon line painted, left; painted sample ready for quilting, right.

Then, Pat explains how to use thread to “paint” astonishingly realistic trees, leaves, and more. She sews motifs onto stabilizer, cuts them out, and applies them to her quilts. Here’s a tip from Pat about giving a realistic, dimensional look to trees, leaves, and flowers.


Palm tree from Island SunriseTIP: Thread Painting While Quilting
Thread painting is really just heavy machine quilting done in an artistic way. As I do this type of quilting, I feel like I’m still painting and adding details to the picture. I like to use at least three different shades of thread colors to add depth and charm. Add a zinger, if you like—a bright color, a shiny rayon, or a variegated thread. All these options will make your quilt more interesting. (Left: palm tree from “Island Sunrise” in progress.)


Once you read through the how-to for both painting techniques, you’re ready to start your own landscape quilt. Pat includes five step-by-step projects to warm you up to her techniques. Choose a beginner project to begin your artistic adventure:

Beginner projects from Fabric + Paint + Thread = Fabulous
“Floral Palette” and “Lacy Leaves” table runner and napkins

Then work up to more detailed renditions of the out-of-doors:

Projects from Fabric + Paint + Thread = Fabulous
“Lakeside,” “Island Sunrise,” and “Wonderland”


Embellished art quilts: Judi Dains

Author of Bold and Beautiful: Artful Quilts from Just One Fabric

Judi Dains--Bold and Beautiful“I never saw myself as an artist—probably because of my own preconceived idea of what an artist was and did. Over the years, many people have suggested that I was an artist, but I didn’t see it until I thought about it for a while. I concluded that since my quilts are my own designs and they’re considered art quilts, maybe all those people were right. After all, artists and quiltmakers are both creative people. We both speak from our hearts and with our hands. So, this is where the artist meets the quiltmaker.” –Judy Dains

If you’re ready to develop as an art quilter, Judi’s book will ease the growing pains. Her approach to creating her dramatic, dazzling art quilts relies on a four-step process:

  1. Choose a batik fabric for the background of your art quilt.
  2. With permanent marker, outline areas of the batik that jump out at you. These areas become the motifs in your quilt.
  3. Outline and machine quilt the motifs.
  4. Embellish the motifs with inks, paints, markers, beads, and crystals.

Painting your art quilt
Step-by-step photos from “Painting Your Art Quilt” in Bold and Beautiful

Judi breaks down the process so you can focus on just one step at a time—and she holds your hand through each stage. While her instructions move you easily along from step to step, she also offers lots of tips and ideas for making a departure from the printed page so you can create art quilts that are truly your own.

Gallery quilts from Bold and Beautiful
From the gallery: “My Beautiful Garden” by Judi Dains, “Kathy’s Creation” by Kathy Sanchez, and “Sea Life” by Judy Dains

When it comes to choosing and marking motifs in your background fabric to use as focal points, Judi says taking a step back—literally—can make all the difference.


Evaluate your quilt designTIP: Evaluate Your Design

After each marking, stand back and examine your design. Outline a few shapes and then examine your design again. Continue in this manner until you’re pleased with it. If you don’t have the space to stand at least a few feet away from your design wall, try looking at your marked design through a camera lens or reducing glass.

The point is to look at the design with a fresh and new perspective. Viewing it from a distance helps you see objects that are not visible when you’re working up close. Remember cloud gazing? How far off are those clouds anyway?


Along with her how-to, Judi offers five projects for practice. Once you get the hang of the process, you’ll have a foundation for developing your own astonishing artistry—even if you’re a beginner.

Projects from Bold and Beautiful
Step-by-step projects: “Judi’s Stylin’ Bag,” “Floral Explosion,” and “Decorative Pillows”

Editor’s note: We were sorry to hear of the passing of Judi Dains. Through the years, Judi won more than 275 awards and her work has been shown in many galleries and public buildings, including the governor’s office in California’s State Capitol. She is missed by the art-quilt community.


Abstract art quilts: Sherrill Kahn

Author of Creative Mixed Media: Paint, Print, Stitch, Stamp, Embellish

Sherrill Kahn--Creative Mixed Media“I loved writing this book. It was a journey of discovery. I experimented with common products that we use every day and found fascinating new uses for them. A walk through a local store yielded cosmetic cotton pads, facial wipes, baby wipes, hair gel, gelatin, and children’s glue, all of which became tools for creativity. Shower mats, kitchen mats, and plastic place mats from the discount store became instruments for making prints and rubbings. In home-improvement stores and dollar stores, I found all sorts of items to use in art projects. These finds made me realize that anything is possible if you’re open to experimenting.” –Sherrill Kahn

So many techniques—and only one lifetime in which to use them. Sherrill’s book is packed with ideas for artists working in any medium. The best part about them all? They look FUN! From using crayons and colored pencils to playing with gelatin and wax and creating washable-glue batiks (what!?), Sherrill shares loads of creative, and inexpensive, ways to play.

Dyed silk backgrounds
Step-by-step photos from “Dyed Silk Backgrounds” in Creative Mixed Media

An essential part of creating art quilts is getting the hang of composition—basically, learning how to arrange elements in a piece of art. Below, Sherrill shares her tips for “composing” your art quilts.


TIP: Creating Dynamic Compositions
I’ve been teaching for many years for stores, quilt guilds, painting groups, and schools, and the one issue I consistently encounter is that many students have problems creating dynamic compositions. They create gorgeous painted and textured pieces to use in their creations but then are at a loss when trying to put everything together to make a whole. The goal is to create a symphony of lines, colors, values, and textures in your finished composition. The ideas below will help you add pizzazz to your work.

Art quilt from Creative Mixed Media

  • Balance large shapes by repeating smaller shapes nearby.
  • Repeat colors and/or shapes throughout a composition to maintain continuity.
  • Contrast elements, such as colors, shapes, and lines.
  • Add texture to make a composition visually exciting.
  • Use both vertical and horizontal elements for movement and balance.
  • Add a focal point by introducing a new color or by making one area brighter or darker than the rest.
  • Create movement. Try not to place important, bold design elements near the top, bottom, or four corners of a composition. You don’t want your eye to be interrupted from moving harmoniously through the design.

Gallery quilts from Creative Mixed Media
From the Creative Mixed Media gallery


A-little-bit-of-everything art quilts: Rose Hughes

Author of Dream Landscapes

Rose Huges--Dream Landscapes“As I began writing this book, I felt good about having the opportunity to share my love of quilting art and creating things. After a lot of trial and error, I found a way to incorporate my love of the flowing sensuous lines in nature. That technique is what Dream Landscapes is all about. I find that it is the perfect way to transform the landscapes that I love into fabric, and I hope that you will enjoy translating the beauty of your surroundings into works of art as much as I do.” –Rose Hughes

Rose is the kind of designer that plays with every technique—and even invents her own. Her quilts in Dream Landscapes are landscape-based, of course, but the scenes are altered and embellished to reveal a whole new world, as well as a whole new approach to quiltmaking.

From photo to quilt--Dream Landscapes
“Through the Woods,” from photo to quilt, clockwise from top left: the original photo; simplifying motifs; using tracing paper to move motifs and eliminate elements; the final design; and the final quilt, worked with fabric, beads, and dimensional stitching.

Rose is a champion of keeping a journal. In her words, “Keeping a journal helps us on our road to discovery and growth. It’s important to have a place to gather information we find, jot down our thoughts, and sketch out our ideas. Let something that captures your attention and imagination guide your journey.” Below are Rose’s tips for creating and keeping your own sketch journal.


TIP: Developing a Sketch Journal
Rose's sketch journal(Right: a glimpse of the sketch journal Rose used on her visit to Glacier National Park.)

  • Choose a theme. If you choose landscapes as a theme, some questions that might get you going include: Where is your favorite place to go on vacation? Is it a rural or urban landscape?
  • List some of the things you might find in your landscape. Sketch some of these out or find pictures or photos of them.
  • Sketch out a full landscape scene.
  • Have fun finding and sketching many different views that you find within a scene.
  • Find the one part of a scene that holds the most interest for you and sketch it.
  • Note and record how various design elements are working in your scene.
  • Note and record the details from your scene. Is there a story being told?
  • Try out various combinations and build on what you like.

And what about those self-invented techniques that Rose uses to create her art quilts? Below Rose shares her “Fast-Piece Appliqué” technique, which she uses in Dream Landscapes. Take a look—it’s much easier than you might think from looking at her amazing quilts!


Rose demonstrates her Fast-Piece Appliqué technique


Are you an art quilter—or do you have aspirations to become one? Tell us where you are on the art-quilt continuum in the comments!


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