patterns: printed or not

My go-to process is print, therefore the majority of my commercial projects have included print outcomes, whether that is a commissioned limited edition print, wallpaper or my patterns available on Formica’s laminate. I design as a printer; thinking of layers of colour / texture / pattern, that build in stages.

I knew early on that paint brushes are not really my friends, not unless they have to be, not compared to a print roller. When I was introduced to printing I vividly remember learning mono-printing in particular. I fell in love with the excitement of the hidden surface. I love the detachment, the indirect nature of printmaking, whether it be a lino block or litho plate, they offer a space away from the actual mark making that creates the image.

I’ve been spending the last few weeks writing lots of words with my academic hat on about my design practice in relation to my teaching practice, and this has made me think about how I learn, as well as how I teach. My design practice experience is so integrated in my teaching practice, they work so well together. I can be in a business meeting learning about an industrial print consideration I didn’t know about for a specific product and immediately I’m thinking of how I can feed that knowledge in to a module on the BA programme I lead. In my mind it makes perfect sense for academics to be practitioners too, albeit with lots of juggling!

I love to learn, whether a process, a way to see in order to draw, or a new context to place work, I am excited about finding things out. It was this mindset that got me making rugs, to challenge my skills, and to test myself with another process that works with pattern, but with very different thinking. There has been much written about the need to play, but as designers it is so important that we take time to explore, to develop our thinking. This keeps ideas moving, and the sense of creativity at the forefront. I’m also fascinated how my patterns work across surfaces / materials, requiring consideration of colour matching, scale of motifs, line weight etc. and this expertise is learned as I work with manufacturers of different materials and products, and visit trade shows across the design sectors. Don’t get me started on brands that just print their patterns on every surface that sits still for long enough… my students hear this rant often enough!

I shall continue to explore, learn, design and teach… just after I’ve finished writing this next batch of academic words…

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Images from my ‘Threads’ collection (L-R:) Latch-hook rug, original lino print: Twill, and the same design on window film from The Window Film Company.

time and sketchbook time

At the moment I’m juggling lots of different projects; one has been years (really!) in the making, another much quicker, straightforward and some more ‘surprise’ projects. They all have different requirements of my time, and in each week there may be a telephone call to a manufacturer to discuss things with, an email exchange between a client and myself to clarify details of a brief, or a call to a stylist / marketing team to plan a scheme for the future with, and the usual trade show sales team call! This all takes time, and different skills to manage.

A different skill altogether is to maintain a practice that, at the heart of it, seeks to challenge, engage and inspire the creative self that was the reason I set off in this direction at the start, twenty years ago. The sketchbook is the place I go back to, the safe place I can explore those ideas in, old and new, that keeps the journey going, the continuum that is my creative practice. Ideas do evolve over time, and the sketchbooks are testaments to the ongoing inquiry that may lend itself to something commercial in due course, but is not the reason I do the drawing in the first place.

In my role of design lecturer I regularly explain the uses of a sketchbook, the hows and whys a designer may approach the mental and physical task of working in a sketchbook. Retro-filling the pages that have post-its in saying ‘research’ needing to be completed the day before a hand-in lacks rigour and purpose, a scrap-book mentality is not necessarily the best use of printer credits unless you really do look and reflect on the relationship between your work and someone else’s. Dare I say it, I enjoy the task of working on a new white page, and see the potential, not the fear. I don’t often share pages of my sketchbooks, but here’s one page from this week in the studio, having gathered new ‘material’ at the weekend, furthering my ideas for my Grasslines print series…

I say let’s celebrate the sketchbook, the real one with paper pages that doesn’t require likes, favourites of retweets to be justified, the one you do for you. Why / how do you use your sketchbook?

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yellows

I’ve always enjoyed working with colour; choosing combinations, mixing inks and matching colour. I am interested in how we relate colour to brands, how colour suggests quality, market levels, football teams, trends, and this week in particular political parties. Sometimes people say they do not really like colour – but what they often really mean is that they don’t like strong and vibrant colours, but in my mind bright colours are no more important than the whites on white; equally powerful if used well, just not so extrovert.

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I like seeing the way an inky grey sky makes fields of corn glow golden, and how the crepuscular blue sings out before the night sky takes over. Relationships that colours have can bring connotations, evoke distant memories and create moods. I remember a bag of hand-me-down clothes was excitedly torn open by my twin sister and I, hoping for fabulous new items to wear – in the eighties, when what was actually presented was everything brown and purple – from the previous decade. So disappointing!

Getting the right colour isn’t about a broad brush of red, it’s about seeing the nuances. You’ve only got to see a sale-rail to see the buyer got the shade of mustard a bit too green, or the pink too candy, and not blush. Any colour can vary hugely, our personal perception of colour not only is affected by the technicalities of sight, but also our own relationships with colour, built on past experiences. It took me a while to wear navy, having had to endure it for school for several years.

A friend described my ‘black’ screen prints for the Barbican, and I had to explain it was actually dark grey – it makes a considerable difference to the final result, but if both examples are not shown side by side most people would be none the wiser that the designer made a conscious decision to make a grey look not quite a black.

So here’s some yellow, photographed in Norfolk a few weeks ago. Enjoy, what ever it means to you!

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drawing grass lines

I’ve written many times over the years on this blog about the themes that underpin my work, the approaches I take to develop new work, and the things that inspire me. Here I look again at the process of evolving ideas and visual language, to introduce my latest series of prints.

As I develop ideas, often in series of works on paper before any design solutions are considered, I explore the visual language of the subject through drawings, photography and printmaking. The aesthetic nature of the new work evolves and is tested in relation to compositions and rhythms. My knowledge of pattern design, in particular in relation to textiles, feeds this investigation. The motifs, the linking forms, the negative and positive shapes and the quality of line can suggest relationships with historical styles, international influence and contemporary trends. As a designer I use this knowledge to sometimes avoid, and sometimes align to this language, communicating a context far beyond the printed paper I create.

On a cycling and camping tour around Denmark back in 2004 we came across a small book shelf in the campsite shelter containing a range of books. I can’t read Danish. We picked out a few, judging them purely on the graphic design of the spine, and I found a science book of beautiful diagrams of plant structures. I have a photograph somewhere, but the impression those diagrams made on me does not require me to see that page again. I remember the look of those diagrams, and they have fed in to this collection many years from then.

Mid C20th pattern is also something I am interested in, and for this new body of work, particularly the development of stylised florals and diagrammatic interpretation of plants. Lucienne Day was particularly expert at creating designs in that manner, with simple black lines, herself inspired by Miro, Kandinsky and Klee. This is why it’s important to be aware of what has gone before. Not to imitate the past, but to take courage from previous developments in drawing, stylising and pattern making, so we don’t recreate the past, but so we push forward with our own journeys, liberated by not inventing the wheel. I was amused to discover the current exhibition at the brilliant Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester is Lucienne Day: A sense of Growth – it seemed uncanny!

My photograph collection, both in print and digital form, contains many pictures of reeds; Danish reeds, Norfolk reeds, anywhere else reeds. I also have many records of grasses, and have always been attracted to the structure of such plants. These are often the unloved weeds that may be irrelevant and overlooked by many, but I come back from walks with handfuls of lines, some with seed heads, some without, but always lines of grass, as if nature had fun drawing them. Different stems, leaves and weights of line, and some suggesting very distinct natural habitats. I’ve always been more interested in line quality than texture, and my work over the last two decades demonstrates that very clearly.

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So that was a long-winded way of saying that this new series of works has been a long time coming, but makes perfect sense to me. I didn’t set out to create drawings of grasses, in fact I started screen printing flowers, but this evolved as part of the create process that is play. Colour came and went too, so as not to detract from the lines. There are some similarities with my threads printed editions and I have had the prints next to each other today – I think they make an interesting dialogue. This is the journey of idea development, by mixing drawing, thinking, printing, reflecting, contextualising, and doing it all again. By the way, this bit of the creative process is one that is very difficult to teach design students, more so with less and less studio time, and a full to bursting curriculum, but knowing your own creative process is halfway to success in my world. Take risks (it’s not rocket science we say) and work at playing.

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I digress. These few prints are only the start of this series, I already have new work evolving, but other projects are jostling for my time in the studio, so for now, I introduce you to Grasslines… and now you know a bit about how they came to be.

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pebble pattern collection

I know I’m not alone in having collections of stones, gathered from walks and adventures over the years. Heads down across the beach, we search for beauty in the lines, colours and patterns of pebbles. We look for skimmers, ones with holes, and stripy ones…

I was looking at some of the stones that are in my studio and realised I had the components of a traditional textile design collection. The key pattern structures often include an all-over design, a spot repeat, a stripe and a plain (from left to right in the image below). I had fun sorting the stones to find the most straightforward ‘collection’.

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seeing red

My world is pretty colourful; on a daily basis I’m in contact with colourful textures, materials and surfaces from fashion, interior and architectural contexts. Not only do I work with hard and soft surfaces in my design practice, I also teach undergraduates to work with colour in relation to textile design. It’s important to see beyond the broad definition of colour by name and to think about the context of colour; the surface qualities in that colour, the effect the material has on colour, such as gloss, matt and opaque for example.

Last week I managed to update some colour charts in my studio resources and it made me think about how we tend to have particular favourites when it comes to colour. I certainly have a comfort zone in sections of the colour charts and other areas I’d have to be persuaded to go near. Commissions often include discussions with clients about the intended colours of products, and I enjoy the challenges of pushing the boundaries of my comfort zone – within reason! I have a different palette I’m happy to wear compared with what I’d live with, and I certainly dress in colour relating to the mood. I remember many years ago dressing in very colourful clothes only to receive a rejection for something that mattered. I felt gutted I’d dressed for the wrong outcome!

Here are some REDs… I love the border colours between red and orange.

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posted pattern

As those nearest to me know too well I am something of a collector, and regular readers of this blog will have been rewarded for their time, by being lucky enough to read of some of those precious collections.

As printed pattern is my thing it’s not a surprise this collection is all about pattern, but I also have a thing for post, and stationery, and graphic / lined paper, so this collection is really a celebration of many things.

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So when did it become a collection? I remember collecting – I’m not so keen on the word hoarding! – when I was an undergrad textile design student as I made lots of collages using the inside of envelopes as visual noise. I also read something about Matisse saying that drawn and printed patterns were rhythms, as if textures in his work – I think in relation to his Jazz collages, and I completely agreed, sat there on the college library floor making sense of what I had been doing in my sketchbook and being excited at the verification. I worked for Royal Mail in the sorting office in both Norwich and Leeds during my college holidays and I was fascinated by the thousands of envelopes I saw each night shift, making their way across the world, from the sorting frames we sat at. I still have a fairly impressive memory for postcodes as a result of this time twenty years ago! I also realised at that time that if you didn’t pay your BT bill on time they sent the red reminder, and that envelope had the same criss-cross pattern but printed in red – I have a few of those. So this collection started two decades ago!

What is it about the envelope insides? I like the idea that the feature is hidden; a discreet treasure tucked away rather like an exciting lining in a suit pocket. Some of these patterns are busy performing a task that may go unnoticed. Particularly with pay-slips with number-related graphic rhythms, the patterns act in a similar way to patterns of the dazzle ships: distorting, obstructing or distracting from reality.

The inside of envelopes are not the most popular context designers dream of but despite the inconspicuous nature of the envelope interior, even if it’s lucky enough to have a window, I like the fact that someone somewhere was commissioned to design a pattern for the humble envelope. Some of the patterns are fabulous examples of micro prints and I can be partial to those tightly repeating and often graphic rhythms. The colours are rather limited to blue, a rather institutional hue, but there are greys, greens and of course the red of the debt reminder.

Having moved boxes of this archive around the country to various addresses I have lived at I formalised the collection in to sections in lever-arch files, including variations of colour and scale, with another box I’m prepared to sacrifice to collage. Over the last few years, and with a clearer idea of what design, and specifically pattern interests me I’m really proud of the collection. Brick patterns feature, as well as checks, the ones with numbers and the few flowing, more organic ones. Some feature company logos, there are envelope graphics and the beautiful and no-messing dots. Some people still send me ones to add to the collection, and I do still keep an eye out, but sadly there are fewer new ones being added. These days I can appreciate a beautiful pattern but if I have some already (note: obviously I need more than one sample of each!) I can even get them in to the recycling bag! … only to be discovered by the next generation of collage makers in the family, and it comes back out as treasure to someone else. Oh well!

If you want to see more, or share your envelope treasures head to instagram and use #envelopeinsides

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