How do you DO that??? – my artistic process

My process is detailed and painterly.

I create realistic landscapes and sculpted still-life in thread. These finely-stitched and richly-textured artworks celebrate the natural world around my studio in the hills of the Niagara Escarpment.

Most people viewing my work for the first time do not realize that the work is textile. “I thought it was a painting” is a frequent comment…until they get up close. When I explain that it’s created with thread, the surprised question is “how do you DO that???”

Generally speaking, my process is painterly and detailed. Starting with a simple drawing, I lay out my composition in collaged fabric. I then free-motion machine stitch with a longarm sewing machine, layering 30-50 different colours of thread until the base fabrics essentially disappear and I have created a complex tapestry.

How do I get started?

More specifically, an individual artwork starts when something captures my imagination. It might be a luscious strawberry in my garden or the way my gardening gloves land on a workbench. I was about to pick and eat the strawberry when I thought, “it looks so wonderful, I should draw it.” Similarly, the gloves called out. After completing the sketches, the process to create them in textile starts.

I’ll use a recent piece, “Spring Nectar,” to illustrate how I work.

Spring Nectar by Tracey Lawko 288

I think butterflies are beautiful insects. I’m fascinated when I see them and I can watch them for a long time. Given how showy they are, you might think that they like to preen, show off, and stay in place long enough to model for you. That hasn’t been my experience. They flit from this place to that, moving frequently in search of food. A sketchbook won’t do for this…but a photograph can. So yes, I do use photographs in my work, but perhaps not as some imagine. My photographs serve as a reference to give me enough detail to create a realistic composition.

One spring day, I saw a black swallowtail butterfly in my lilacs. Fortunately I was able to grab a camera in time to snap a few pictures. I am not a great photographer. I can frame a good shot…but “point and shoot” with some “zoom” adjustment is all I can manage…so sometimes it works and sometimes not. Start talking             “F-stops” and I’m lost.

As it turns out, I was lucky that day. I got a clear photo of the butterfly in my lilacs with sufficient clarity to see its long proboscis extending into one of the small lilac flowers. How  exciting! This was material I could work with!

Black swallowtail photo by Tracey Lawko

My goal is not to replicate my photographs but rather to create my own interpretation of what I see. For me, a photo is an aide-memoir that reminds me of how I saw the scene at the time….with information about line, shape, colour and light. As it turns out, I took this photo 5 years ago. I can walk out into the garden and look at my lilacs, but I have to rely on my photo for the details of the butterfly.

There are several steps in my process.

I do a simple drawing to outline the basic shapes. I take artistic license, eliminating and adding elements as I see fit. For many of my landscapes, it is simply a line drawing delineating the major shapes. For “Spring Nectar” I focused in on the butterfly and eliminated some of the lilacs. For the drawing I blocked out areas in coloured pencil so I can tell what is what.

Swallowtail cartoon by Tracey Lawko

I use the drawing to create a pattern to cut coloured pieces of fabric that I assemble on a muslin base. Doing this, I lay out my basic composition, much the same as a painter does with graphite on canvas. Then, I start free-motion stitching with my longarm sewing machine, first to anchor all the pieces.

Spring Nectar layout by Tracey Lawko

I use 30 – 50 different colours of standard weight polyester sewing thread in each piece to capture the range of colour hue and value. As I work through the composition, I change colours frequently.

Spring Nectar threads

I continue stitching to build in light and shadow and various details. My longarm is a simple sewing machine and it isn’t computerized. Its advantage is that I can move the machine (rather than the fabric) to essentially draw with thread. It requires a steady, practiced hand to guide as well as many hours to layer the stitches to make the composition come to life.

Spring Nectar by Tracey Lawko in process 43

For this relatively small piece (11” high by 9” wide), I layered 39 colours of thread until I completely covered the surface with thread and the base fabrics disappeared. The result is a rich tapestry that has fine detail up close and depth from a distance.

To view online galleries of my stitched artwork, click here. To find out where you can see my work, click here.

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