Improvisation on Cloth


Surface design on fabric has remarkable potential as a realm for improvisational work. Because of its multi-layered nature, as one builds up imagery with both translucent and opaque media happy accidents are always happening. And with such  techniques as rusting and deconstructed (or breakdown) screenprinting, one is always working with unexpected causes and effects.

It's with this improvisational impulse that I am planning this weekend's Fool Moon/Full Moon workshop -- though it will also include some left-handed, impulsive-and-gut-instinct journaling as well. But the outer work will take a number of improvisational surface design techniques, with a lot of play time built in. Jazz musicians work magical improvisation upon a structure; we get to do the same on fabric sometimes. I haven't decided yet if I want us to work toward some "end product" like a small art quilt or art cloth where all the techniques are used one on top of the next -- with the end result a piece of fabric for a whole cloth quilt or garment.

As I've been planning the workshop, I ran across an interesting  (1968 vintage) Dover Publication called Design by Accident by  James F. O'Brien, subtitled, "How to create design and pattern by 'accidental effects' Complete instructions for artist and designers." I've come up with several interesting ideas from the book, mostly using his techniques not on the fabric but to make improvisational designs by overpainting varied materials that dry or resist or otherwise create high contrast designs suitable for a thermofax screen. He does a lot of work with drips and splashes, crawls and marbling. I can't wait to try my own versions.

Here's a few suggestions from O'Brien's book:
Soak a piece of illustration board in water, place it flat on a table and drop a pea-sized piece of graphite in the center of the wet board, blowing downward to spread it out. Take a toothpick that has been dipped in liquid detergent and touch it to the center of the graphite area. Allow to dry, then spray with fixative.

Coat a piece of illustration board with Elmer's Glue-All making random brush strokes. While the glue is still wet, apply a coat of India Ink again applying in different directions. Allow to dry.

Dribble a stream of rubber cement from a squeeze bottle onto illustration board. Allow to dry, Spray with ink or watercolor using an airbrush. After dry, blot up any damp ink from the surface, then rub the rubber cement off to reveal the design.

Reading this book, just made me want to play a lot with "unlike" materials to see what interesting effects we can come up with -- any suggestions? If you've recently done something improvisational with fabric, add your ideas to a comment, or send me a private email at Thanks!