Design Inspiration – Charnia

A sketch of a harts tongue fern

Telling the story of Tina Negus and Charnia in words was one thing, but I also needed images and motifs for my lace design. The first stop was to look at the Charnia Masoni holotype held in Leicester Museum , and I even managed to buy a resin model of the Charnia fossil. The cast was really useful as it helped me get a feel for the segmentation of the ‘fronds’, tying back to that Sprigs idea of smaller pieces making up a larger whole. I drew the Charnia animal several times, recording a little video of a continuous line drawing using a fountain pen (see the post about ‘Sketchbook Woes’ for more on this! ) which was popular on Instagram, having quite an ASMR feel.

The drawback to using the fossil holotype, the hard material of the cast (and of course the fossil being solid rock) and the ‘solid’ feel and look to the holotype. Charnia fossils from around the world (see the examples at the ‘First Creatures’ exhibition in the gallery below) seem stiff and flat. Well, of course they do they are made from rocks formed under high pressure over millenia, I get it.

So how could I get some movement into the design, whilst keeping to the theme? My visit to the Natural History Museum found some ideas. In the significantly less busy Marine Creatures room I found samples of other sea creatures, anemones and Sea Pen among the coral (images above). The colour palette of creams and greys is a little washed-out, bleached by being out of water. In life these creatures can be vibrantly coloured, even changing colour to match the surroundings, and importantly, under the water they MOVE (check this Youtube video of a Sea Quill, full of water, moving on the sea bed)

See also this video from Oxford Museum of Natural History ‘s First Creatures exhibition. Here was the sense of colour, translucency and life I was looking for. Ammonites with tendrils, Charnia, Corals and Sea Pens shimmering with life.

Alongside this I was looking at ferns and leaf shapes from everyday life, drawing on the repeat pattern in their shape. It gave some something to sketch in real time, from life. I tried an number of techniques including ink and brush, pencil and my favourite fountain pen continuous line.

I set about drawing a vertical Sea Pen, each frond completed with a different type of lace filling, hand drawn from different sources, historical lace, photographs and samples. I tried to capture some of the movement as the creature sways in the tide. When embroidering, I captured some of the softness of the Sea Pen by adding stitched fringing to the design, and tried wiring some motifs too- to shape the lace after washing.

A picture of embroidered textiles

Sketchbook woes – part 1

One of my objectives on this whole MA journey was to learn how to communicate visually. It was important to me to overcome a fear of drawing, sketchbooks and art language. I wanted to develop a visual language, and learn ways to communicate my ideas. I envisaged that I would be taught how to do those things as part of the course.

I even ventured to life drawing class! Thank you Oliver Lovley for living up to your name

The phrase ‘Just have fun with it’ began to haunt me, I felt like my rescue pup, faced with a range of toys and tennis balls, not having played with a human before. I didn’t know how to ‘play’, let alone have fun and enjoy it. I had no idea how to explore ideas on paper, in fabric or on a computer. I began my own hashtag #sketchbookwoes and dreaded drawing. But I kept trying and attended drawing workshops and life drawing classes, determined to face that fear. I found I enjoyed using ink, it had an intensity of colour that appealed, and I splashed it around with abandon, but without knowing how to take it further.

Click on the gallery below to see some of my trials…

My poor friends listened to me with great patience as I outlined my woes, even loaning or giving me art materials to try with. Thank you Rachel and Gail for your support! Rachel and I went to a sketchbook class taught by the super-talented, patient and understanding artist Helen Hallows. We packed up our materials and papers and turned up at a fantastic eco-venue in Derbyshire. Helen turned the light on for me. She took us through various exercises to loosen up and forget that we were drawing. I tried continuous line drawing with a pen for the first time and that was it. I found had my style, my method and my medium.

[Edit – additional 2020 -I’ve developed a continous writing style, and in later posts you’ll see how I’ve pushed that further into picots (edges loops) and brides (joins between motifs).]

Just don’t tell me to play!

Darkness as inspiration

Image of magazine pages

I’d kept some pages from British Vogue 1996, a shoot by British photographer Nick Knight, using high contrast, saturated colour and very dark shadows. In another of his shoots for Vogue from 2004, ‘Shimmer’, shadow is used as a frame for the model. This has informed a way of photographing textile samples and highlighting parts of a sample.  

a picture of fashion photographs on a wall
Nick Knight: images from Vogue 1996

Alongside the use of darkness/light I am interested in ‘dark’ motifs or design themes such as skulls/bones or perhaps something shocking or unexpected in lace. See Jason Holroyd’s use of industrial motif in his laser cut lace designs ‘Missing Industry’ and ‘Class Dismissed’. See also the communist inspired designs of lace designer William Hallam Pegg held in the NTU lace archive.  

A picture of laser cut lace
Jason Holroyd ‘Class Dismissed’ 2012

Along with my other keywords: 

  • Translucent
  • Negative space 
  • Embellished layers  
  • Encrusted
  • Darkness is the most important. 

Real darkness can be difficult to find, especially in urban spaces, and particularly in places inhabited by the masses. In fact, darkness could be described as a luxury. ‘Darkness is a luxury not granted to Britain’s Council Estates’ (Sloane 2016).

Bright light will hide that which has a lower light level, which can only be seen through darkness. How many of us have been camping and gone outside in the middle of the night to answer the call, only to have our breath taken away by the amount and brightness of the stars? Dark Sky Parks have become a necessity for those wanting to see more than the largest and brightest of stars. According to Falchi et al (2016) 99% of the population of Europe and the US live with night-time light pollution.

A picture of a glow in the dark lace skull
JC Middlebrook: Skull 2015 (photo credit Ash Brown)

Darkness can be as necessary as light for revealing texture. When items are lit from behind for example, the texture or real properties of the material will be difficult to perceive. Turn off the backlight and more can be seen. This can have a philosophical meaning too. In the discussion ‘Dark retreats and sensory deprivation’ Tenzin Wangyal describes Buddhist theory of how removing expectation of external light during a dark retreat, you see more of the ‘internal light’ of your soul.  

Similarly, we can see how phosphorescent items are hidden until ‘normal’ light frequency is removed, leaving only the phosphors ‘glowing’ in the dark. Of course, this is a visual effect only. The phosphors glow all the time, we just cannot perceive them until the light conditions allow.

Do galleries find it challenging to exhibit items requiring darkness, resorting to displaying them behind a wall or curtain in order to exclude the light? Can the work hold the darkness within required to reveal hidden elements? 

A picture of a textile sample including beads and silk organza overlay
Jayne Childs: 2018 MA textile sample

Pieces are usually illuminated in the direction of the viewer’s gaze, if they are lit from the back the detail can be lost. Could this effect be exploited to draw the viewer in to examine one detail, only to reveal another? What happens if intricate items are lit from behind instead? Or if the light is withdrawn as the viewer approaches. What does the darkness, or lack of light, reveal? I will explore layering to create shadow, hide or reveal texture and add richness to the design. Translucent fabrics can add sheen without weight and bring lightness to the design.