Tuesday, October 11, 2011

special guest sketchbook profile: Susan Brubaker Knapp

Susan Brubaker Knapp  is a fiber artist, quilt pattern designer, and teacher. Quilting started as her hobby, but has turned into a passion and a business. She teaches classes at quilt guilds, at quilt festivals – and occasionally online — and has published patterns and books of her original quilt designs.

Creating fiber art is my consuming passion. I am an artist who works in fabric and thread. I find great joy in creating works that draw people closer and invite them to savor color, texture and form. The art I create is my way of celebrating and documenting the deep mysteries of the world that are to be experienced only by close inspection of the miraculous details of nature. While my core materials — cloth and thread — are those used in traditional quilting, I often employ substances such as fabric paints and dyes, Tyvek, Angelina fibers, and water-soluble wax pastels, to transform the cloth. Nearly all of my work is realistic in style, and starts with original photographs of the subjects. I use two primary techniques – wholecloth painting, and fused applique – then heavily free-motion thread sketch the surface before quilting. 

Why do you keep a sketchbook, and how often do you work in it?

Okay, confession time here. Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. I am horrible about working in my sketchbook. I want to do it, I love doing it, but I don't seem to find the time to do it. I had never really kept a sketchbook before, and I started out with the best of intentions this year. I threw myself into The Sketchbook Challenge, and was doing really great, and then in late January, my mother died. I completely fell off the wagon. I was so absorbed in my grief, and in handling all of the things that come with losing a parent and handling family affairs, that I did not have the time or energy to do it. Since then, my sketching has been sporadic. 

Time is my number one enemy. I don't sit still. Ever. I am always doing something, and I also have two active school-aged children. The number one question I get after my presentations to quilt groups is, "Do you ever sleep?" My mother once teasingly inquired, "Are you on cocaine or something? I don't know how you get so much done!" When I sketch, I can get completely engrossed, and work on it for hours. And that means that other important things – dinner for my family, for example – gets overlooked!

That said, I really believe in the process of keeping a sketchbook. When I am doing it, I can feel the creative energy flowing more strongly. It encourages me to go in directions I might not have gone otherwise. It is excellent discipline, good mental/creative exercise, and it is just plain fun. It is a great way to organize ideas, and to store them – or incubate them – until they are ready to be born.

How long have you been keeping a sketchbook?

I've been sketching since I was a little kid, but I didn't know I was supposed to keep a sketchbook! I took art classes in high school, but beyond that and a graphic design class I took when I was getting my masters degree in journalism, I have no formal art education. So it simply wasn't part of my life, and I didn't develop the habit or the discipline of keeping a sketchbook. 

Do you work in just one at a time, or do you have several going at once? 

I use two simultaneously. The first is a hard-cover, spiral bound sketchbook with perforated paper. I use it when I am working at home. The second is a small Moleskin notebook I take with me when I travel. For simplicity's sake, I just do pencil drawings in it. Lately, it seems that most of my sketching is done in airports; that's the only time I don't have something specific I have to do – when I'm waiting for airplanes!

What's your preferred medium? 
I mostly do simple pencil line drawings, and then go over them with black ink, and add watercolor or colored pencils. If I don't use other media, it's probably because I don't have experience with them! My last formal art class was in high school in the early 80s. I rather like simple line drawings. It is amazing how much energy they have in them. And they are so clean and uncluttered. 

You work in fiber – art quilts. How do your sketches translate into your work? 

I am known mostly for taking photographs and recreating them in a very realistic style into art quilts. The two techniques I use the most are wholecloth painting (the subject of my new DVD with Quilting Arts/Interweave) and fusible applique (the subject of my new book with C&T Publishing). My signature style is brightly colored realistic art quilts that are heavily thread sketched before they are quilted. 

In some ways, my photo album is a kind of pre-sketchbook, or an "idea book." I shoot a lot of digital photos, and then pick the very best ones to print and put in an album. I take photos following the same basic design principles that I would use in my sketches or my quilts. Then I use these photos, either tracing them, or sketching from them, to create the patterns I use for my art quilts. Here's an example. I took a photo of a peacock at a zoo this summer. I traced the photograph, then slightly adapted some elements in a line drawing. I water-colored it, and now I'm creating an art quilt based on it.

What do you mean by "thread sketched," and does it have any similarity to sketching on paper?

When I talk about "thread sketching," I mean using free-motion, hand-guided machine stitching on the surface of the fabric. This happens before quilting, and only goes through the top of the quilt and the interfacing that helps to stabilize the piece so it doesn't draw up. It is lighter than what some people call "thread painting," which is much heavier and denser – more like machine embroidery – and often covers nearly all of the surface.

As far as similarities to sketching... that is an interesting question that I've never really considered. It actually is similar. I use thread to create dimension, and to add color, texture, movement and line. So maybe I am just more comfortable "sketching" with my sewing machine than with a pencil! 


  1. As a stitcher I really admire art quilts and the work that goes into them. Love the peacock!

  2. I agree TIME is the enemy when it comes to journaling. I was glad to read someone else's take on it, somehow I find it encouraging. Thank you.


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