GUEST 13 | The Art of Improv with Cindy Grisdela


Cindy Grisdela

on The Art of Improv

Cindy Grisdela is our guest this week. She is an award winning textile artist from Reston Virginia, whose abstract art quilts are exhibited and sold all over the country. Cindy draws inspiration from nature and her exploration of color is where she starts, and then it is texture that she explores. She is a teacher and an author, she lectures and runs creative workshops to encourages creativity with cloth. Her book ‘Artful Improv’ is a beautiful book that has inspired me and so many others to jump outside the box. Here she shares a little bit about her improv process.

Aquarius   Cindy Grisdela

Aquarius Cindy Grisdela

What does working improvisationally mean to you?  How would you define the ‘Art of Improv’?

Working improvisationally means working without a pattern and not knowing what the final piece is going to look like when I start. I enjoy how each decision about color, line, and shape influences the next as I’m creating. Being open to the process is the most important thing about improv to me. There are many times when "happy accidents" of line or shape occur that I couldn't have planned if I was working more deliberately. 

Have you always worked improvisationally?

No—I started out over 30 years ago as a traditional quilter following patterns. But I usually wanted to tweak the patterns to make them more my own. 

Do you work improvisationally, consciously, intentionally?  If so, how do you begin?  If not, how do you find yourself getting there?

Yes—it’s a very deliberate choice. I begin with an idea—a new color combination or a set of shapes and lines. Generally I also have an idea of what size I want the piece to be and I block that size out on my design wall. Then I fill it with color and shape. It's not a quick process--often I have to leave the piece up on the wall to "marinate" while I work on something else. Coming back to it with fresh eyes, I'm often able to see what needs to happen next. 

One thing I emphasize to my students is the fact that just because we are working improvisationally, that doesn't let us off the hook to create good art. I use a simple set of design principles to help me evaluate my compositions--things like balance, focus, repetition, variety, and unity in the design.

Partly Sunny   Cindy Grisdela

Partly Sunny Cindy Grisdela

How often do you work with improvisation?


Please share a bit about your process.  Do you have methods to getting started?  Do you have tricks to getting unstuck?  Do you have motivators to finishing up?

I work improvisationally in two ways. One way is to start with a color idea and create a number of units or blocks--maybe improv log cabin blocks or improv curves. Then I arrange and rearrange them on my design wall until I have a composition that sings--paying attention to the creative tension between the lines and shapes as I go. Another way is to use my rotary cutter as a drawing tool and cut freehand shapes directly into the fabrics. In this method, no sewing is done until the entire composition is up on the wall. The shapes are roughed in and then recut to fit as each section is sewn. Many times the composition changes again during the sewing process. 

If I'm stuck, I take a break and work on something else. It sometimes helps to take a photo of the piece on my smartphone and look at it on the screen, both in color and in black and white. I'll often see a problem on the screen that wasn't obvious looking at the piece on the wall. Looking at it in black and white helps to see the values more clearly--if there's a section that reads too dark or too light it will show on the screen. 

I don't usually have trouble finishing. I want to know what the piece is going to look like! Plus I'm almost always motivated to finish a piece by some sort of deadline--a show to enter or the need for a new class sample. But if I do have trouble with a piece, I go to the studio and set a timer for a set period of time--maybe only 20 or 30 minutes. When the timer goes off, I've often found a new groove and I'm able to move forward. 

Where do you find inspiration?  How do you use it?

Although my work is very abstract, I find inspiration everywhere I go. I'm always looking for interesting color combinations, shapes, and textures--sometimes in nature, sometimes in buildings and architecture, sometimes in other types of art. I take a lot of pictures of things that interest me and use them as inspiration later. 

Balloon Fiesta   Cindy Grisdela

Balloon Fiesta Cindy Grisdela

What advice would you give to someone interested in trying to work improvisationally.  Can you share some good advice that you received that helped you become more comfortable this way?

First, become comfortable with the idea that the process is just as important as the finished project. Dump out a basket of scraps, or cut scraps from yardage. Start out just sewing two pieces of fabric together, maybe because you like the colors or the shapes. Keep adding another scrap until you have a block. Then put that aside and do it again. Don't overthink it, just keep adding scraps that are a different color or a different value of the same color. Let go of any rules and let the piece evolve. Once you have a handful of blocks, put them up on your design wall and arrange and rearrange them until you like the result. Add some negative space, or maybe some energetic stripes. If you listen to your inner voice, you'll know when it's right. 

Remember that there are no mistakes in improv, just design opportunities. If something doesn't turn out the way you thought it would, put it in your leftover basket and let it sit for a while. There have been a number of times that blocks or units that didn't work out in one project were just the right thing to start something new. 

How would you finish the sentence, ‘What if, . . .?’

"What if" is my favorite sentence in improv design! What if I turn the piece upside down? What if I add some lime green? What if I try something completely new and unexpected? That's where the magic happens. 

What are reading, listening to, watching, or any other inspirational obsessions you would like to share?

One of my favorite books about being an artist is Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way--I reread it every so often because I believe that you get something new every time given your experiences in the interim. I also have enjoyed Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic about living creatively. And the new issue of Curated Quilts magazine is all about Improv and has some great articles and images. 

I love to read lots of different things--science fiction, history, art, mysteries. I'm in the middle of Doris Kearns Goodwin's new book, Leadership in Turbulent Times and I'm learning a lot. Twyla Tharp’s “The Creative Habit” has been hugely helpful to me. I love her quote; "Ultimately there is no such thing as failure. There are lessons learned in different ways." I think this applies well to the idea of creating improvisationally--you must keep learning and growing as an artist by doing the work--assessing and evaluating as you go.

Thank you to Cindy for sharing with us, her work and her expertise on improvisational quilting.  I love her book, it has helped me realize that following your creative gut is not always easy but well worth the while.  I too love Cameron’s ‘The Artist’s Way’ and probably should reread it.  I can also recommend ‘Vein of Gold’ by Cameron that is an extension of ‘The Artist’s Way’ and one of my favorites, both are hugely inspirational and motivational and the type of book I am loving to read right now, and FYI @fortheloveofyourart will be reading ‘The Creative Habit’ in the coming months.  I thank you for the reminder to keep your eyes wide open to the world and all its beauty. 

To learn more about Cindy visit her website and be sure to check out her beautiful book ‘Artful Improv’, and Instagram for day to day inspiration of line, shape, and color.

If you would like to be featured on The Art of Improv please contact me!  I would love to hear how improvisation impacts your art making process.