Abstract Design - Beth Markel

SAQA Seminar (Artist Q&A)


Tell us about your artwork and artistic career.

I began drawing and painting at a very young age, then began throwing pots at age 12, and by age 18 was given my first “real” camera, which is still never far from my reach. From my childish watercolors to my father’s Picasso prints, art was never far from my thoughts or environment. Even though quilting was an important part of my life, sitting under my grandmother’s quilting frame learning to read, I did not really start sewing until 1998.

Chatter by Beth Markel (photo by David Roberts Photography)

In 2010, after taking numerous classes, I made the decision to spend a week at the Alegre Retreat with Nancy Crow as my instructor, and the whole world of textile art came to life at my fingertips.  Textiles marry the visual arts and the tactile arts in a functional manner. Since 2011, I have been fortunate enough to have a cover of Quilting Arts magazine, and been part of AQS, Quilts=Art=Quilts, Road to California, Art Quilt Elements, ‘Circular Abstraction’ and numerous other juried exhibitions.  I also present Trunk Shows and teach whenever possible, as I love to share my passion with others, both young and old alike.

If the Principles of Design are pattern, rhythm, proportion, balance, unity, and emphasis, which one (or two) do you focus on most in your work?

As an artist, I believe all the design principles must work together to form a uniform “whole” that has clear visual direction or statement. In addition to that, I think pattern & rhythm are often interchangeable terms.  This just means that a repeating pattern, for example the same quilt block again and again, creates rhythm. If every block you make is identical, over and over, your pattern has created a rhythm like a bass drum in a John Phillip Sousa March…a steady, unchanging beat.

Most of my work reflects a pattern and balance that I like to achieve using color, value, and composition. Color and value (light to dark), repeated again and again in similar sizes of the same block or shape (circle, triangle, hexagon), creates both balance and pattern/rhythm.


Escúchame – The Communication Paradox by Beth Markel (photo by David Roberts Photography)


Now address composition, where similar blocks or shapes are repeated, but now I create different proportions, and I have a syncopated rhythm that is more interesting to look at, just like jazz is different than a march, and often more provocative to listen to. Neither is right or wrong, they are just different styles.  When I create a composition using repeated colors, light and dark values, with dynamic proportions, the possibilities are endless!  Good design should be infinite possibilities.


Why do you focus on certain design elements in particular?

I focus on pattern/rhythm and balance because I often make textile art in an abstract manner. I love using color, because it has almost universal appeal. Red is love, passion, blood, or anger. White is purity, innocence, or a blank canvas. Blue is calm, tranquil, serene, etc. Using the same colors again and again in a piece creates balance, just like using the same block again and again creates rhythm.  

The same is true for value, so using dynamic or changing values makes my compositions more interesting. By “value” I mean the strength of color in fabrics, from a very pale blue, all the way to the darkest midnight blue.  While all are technically blue, value = shades, light to dark. Using many of the same colors with different values (pale blue to midnight, light pink to deep rose, pale mint green to dark evergreen, etc.) brings balance, while creating pattern through repeated blocks or shapes.


Spring Storm by Beth Markel (photo by David Roberts Photography)


What techniques and materials do you use to create design in your work?

First, I look at the colors I will be using, and break them down by value, often using the Black/White feature on my camera. The eye cannot always discern value, but a B/W photo never lies. I make sure that each color has at least 3 values; light, medium, and dark, so I include a very light blue, an ocean blue, and a midnight blue. 


Adagio in G Minor by Beth Markel (photo by David Roberts Photography)


Knowing these colors and values will create a balanced piece, each color is laid out, light to dark, and photographed. I pin these photos up on my design wall at the top, and often refer to them when I begin sewing, mixing up values of color; sewing together a very-light, glowing yellow with a medium blue in one block, and a midnight blue in another block. The same yellow lets the blocks talk back and forth, creating balance. Then using these same 3 colors, I create different size blocks, so the composition has an interesting rhythm and is more engaging or inviting to view.


Are there certain steps in your design process when you think more about the principles of design than others?

Good use of design principles creates a piece of art that has a clear message, so I try to be cognizant of all the principles of design from start to finish. At the beginning of all new projects, there are steps, mentioned above, that I go through. I want my work to be interesting, thought-provoking, beautiful, and to be technically impeccable (read: good seam allowances, steady stitching, good pressing, etc.), but most of all I want my work to move people.

What will engage viewers? What will change viewers? What will evoke an emotional response, good or bad? What will draw people in, so they want to look more closely at the work? What do I have to say in my art that is of interest to anybody else?


Joie de Vivre by Beth Markel (photo by David Roberts Photography)


Once I start sewing, my focus is mostly proportion and balance. I often start a project thinking it will look like something I either imagine or have roughly sketched, but once I start sewing and see blocks or pieces on my wall, the work takes on a different direction. Proportion and balance are paramount here, as I am now sewing in a completely improvisational way. As long as I pay close attention to using colors/values consistently, the pattern will take shape as it grows from block to block.

For me, the principles of design are part of every step in the process of creating art, beginning to end. Textile, oil painting, watercolor, photography and other mediums all benefit equally from good design, just as messy, confused, or unnecessarily complicated design does not communicate clearly.  My aim is to make the composition balanced with good proportions, exciting to look at and beautiful, but even my quilt binding must bring unity to the work!  If I cannot find a quilt binding I love, I use something similar or the same as the backing, and a knife-edge finish so the binding is not seen from the front.


Is there a particular question you ask yourself or an idea that you keep in mind when you are focusing on the visual design of an art quilt?

Yes!  “Does this work?”

Creating art with a strong visual design is always a process of small decisions and small discoveries, not knowing ahead of time exactly what I will end up with, and often not knowing exactly what I am doing! Quite regularly fabrics must be “auditioned” or placed next to others to see if they work together.  Do they fight each other?  Do they complement each other?  Do they sing ‘Hallelujah’ when they are near each other? This is part of my process. My most common question is always, “Does this work?”


Moments of Clarity by Beth Markel (photo by David Roberts Photography)


I often have a particular idea of where I want to go with my design…I am just not always sure how I am going to get there! Good design is a series of choices, not a rigid formula.

I also have a rather worn index card tucked under my machine, which has a couple of quotes on it. I refer to it often, depending on how the design is coming along:


  1. “The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” Sylvia Plath
  1. “Talent will not always find a way, but commitment will.” Nancy Crow
  1. “When I make a mistake, I shall call it a ‘design decision’; when I make a whopper of a mistake, I shall say, ‘I am exploring a new direction in my art.’”  Me. Regularly.




A fifth generation quilter, Beth Markel creates quilts that are bold, whimsical, colorful, funny, and eclectic.  They have been published and exhibited nationally and internationally.

Beth has a deep love and respect for the art of quilting, whether it is traditional, paper piecing, appliqué, contemporary or whole cloth designs. Beth's background is photography, but her first love was pottery & clay.  Consequently, she believes the textile arts are a happy marriage of tactile & visual.


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