Fabric Painting with Sarah Campbell

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I had the rare delight last weekend of a whole two days on a fabric painting course with one of my design heroes, Sarah Campbell. Sarah started designing textiles with her sister Susan and together they became Collier Campbell producing hundreds of designs that sold across the world for the likes of Liberty, Habitat and many others. They produced designs for both fashion and furnishings, I had bedroom curtains in one of their best-selling fabrics in the 80’s so it is a design brand that is close to my heart.

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The course was over two days and took place at the wonderful Handprinted printmaking studio in Bognor. Sarah started off talking to us about dots, stripes and checks which are the basis of pattern design, and took us through her huge library of fabrics to demonstrate the scope of different patterns that can be achieved through using these basic marks in different ways.

Sarah talked about the emotional response we have to fabric and pattern, that “pattern is a rhythm from an accumulation of marks” and how we are “comforted by the good rhythm of a repeating pattern”. I loved this insight and know it will stay with me.

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We then started making marks! Using just black paint and a roll of wallpaper lining paper we just played with accumulating marks and seeing what happened. Foam brushes have infinite possibilities and suddenly the studio went very quiet as we all got absorbed in the meditative activity of repeating marks to see what that led too. It was bliss!

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Sarah taught us about using an “ogee” in design. This is a repeating curve that can be used and repeated in many ways to create more intricate designs, often associated with leaves and vines. We also saw a current design and Sarah explained how she took it from a one off painting into a repeat design. She had also kept the paint palette she had used - just because she liked the colour combinations so much! Sarah said that when she is designing she tries “not to reiterate, so it’s about forgetting what you know but remembering enough to be able to actually do it”.

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The design below was a particular favourite. Sarah had painted it direct onto the fabric with an approximate idea of what would go there, and filling in the background last which shows what skill she has, though this isn’t surprising after 50 years of practise. Her approach with pieces like this is to “leave my options open because you never know when you might get a great idea right at the end”.

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Throughout the two days Sarah would demonstrate and we would then go and experiment for ourselves. It was a very free class with no rigid structure which really suited me as I didn’t have an end goal in sight, I just wanted to have the opportunity to be creative.

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I left the course with loads of ideas and a good understanding of the process of painting on fabric and the potential for this technique. I also just really enjoyed learning from Sarah , and have taken away so much from the course that can be applied to all aspects of working creatively, especially her point that “you don’t have to have a lot of ideas, it’s what you do with the ones you’ve got”.

At the end of the last day, it was past 4 o’clock which was when the course ended. Earlier Sarah had demonstrating potato printing to great effect, I started to slowly pack up my materials and turned to see that Sarah was very happily still printing with her potato continuing a repeat design she had started earlier. She wasn’t clock watching in the slightest and was just absorbed in the process. I was taken with how wonderful it was that even after 50 years of designing it still absorbed her so much.

This last image is of a potato print with one of Sarah’s favourite Wiliam Blake quotes, I loved it and thought you might too. ‘If the sun and moon should doubt, they’d immediately go out.’

Big thanks to both Sarah Campbell for such a fab course and Shirley at Handprinted for such a great venue.

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