The Free Motion Quilting Project: Experiment #2 - Black and White Portrait

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Experiment #2 - Black and White Portrait

It's time for another Experiment Sunday!

This is a project I've wanted to play with for a very long time. It's actually pretty embarrassing to admit that I've been waiting to play with these materials for around 3 years!

free motion quilting | Leah DayJosh took this photo of me the summer after James was born. Unfortunately the original photo has been lost, so all I have is this blown up, printed copy and I've had it on my studio wall for a very long time.

Two years ago I tried thread painting this picture, but it didn't work out. Scratch that - it was a horrible catastrophe and it forced me to admit that I hated thread painting. That experiment ended up in the trash.

But I kept the picture up, meaning to get back to it eventually.

Finally, getting through the quilting of Hot Cast this week pushed me to finally take this picture off the wall and get started. It's high time I face myself - literally!

The first thing I did was tap the picture to my light box and make a rough trace of the darkest features. My eyes, eyebrows, outline of my face, and hair were the easiest. The nose and mouth were quite tricky as there weren't a lot of shadows to clearly show these sections.

Once I got a pretty close sketch on graph paper, I layered a white fat quarter sized piece of cloth over the drawing and transferred all the marks using a black Pigma pen.

free motion quilting | Leah DayIt was actually very simple and wasn't difficult at all. I kept the original photo close by for reference so I if something wasn't clear, I could easily see how the image was supposed to look.

Once I got the marks transferred, I darkened certain areas to show deeper shadows or my dark furry eyebrows.

The nice thing about this type of drawing is it didn't have to be perfect. While it might seem scary to draw in pen on fabric, I just kept reminding myself - it's just a fat quarter! I could easily throw it away if I really messed it up and just start again.

So what is the next step? Quilting of course!

I'm planning to quilt all the dark lines with black thread, then go inside and quilt the white areas with microstippling and white thread.


Now for the weirder side of this experiment. I'm giving you fair warning because as Josh said - this image is pretty disturbing. He regularly watches scary horror movies and zombie flicks and declared my next experiment was simply "too much."

So if you don't want to see it, click here to go check out designs from the project.

While working on this piece, I started thinking about how my mental image of myself has changed over the past year.

A year ago, deep in the clutches of my negative inner voice (inv), I expected to see a horrible monster when I looked in the mirror. I expected to see a zombie, or at least a face so disfigured and ugly, no one would love it or trust it.

At one time I was told I was ugly. At one time in my life I was told I was so ugly, no one would ever love me, and I would be lucky of they even liked me. I'm sorry to say I believed these lies for a very long time.

A year of digging and understanding myself, combined with a good dose of compassion and kindness, has finally turned this corner and allowed me to believe, and see, my own beauty.

But this negative image was still bouncing around my head. I wanted to get it OUT and that means creating it in a quilt.

So I took another fat quarter of white fabric and using that same drawing, I made another sketch of my face:

free motion quilting | Leah DayThe two were almost identical, but then I started adding the scars:

free motion quilting | Leah DaySoon I found the thin Pigma pen wasn't up to the job of coloring in all my darkness, so I picked up a black sharpie, permanent magic marker.

I really don't know how archival this is, so I'm not advising you use it on a special heirloom project you want your great great grandchildren to enjoy. It was just what I had on hand that would achieve the look I wanted.

So I let myself go with this for awhile. I wasn't going to for making an intentionally scary face, I was just simply drawing what I'd always expected to see:

free motion quilting | Leah DayI know you might not understand this. I know this might seem scary and awful and all things painful, but I assure you, it was not. I didn't cry or get mad as I drew this. If anything, I felt relief.

Relief that I've finally gotten this image out of my mind. Relief that this negativity no longer exists inside my head where it can hurt me.

Relief that I can look at these two portraits and I KNOW WHICH IS REALLY ME.

If this is too much to share, I apologize, but I do feel the need to share this because beauty is such a difficult thing for so many women and girls. I've carried this negative image of myself for so long, it was high time I let it out.

Now what will I do with these?

I'm planning to combine the two into one quilt. There is an juried art exhibit in my town coming up very soon and I hope to enter it.

Even if I don't finish it in time, I plan to hang this quilt in my studio so I see it every day. I need a daily reminder of what is real, and the painful result of believing lies.

Off to quilt,



  1. Before I became a sewist, I was a trauma counsellor. The women who used art to express pain that they could not put into words were the ones who resolved SO much. This is really fabulous. Blogland is weird - we are all 'happy perfect people with picturesque lives'. I'm glad you are doing this and sharing it. We all have issues - but you are one of the brave ones. ; )
    ~Monika in Canada (who loves to threadpaint! )

  2. What if - you made the quilt two-sided - with the positive image on the front - and the negative image on the back? You could always turn the quilt over to see the back whenever you wanted/needed to - but the positive image is the one you would see in your studio every day. Kind of a "before" and "after" type of thing. And a daily reminder that you are beautiful - you just never knew it until NOW! YAY YOU!!

  3. Ohh my dear , I'm so sorry for you.
    But by doing this you show how strong you are. Love , Esse

  4. You are BEAUTIFUL Leah! I am glad you got that image OUT of your mind because that is in NO WAY how you look!!

  5. Leah, I don't see the latter portrait as scary. Although basically the same, the latter one feels very sad, the eyes seem deep in torment. And yet the very similar new you, I see that face with peace and serenity.

    Well done for another example of using your art to fight your way through.... perhaps for the future you should contemplate art therapy to help others?

  6. See, I find it hard to believe anyone told you you were ugly, because I've always thought you're really quite pretty!

  7. I appreciate your vulnerability as you processed your pain to arrive on the healthier side of life and then to share that journey with your readers. Your self portrait project will no doubt inspire others to look beyond the surface to find the beauty in their lives as well. Thanks for a wonderful post, and I encourage you to definitely exhibit your portraits.

  8. I'm so glad you are getting the negative voices out and seeing and believing what those that love you see! You are a brave woman to face these feelings head on and work your way through to the better side of life!


  9. I think this is beautiful...the process of it. I did something like this several years back, but not in fabric. I used a very broken mirror and drew my image as it looked in the mirror. To some it was scary, something from a horror movie, deeply disturbing. For me though, it let me see with my eyes what I'd felt for so long, and know that it was a distorted and false image of myself. Bravo to you!

  10. Leah--You Are A Beautiful Woman! I'm so happy that you're healing and it's a long process. Sharing your artwork sure helps us all to heal. You are such a blessing to us all. Have a wonderful day :)

  11. I too think that you're a very beautiful woman. I'm so sorry you had a rotten childhood. I was lucky that my own family told me I was beautiful, even though few others ever did. If you're beautiful to just one or 2 people who matter, I guess that's enough. At least for me it is... Glad you have a new family of your own to remind you and help you heal. I LOVE the last picture, BTW, and I'm not usually a big fan of things like this. But I think it's amazing! Maybe because I still see the beauty underneath. I think it's brilliant!

  12. Leah, I haven't commented on the previous post and then this one came along. I usually have to process a lot to be able to post my thoughts. What I do like is how you have been able to start uncovering and moving through the painful parts and coming to terms with it and to find the beauty of you. I'm so impressed with you, your ideas, your love for your family and your strength.
    Take good care of yourself:)
    Laura T

  13. Leah, what an amazing idea! I dont see the second portrait as scary but rather a picture of someone trapped unwillingly and that thing that is trapping her is breaking away. Regardless though it is your story, your version that matters to you and it is a beautiful way to express yourself and to show to yourself and the world the transformation you have made. Bravo!

  14. Such an interesting challenge!

    One idea you might consider is to split each drawing in half, then run a seam up the middle, joining the two halves. Sort of a Jeckyl and Hyde thing. If you quilt it heavily (and yes, maybe even move into a bit of thread painting :) you would obscure the center seam.

    The two sided quilt is cool too - I envy those of you who can make THAT work.

    I like the idea about the broken mirror too, Amanda. Very interesting.

    How we see ourselves is really a fascinating study. What we see vs. what is real -

    Good luck and best wishes on your continued journey.

  15. It's obvious to me and those who have commented that whoever told you you were ugly and would never be loved was a big fat liar. Some people need to bring folks down to make themselves feel better. I'm sorry it has taken you so long to realize that. You are a lovely girl and deserve every happiness.

  16. Congratulations - you can now officially call yourself a "true" artist. :)

  17. Hi Leah, I have just read a fantastic book by Susan Carlson "Serendipity Quilts: Cutting Loose fabric collage" that really got my creative juices flowing & I thoroughly recommend it. No thread painting there! Only cutting, gluing & textured sewing. Be kind to yourself & check it out.

  18. I applaud you for sharing a painful part of your life, another step in the healing process. At nearly 50 I have just started to dredge and deal with things that have been buried deep for decades.
    You are a very beautiful, (inside and out), and talented woman.
    God bless you in your life journey.


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