After decades of a design career in Silicon Valley, I’ve had countless opportunities to create (or witness the creation of) a napkin drawing. While lunching with friends or co-workers and an idea begins to develop, we’d draw it on whatever was at hand — usually the paper napkin.
What do I do with all those table linens I inherited?
In recent years my linen storage began to overflow with tablecloths, placemats, and napkins from deceased relatives. Most of them are white and either cotton or linen. Many of them have little stains with torn or frayed edges. I started to wonder how I could use them since I make most of my art from upcyled or repurposed materials.
What better place to sketch my happy memories than onto the cloth that witnessed countless dinners, tipsy toasts, birthday, and holiday celebrations. These rectangles of linen and cotton have soaked up the champagne and the tears of loved ones for many years. Is that a drip of juice from the blueberry pie my mom made? A circle of red wine that my stepfather loved so much? Is that spot of chocolate from my sister’s flourless chocolate cake?
Once friends and family heard about what I was doing with old linens, they started offering them. I quickly realized that not all dinner napkins are great for hand stitching. The cotton damask napkins are lovely but because of its unique weave the embroidery threads can get lost between the napkin threads. I set those aside and have been repurposing them by dyeing them using shibori folding and clamp resist techniques. It is a great way to give those napkins a whole new life.
Capturing the moment
During the past three years I’ve lost three close family members. This loss, combined with our country’s political climate (and the pandemic) caused me to want to work only on art that was joyful. What gives me great joy is looking at photographs I have taken of family and friends. I began to choose pictures I’d made that had the following qualities:
- people who were engaged with each other and (preferably) not posing for the camera
- children interacting with adults
- children engaged in classic childhood pursuits
- a scene that conveyed a sense of joy, discovery, or pleasure
I read a recent quote from an artist who said, “For me producing photorealistic copies of anything in any art form has been redundant since the invention of photography.” I don’t agree with her. I start with images that maybe aren’t great photographically but that convey a sense of intimacy between the subjects. My hope is to capture a moment between two people that those less observant might miss. And I want to show it with the fewest lines possible.
Once I’ve selected a photo I begin the process of scaling it to the correct size and manipulating it so that more details are revealed. Then I print out the photo. I use both Photoshop and Lightroom to work with my images. Once I have a printed image I make a sketch. I leave out a lot of information. I try to use the bare minimum number of lines to convey volume, facial expressions, and gestures. Using a small light box I then transfer the sketch onto the napkin using either water- or heat-soluble ink. Then the hand stitching begins. (Yes. They are all stitched by hand — not machine.) Most of the drawings are made using a hand-dyed perle cotton thread that I get from ArtFabrik.
Showing a year’s worth of work
Last weekend I participated in the Whidbey Working Artists Studio Tour. It was a gorgeous weekend and the perfect opportunity for me to display the collection of napkins I’ve created — 27! My wonderful husband constructed a temporary clothesline for hanging the napkin drawings. It was very exciting to show these as a group and to hear people’s responses to them. It was the very best part of the Studio Tour for me. My friend, Monty Hunter, made a video of the display so that I could show it here and to people who were unable to attend. I hope you enjoy it.
If you are interested in seeing how I end up finishing these drawings — or if I decide to sell them, please keep an eye on my website and sign up for my newsletter. I’ll keep you up to date on my progress there.