Before embarking on the full-sized tapestry project, I knew that I needed to hone some skills and experiment. My previous tapestry work had been much more simplistic in detail and shading, and there were two areas I wanted to give special focus–verdure (especially leaves) and fabrics (especially velvet).
For the first, I started with an image detail from “The Hunt of the Unicorn” tapestries, which sports a wide variety of plants and flowers in a relatively naturalistic setting. Working with only four colors, the Gothic tapestry weavers were able to create a particularly striking sense of three-dimensionality and illumination that is especially noticeable when standing further back from the textiles.
Plants, while not only adding to the loveliness of the outdoor setting, also carry significant symbolic weight and merit of their own. In “The Hunt of the Unicorn” set, the beech and the oak are most prominent, and I was planning to incorporate both into my own “Deceiving the Hunters” project. For the study, I chose a particular corner from the panel “The Unicorn is Killed and Brought Back to the Castle,” which included leaves of varying brightness, veining, branches, hazelnuts, and a receding background. This particular verdure is hazelnut (not what would be in the final piece), but it offered good potential practice for depth and detail all packed in a relatively small area.
And just to keep from getting too bored with the study, it also has that most charming squirrel included as well! I would work the study on a very simple and small frame loom, playing with colors and yarns I intended to use on the final piece, and see what happened during the process.
What I discovered first was that the original tapestries used a much finer weft than I. Their ability to create minute detail is therefore also much greater. While attempting the delicate hatched shading (see leaves in lower center), the actual shape and intent began to disappear in business. I changed approach to try to mimic the waxiness and shading in a blockier style (see leaf in lower left) and enjoyed the effect much better.
It’s not perfectly accurate to a historical interpretation, but I’m not trying to make a copy of the original–I’m making my own piece that is influenced by the original. Those are two quite different aesthetic and technical objectives.
I did, however, begin developing a method for four-color shading to create a sense of depth, and the squirrel was quite fun (especially his little feet). I continued to work leaves, stems, hazelnuts (even grasses) until the warp separation at the top of the loom became too tight. I decided to leave the top unfinished as a teaching tool about how the Flemish technique works in “hills and valleys.”
I did work this piece bottom to top (not from the side), so I knew there would be even more new interpretation to work on the official piece, which I ultimately decided to work in the authentic sideways manner. Still, the verdure study proved a useful textile playground for experimentation in this important visual component that creates the backdrop for the leading characters.