Last week I taught my Abstracting from Art workshop to a talented group of quilters from Needlechasers of Chevy Chase in Maryland.

It was so much fun I’m still buzzing from it!

The main idea behind the class is using an inspiration source–photo, piece of art, graphic design, home decor or clothing–to jumpstart your creative process. Each student brought an image they found inspirational and we discussed different ways to use that to create a quilt design.

The point is to use the image as a starting point–for color, for shape, for mood, energy or feeling–NOT to represent the image in fabric.

Here are a few examples from my own work:

Taste of Summer – Cindy Grisdela

Taste of Summer, above, was inspired by a Paul Klee painting, Senecio, that I really like, below. I pulled the color palette and the idea of curved shapes from the painting to create my quilt design, but I didn’t represent the painting in any other way. If you see the quilt and the painting together, you can see that it inspired me, but you can also enjoy the quilt without knowing any of that.

Mountain Sunrise, below, was inspired by mountains I saw on a trip to New England when my son was in college there–no specific photograph, just an abstract image of the feeling the mountains inspired.

Mountain Sunrise – Cindy Grisdela

Improv Flowers is a somewhat more literal piece inspired by the print of a favorite sweater that I came up with the weekend before class!

Improv Flowers – Cindy Grisdela

Inspiration Print – Cindy Grisdela

I had 22 students in the class, and they got right into the spirit of the exercise. I chatted with each of them about their inspiration image and about how they might use it to create an abstract quilt. We also talked about various Improv techniques that could be used to realize the image.

Some opted to simplify the photographic image with a line drawing, and some just dove right in to cutting and sewing their fabrics.

After lunch, I did a live demo of various ways to put the elements together into a small quilt, especially when the elements weren’t all the same size.

Judy’s work

Judy started with a photo of a painting from a exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. She decided to focus on the color and some of the shapes in the image to create her piece.

Helene’s work

Helene chose Van Gogh’s Irises as her inspiration, focusing on the colors of the painting. The contrast between the blue and yellow curved shapes and the greens in the stripes is striking.

Debbie’s work

Debbie wanted to focus on an image of cherry blossoms against a blue sky. She made a rough sketch of the lines she wanted to capture, and set about creating an Improv design to reflect the colors and mood of the inspiration image.

Linda’s work

Linda started with a photo of a sunset over water and used Improv techniques to capture the feeling of the image.

Diana’s work

Diana began with an architectural photo of a series of buildings.

Elizabeth’s work

Elizabeth started with two images of paintings with a similar color story of blues and oranges and used those colors to create her own abstract.

I’m so proud of what these talented students were able to accomplish in a 6 hour class! Once they had mined the inspiration image for the color, shape, and/or energy they liked about it, they were free to turn the photo upside down and move on by responding to what they had in front of them on the design wall.

The beauty of this way of working is that you never run out of ideas to inspire your abstract work. And you can also take the same image and create different works of art by focusing on different elements of the image. Then you have a series!

I’ll be teaching this workshop as a 5 day retreat at Woodland Ridge Retreat Center in Wisconsin August 13 – 17, 2024. There are a few spaces available if you’re interested in joining us!


  1. Sally Harcum Maxwell on March 17, 2024 at 4:42 pm

    The class looks so fun and I love the results!

    • Cindy on March 18, 2024 at 1:03 pm

      Thanks Sally! I had fun and I think they did too.