Learn to Embellish a Painted Canvas, Part Three

If you have a canvas that you love but have no idea what to do besides basketweave, first ask yourself if it is suitable for a first attempt at doing your own stitch guide.

How much detail is in the canvas?  A very complex canvas with a lot of small areas is much harder to embellish than a more cartoonish piece.  When you are doing this for the first time, go for simpler designs.   Here are two examples of a more complex piece, and a simpler one.

"Perk Up" from Suzie Vallerie of VNG

"Pink Peonies" from Kimberly Hodges of VNG

If you guessed the little coffee pot would be much easier to work with as a beginner at embellishment, you were right!  You only have three decisions to make—the background stitch, the words and the coffee pot—and you could use one stitch for the background and one for everything else.  Pink Peonies has a lot more decisions to make.  Of course once you start making decisions, you narrow the possibilities of what else will work for the rest of the design, but there are still a lot of decisions to make in a big, complicated canvas.  I don't recommend a canvas like Pink Peonies for your first embellishment attempt.  It's also probably wise to go with an ornament-sized canvas rather than a big one.  You want to do everything possible to make sure you succeed this first time so as not to become discouraged at learning embellishment.  Like everything else, practice makes perfect here.

So now that we've picked the little coffee pot as our first piece, what next?   You have to decide what's important and the direction the canvas flows.  What's important is easy on Perk Up—it's the coffee pot.  The words are secondary and the background is just, well, background.

What do you do to figure out what's important if you don't have a very simple piece?  I recommend that you put your canvas where you can't see it, then get a pencil and paper and sketch what you remember.  Doesn't matter than your art skills are way worse than anyone in kindergarten—just diagram what you remember.  The things you remember and draw about the canvas is what is important to you and what you want to emphasize.  My sketch of the canvas would just be a sort of coffee pot with letters above and below it.  So that's what we will emphasize, those two bits.  A bit more about this in a second.

Determining the directional flow is a little harder as there really isn't any on the coffee pot canvas.  Nothing slants to the right or left on this piece, which means that stitches that flow vertically or horizontally or which don't really have any direction will work best.  When it comes to Pink Peonies, the flow is upright or vertical, however you want to explain it.  So you would want to use a lot of upright stitches on Pink Peonies for the background.  Stripes would work, for example.    Or you could use an all over pattern like a lace eyelet as long as you don't make it so busy that it takes away from the flowers and bottom border, which is what this canvas is really about.  A background that screams "Look at me!" isn't appropriate for Pink Peonies.

Ok, now that we know what we want to emphasize on the Perk Up canvas, how do we emphasize things?  In most cases, lighter colors come forward and darker colors recede.  So you can make the coffee pot stand out by using white, cream, or pale pastel threads like pink or light lemon.  You can also choose a slightly darker lime green color than the paint job and use an open stitch on the background to make it a bit less prominent in terms of color. A slightly darker thread makes the background recede a bit more than if you match the lime color of the paint.

In most cases a denser stitch is more prominent than a lighter stitch.  There's a reason folks use a lot of open stitches for backgrounds—they tend to recede.  There are exceptions: tent stitch is very dense but it can recede depending on the thread and embellishments used.  But generally speaking a stitch that is dense and covers the entire canvas or that is dimensional in some way, will catch the eye more than a lighter stitch.    Denser stitches include things like Hungarian or Mosaic or French Knots or Jessicas.  Their patterns really stand out visually.

You can also use bling to make certain areas stand out on a canvas.  Beads, metallics, sequins, crystals and silks that are laid so that they reflect light—all of these will catch the eye.  Not everyone likes bling but you can use a few touches to direct a viewer toward what you want them to look at.

To sum up in terms of the Perk Up canvas, we would likely use an open stitch for the background in a darker color than the lime green is painted.  We would probably use a fancy stitch for the coffee pot in a lighter colored thread that will catch the eye.  The coffee pot might have some bling added to it and we might consider adding sparkle for the lettering, too.

What you choose to do with a design incorporates your personal style and your comfort level with the stitches and threads you have chosen.  You may avoid a thread in the perfect color for the canvas because you hate stitching with it.  That's perfectly ok.  You might use cross stitches instead of beads because you hate beading.  That's fine, too. This is your canvas and you should stitch it in a way that makes you happy.  Just don't obsess over things.  None of us are perfect, after all.  Do some test stitching in the margins in your chosen stitch and thread to confirm that it will look the way you think but don't be afraid to mess up and rip out.  That is how you learn.

There is no one right way to stitch a canvas!  For example, on Perk Up I might do an open trellis stitch in the background in a slightly darker lime green silk perle, or I might choose to do vertical stripes with two different widths in cotton floss using satin stitches or perhaps use Corduroy Stitch to make stripes if I wanted a full coverage stitch for the background.

For the letters you could use a very pretty pastel or cream color.  If you really want a punch for the canvas, choose a lighter color for the background, a pastel for the lettering and a dark complimentary color for the coffee pot.  ( Example:  Background=lime green, Letters=pale yellow and Coffee Pot=navy blue.)  A good way to pick colors for a canvas is to raid your stash for every color you think might work (and a few that don't because You Never Know.)  Toss all the skeins around the perimeter of the design and start removing skeins of those you don't like.  You will narrow down the colors that work well very quickly this way.  Once you have the right color you can find the thread brand you think will work.

Once you pick the colors for the coffee pot and letters, think about using stitches that have two steps so that you can mix a solid color with a metallic, mix an overdye with beads, etc.  The letters are not that wide, so you will want to use a smaller scale stitch there to reduce the amount of compensation you have to do.   Stitches like skip tent (with a cross stitch in metallic or a bead in the empty threads you skipped) will work nicely.  If you want your lettering a little less prominent, use a slanting satin stitch to cover the letters.  You could even pad them with perle cotton inside the lettering space first to make them stand out a bit.  Flosses make lovely satin stitches if the threads are laid carefully or you could use a flat thread like Flair or a silk ribbon.  Laid carefully these will create a satiny look that will make the letters slightly dimensional against your background.  You can
even totally bead the letters if you wish.

For the coffee pot, use a dimensional stitch that will catch the attention of the viewer because it is complex.  Pavilion Diamonds would look good on the coffee pot if you choose the trellis stitch for the background.  (Repeating a shape in several different stitches unifies a canvas.)  You might like Silk Lame Braid for the coffee pot to give a slight sparkle to the shape in the Pavilion Diamonds.  If you really want that coffee pot to stand out, use a two step stitch like Double Stitch where you can mix two types of thread.  I love Double Stitch in perle cotton for the tall, skinny cross stitches and a metallic for the tiny regular cross stitches.  The contrast in thread types cannot fail to catch the eye.  Or go old school and use a wool or a wool-silk mix in a stitch like Criss Cross Hungarian.  You can add a metallic for the little tent stitches between the longer stitch elements.   The possibilities are endless.  Just use threads and colors you like and run wild, trying things until you hit upon a combination that suits you.

Like most things, you get better at embellishing needlepoint canvas with fancy touches by practice.  Let me repeat—don't be afraid to mess up and have to rip out.  A very wise stitcher once told me the more I rip out, the better a stitcher I will be.  Mistakes are how we learn and advance our skills.  Just knowing that something is not right is a great skill that will come in handy as you practice embellishing canvases!  Just start small and have fun.  Embellishing is supposed to be a fun way to stitch something that adds impact where you want it.


To read my other articles on Learning to Embellish a Painted Canvas, click on any of these links or use the tabs at the top of the page.



UPDATE: I found this older comment on how to learn to embellish canvases while looking for something else.  It might be helpful to those who are unsure about how to proceed when choosing stitches for an embellished canvas.   Good luck, everyone!

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