Author Focus – Elaine Benfatto

Today I picked a very special person, Elaine Benfatto, also known as Urbanspinner. Many of you have pinned her patterns on Pinterest. Elaine posted her step-outs already in 2011 – let’s bring those patterns back to life! You can find all the step-outs here on her author page, or the originals on her Flickr account.

About Elaine Benfatto

Zentangling holds a very special place in my heart. Even though I no longer do much work with hand-drawn repeating patterns (more on that in a bit) I can look back and say that this kind of artwork was the foundation of a major creative breakthrough in my life. Without the community of people who draw and enthusiastically share their designs, I would not be the artist I am today. And for that I am very grateful.

Let me begin my story at the beginning, which was my childhood preoccupation with art and design. My whole family was creative and supported me when, at the ripe age of six, I proudly announced to the world that I wanted to be an artist when I grew up. (Or an astronaut. But most days, it was an artist!) I drew constantly, and particularly loved making decorative patterns that I then embroidered or painted in color.

I went on to attend art school in 1977. At that time, the world of contemporary art was very narrow, very political. Only abstract expressionism and conceptual art (e.g. where you put a pile of dirt into a corner of a gallery and wrote long essays about its social significance) were considered “real” art. If your work strived to be beautiful, or to portray recognizable objects, it was condemned as merely “decorative” and invalid. I had grown up steeped in the traditions of the Old Masters, and adored Da Vinci, Titian, Rembrandt, Rubens… To be told that those artists were nothing but irrelevant old “dead white guys” made no sense to me. Even worse was the kind of personal criticisms I faced from my teachers when I put up my assignments for class critiques. They told me things like, “You’re just too uptight and repressed to see what art really is,” and “That’s not art. That’s a joke.” It shamed and discouraged me, to the point where, after three years of trying, I was convinced I had no artistic talent and that I’d been an idiot for even contemplating a career in the field.

Over thirty years later, I still believed my college teachers and was still convinced I had no talent for the visual arts. I’d made a difficult but successful life for myself pursuing other fields, including computers and web development. A series of personal catastrophes in 2005 left me reeling, however, and by 2010 I had reached a very low point. That year, I found myself doodling patterns constantly during meetings, with great fascination. This led me to wonder about drawing mandalas, so I started exploring the idea on the internet. This is how I stumbled onto web sites about zentangles.

I was instantly smitten. The patterns were so cleverly constructed, so easy to draw, and so easy to expand into larger designs that I dropped everything else I was doing and plunged deep into tangling. I drew for long sessions every day, and found that it helped me cope with the heart-wrenching crises that my children and I were facing. And it was also simply… beautiful. I hadn’t drawn anything beautiful since college, and something about this simple act of pen on paper, making graceful lines, seeking visual harmony, resonated deeply within.

Over the next months I started creating my own patterns, started working with color, and I realized I was tapping into a talent that had lain untouched, covered in dust, for thirty years since college. I found the simple joy that I remembered from my childhood, and realized that my teachers in college had been wrong. The world is a very big place with room for many different kinds of art and artists. There was a place for me again.

I continued drawing and painting patterns, and developed a technique to decorate boxes and other objects with my work. I drew dozens of sheets with allover patterns, cut them into strips, and then glued them onto plain cardboard boxes in a sort of cross between crazy-quilting and mosaic tiles. This was around 2012, and I found myself getting curious about exploring art even further. The same little voice in me that had said, “Oh, this is wonderful!” when I first found zentangling was now asking, “What else is out there?” So I began to sketch and draw objects from life and found that it, too, gave me much pleasure. It was like I’d found a long-lost friend after 35 years!

I have since enrolled in art school again, part-time, and two years ago began a demanding but extremely rewarding course of study with a professional oil painter in my area who works and teaches in the traditional practices of the European Old Masters. So I have finally come full circle. I have no idea where this journey will take me in these last decades of my life, but I am content and joyful to have reached where I am. And without the community of you tanglers and pattern-makers out there, I do not think I would have rediscovered these lost parts of myself.

In 2011, I drew and posted a series of step-downs for some of my own patterns and posted them on Flickr, as my thanks to all of you who have shared so much. These are the patterns that Ina has featured this week on your site, and I am honored to have been selected to be among your featured artists.

Favorite art supplies
I am an unabashed pen fanatic, and by this point I have tried probably every permanent black marking device known to man!

  • For outlining patterns, I generally use a fountain pen filled with waterproof black ink (like Platinum Carbon Black), waterproof Uni Signo gel pens in varying sizes, dip pens with India ink, or brush pens (like the Pentel Pocket Brush pen).
  • For graphite shading, I use any good-quality artist pencil, (like Caran D’Ache, Faber Castell, Mars Staedler) in a 4B hardness.
  • For adding color I use two different types of materials. If it’s for a simple display, I usually use watercolor and watercolor pencils. If it’s for pattern sheets that I cut up and reassemble onto objects, I use both standard colored pencils (like Prismacolor or Polychromos) and fluid acrylic paints such as those from Golden. This is because water-based colors can be disturbed by my cutting/gluing/glazing techniques.
  • I prefer to work on lightweight watercolor paper (90 lb. hot press) which accepts ink, graphite, and all types of paint beautifully.
  • I don’t usually use rulers to draw grids or straight lines. I like the irregular, hand-made quality that comes when I draw everything by eye. (That said, there’s nothing wrong with using them! It’s all up to you!)

Five Favorite Patterns
That’s kind of asking me what my five favorite colors are. I love so much of what I see, and can envision so many possibilities in each pattern’s formation, that it’s hard to limit myself to just five. But I guess if I -have- to pick, it would be:

  • Hollibaugh (official ZentangleĀ®)
  • Flutter Tile (Sandy Steen Bartholemew)
  • Ramy (Sandy Steen Bartholemew)

These three patterns taught me the most important principles of drawing and designing tangles by eye without need for rulers, protractors, etc. Then the remaining two are:

  • Venetian
  • Lichen

These are my own designs, and still please me when I sit down and fill a sheet with them. They look far more complicated than they actually are, and they both have a lot of potential for variation in both shading and dark/light contrasts.

Word to Newcomers

If I may offer one bit of advice to those beginning this craft, it is this: Don’t be afraid. As adults, we have been trained to expect instant perfection from ourselves in everything we do. This expectation often hampers our ability to learn new things, because we have endless inner voices that criticize and discourage us. You have to push those voices into a closet and ignore them.

Look, learning is frankly an uncomfortable process. No one likes the feeling of being uncertain. But try to embrace this discomfort as proof that you’re truly growing. The uncertainty shows how you’re reaching for new talents within yourself. And if you doubt you have talents in the first place — remember that is it precisely these untapped talents that called you to tangling in the first place. You wouldn’t be trying this if you didn’t have potential to enjoy it!

And yes, it can be uncomfortable at first. But take pride in every little thing you get right each day. The things that you haven’t figured out yet will fall into place as you keep working. Don’t be afraid of trying new things, and above all, keep working! A little bit every day will do wonders for your development (and will also help keep your mind clear in our crazy, chaotic lives!)

Contact info for Elaine Benfatto
I don’t have much of a website. My old blog (http://urbanspinner.typepad.com) was more related to handspinning and textiles, and I am not updating it any longer. My Flickr account has the full collection of my step-downs as well as albums of my other artwork, including the recent work I’ve done with my painting teacher. Also feel free to email me: ebenfatto at gmail.com. I love chatting about this stuff!

My thanks again to Ina for featuring me on your site. May all your tangles be graceful under your fingers and harmonious to your eye!

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3 thoughts on “Author Focus – Elaine Benfatto

  • June 10, 2016 at 3:06 pm
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    Joy, gratitude and blessings. Thank you for your goodness and wisdom. Continued blessings and love.

    Reply
  • June 10, 2016 at 6:56 pm
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    Hi Elaine… It’s great to see your patterns get renewed recognition. They have always held a special place in my collection.

    Reply
  • June 11, 2016 at 2:46 am
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    Thank you for sharing your story. I can relate to so much of what you said. I have been tangling for a couple of months now and find that it has awakened all kinds of creativity. I am just hoping that arthritis doesn’t steal my joy. I have been overjoyed by all of you who so generously share your art and designs with us

    Reply

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