Artist Dani Ives in her studio in Rogers, Arkansas. Ives has developed techniques for creating true-to-life images that are “painted” with wool.
Photos courtesy of Dani Ives.
Some artists paint with watercolors, some with acrylics, and others with oils. Arkansas needle felter Dani Ives paints with wool.
Her portraits of animals and humans, as well as her more abstract works, have created a demand for both custom commissioned portraits and how-to workshops.
An unexpected background
Ives’s realistic felted images appear to come from a formally trained artist with many expert classes under her belt. To that, she says, “I wish!”
Besides a few art classes in high school, she is completely self-taught. After studying biology, she worked as a wildlife conservation educator while dabbling in drawing and painting. She tried acrylics and oils, but nothing really stuck.
In 2010, a colleague introduced her to 3-D needle felting, and it was the wool that captured her imagination. After creating three-dimensional figurines, she started experimenting with two-dimensional felting, finding it “way more artistically fulfilling.”
Her love of animals and nature is apparent in all her work. She started by creating less realistic renderings of her subjects but then began challenging herself to see how close to reality she could get by manipulating wool. At the time, there were few examples on the market of flat needle felting, and most of those were all on wool felted backgrounds. Ives found that attaching her felted images to woven fabric allowed for more control.
A tipping point came in 2011 when she started creating pet portraits. Her skills were in such demand that she was doing 20-30 portraits a month (in less detail than she does now). That was when she realized that she could replace her conservation educator income with art income.
A selection of animal wool felt portraits by Dani Ives.
After honing her craft, Ives began teaching local workshops, then branched out into traveling, and finally into creating online courses. Her ten years of experience in conservation education served her well as she began to teach fiber arts.
A skeptical non-artistic interviewer might ask, “How do you teach a non-artist to create wool art?” She assures her students that it’s not actually necessary to be skilled at drawing in order to achieve satisfactory results. Her technique involves transferring an image onto fabric by first pinning a printed image on top of the background fabric, then poking a series of holes through the pattern into the fabric to outline the subject.
The next step is to break down the image into different steps or layers of color including an overall mid-tone, a highlight, and a shadow, allowing the artist to see and create depth in the portrait. It may sound overwhelming to a novice, but the success of her online courses and the increasing popularity of this type of felting indicates that she can, indeed, teach these techniques to any willing participant.
It can be difficult for a beginner to know where to start with needle felting. Supplies are the biggest barrier to entry. What kind of wool to buy? What size and type of felting needle? What background fabric? Ives offers a Painting with Wool Needle Felting Starter Kit that includes all the materials that she uses and helps the novice avoid costly mistakes.
Ives’s book, Painting with Wool, was published by Abrams in 2019. It features how-tos for beginners, including materials and basic techniques, as well as three sections of projects for beginner, intermediate, and advanced felters.
Ives with her wool felt self-portrait.
Ives has two studio spaces. One is a bedroom in her home where she keeps all the supplies she uses, as well as kit supplies. It’s a true lived-in artist’s working space – that is, tidy but not Instagram-worthy – filled with shelves of colorful wool batting and roving, and an ironing board and iron always at hand. It’s where she does all her commission work, her live workshops; and where she films her courses. And she admits that yes, some of those supplies have spilled over into the dining room, which has turned into a shipping station.
The second space is newer. When she was awarded an artist residency last year, she realized that she needed a space away from her home, a place that would allow her to focus on a specific project. This appealing, brightly painted studio near her home in Rogers, Arkansas is where she does her more experimental work, her “dream projects”. During that residency she created her favorite piece to date, titled They Carry Stories on Their Wings.
A working artist
What does a working artist do every day? Ives says that she tends to work in huge blocks of time she called “seasons” which don’t necessarily work in step with the seasons of the year. During the course of a year, she will go through a period of mostly art-making or mostly course-making. When I interviewed her in late July, she was finishing a lot of commissions. Ives runs a Facebook group for her Best Portrait Course, which requires some attention and, of course, there is some business admin required every day.
She learned the hard way that she needs to limit the amount of time she spends actively felting. Gripping a needle for hours at a time is not healthy, so she restricts herself to an hour at a time, with perhaps two or three sessions of felting on what she calls “a heavy art day”. She tries to get to that second studio two or three afternoons a week for several hours, to get away from the admin side of the business and to feed her artistic soul.
The evolution of an artist
It’s clear that Ives’ self-education has been extensive, despite her lack of formal art training. After developing her art skills in wool, she went back and started dabbling in paint. She keeps a sketchbook, which she finds is more convenient that trying to carry around felting supplies. Her website includes a few original paintings, as well art prints and original designs.
Recently her local community announced a contest for public artists to apply to design the center of 25 roundabouts. These roundabouts will be constructed over the next ten years to replace four-way intersections. Ives submitted a resume and sketches, and she was picked as one of only five artists chosen to design five roundabouts each. Her botanical designs will be constructed in concrete, which will cement her reputation as a public artist, as well as a fiber artist!
Edie Eckman is a knit and crochet author, designer, teacher, blogger and technical editor with more than 25 years of experience in the yarn industry. Find her at www.edieeckman.com.