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This past January I was staying with friends in Baltimore who took it upon themselves to educate me about their city. They drove me through beautiful neighborhoods, fed me legendary donuts, told me stories of departed mayors and fallen families, and after dark led me through secret doors of hidden cocktail emporiums. Naturally a visit to the Baltimore Museum of Art was also in order, to see the Cone Sisters’ Collection and catch a glimpse of something else interesting and beautiful. Since the museum was flying banners about the final days of their Matisse/Diebenkorn  exhibition—which had been a smash hit of a show for them—none of us needed convincing.

Left: Matisse, Red Room (Harmony in Red), 1908
Right: Diebenkorn, Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad, 1965

If Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993) is new to you, or you’re unsure what to make of his giant abstractions, to walk through this show is to see him explain himself through his enthusiasm for Henri Matisse (1869-1954). Hung side by side with the more familiar canvases by the older painter, Diebenkorn’s paintings make perfect sense. You begin to understand the language he is speaking; you see that many of them are answers to the same questions that Matisse was asking about what to paint and how to paint it. It’s a big show: 92 paintings and drawings with lots of visual room around each one so you can share the space with your fellow art lovers, and think about the comparison you are being offered. The curators succeed in making you feel smarter about everything you’ve seen, which is of course, the point. (If you are interested in more detail about the show, there are a number of reviews online, but you can start with the exhibit’s website. Naturally, the best thing you can do is to get to the show, now at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, before it closes on May 29, and I urge you to do so if you are lucky enough to be in the area.)

Left: Matisse, The Yellow Dress, 1931
Right: Diebenkorn, Seated Figure with Hat, 1965

I loved the show. I found it beautiful. And inspirational. I had already become interested in Richard Diebenkorn due to a conversation I had at Rhinebeck last October with Brooke Sinnes, the natural dyer and yarn designer behind Sincere Sheep yarns, when she told me Diebenkorn was one of her touchstones. She’d grown up with a large poster of Ocean Park 79 in her living room, and that painting had remained a favorite. Inclined as we both are to turn every conversation to textiles, we had brainstormed about the creative possibilities to be found in his later paintings—the Ocean Park series—and how pretty any one of them would be if someone took the time to transcribe it into knitting. As I often look at art and wonder in textile terms about the fabrics worn by the portrait sitter, or the rug draped over the table, or if the painting itself would make a nice fabric design, this just seemed natural and obvious.

So, in the final room of the Matisse/Diebenkorn show, finding myself in front of Brooke’s favorite painting, I was entranced by all of the blues, so many of them familiar to me from Brooke’s own range of colors, many of them waiting at home for me in a box of Cormo she had recently sent. One thing became immediately apparent: I had to see if our knitting theory would work. I pulled out the highly technical note pad I keep in my purse for such occasions and I made a highly technical drawing, complete with row counts.

When I got home, I knit what I had drawn.

Which, given a simple rotation, is obviously this:

The swatch is only about 8 inches wide, but I am quite smitten with this as an audition for a larger shawl. I can’t claim that this is an original design (although I am rather proud of myself for that running stitch of red) but rather, quite literally, a transcription of a work of art in a new medium, matching the color and proportion of the original. The twist is to see the painting as a map for knitting.

Canvas for canvas, the Matisse/Diebenkorn show demonstrates that when an artist looks at another artist, there’s an impulse to respond. Diebenkorn pursued Matisse because the older painter’s work unfailingly excited his own creativity, and drove him to become a better painter, culminating in a few of the Ocean Park series represented by a handful of those canvases in the final room. Brooke’s favorite, number 79, was the exclamation point at the end. It seems the logical consequence of all that had come before, and is the show’s summation statement. Standing in front of Ocean Park 79 in real life, I had a new appreciation for it. I liked it even more for a lot of new Matisse-inflected reasons. And the show’s overriding thesis made me feel quite comfortable—as an artist—with knitting my own response.

And so I did.

In the MDK Shop
A palette of 28 colors to “paint” your own masterpiece. Thanks for your purchases. They make everything possible here at MDK.
By Rowan

About The Author

As a blogger, writer, teacher, lecturer, designer, and catalyst in the knitting world, Julia Farwell-Clay has for the past ten years dug herself ever deeper into the world of textile traditions and personal decoration. She is the designer of all of the patterns in Modern Daily Knitting Field Guide No. 7: Ease, and  has been published as both a writer and a designer in Knitty, Interweave Knits, PomPom Quarterly, and Twist Collective, among others.


  • I saw the show in San Francisco, and it is stunning.

  • Diebenkorn lived in our current house (in SF) as a child! It is in the Ingleside neighborhood – another of his series of paintings. Looking forward to seeing the show soon.

  • Thank you for this. Like the museum curators, Julia makes me feel smarter and more aware of what I’m seeing.

    • I agree. I’ve been thinking about Mondrian while knitting the Brambling shawl. This has opened up a world of possibilities. From now on I will be thinking, “Can I knit that?”

  • I have seen the show twice at SFMOMA. I’m looking forward to seeing for a 3rd time. It’s a must see.

  • It was a wonderful exhibit and I am so intrigued by your response. It demonstrates the difference between an appreciator of art and an artist like yourself. That red line is very special!

  • Brilliant!

  • I love your swatch. Thank you for introducing me to an artist I wasn’t familiar with.

  • i saw the show at the sfmoma and i loved it! color, light, subject – all gorgeous.

  • I would buy a full-size-shawl pattern of Ocean Park 79 in a hot minute. I love the translation of the painting into knitting.

  • I am a painter by profession. A few years ago, I realized I was having more fun with the crafting projects than with my oils on canvas. So I took a year off to pursue a painting process that mimicked what I loved about the crafting process. The result was a big change in my work and a lot more satisfaction.

    I love this piece, thank you, Julia. And to hear that Brooke is inspired by Diebenkorn makes total sense when I think of her gorgeous watery hues. Makes me even more determined to get myself some of her yarn soon.

    Fun bit of trivia: Supposedly, Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series was inspired by how the broken glass in his studio windows fractured and divided up his view. Who knows for sure, but I think of that every time I see one of the pieces.

  • Oh PLEASE oh PLEASE make this into a pattern! I have had a long admiration for both of these artists and just had a beloved friend and her daughter come to San Francisco for the exhibition. We were all smitten and inspired. How perfect would it be for me to knit them our experience for Christmas? You are a blessing!

  • I used to live in Ocean Park one block from Diebenkorn’s old studio. He loved the light in So Cal. Hence the Ocean Park series. Love your interpretation.

  • A nice article and I’m looking forward to seeing this show in SF which is close to my home. I would also be interested in seeing the pattern you create from this show!

  • Very interesting shawl idea! I would like to see it knitted in a sock or sport weight in graduated colors so that the depth of the painting shows up but without the definition of color. Obviously the small sample reads as being done with a bulkier than bulky yarn . I think the full size shawl will be lovely — go for it!

  • I love this post and I love the exhibit I was fortunate to see here in San Francisco. I think I’ll go back. I’m so eager to try a version of my own painting to knit/crochet that it hurts.

  • I love the swatch but I also want to take your friend’s tour of Baltimore! I’ve been here a few years and feel like I barely know anything about it, it sounds lovely!

  • On my way to SF TOMORROW (!!!!!!!) specifically to see this show! Cannot wait!

  • Love it all!

  • I also saw the exhibit at the BMA. I’ve been to a lot of museums all over the world, and this was one of the best exhibits I’ve ever seen. It was a pleasure.

    Lemon, drive around Roland Park and then drink at WC Harlan.

  • Love this and I’m thinking how beautiful it would be in lace weight for a summer shawl/wrap.

  • I was blown away by the exhibit in Baltimore. My husband came along just because and he wound up talking about it the entire 90 minute drive home. Lovely work you are doing there. Can’t wait to see how it progresses!

  • I was so inspired by this show at SFMOMA. The way this exhibit was curated taught me so much about color, form and how one artist can influence and inspire another. Often I allow my creativity to get stuck for fear of copying another’s work – this show and your post invites all of us to let go of our fear and to allow inspiration to flow from one creative person to another and to trust that our work will be our work. So grateful for your article and for your knitting swatch and scarf!

  • I just saw this show in San Francisco on Thursday. It’s fabulous. I am so inspired by his use of color and the proportion of colors.

  • Susan Saari of Sisu Designs in Ely MN used to have us do a similar exercise with Georgia O’Keefe paintings at knitting retreats held at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. Thanks for the wonderful post to refresh those memories and reinspire my color knitting!

  • I love this! It reminds me of another knitting designer inspired by art: Virginia Catherall. Most of her designs are inspired by nature, but a painting inspired the striping pattern of her Jasmine Sidewinder Stole (available on Ravelry). I do love the cross-fertilization of inspiration from different sources!

  • I saw the show here in Baltimore and loved it. I am a weaver as well as a knitter and I kept seeing tapestries with all those huge canvases in the Ocean Park series. This post reminded me to look up my notes from my visit, and Ocean Park #79 was a favorite. I am inspired to weave a small tapestry response to it–but I do love your knit design. At the very least the paintings inspire us to play more with color. The show was very inspirational. Anyone near San Francisco should check it out.

  • Love Diebenkorn. Love your interpretation. Feeling inspired.

  • Still blown away by that Baltimore show and your shawl inspiration. Is there -pretty please- a chance there might be a pattern for this? I’m inspired by your Picket Fence and Metronome technique. If not a shawl, then a baby blanket or Afghan using Ocean Park #79 colors and design. The colors are so beautiful!
    Signed Hopeful!

  • Another museum show that I feel bad about missing! This puts me in mind of one I was able to visit some years ago at the Met that featured Matisse’s collection of textiles used in his paintings and that he had designed for the chapel in Vence. I love that you shared this. Thanks!

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