Monday, July 27, 2009
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Establishing a Painting Tradition
Having recited that dismal history of my non-illustrious painting past, I do love to draw. I’ve drawn pencil sketches and attempted a few charcoal drawings and lots of pastels, crayons, pens, magic markers, and even sharpies. Mostly what I’ve tended to draw are people. Okay, when I was really little I drew ballet dancers and then I went thru a horses phase although the only part of the horse I was good at was the head. Actually, mostly the part of people that I can sketch with any decency at all is the head up to the shoulders; after that, things get a bit sketchy. Occasionally hopeful friends and family members have purchased various books on anatomy and the human form in the hopes that I will get better at drawing the entire human body. I usually read the books avidly and then still find myself quite unable to draw them. I think it’s because that’s not the part of people that interests me most. It’s not that I don’t admire beautiful body proportions. In fact, I love three dimensional figural sculptures but somehow I just haven’t gotten the hang of it producing it in drawing form. My first impulse doodle is a face, often in profile, and then the face head-on and I’m typically obsessed with hair, which never gets drawn realistically enough for me.
In addition to people I also like sketching flowers and mostly I stick to those subjects. Although once I was required to draw dozens of different types of squirrels using crayons. Perhaps one day I will attempt a squirrel sketch on a cake but only if it’s for friend T, who might appreciate a rodent portrait on his cake!
One thing all of my drawings seem to have in common is that they are messy. The nice interpretation is that they are more evocative of the subject rather than attempting something like a hyper realistic Audubon print.
Of course, cakes are not typically the medium in which one sketches or watercolors, one either does or does not have designs on the surface! The cakes as ceramics turned out okay because the kind of ceramics I was attempting happened to be fairly “messy” themselves so that despite the repetitiveness of the designs, the occasional slip-ups were a little less obvious. I have attempted drawings of flowers on cakes before, such as the poppies in a previous cake, but in that case I was directly painting the wet food coloring on the cake without diluting it with vodka and letting it dry in layers (like water colors) or by mixing the colors themselves as one would in an oil painting. In a sense, these simpler brushed designs can be considered a trial run for the more complicated techniques and designs that I attempted here.
All of my recent attempts involved flowers, which I am relatively comfortable sketching but uncertain at producing exact lines! My first attempt was cherry blossoms and a baby sparrow on a birthday cake for friend R. I picked cherry blossoms for him because I figured he’d like them and they seemed similar in visual effect to other much tinier flowers I’d seen him admire.
Besides, I also have good memories of visiting the cherry blossoms that were originally a gift to the US from Japan in the tidal basin in the DC area with my Japanese grandmother, who was also fond of them and liked the back-story.
I decided to include a fledgling swallow because I had the pleasure of watching four little eggs grow from naked hatchlings to finally fledging on the porch of the laboratory I was staying in this past summer. It was a real treat! And they were really adorably cute, as you can see below.
Here they are as hatchlings.
Here they are as fledglings having just fledged!
So how to put the sketches on the cake? I decided to stick to a familiar method using the same luster dust I’d used in previous cakes and simply use a little bit of vodka as a thinner and paint directly onto the fondant as if it were a canvas. Using just luster dust vodka paint, I knew I could achieve a painted design that would dry.
The next attempt was for friend D. I’ve made ceramic style cakes for her before but this time I wanted to do a flower painting so I asked her which one she liked best. In this case she came up with an answer, the Mexican bird of paradise. Actually, what she really said was, “I don’t know; whatever it is that’s blooming right now, I like those flowers.”
As an aside, I also realized one shouldn’t experiment with a new type of gumpaste that seemed nicer to model but unfortunately far too delicate when dried. I lost about half of the flowers I constructed originally because they were so fragile they broke when I was assembling them in the final stage.
This last cake was red velvet. It's a quintessentially Southern cake, so I've been exposed to it at church potlucks and social events for as long as I can remember. Someday I will devote an entire blog to the subject of red velvet cake. However, my feelings about its origins and its curious sour and sweet flavor are far too complicated to summarize easily, much like my feelings about my birthplace!
Thursday, October 09, 2008
Calendar Stone Cake
This cake is the latest in a string of Mesoamerican monument cakes undertaken here at Cake and Empire. It is also one of my most ambitious to date. Partly this is because the details are extremely unforgiving and there are many different levels of relief to evoke, as the image below can attest!
The stone itself is huge, spanning about 12 meters across. The skill of execution alone is breathtaking. The demonstration of obvious technical prowess combined with many levels of relief carving and a complex design but eye-pleasing design make it one of the most beautiful of the Aztec monuments. It was originally uncovered in the late 18th century in Mexico City (1790) which was built on top of the prehispanic capital of Tenochtitlan. It has been dubbed the Calendar stone because it depicts dates, including the twenty day month signs and the four previous “suns” or universes in the Aztec mythological cycle as represented by earth (jaguar), air, water, and fire. The present age is the fifth sun and is shown emerging from the underworld in the center of the stone.
According to the experts (in my case, Emily Umberger) the stone was probably painted but many mold castings later, the paint is only supposition, though based on known historical examples of painted monuments. She’s seen the stone up close and in person so she told me many details about it that I wouldn’t otherwise have known. For example, there is damage on the central part of the stone on the central “sun face” that isn’t due to taphonomic processes but rather to use wear most likely related to human sacrifice.
Friday, May 30, 2008
Cakes and Miniatures
My step-mother, H, also collects dolls and, more importantly, doll accoutrements. In particular, she collects “playscale” doll stuff (aka, the right size for Barbie) rather than the itsy bitsy miniatures that used to fascinate me as a kid in doll museums. Due to her interest in doll stuff, and her own interest in sculpting doll food she persuaded me to attempt making a miniature replica of a wedding cake I’d recently made. Most of the cakes I’ve done required a certain amount of sculpting so despite my relative inexperience in that art in a non-food medium, I decided to give it a whirl.
H helpfully got me a book on polymer clays and more importantly, she got me some basic tools and clays to get started. Basically, tinfoil can be used as an armature by making tinfoil base "cakes" and then one can treat the clay exactly like fondant and use it to cover and decorate the faux cake.
The first cake I attempted was a version of the art deco and paisley wedding cake sans the paisley elements because I thought they might be too ambitious in something this small. First I made the tinfoil "cakes" and covered them with clay. H helped me roll out the clay and make the tiny round ball borders.
After that I had to make some choices. Although I really liked the original cake topper deco line drawing in royal icing on the wedding cake, I didn't think I could get it to look right at this small a scale. The contrast between the deco lotuses and the teensy line drawing would be significant. I thought something bolder would show up better so I opted for a different design. H can be shown holding her cake just prior to baking so you can get a nice visual sense of playscale.
My dad helped out by making the cake platform. It was a real family affair.
The next miniature I attempted was one of Mr PB's favorites, the daisy cake as seen previously here.
First I added the stems. Then the flowers, color by color.
Finally the finished cake.
The original real cake is below:
And here's the finished clay cake with a better scale, since I muffed the one with the measuring tape.
Finally, I made a miniature of a birthday cake I made for Mr. Pretzel Bender.
Here's Mr. PB's original cake. It was devil's food (what else?) covered in fondant and painted with a metallic blue luster dust with silver fondant damask-pattern like accents.
And the miniature cake below!
I have mixed feelings about making miniature cake replicas. They don't smell good (polymer clay smells like playdoh but saltier), they don't taste good er...can't be eaten.
Tuesday, December 25, 2007
A chacmool is a type of sculpture “in the round” that popped up in Mesoamerican sites over one thousand years ago. As far as I know, they number in a few dozen at most. Their purpose is not entirely clear, though their general iconography combined with a vessel or plate positioned suspiciously over their chests, and their location on or around temples is strongly suggestive of religious offerings and sacrifice.
Chacmools are found in host of different Mesoamerican centers but the two most recognizable ones (and the ones where the largest amounts have been found) are Tula and Chichen Itza. There are differences among chacmools in both execution and iconography, but in general they are stone statues of reclining figures with their knees drawn up and their hands holding a plate or vessel over their chest/stomach area and their heads pulled up as if they are doing a sit-up with their heads facing towards one side. There are variations in clothing although most seem to have loincloths and some kind of necklace or pendant. And they all have similar headgear that appears to reference Tlaloc (the rain god). The level of detail and refinement in the features (for example, the face) also vary a great deal. Of course, some of these could have been plastered and painted originally, which may have afforded a level of detail that is no longer apparent. The eyes and mouth in the examples I’ve seen from Tula are really schematic rather than fleshed out like the Aztec example.
I decided to base my cake on a chacmool from Tula. I had several aesthetic and practical reasons to choose this one. This sculpture appealed to me because it has clean lines with the legs and arms not as detached from the blocky body. Also, to my sensibility it appeared less gawky than the Aztec chacmools and less “leggy” than the one from Chichen Itza (see the comparison again here). But most important of all, it is the only one from Tula that still has a head!
Here’s a picture of the Tula chacmool below.
For a rectangular body, I could simply make a square cake. I used my big square cake pan (the one I typically use for groom cakes) that is 12 x 12 inches. First, I used a two layer cake recipe to make two complete cake layers. Next, I cut each layer in half and stacked three of them on top of each other for the cake body.
You can see the layers stacked below.
Using three layers also made contouring for the feet and shoulders and upper back a lot easier too.
For the head, I took the unused half of one of the layers and used my large biscuit cutter to cut out three cake “rounds” that I could stack atop each other to provide the base for the head. You can see the head layers in the process of being messily iced below. I thought that making a tube shaped base for the head and neck and then sculpting the face separately of fondant and attaching it with plastic straw sections would achieve something closer to the appearance of the original sculpture.
I ended up using a combination of appliqué and molding to get the look of the body. I decided to stick with the basically smooth white fondant rather than coloring it grey and making irregular pockmarks (in imitation of the basalt rock used to make the original). I suppose it was an aesthetic choice since I am going for an overall look rather than an exact replica in this case. You can see the body below prior to the attachment of the head.
I attached the head using plastic straws (two) inserted into the cake body and head for stability. You can see it completed and “in situ” below immediately prior to munching.
The initial cut depicting the cake’s stratigraphy.
Here’s a view from the top. I toyed with the idea of putting a faux heart on top of the vessel clasped between the two hands but nixed it in the end. It seemed too obvious and I'm not sure anyone there would have wanted to eat a giant fondant candy heart so it would have gone to waste.
Finally, a picture of me holding the disembodied head after the rest of the chacmool cake had been demolished. I gave it to my committee chair, who else?
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
Cakes as Ceramics
Blue Delft I’ve tried for a few years with very limited success. I can’t say that I ever got even close in color when I tried using the “brushed embroidery” look with royal icing. I got a better Blue Delft look when I tried it on my cake printer using one of the plate designs (altered to get the colors a little clearer) on my own birthday cake this year. I used the kind of rolled fondant (Fondx) that tastes good and can produce a wonderful lustrous smooth surface.
You can see it below.
Actually, I used a modern version of a Talavera (a Mexican glazed ceramic) plate for inspiration. Talavera is neither Chinese nor porcelain, it is earthenware, meaning it was fired at much lower temperatures than true porcelain and does not include the requisite feldspar which was the secret sauce for the real thing. Talavera is the Mexican version of the Spanish maijolicas (glazewares) that dates to colonial times. The modern Talavera plate I used had a non-traditional heron bird in its center, in addition to the almost “busy” blue paint designs in the shape of plant like fronds and drops that seem to take up all the available space in the Talavera style.
I wanted the craqueleure look of some china (real porcelain supposedly doesn’t develop the fine cracks that are due firing temperature differentials) and figured that quick pour fondant was the way to go. Quick pour fondant is a kind of sugar glaze typically flavored with almond and the most common decoration of petit fours, those little rectangular cakes covered in frosting that are sweet enough to make your teeth hurt.
The surface cracked up nicely (barely visible but still there) and it was nice and smooth and shiny, just like I had hoped. You can see the slight cracking below.
For the painted design, I opted to use paste food coloring. Paste food coloring is highly concentrated edible (or at least non-toxic) pigment that appears (from the ingredient list) to be suspended in some combination of glycerin and corn syrup. It is used in lieu of liquid food coloring because it does not alter the composition of the dough or icing like water would. It doesn’t really go bad though it can get “gummy” in texture over time.
You can see the design and the cake up close below.
The one above is still my favorite decorated cake, but I don’t always like using a fondant glaze, so I tried out a variation on the painted ceramic theme a year later on a rolled fondant surface.
Once again, I painted a poppies design directly onto the cake’s surface. I didn't use a ceramic tradition directly to inspire this one, although I am fond of the poppy designs seen on some lacquer vessel work done in metal and glass. I used the food paste colors to paint the design. This is an ultimately flawed approach (although the colors are vivid) because as far as I know, they don’t dry. At least, probably not in the time that it takes to eat the cake. So, they may leave more color than I would like on the cake eaters themselves than I would like! Plus, if you make a mistake, you can’t really wipe it off and try again. The dye is VERY strong.
I made them for the same person, friend R, so he’s probably used to it by now…still, I wanted improvement.You can see the poppies here. The very nice script was not produced by me but by a fellow friend of R’s who, as you can see, has exquisite handwriting!
As an aside, I found out later that the Wilton baking Product Company had some product called “brush-on-color” available in rather bright shades for fondant application via stamps or brushes that would presumably dry. However, I didn’t care for their shades and I think they may be discontinued, so I wanted another solution for establishing a painting tradition on fondant covered cakes.
I decided to try a solution that I had used earlier on the UFO and Dalek cakes to apply metallic powder colors to fondant by painting them on in a vodka solution. The vodka evaporates leaving behind the paint. Why not for designs and regular colors? I figured they must have powder colors for practically every shade. They did. So I purchased a few for my next ceramic project.
By way of background, the two names refer to a region and a center, respectively. The Chalco region is the area in the southeastern Basin of Mexico that produced highly decorated elaborate polychromes in the Postclassic period. Cholula is a large site in central Puebla that has a lengthy occupational period, was known as a prehispanic religious/pilgrimage site, and also produced distinctive highly decorated elaborate polychromes that appear to have seen wider trade in the Postclassic period (time of the Aztecs, roughly speaking). The reason two names are attached to this particular ceramic type is because it is apparently difficult to distinguish vessels from the Chalco region from vessels from Cholula (though I imagine chemical sourcing helps). Here are some examples I used for inspiration.
The polychromes in question also apply a distinctive painting technology that involves double slipping. Slipping is a solution of clay and other minerals (often for color and surface treatments) added to water that is thin enough to be poured over the surface of already formed and partially dried clay vessels. Double slipping is exactly what it sounds like, pouring a second layer of slip on top of a previous slipped and dried layer.
Next I applied the painted designs using powdered red and black pigments. The designs were based on actual Chalco/Cholula Polychromes from a museum collection.
Side design elements added below.
Top design elements added below. I made the white circles by scraping off the orange paint and filling in the middle with red paint. That technique appeared to get the best approximate look of the ceramic designs from the photos.