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!