Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Establishing a Painting Tradition

I’ve never been that much of a painter. My watercolors were really terrible as a kid and I haven’t really tried them since I was twelve. In retrospect I was too impatient as a kid to let layers dry and although some of them started out well, they invariably ended rather badly with lots of unintended purple brown streaks. The one exception I can think of is when I used watercolor merely as a fill-in color to some pencil drawing I’d done and it turned out okay. It was the “medieval illuminated manuscript” birthday card I’d done for my father (I have a whole manuscript/ancient document tradition for his birthday). Actually, I believe my stepmother H “corrected” that one as I always have trouble staying between the lines. Even my own! The one attempted painting I did with oil (well I was nine and my mother had optimistically gotten me some paint by number thing) was something appalling. Actually, I ignored the numbers carefully labeling the under-drawing on the canvas type board and painted a few people (it was supposed to be a landscape). My mother never purchased one of those again.

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.

Here are two overviews of R’s cake:

A detail:

For R’s cake I used all metallic luster powders so in person they all gleamed like matte glittery metal. The effect is, alas, not really apparent in the photos I took. It was a devil’s food cake.

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.”

It seemed kind of hard to draw because leaves are fern-like, but I gave it a go here, using different shades of green to try and get a more realistic feel to the leaves. I can’t say that I succeeded at much more than “evocative” here because, frankly, I’ve had so little practice or mentoring. I definitely need more practice, but it was fun at least getting something that wasn’t embarrassing at least! I had help from friend L, whose hand is barely visible in the picture, in getting the colors a little more right.

Also, this cake design really was more like a watercolor/oil painting because I had to mix shades and overpaint, which I hadn’t really done very much with the cherry blossoms. The flowers came out a bit better than the leaves did in my opinion, probably because I’ve had more practice at sketching flower forms and they’re really the part of the flower that I pay the most attention to anyways. This was actually fun to do and I also used non luster colors so the results were very bright, which is a nice effect! You can see Mr. PB stealing some extra fondant on the side…

D’s cake was a pound cake vanilla number I think she’s liked in past years, a golden buttercream cake.
Finally, although this wasn’t really a painted sketch, I did actually attempt a combination of 3d and painted effects in a really large birthday cake I did for another friend. Friend RK likes purple so I decided to try my hand at purple gumpaste orchids accented with painted stems and decorative accents that were all painted in the same fashion as the previous flowered cakes. I liked the effect of combining the two methods, but I think there are ways I could be more sophisticated about it. That’s really the fun part about making these cakes, with all of them, there’s always a lot of room for improvement and each one contributes something to the next.

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!

Personally, one thing I feel unequivocally positive about is its color, which is magnificently visible below.