Forest Thrones, Part 16: Final Pictures, or, Hallelujah, Part Two

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I can’t believe I wrote this post way back when I finished these trees, and then never published it. What an idiot I am sometimes. Anyway, here are some final pictures of the finished trees. I still don’t have really good pictures of all of them, so you may see more pictures later on.

Now that they’re finished, I have one final secret to share with you. Each tree has a tiny door in the back of the trunk. I sculpted the doors in paperclay, painted them and applied the stoops or steps when I was adding the grass and mushrooms and stuff. Is it a doorway to Faeryland? Or does someone have the nerve to live right under the faery king’s… er… nose? I’ll let you decide.

Thanks for following me on this ridiculously long journey. I’m really happy with how these came out and I’ve loved every single response I’ve gotten. I hope you’ve learned something that will be useful to you in future, and I hope you’ll tune in to this space for more projects coming up!

Index of Forest Thrones posts is here.


Forest Thrones, Part 15: Silk Seats

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Hallelujah! The trees are finally finished! I’m so happy to get them off my desk. My painting desk looks so big now.

I did two more things to them before they were finished. First, I made cushions for the seats. The seats were originally pretty perfectly round, but since, as I’m sure you know by now, I’m very stupid, I overlapped the branches over the seat a little, resulting in each seat being off round just a little bit — and each of them being different. Sigh. I had this idea of these beautiful, neatly tailored little silk velvet cushions with perfectly smooth sides. Yeah. Those of you who have worked with silk velvet before can stop laughing now.

No, I mean it. Stop laughing.

I started by making a pattern for each seat cushion. I also labeled them and the seats so I wouldn’t get them mixed up. I had read somewhere that silk velvet was kind of slippery (STOP laughing!), so I ironed it onto freezer paper. Then I traced the seat patterns plus some seam allowance onto the freezer paper. I traced the seat twice so I’d have a bottom and a top.

Can you see my mistake yet? Keep looking. That’s right, I didn’t reverse the pattern for the bottom of the seat. Sigh again. Naturally, I had cut them all out before I realized my mistake. I had more fabric, but it was late and I didn’t feel like cutting out more pieces, so I decided to punt. I roughly measured the length of the side pieces, which turned out to be close enough to the length of my fabric that I didn’t need to measure. Then I carefully marked and cut inch-wide strips.

Due to the difficulty of working with silk velvet, I had to pin the side strips onto the top piece, hand baste them together, and then sew them. About four times each. Sigh again. On about the last one, I figured out it would get less gathered and bumpy and messy if I sewed them with the top piece underneath, rather than the sides. It turns out, you need to make five or six cushions to get the hang of it.

Notice there are only four cushions.

After I finished that — or maybe before or somewhere in the middle, I don’t remember — I used my patterns to cut cushions out of upholstery foam. Now, if I’d had proper bottoms for my cushions, I’d have pinned, basted and sewn the bottoms to the sides just like the tops, leaving an open space in the back so I could turn them and insert the cushions. Since I’d screwed up the bottoms, though, I ended up just gluing the sides of the covers to the underside of each cushion. I’d already established that they were going to look gathered and messy, and gluing them kind of enhanced this effect. I have been assured by my husband and my best friend, who are both apparently experts on fairies, that real fairies would rather have messy cushions than perfectly formal ones anyway. Who am I to argue?

So the chairs are finished. Oh, wait, the second thing I did was to add feet. While I was working with them, I discovered that just moving them around under normal use caused the paint to chip off the underside of the trees. This is bad, not just because it damages the trees but also because it might damage the surface they were sitting on. I decided to add felt furniture footies, but the logical places to put them, the bottoms of the roots, weren’t wide enough. So I made little feet out of air-dry clay, let them dry, and painted them before applying the footies with Goop glue. They’re not going anywhere.

I was going to do the big reveal in this post, but honestly it’s too long already. So check back in a couple of days to see the final product!

Index of Forest Thrones posts is here.


Forest Thrones, Part 14: Leafing Out

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Okay, slowly but surely I’ve been working on my little trees. Now I have a deadline so it’s going to become fast and furious. There are only two steps left (well, three, actually) and they’ll be completely done!

Here’s how they look now:

(That one on the end has been finished for months; I finished it up so I could show it off to people.)

I would love to be able to say that these trees represent a specific variety, like oak or rowan or something romantic like that, but the fact is, because I am very, very lazy, I used the leaves from a silk garland I had lying around, and this one with the generic leaves was the only one that seemed appropriate in scale. I pulled the leaves off one by one (well, okay, they’re in clusters of three, but one cluster at a time), and glued them on each branch. If I hadn’t had a garland, I would probably have used a leaf-shaped paper punch from the scrapbooking department and at least two shades of green paper, maybe in vellum or some other translucent variety.

At first, it always seems like they’re going to be so sparse I’ll have to go back and fill in later, but then when they’re done they look just fine. There are about 73 twigs per tree, in case you were wondering. I counted.

I originally tried to use white glue for the leaves, but it turns out that silk leaves are actually made of nylon, and instead of behaving like a porous material that should adhere to white glue, it acts like a non-porous plastic. So, basically, everywhere I took the first one I finished, little leaves dropped off it and fluttered to the ground like in Lothlorien. I ended up taking all the leaves off that one, touching up the paint on the branches, and then reattaching them with Goop (because I couldn’t find the e-6000 glue at the store). That seems to have done the job.

While I was working with these trees, I realized the paint was rubbing off the bottoms of them as they got moved around. So I decided to add some feet and some felt furniture sliders to protect them and whatever surface they end up living on. I’ll include some pictures of that process next.

Next up: Sewing the cushions! Silk velvet and upholstery foam galore!  Expect more reports before the end of the week.

Index of Forest Thrones posts is here.


Forest Thrones, Part 13: Making the Grass Grow

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So, when last we saw my trees, I had just finished drybrushing them. The next step in this endless tree project is to add the details. I’m going to make some details out of paperclay, and then I’m going to make grass out of raffia and apply silk leaves.

This particular tree has a long, shallow space on the front of the base, so I decided to add some shelf fungus to add interest without taking up any room. I sculpted them in paperclay and added them with white glue. I think this project has at least four kinds of glue on it.

(That’s not a spider in the picture. I’m not sure what it is, but I think I would remember a spider.)

After the paperclay dried, I painted it up and then I added a mushroom, also sculpted from paperclay.

(See? No spider.)

The mushroom is also attached with white glue. I thought I might have to drill some room to add a pin inside the mushrooms, to hold them on better, but actually they’re so small that white glue has done the job perfectly.

Now, for the really good part. I figured this technique out a long time ago. I take raffia (which, ironically, is made from a kind of grass, I think) and cut it up into the right lengths for grass. It looks like this:

No, those are not dried up old green beans.

Then, after cutting, I peel narrow little strips off until I have grass-like shapes.

I make a pile of those, and then I put a lot of white glue on the base.

Then I add the blades of grass, one at a time. I know, it seems like you should be able to do a bunch at a time, but it never looks right when I do it that way. I pat the grass into the glue with a tool; this time I’m using a piece of bamboo skewer. Technically, a toothpick probably would have worked better, but I’m just too lazy to go look for one when there’s a bamboo skewer right here.

Rinse and repeat until you get all the way across the base.

After the grass is rooted, I mix a little green and yellow paint and quickly paint the grass so that it isn’t the same color all over.

Hmmm…. apparently I failed to take any pictures of the grass when it was all done. Here’s a photo of another niche with painted grass and a couple of paperclay rocks.

That’s all for now — next time I’ll show you how I apply the leaves.

Index of Forest Thrones posts is here.


Forest Thrones, Part 11: Drybrushing

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I suddenly remembered I hadn’t painted the undersides of the trees, so I took a moment to do that.

I also went over the trees, filling in the worst of the gaps in the texture with paperclay. I also filled in around the bottom so it looks properly attached to the ground, and the place where the roots overhang the edges of the base so they would be nice and flat on the bottom. Once I add a little gloss, it’ll look amazing.

Now I want to show you how to drybrush a sculpture. Drybrushing is a technique that uses layers of paint to emphasize the features of a texture. It mimics the way light and shadows fall on something full-sized.

First, you need to gather your tools and supplies. Drybrushing is hard on brushes, so you want to use an old, cheap, or previously damaged brush.  A large, flat brush is a good choice, but really, whatever you have that you don’t mind getting messed up. Then, select a paint for your tree. The paint that you want to be the overall impression of color for your tree (in art we say that it “reads” a certain color) is going to be the middle tone. After you choose that color, you need to choose (or mix) a darker color and a lighter color. You want the darker and lighter colors to be shades of the middle color or as close to it as you can manage. (Go ahead and use black to mix your darker color. I would probably argue that it’s a cool color too, but it’s okay for the darker shade to be cooler than the others. Cool colors tend to fade to the back.)

Now, start with the basecoat. Take your darker color and paint the entire piece thoroughly. With a high texture like I have on my tree bark, I watered the paint down a little so it would go into the crevices easier, and I had to do several coats to get all the little white cracks and holes. But trust me, you want to do that now because it’ll be a pain in the neck to do it later.

The second coat is your true color. The one you want everyone to think your tree is colored. Put a little paint on your brush, then work it in by “painting” on your palette until your brush is loaded all the way through. Then, wipe off most of the paint. You want your brush to be almost “dry,” hence the term “drybrushing.” When your brush is ready, start painting by dragging your brush lightly from top to bottom, or whichever direction your light source is coming from, letting it put paint only on the peaks and plateaus of your texture. Think of it this way: the dark color is the shadowed areas. Now you’re painting everything that isn’t a shadow. You’ve probably drybrushed before, on accident, when you were running out of paint on your brush. This is the same idea.

Here’s my piece after the middle coat:

Now, you might think this looks pretty good, but we’re not done yet. Now you take the third color and, using the same drybrushing technique, paint another coat. This time, you’re only trying to paint the parts of the texture that are high enough to be highlighted by your light source, so make sure it’s a lighter coat (in the sense of covering less territory). Like so:

I’ve been doing this for years, but I still get a kick out of how it breathes life into a dull paint job. The photo doesn’t convey as much depth as the piece has.

As an aside, do you see what I mean about the instant papier mache making the perfect texture for faux dirt? If I wanted to be even more realistic, I’d probably mix some other colors into my base coat, like a yellow ochre or black. But I’m going to cover all this up with grass, so I don’t need to get that realistic.

That’s it for today. More pictures of trees next time, I promise.

Index of Forest Thrones posts is here.


Forest Thrones, Part 10: Lies Your Art Teacher Told You

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Okay, I FINALLY got all those little branches sculpted. So now we move on to the next step: painting.

First, I want to discuss some color theory with you, because color theory freaks out a lot of crafters who don’t have a fine art background. The first thing you should know is that this is art, not science. There are no wrong answers, just ones that don’t suit your needs. So relax.

When you were in fourth or fifth grade, you probably learned about the color wheel, and the primary, secondary and tertiary colors, right? Your teacher probably told you that you make brown by mixing a primary color with its complement. This is the first lie I want to expose.

In a theoretically perfect world, you probably can make brown by mixing complementary colors. The problem is that you can’t make paint out of theory. Paint uses pigments that come from natural things, like earth or plant matter, or chemical processes, and nobody told the earth (or your chemistry set) that it needed to make a pure blue or a true yellow. Earth has better things to do anyway. So most pigments are not true, primary colors. The result being that if you mix a color with its complement, you will most likely get a nasty, warm, troll-snot gray.

But there’s some good news. Remember I said pigments are made from earth? And what color is most earth? Brown. There are lots of brown-pigmented shades of paint that are cheap and easy to get ahold of. If you insist on mixing your own (or the mental institution will only let you have five tubes of paint), the best way to get a nice, warm brown is to mix black with orange. The brightest tangerine orange you can get will work best. (And by the way, this advice may not apply to media other than paint, such as colored pencils or even ink, but it should apply to all types of paint, since most of them use the same kinds of pigments.)

Now let’s talk about the second lie your misguided art teacher told you (give her a break, she went to college for four years so she could scrub tempera paint out of her hair every night!).  You probably learned that there are warm colors, cool colors and neutrals. Warm colors are the ones that make you think about fire: yellow, red, and orange. Cool colors make you think of the ocean: blue, green, and purple. Neutral colors are mainly black and white, though some people classify brown as a neutral as well.

The truth is, warm and cool isn’t nearly so well-defined. Sure, yellow is always warm and blue is always cool (except in relation to other shades of themselves), but you can have a warm red or a cool red. You can have a cool green or a warm green. And brown can be either warm or cool. Warm browns have undertones of red or orange, while cool browns have undertones of blue, purple or gray. In fact, one way you can think of it is as a continuum, with terra cotta on one end and gray on the other. Warm browns, on the terra cotta end, will blend almost seamlessly into a true red, while on the cool end they blend to gray (remember our troll-snot gray we got from mixing complementary colors? Here’s where it belongs).

Cool browns are really ugly. Really slimy mud and baby poop are usually cool brown. Hot cocoa is one of the few nice things that  are cool brown. I tried to get some cool brown paint at the craft store to show you, but out of scores of different colors they only had a couple of bottles that I would consider a really cool brown, and they were so dark, it was hard to determine whether they were warm or cool. Ugly paint doesn’t market well, I suppose. Plus, it’s really easy to make a cool brown, as we will discuss below.

The other part of this lie is that black and white are true neutrals. Maybe they are, in the sense that they don’t clash with any other colors, but if you are mixing paint, let me tell you a secret. Never, ever, ever, lighten a warm color with white. Not if you want the end result to stay warm. You lighten warm colors by adding yellow. You can use a really light yellow that’s mostly white, but the more white you add, the cooler your color will get until you get back to troll-snot (will somebody get that troll a hanky? Please?).

I made a color chart for you below. The darker color is a cool brown and the lighter color is a warm brown. I hope you can see, as I lightened them, that one has kind of a purpley undertone and the other is mostly orange. (You really have to develop an eye for that with practice. I can’t tell you any tricks to it.) To prove my point about white being a cool color, I lightened each color by mixing it with white and then with yellow. As you can see, even the cool brown came out warm after being mixed with yellow, and the warm brown turned into a cool gray when mixed with white.

Finally, let’s talk about trees. You need to decide if your tree came from a happy, warm, bunny-filled summer forest; or a creepy, chilly, fog-filled winter forest. You want to use a warm brown for the former and a cool brown for the latter. I’m going to drybrush my trees to maximize their texture, but I’ll get into that in the next post.

I hope this little intro to color theory hasn’t freaked you out too much. I’m really not an expert on these things — I just have a two-bit art degree and the experience of being a graphic designer and crafter for more years than I’m likely to admit here — it just pains my heart when I hear people fret about color theory, because it’s really easy, and you really can’t do it wrong. You just need to experiment and develop your own judgment, taste and style.

Index of Forest Thrones posts is here.


Forest Thrones, Part 9: Progress is Slow

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Not much to report. There just isn’t a fast way to do the paperclay on the branches.

I wish I could be more informative on this part of the tutorial, but it really is just trial and error, and if you have some previous sculpting skill, like I do, that helps a lot.

So, to give you something to look at, here is a picture of the tools I’m using. The metal ones are wax carving tools. The big paddle is good for slapping paperclay on the big branches and for making the lines in the bark. The little one is better for maneuvering in small places. Wax sculpting tools are a bit hard to find, so if you don’t have any, you could probably get some good results with a plastic spoon or a palette knife. I also use the smallest knitting needles I can get as sculpting tools.

The paintbrush is an old cheap one with stiff bristles, so I’m using it to add texture to the smooth branches.

Finally, I recently received the silk velvet for the seat cushions and I’ve been dying to share it with someone. It’s so yummy! I ordered it from Silkfabric on Etsy, and I couldn’t be happier. I will probably be cursing it when I actually try to work with it, but right now I just can’t get over how pretty it is!

Index of Forest Thrones posts is here.


Forest Thrones, Part 8: Bark Texture

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Sorry I’ve been on hiatus; real life attacked me.

First, I wanted to show you a picture of my setup. When I’m working on a relatively large, detailed project like this, I use an old lazy susan to keep my desk clean and to let me turn it without touching it. Furthermore, I find that after focusing on anything table-height for very long, my neck starts to hurt, so I use a big block of basswood to raise the project to my eye level.

So I’ve gotten the trees to the point where they’re ready for their actual faux bark skins. The trunk part of the tree will be covered in Sculptamold, a product made of instant paper mache and plaster of paris. I intended to make the bark texture using a technique I learned a while ago from my friend Mary West, but I made a mistake. You see, it’s a little tricky mixing the Sculptamold, and the first batch didn’t have enough water, so it dried out before I could get the texture done. Sooooo… I decided to do two of them that way (so everyone would think I did it on purpose) and do the texture on the other two.

Here’s how the texture works. It’s very simple. You just take an old fork (you can get them at the thrift store for cheap) and draw lines in the wet Sculptamold.  Make all the lines going generally up and down, but make sure they aren’t perfectly straight. The next row can be a little off from parallel, and if you get one tine in an old row it’ll guide them along to look natural. The lumps in the product will make these organic-looking bumps and changes in the texture.

It looks really good when it’s done.

The other tricky thing about working with Sculptamold is that no matter how much product you mix up, you only have a few minutes to work with it before it sets. Plaster of paris hardens with a chemical reaction, so there’s no going back once it’s done. However, if you’re like me, it’s never a bad idea to have a pile of premade “stones” on hand for projects, so when I had too much leftover product and it started getting too stiff to use on the trees anymore, I just formed it up into lumps and let it harden. Later I’ll paint them and use them in other projects.

Next up: Paperclay on the upper branches. This is the fun part, where it really starts looking like something! Thanks for bearing with me.

Index of Forest Thrones posts is here.


Forest Thrones, Part 7: Posing the Branches

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Okay, I really wanted to show you a comparison between a throne with its branches posed and one that hasn’t been posed. Sometimes a detail like this makes the difference between a high-school quality craft project and a professional-quality art project. (Aaaand the unintentional TV sampling continues. That’s none other than Alton Brown, who is apparently so impressed by my trees that he’s trying to reach out of the TV to pet them.)

But how did this miraculous change occur, you might ask? Well, it’s simple. First I made sure each of the main branches made a subtle s-curve BOTH front-to-back and side-to-side. The front-to-back curve is vaguely similar to a chairback. Then I made each of the secondary and … uh… third … ary…? branches curve generally upwards and to the back. Then I fussed with them until they all looked right., making sure that none of the branches were flat in any dimension.

As you can see in this profile shot, all the branches are pointing backwards. This is not due to artistic sensibility so much as my Kid Delf, Cleo, who informed me that if she got her hair caught in any of the branches, she would kill me in my sleep. And I find it’s just easier to go along with her. O.O The point, though, is that you need to consider a sculpture like this from all angles.

And finally, my friend Caroline wanted a closeup of the branches, so here we are. Obviously, they’ll gain a lot of bulk as I add more layers, but it’s so fiddly adding stuff to them I probably won’t do any more layers than I really have to.

Now picture these branches with a leaf at the end of each twig. It’s going to look way cool.

Index of Forest Thrones posts is here.


Forest Throne, Part 6: Bulking Up

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Sorry for the radio silence, guys; the batteries in my camera died and I had some actual paying work, so it took me a while to find time to go out and get new batteries. But I’ve been busy and I think this project is coming along nicely.

I thought I would be clever by laying strips of fabric down over the wires to help the glue hold them solid. However, I’m not sure it actually helped at all. I failed to realize that Gorilla Glue isn’t actually sticky at first, so the fabric tried to fall off, and I got glue all over myself trying to put them back on, and it turned out they wouldn’t stay unless the whole project was upside down. Which made me really glad I hadn’t tried to apply papier mache to the bare tops of the bases while I waited for the glue to dry. Oh, and I also learned that hand sanitizer removes Gorilla Glue from skin, at least if you get to it before it dries.

Instead, I refurbished an old UFO while I waited. Came out kind of nice, I think. I’ve been reading the Doll Divas diorama archives, which apparently inspired me.

This project is finally starting to take on the right shapes. For the first time, I have the “forest” effect, even though none of the branches are posed yet.

Next I bulked out the trunks with crumpled newspaper and masking tape. (It just occurred to me that this post is  giving you an unintentional sampling of my TV viewing habits. I swear that isn’t some kind of new-age crystals and ufos show in the background; I’m not sure what it is, but it’s probably Stargate SG1. Which I suppose could be considered a new-age crystal and ufo sort of show… okay, moving on…)

Then I covered the crumpled newspaper with masking tape, so it would be all smooth and neat. Later I covered the base with more papier mache. The trick to using the instant papier mache is to add just enough water. You want a consistency kind of like canned tuna fish. If it’s any wetter or drier, it’ll be harder to work with. You can actually get it pretty smooth if you work at it, but I need it to be lumpy and fibrous so it looks like real dirt.

Next up: posing the branches. Index of Forest Thrones posts is here.