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A Woodland Wonderland

Every once in awhile an artistic opportunity comes my way that I cannot pass up. Fortunately, this winter I have been presented with two unique and stellar projects that I simply had to do despite my looming WondLa 3 deadlines.

The first project was to create a window display for an eclectic gift shop, Essentials, located in nearby Northampton, Massachusetts. Angela, Sophia and I adore this locally-owned store and its shelves of European (and vintage-inspired) books, games and toys; so when the owner asked if I wanted to design their holiday window, how could I refuse?

We discussed a few ideas:

I could lend the store props to use from my antique toy collection.

I could do a “live drawing” in their window on a large piece of board (similar to what I did for the launch party for The Search for WondLa).

Or, I could design the sort of display that I would want to visit with my family to kindle that holiday spirit. Something that may have been done in the local department store many decades ago. Something hand-crafted and painted. Something not manufactured and printed. Something with artistic spirit.

Subject-wise, there was much talk of wintry faeries and elves in an enchanted wood. Though this was a natural direction for me (especially after the new sprite studies I’d recently painted), I felt that there was a presentation I could conjure that might reach a broader audience. I liked the enchanted wood idea and it led to warm memories of Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas and even The Wind in the Willows. Obviously it reminded me of my work on Kenny & The Dragon – a world I loved creating. So, over coffee and oatmeal, I scribbled out a procession of woodland animals (all indigenous to our locale) carrying gifts to a holiday party.

The shop owner loved this idea and I was off and running.

For a more timeless feel, I decided to dress the animals in less-contemporary styles. I referenced Everyday Fashions 1909-1920 As Pictured in Sears Catalogs as my go-to for woodland attire.

 

Of course, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is such a beloved tale that I had to dress some of the characters in Dickensian costumes. (Click the smaller images for a larger view)

 

With some anthropomorphic fir trees acting as curtains, my wintry wonderland stage was set. Measurements of the store’s window were recorded and I created a sketch to scale (1 inch: 1 foot). I’d paint the characters directly onto acid-free foamcore and then loosely cut them out, sort of like the images you’d find on an old die-cut holiday card. I’d anchor the cutouts to a wooden base with slats mounted to their back side.

There was only one easy way to enlarge a pencil sketch to fit onto an oversized sheet of foamcore – an opaque projector. Thankfully fellow-artists Scott Fischer and his wife had one that they could loan.

I traced my pencil sketches onto the foamcore and inked them with permanent markers. I tried out several brands before falling in love with Prismacolor’s Premier Brush Tip Markers. The brush tip allowed me to ink at a much larger scale while upholding my line style. Seriously, you’d think that this ink of the raccoon is on a standard-sized sheet of Bristol board, but he is actually 5′ tall.

As the markers dried out from all this heavy inking they produced a sketchy grey line. But this was also valuable to me. I switched back and forth between new full markers and dried ones to ink the procession of woodland creatures.

I know what you’re thinking: Why not just ink and color these on a sheet of Bristol then have color enlargements mounted to the foamcore? I suppose I could have gone that route, but there was something thrilling about working at this scale…something I hadn’t felt in a long time. Not to mention, I always like an artistic challenge.

Since I had never done a project like this before, I made up the process as I went along. The black ink on white board was a bit too contrasty for my tastes, so I laid down a thin coat of Unbleached Titanium White Liquitex acrylic paint over each drawing. The paint “antiqued” the drawing and softened the contrast of the ink line. After that, it was a quick buildup of translucent layers of diluted acrylics to achieve my usual watercolor wash style.

 

The ink lines became more and more subdued underneath each subsequent layer of paint. This allowed me the opportunity to punch up the contrast of the finished painting by accenting the shadows with the black Prismacolor marker.

After the painting was complete, I added several coats of Liquitex Gloss Medium & Varnish to the eyes (and noses) of the characters so that they would have a wet, glossy look.

The final stage was surface effects. I raided our local Michael’s craft store in search of various glues and glitters that I could apply to each piece to achieve that vintage-holiday-card-feel. The “Recollections” brand of scrapbook supplies manufactures all sorts of decorative textures, including flocking powder. With clear craft glue (and an old paint brush) I went to work.

The cardinal (below) had a layer of pearlescent microbeads glued to his scarf which created quite a shimmer.

For the presents, I decoupaged actual wrapping paper available at the store to tie these visuals into the merchandise sold within.

The woodland creatures were finished and it was time to move onto the fir trees. These would be painted on 8′ tall sheets of foamcore (I didn’t know foamcore came this large!). Here you can see my studio assistant, Ashley, transferring the sketch onto board using the opaque projector.

As the deadline neared, I decided to forgo the inking stage on the trees and simply draw with paint and brush. I was able to do this because my understanding and confidence in the mediums at this scale had strengthened throughout the week from all the work I’d done.

Also, I taught Ashley (and Angela) how to paint certain areas of the tree so that I could finish these giants. This allowed me time to detail the trees more than I would have had I been painting them solo.

After an intense week of drawing and painting (into the wee hours each night), it was finally time to set up the window. The store owner had a local carpenter build some wooden hill mounts to my (loose) specs and had purchased loads of cotton batting for snow.

With the aid of my little sprite (and some great help from the staff) we assembled the woodland wonderland scene.

In return for doing the window I asked for a store gift certificate. Honestly, the experience of creating something at this scale (and creating it with my family) for a locally-owned business was payment enough. As I worked away I posted snapshots on my Twitter, Instagram and Facebook pages. The outpouring of kind words and praise from friends, fans and family was tremendously validating and encouraged me to push further and think bigger.

The appreciation of others is what the holidays are all about for me. And so, I thank you.

Keep dreaming. Keep drawing.

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