Sunday, July 31, 2011

Getting My Paint On...

Delayed by the hospitalization of my laptop, I am finally rejoining the blogosphere! I've been wanting to post about one of my favorite cake arts, which is painting on cake, so let's get to it!

One of the reasons the transition between the art world and the cake world felt so seamless to me is because  many of the techniques I used with clay sculpting translate well in the cake realm. Some are even easier. Certainly many of them are faster. Getting color on a 3-D object is most definitely one of those faster/easier activities. In clay, there are loooooong firings, layers of color, and big surprises when you open the kiln! 

But CAKE...well, cake is a kinder, gentler object d'art.  It doesn't explode, (well it can, but it's gonna cost ya), the colors stay (fairly) true, and unlike clay sculptures, cake is delicious. 

Almost every cake I do involves laying on color of some sort, usually with either airbrush or paintbrush, or both. I love both. You've already seen, in previous posts, a lot of painting, but here are a few I haven't posted before.

On this piece,  I was able to combine paint and airbrush, as well as a little royal icing detailing. I painted the whole scene on a flat, cut out sheet of fondant to which I had added tylose so that it would dry into a nice hard surface. After I finish painting, I simply place it on a fondant covered cake. The advantages to this method are many; I can work and work for as long as it takes (and this one took a while!) without having a cake going stale under it, I don't have to worry about damaging the cake while I'm painting, and the client can remove the whole thing from the top of the cake before they serve it. They can keep it indefinitely, too, as long as they keep it dry and out of direct sunlight. 

Here's another "painted disc"...
This one makes me giggle. It was a baby shower for a couple who's last name was Bacon, so their friends asked for "Bacon Baby", the superhero. Notice the bacon cape!
Here's another little baby shower cake, based on the invite :

This cake is a portrait of the deity "Green Tara":
"Green Tara" involved a variation of the painted disc, as her face and hand and flower were all painted on tylosed fondant which I cut out into the shapes, and then painted. Again, airbrush, brush and royal icing.

Here are some cookies:

I love to paint cookies, too! I make a lot of my own cookie cutters.

Here's a simple wedding cake, just a few line drawings of cala lilies;

And my Dia de Las Muertas cake, with a painting of Frida Kahlo on her skirt.

So let's get into the how to.
I'll start with a disclaimer: the animal I am painting here is a wombat. Next March I will be teaching in Sydney, Australia for three weeks. Wombats are from Australia(and if I find one I'm totally sneaking it back with me. I'll be packing a Snugli and a big baby bonnet in my luggage). Now, not many people in the states would argue with whether this actually looks like a wombat or not, because really, we just don't know. But when I do get to Sydney I ask that all of my new Aussie friends be gentle in critiquing my wombat cake making skills, Okay? Okay.

So I've already filled, carved and covered Atticus Wombaticus (sorry. I won't say it again.) with white fondant.

Is that a cute snoot or what? I mean it, I want one.

I start with a general layer of base color. I did this with a brush. Next I add a bit of depth with the Iwata airbrush (it's the best, but I'll get back to that)
Now the details. Using a brush, gel colors, some powder white, and vodka, I start to paint in the fur.

To get the fur to look furry on his body, I use an older damaged paint brush. 
See how the bristles are all separated? This works beautifully for fur. You can see the strokes it makes. Save those old torn up brushes!

And there he is! Atticus Wombaticus! (oh sorry). That's Heidi in the background,  NOT getting to make a wombat! Poor Heidi. She has to make a truck. That's because KAREN's motto is NO VEHICLES, NO BUILDINGS!

Here are a few more tips; if you really want to paint on cakes, and you think you want to use an airbrush, get a good one. You'll never be sorry that you have a good quality tool. I use Iwata. I have used them ALL, and Iwata is the very best. Yes, the top of the line can be expensive, but really, you can upcharge enough for a beautifully airbrushed cake to pay for it with one cake. They make compressors, too. I travel with the Iwata "Ninja Jet". It's small, quiet, and reliable. I can't say enough about it. I have a pile of airbrushes I hate for various reasons, all of which were a waste of money. Get an Iwata.

As for vodka, I recently decided that in my shop, we will only be using Smirnoff. For painting, anyway. (For inspiration, we usually turn to red wine. Or tequila. Let's just be honest). But first, an explanation of why we use vodka when painting on cake; fondant is made of sugar, and water dissolves sugar. Vodka, however, dries very quickly, before the sugar begins to melt. Some people use lemon extract, but it's the alcohol content that makes it work, so i usually eschew the lemony taste and go for the vodka, which leaves no taste at all. We have gotten cheap vodka for years, but recently stumbled upon one that turned our black gel color pink. This is how you learn that you ALWAYS have some black gel color somewhere in your brush, and if you paint with the wrong vodka, you'll be painting with pink all the time.

I've been asked by Food Network Challenge fans why we use vodka AND grain alcohol. They have two different special qualities. Grain alcohol is great for applying lusters and metallics. But grain WILL ALWAYS mess with your gel colors, so NEVER use it for painting. Use your Smirnoff. Unfortunately, grain alcohol is illegal in a few states. That's probably good for anyone who thinks they should ingest this stuff because it is a killer, but it's a fantastic medium for applying metallics!

Color looks great on cakes, but you have to remember that this color is made for FOOD, not for it's ability to remain light fast. IT WILL FADE QUICKLY in sunlight. If you've ever mixed the perfect blue fondant and set it aside in a clear plastic bag where the sun could get at it, you know what I mean. I always let my clients know that these colors were designed to be eaten, not to hold up under the sunlight.

One last thing; painting on modeling chocolate. This can be tricky, but not impossible.
 I recently did one of the strangest cakes EVER! It was for a "Cougar", which if you don't know, is slang for a woman in her 40's who goes after younger men. This woman's friends were throwing her a surprise 40th birthday party, and wanted to give her a cake with a cougar body, and her head. If my friends ever did this to me, I'd start serving grain alcohol to everyone at the party. (kidding. but don't try me). Actually, it was really funny, and if you promise not to show anyone else, I'll show you...

Okay, I actually had a ball making this cake.
But my point was to talk about painting on modeling chocolate. I used my airbrush and regular airbrush colors. You have to apply the color in very thin layers, letting each layer dry. You are using a water based medium on fat, so it doesn't go on like it does on fondant. As for the detail, I used powder colors with grain alcohol. Again, it's a slow, gentle application.

Now can I drop a name? Because I got to make a birthday cake for Jane Lynch last week! LOVE HER! It's a cake of her dog, Olivia, who apparently wears a diaper.

So go grab some fondant, and some gel color, and paint! And send me pictures!

Before I go, i want to say a quick thanks for the comments and feedback. I appreciate the time it takes to leave a note, so THANKS! xo-kp


  1. That wombat is amazing!! And the cougar cake... wow. What a fascinating post -- I had no idea you painted on cakes with vodka and grain alcohol. I look forward to reading more about your incredible cakes!

  2. Your skills are outta this world!

  3. I like the painted disc idea. Clever! And that cougar cake? Oh. My. God!! She must have died when she saw it.

    But thanks so much for the discussion of grain vs vodka and also for your comments on the airbrush. At first I blamed myself and thought I was unskilled but in truth the one I have just stinks. When I'm ready to buy another I will look into the Iwata.

    Have a great time down under!

  4. I just updated my post to explain WHY we use vodka when painting...sorry that wasn't there to begin with!

  5. Amazing!!! Everything is amazing!! That cougar cake..that face looks so much like a real human, i thought it was photoshopped onto the cake and i had to take a 2nd & 3rd look to make sure it was all cake!! You are crazily talented!!

  6. To Faithy....I can assure you it is not photoshopped! I watched the whole thing being created! I still have nightmares....;) sometimes Karen is too good at what she does!

  7. Hi Karen!
    I love your blog.
    I'm sending everyone I know over to see your wombat and get tips on coloring fondant. It's MY number 1 question and I'm sure yours too.

    I WANT A WOMBAT too...just trying to get over the fact they are a rodant.

    Thanks for the info and the FUN!

  8. only just stumbled on your blog after being intrigued by the cougar cake on flickr! felt i just had to comment and say i'll be subscribing (as soon as i can figure out how) to this blog! cake decorating is just a hobby for me (and an expensive one especially when friends ask me to make them cakes! It's really hard to tell them how much it cost and how much time it takes to make even a simple one so i just pick a lowish figure out of the air and hope it'll cover the cost - i'm not that great yet - need alot more practice and am sure i'll find the tips on your blog a great help!)Thank you for sharing!

  9. As an Aussie, I just have to tell you Karen that your Wombat is SPOT ON!!! BRILLIANT work as usual, and loving your blog!!!

  10. Karen, the wombat is perfect, like Julie, I am an Aussie. Looking forward to seeing you someday soon in Australia, hopefully at The Cake School ;)

  11. Thank you for all the wonderful tips Karen! Have been following your blog for awhile but have not had a chance to comment. I can't wait for you to come to Sydney next year! Any idea on what you'll be teaching yet? Or is this still all on the down low? :)

  12. Thank you so much, Karen. Now I finally know why my gel colors were not mixing in the grain alcohol! That has been driving me crazy! You saved my sanity!

  13. Hi Karen,
    Just started doing handpainted cakes and even though I'm using vodka with the gel pastes, they take forever to dry. I'm mixing my colors with Wilton White to get the color that I like. Should I use powdered white or airbrush colors so that they dry quicker? Thank you! Your work is beyond incredible!

  14. Your cakes are amazing! Thank you so much for the painting tips! I've just started to handpaint some of my cake and I'm looking to purchase an airbrush kit...thank goodness I stumbled upon your blog! You're awesome!

  15. hey there, that is really really awesome what can be done with fondant icing. wow! here you and your readers can find my fondant color guide for great assistance when decorating the next cakes and cookies.
    regards, caketrina