Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Rainy n' Rockin'

Sneak peek at the new 3" tile designs.

Another rainy day here in Idaho, but I'm not complaining. We need it. Though I must admit that it feels like we've been teleported into the Portland area! But I like this kind of weather, and especially the sound of the rain.

Speaking of teleported, I've allowed myself to be carried away by my inspiration, and created a whole flurry of new stamp designs. I have four new 3" square tile designs (on top of the previous new four I created last year!) and eight 2" square tile designs, all horses. Throughout this week, I'll be creating more for my circle clay cutters, too.

Now I didn't intend for all these new stamps when I planned to post to Etsy, "More designs coming soon!" But there ya go. Such is the way of the muse. Still workin' on those cat and dog ones, too, but right now it's the horses who are stampeding out of my noggin. And along those lines, here are sneak peeks at the 2" tiles:

But now I feel like Gill from Finding Nemo, "Ok, so now what?" I have yet to glaze the pile of tiles already waiting in my studio! Hubby pointed this out to me in a rather delicate way yesterday, so I'd better hop to it. I have little excuse now, and I also got some new Laguna crackle glazes I'm itching to try. But...first things first...I have to finish glazing that Taboo. Time to crank up the space heater in the garage and plunge back into mud!

"Imagination is the highest kite one can fly." ~ Lauren Bacall


Monday, May 24, 2010

Top O' The Mornin' To Ya!

It has been an awesome last few days -- just the way I like them. No interruptions, oodles of inspiration, lots of new projects and lots of new directions. The days are charged with positive energy and I feel like each day is packed with piles of exciting things to create!

And to top it off, we have a new friend! A beautiful barn dove has set up her nest on that wreath by our front door, the one that the local finches usually commandeer. This morning, I took out the mail and to my surprise, I was greeted by little beady eyes calmly watching me! JOY! It doesn't get any better than this!

If that wasn't enough, as Publications Officer for RESS, I've been charged with piloting the new RESS blog (thank you Lesli Kathman for that great suggestion!). I'm all excited at the prospect of developing this resource into something really cool, and I have all sorts of ideas brewin' in the pot!

So I'm off to cook up more stamp designs, along the theme of the first jumping horse concept -- only this time they're prancing! Yoicks and away!

"I was overcome with an attack of pathological enthusiasm." ~ Robert Lowell


Saturday, May 22, 2010

Doin' the Stamp Stomp, Part Deux

When the mare and stallion were on their own separate tiles, I toyed with the idea of perching the mare on top of a snowflake, like the Chinese Flying Horse motif. I may revisit that idea eventually.

I made it! Just under the wire!
Phew. It was a rather hairy last couple of hours yesterday to make the 48 hour deadline! Narrative motifs often take longer than the main subject, and again, the process requires a lot of experimentation and tangent directions in order to hammer out a good design.

I initially drew out the flames and blowing icy wind on a sheet of paper and inked them in. That's an old print out of the two horses, only so I could gauge placement and proportion of these flourishes.

Makin' snowflakes in Photoshop! When it comes to rubber stampin', making snowflakes is easy and fun. You just have to be aware of what will stamp well, so lots of delicate little lines are dumped in lieu of chunky shapes. I designed three types for this tile. I think it's important to design my own rather than use those offered in the program, or with free clip art.

OK, after some time of working...and reworking...and reworking...I ended up with this -- and I absolutely hated it. Feast your eyes on this bubbling spew of ineptitude:

Here is a classic example of busy-busy-busy busting the design. There are just too many ideas and too many elements all crammed together, and the horses -- the subjects that should be the focal points -- are totally lost in the hot mess of this silly thing. ARGH. Good design is simple. It should be a visual haiku. Getting the idea across with as little "stuff" as possible is the goal, not only for the design's sake, but all that busy work just won't stamp well.

So, stuck with this piece of poop, I fiddled and fiddled with it, creating untold numbers of variations trying to get it to work. Nothin' doin'. There was just too much going on, and like Mr. Fredricksen from "UP," I began jettisoning elements from the design like a woman possessed. It had to be carved down to its most basic ideas so you see the horses, not the "stuff."

So I got it as simplified as I could, but I got stuck again at those curly cues on the left side of the tile and the streaky bits of "wind." The flames also bugged me. What I wanted was the fire to blend with the icy wind, and then the icy wind to blend into the fire again. And dang it -- no matter how I worked it, it didn't. Now I can be very possessive and territorial of my design aesthetic -- that's good. It means I can defend my work because I believe in it. I believe all good work starts with a kind of fanaticism. Yet it also can be bad because it can lead to situations just like this. So it's times like this that a second pair of fresh eyes and ideas were needed. I need my Ginzu Man. "Oh Hammy?"

My husband insists that he cannot draw to save his life, but he does have a good eye for design. He's also devilishly astute at getting me to divorce my impulses from those ideas I'm too married to, and can see beyond an idea to take it into a whole direction. All of this was very much welcome when my brain was just so sick of staring at this stupid thing and coming up with nada.

His first suggestion was a light bulb moment for me: I didn't need all the fiddly bits in the middle. The horses were exchanging a gaze, so did I really want to interrupt that energy by disruptive "stuff?" Nope! Purge!

His second suggestion was: The idea is fire and ice, not fire, ice and wind. Get rid of the curly cues and streaks. Each horse should just be its "element" and nothing more. Yes! Hit the button Max!

His third suggestion built on that little flame below the stallion's left hind hoof, as though he was striking the flames with his hooves. He suggested that all the flames should follow the stallion and, likewise, the snowflakes should waft out behind the mare. This makes it look like they're dancing together in a circle, with their elements trailing behind them. HIKEBAH!

That's exactly what I was trying to get to, but I needed his katana-sharp eye to lead me out of my own dense creative jungle. It also simplified the design dramatically, and allowed the horses to shine. Plus, I've always loved the balance of opposites in life, and so I really like the yin-yang suggestion of this design, making it work on many levels. So I'm thinking I could adapt this concept to different breeds to create a whole line. And, ultimately, Hubby's help on this project was all the more fitting because it was a quip he made about fire and ice that inspired this piece. Thanks a million, Ham!:

Fire & Ice, the finished design for a 4" tile.

Each new design presents its own challenges and nothing ever gets old hat. To me, this is the appeal of creating these tiles -- the options are infinite and the road blocks are many. Also, I've found that this kind of work seeps into my full sculpture work and improves it because it forces me to consider composition, narrative and bigger ideas than simply sculpting another realistic horse. In the truest sense, I "flatten" my sculptures into a 2D silhouette, and if that would look good on a tile, from all sides, then it's a good design for sculpture.

Now to get this puppy turned into a rubber stamp. I use a local stamp maker here in town, ABC Stamp Sign & Awards because they do high quality work, they can make the stamp protrude quite a bit more than regular stamps (so I get a nice deep imprint), they can leave off the handle so I can use my tile press, and I can email them my designs and pick them up when they're ready. So in the next installment, which will be coming in a couple of weeks, I'll show you how I start stamping with this design, cleaning and glazing, so you can see this piece from start to finish!

"I think that in a lifetime there are only a few people you can work with...where you can trust each other and push each other in different directions." ~ Errollyn Wallen


Friday, May 21, 2010

Doin' the Stamp Stomp

Old School Tool

I find that using custom-made rubber stamps is a lot of fun for making hand-stamped stoneware tiles. It has an element of instant gratification (comparably) and in a studio life dominated by highly-detailed, intricate pieces, these rubber stamps are refreshing from a creative standpoint. They also force me to think in completely different terms, in abstract, in which composition and design theory are essential for concocting a stylish design that will translate well when stamped and, just as importantly, when glazed. I can instill a visual narrative with relative ease, as well, allowing me to integrate additional motifs that I cannot with my realistic sculptures.

But this isn't to say the process is easy! It never ceases to surprise me just how difficult it can be to achieve an effective composition, and how many permutations are explored before settling into one. The unexpected always pops up, too, taking the creative idea into completely different directions. And the thing is -- if you don't stay open to those new directions, more likely you're going to miss a better concept.

So I thought it would be fun to share the process of creating a new tile stamp, in this case, Fire & Ice, a design depicting a fanciful Arabian mare and stallion in a kind of dance of attraction. Now I know I have to get back to that glazed Taboo I posted earlier, but when I'm not sculpting, my brain (perhaps too easily) jumps into other ideas. And I've learned through the years that when the inspiration hits, fly with it! So...onward...

My stamped tiles actually start as ideas that end up as doodles. My office and studio are littered with bits of paper with these quick sketches on them. If one really strikes me, I print out a pre-sized tile "template" I made in Photoshop in a shape I think will work best with it. I've made templates for all my tile-cutters, against a grey background. Then I redo the doodle in there. So here is the original Fire & Ice concept (below), a stallion with a fire motif (left) and a mare with an ice motif (right):

The little circles at the top are roughed out holes from which this 3" tile will hang. However, it's important that the design work without that hole there, too, in case I want to inset some into trivets or frames. The adaptability of these tile designs is really important to maximize their application.

After that first step, they went through several refinements and tweaks, but still...something just wasn't jellin':

The original "almost there" drawings done with a dime store pencil and typewriter paper. We're low-end here.

You can see I've scanned my drawings into the computer and opened up the image-editing program, Photoshop Elements. I use that program (or full Photoshop) to play around with the designs and composition. The program allows me to tweak everything instantly without having to do endless rehashes on paper. Seeing the designs on a computer screen also helps me to separate my eye from them, letting me to see things that need fixin' that I couldn't really "see" on paper.

So as I got to tweakin', I regarded their head positions and realized, "Hey, why not combine them?" This is easy to do in Photoshop with a simple copy/paste and...voila. On the left is the original combo, which I then printed out, and used that print out to do further refinements, such as new tails and switched hind legs on the mare, which were rescanned into the program (right).

I thought they were too close, cramming the design, so I opened up a new circle window and copy/pasted each one into the new circle (peeking out on the right). However, I decided to bump up the size of the tile from a 3" circle to a 4" circle since two of them are on there now. I also decided to resize the new circle window to twice the size of the intended clay-cutter, from 4.25" to 8.50", because it's better to work big then shrink down since doing so sharpens lines. Also, rubber stamp designs need to be submitted in the exact size, but in 600 dpi, so I want things to be as crisp as possible. Now while it's easy to get carried away with exactitude, I have to remember that the actual stamping process will cause some distortion. The clay, the process, and the glaze all create their own magic, making each tile a true one-of-a-kind. So no amount of control and precision in the design is going to translate perfectly into the finished tile. But that's the fun of it!

Then I use the eraser tool (red arrow) to remove the excess around the newly pasted image. Now I'm left with two independent images, the mare and stallion, that I can manipulate separately.

I have to resize both of them to use up more space within the circle. You can see me do that here, with the stallion. When you want to maintain the scale as you resize, simply hold down the "shift" button and drag the frame squares.

Another great use of the cut/paste option is that you can select individual body parts and copy/paste them. Then you can rotate or resize them as you need to get things just right. Here you see me lengthening the mare's body just a hair and rotating it a bit, which would have been tedious on paper. With Photoshop, it takes two seconds. You also can use the line tool to compare body parts for symmetry, like leg bones. So doing that, I had to make some minor adjustments in the length of each horse's cannon bones. Easy-peasy in Photoshop!

With the cut/paste option, you can see me tweaking the mare's outstretched hind leg by opening up her hock angle.

OK, so they're about how I want them -- not perfect, but about there. The black dot at the top is the anticipated hole that will hang this tile, so I have to be sure my design works with that, too. I also had to erase their tails (in the program) because this new design made their original tail designs infeasible. So I print this out and take it back to the table for some low-tech tweaking with an eraser and pencil.

So here they are after the pencil work and new tails, and rescanned into the program. While I like the design, their proportions are a bit too pony-like. They look more like Welsh ponies rather than Arabian horses, so I have to change some of the proportions. Again, I can do this in the program by selecting an area, and then copy/pasting and resizing. So I shrink both their heads and lengthen their legs (which I forgot to photograph in my haste).

So I print that out, do some small tweaks with a pencil, and then use a good ol' dime store felt-tip black marker to ink-in the lines. I should learn how to use a vector program, I know, but I'm still married to my felt tips. One thing I did learn: Ink outside the lines! If I don't, my design ends up "skinny-fied," which can make some areas too delicate for stamping.

Here's the inked version scanned into the program (left) next to the pre-inked version (right). The inking gives me solid black lines for me to use the select tool for copy/pasting.

So I've opened up a new circle window and filled it with black. Then I used the magic select tool to select the mare inside the inked lines, and pasted her onto the new black circle. I have to select her extended hind leg separately since anything not connected to the body won't be selected along with it. I have to do the same to the stallion and his two separated legs. While it would seem a bother to select the legs separately, it's actually a boon because then I can play with their placement separately, too. In this case, I decided to set the mare's extended hind leg a hair higher than in the drawing because it "opens up" her motion more.

Here's where I am now: Two white horses on a black background. I do some adjustments and clean up with the paint brush tool. Now I'm going to sleep on this because the mare's head is bugging me. Anyway, areas that are white will be raised up when stamped while anything black will be depressed when stamped. In other words, black = pooled glaze. The whole trick to getting a stamped tile right is having both the positive space (white) and the negative space (black) both stamp-able and interesting, but also glaze-friendly.

I like how this design has come out, and it's taken me all day to get this far. But I firmly believe these stamp designs work best when I rush them because that captures the initial energy of the inspiration and design. So easily these abstracted drawings can become overworked and lose all the spark they once had. So I give myself a maximum of 48 hours to complete one, start to finish. Otherwise -- into the bin. No exceptions.

But I won't "flatten" the layers just yet in case I want to tweak the design tomorrow. I always leave room for a fresh eye. Because I also know it's time for the really hard part: Putting the fire and ice motifs in there. I have to do this in a way that makes sense, is stylized enough to jive with the style of the horses, yet will stamp well. But above all, it cannot make the stallion look like he's on fire or the mare look like she's being pelted by snowflakes. It's always the little things that are the hardest! So tomorrow, (fingers crossed), I'll have finished this design just the way I want it within the 48 hour limit, or into de trash it goes! Stay tuned!

"You can't plan for a seizure of feeling, and for this reason I put everything else aside when I'm inspired." ~ May Sarton


Tuesday, May 18, 2010

For The Bun Of It

I am a big fan of street foot, especially ethnic street foot. Especially Asian street food. If it involves soy sauce, sesame oil or rice in any way, chances are I'm going to love it. Recently, a local favorite Chinese restaurant, Yen Ching, which has been a fixture in downtown for as long as I can remember, opened up a bakery right next door to their place. You can walk directly from inside the restaurant into the bakery -- smart!

So what the heck, we'd give it a try. Especially when I read that they'd be featuring one of my favorite Asian street food staples, Cha Siu Bao
, which made me delirious with glee. I was first introduced to these dollops of deliciousness years ago when the family first went out to dim sum in the Bay Area (predictably, I'm also a dim sum junkie).

Good street food is an art form -- it must balance taste, cost and convenience
in a delicate equilibrium. It has to be tasty, but unpretentious. It has to be filling, but not weigh you down. It has to be inexpensive, but not taste cheap. It has to be easily stored and transported, so neither supplier nor consumer has to fuss with it while on the go. Above all, it has to leave you wanting more, so you return. And that's not an easy set of criteria to fill. But Cha Sui Bao, in my opinion, fills them all, without parallel. It's the pinnacle of street food: You can eat it on the go anywhere and with one hand, with no napkin, no mess and it's delicious and varied. Perfect food engineering.

So down we went on Friday to check it out, after lunch at -- no surprise -- Yen Ching. I was delighted to see they produced a variety of bao...yellow curry, red bean, red bean and mochiko, vegetable, and pork (BBQ and plain), in both baked and steamed. A smorgasbord! And they were quite large, too, so we split a couple of them in our samplings. We tried them all, and I instantly fell in love with all of them. Hubby was especially nuts over the curry bun (he adores curry, and this is one potent yellow curry bun!), the vegetable steamed bao, the baked BBQ bao and the steamed plain pork bao (which tasted similar to a giant fantastic pot sticker or dumpling).
Fabulous! And at only $1.50 per bun, you can't beat that with a stick! One is easily a meal.

Now the baked bao is available all week (but watch out -- the curry one sells out quickly each day), but the steamed bao is only made on Sunday, and they sell out by Wednesday most times. So Hubby has a new mission each Monday.
Hubby also snagged a couple of their ham and cheese mini-buns today, so we have yet to try those. I think they'd make a perfect on-the-go breakfast. I also really like some of their other baked goods, such as the Butter milk bun, the coconut cream bun and their outstanding and addictive butter cookies.

Oh gads -- I'm in so much trouble now!
Long live street food!

"Great restaurants are, of course, nothing but mouth-brothels. There is no point going to them if one intends to keep one's belt buckled." ~ Frederic Raphael


Friday, May 14, 2010

Friends Wit Wine

Every year, I join my buds Stephani R., Kay M., and Laurie J. for a weekend of wine tasting and general silliness. It started as my bachelorette party in 2000, in Sonoma, and we had such a great time, we decided to make it a unmitigable Law of Nature. In fact, it's widely theorized that existence can only take all four of us together for no more than 72 hours, otherwise we create a singularity of lunacy that threatens the very fabric of space-time. I always have a blast, but what was super-special about this year was that it was our 10 year Anniversary of this insanity! Again -- time flies!

We all flew into LAX, and met at the Encounter restaurant, that famous UFO-looking building smack dab in the middle of the circus. I swear -- it's like they designed a restaurant just for us! If Dr. Seuss and The B-52s were in the restaurant business, the inevitability would be this place...but perhaps with goldfish tanks and beehive hairdos. But I firmly believe all restaurants require lava lamps now. The elevator ride up was entertainment in itself! We got a window seat and had a panoramic view of the airport, and we could even see the biggest passenger plane in the world -- the Qantas Airbus A380!

Coming up the back way, from Terminal 3. I got lost and ended up in the employee cafe downstairs...with my giant suitcase. Everyone stared. A very nice man directed me to the proper entrance. I couldn't get over how nice the airport employees were. This was LAX?

An interior shot. I love architecture that isn't based on straight lines, so it was right up my alley. If money was no object, I'd design a house with no straight lines allowed, with windows, murals, tiles, mosaics and art glass installed everywhere. After lunch here (and more than my fair share of "Tidy Bowl" blue margaritas), we set off for wine country!

Laurie's multi-talented daughter, Merryl, made each of us a gorgeous corsage for the weekend. Each of them had different colors and critters, and so beautifully made! Mine here, had greens and a cute beady-eyed birdie. Steph had a butterfly, Kay had bees (cuz she's The Queen Bee) and Laurie had a dragon fly. I was so touched by this thoughtful gesture -- THANK YOU MERRYL! I managed to get mine home and I'm trying to dry it so it can live in my studio forever.

The weather was amazing -- in the 70s, no wind and gorgeous blue skies with big puffy clouds. The hills were verdant green, and with the diverse foliage, they created almost abstract-like "paintings," and I couldn't resist indulging in some photos. I swear...if you were a landscape painter, it was a cornucopia of inspiration! Now keep in mind these photos aren't adjusted for color saturation...they really looked like this!...

There were quite a few rose bushes or poppies planted at the end of the grape vine rows. I was told that troublesome bugs go for those flowers first, and leave the grape vines alone. Clever and green!

So flowers were bloomin' everywhere, and I couldn't resist snapping pix of a couple.

We went to quite a few wineries, but my favorite by far was Melville. I loved every single wine we tasted there (which is rare), even the whites (which is very unusual since I'm a red wine gal). Now my favorite wine of all time is Matanzas Creek's Sangiovese (which they no longer make -- of course!), but the reds from Melville were very close seconds. I bought a bottle of their famous Voignier for Mom as a Mother's Day gift (hope you like it, Mom!).

Melville Winery, with Kay, Laurie and Steph in the lower right. Our wine tasting guru in the tasting room, Lynn, was a total riot. So much of the wine tasting experience is getting someone witty and fun behind the counter, and we lucked out here at Melville.

Rosemary grows everywhere in wine country as a landscaping accent and Steph, a rosemary junkie, laments she cannot grow it in her yard, living in New York state. So she takes every opportunity to immerse her senses in it, like one of those drinking bird novelty items, as you see here. Enjoy Steph!

We had dinner at The Chase for some old school Italian. I had an amazing halibut with capers and steamed veggies, and the antipasto bean dish was delicious, too -- firm, tiny tan beans bursting with flavor. We had a wonderful meal, watched over by ol' Frank.

My personal highlight -- other than Melville -- was Saarloos & Sons Winery which pairs its wine with their gourmet cupcakes! Cupcakes! You have to eat a specific cupcake with a specific wine since the little baked delight actually is made with that wine. Now while all this may sound gross -- trust me -- it isn't. It's wonderful! It really works! I've decided that (1) cupcakes make a perfect pairing with wine and (2) cupcakes taste better when made with wine. Seriously. No. Seriously.

And what was even more interesting at Saarloos was this full shower in their public restroom! What the heck?! We found out later that the tasting room used to be a spa, but it was much more fun not to know and guess why a winery would need a shower in its restroom: Outrageous barrel-tasting parties! Woot!

Laurie brought along these funny quotes lifted from actual wine reviews and full of innuendo. Predictably, we milked them dry...dryer than the driest Chardonnay.

Ham, this one is for you!

I actually had to look up what "treacle" was. Apparently, it also is a long-standing joke in Britain. Who knew?

No comment.

Laurie, Steph and Kay, with their corsages a-bloom! Thank you Merryl!

Kay looking noble and regal -- as always -- at Fess Parker, which is where we started our adventure (below). If you don't know, Fess Parker was the actor who played Daniel Boone all those years for Disney...hence the raccoon hat. Or maybe I should have just left you in the dark about that and let you always wonder why...

Laurie is notorious for bringing along all manner of questionable distractions, two of the most notable this year being her pigeon puppet (made for her by someone in her pest control biz) and a tiny accordion. Yes. An accordion. Laurie with an accordion. At her most passionate moments of playing, Kay's bellow, "SHUT UP!" could be heard to ring out, like a demented Pavlov dog experiment.

Do you recognize the squid? And for some reason, Laurie brought along "pirate hair," which Kay -- naturally -- immediately put on.

Kay, Steph and Laurie -- I love this pic!

I made it to my plane with ten minutes to spare, and had an uneventful flight back -- just the way I like 'em. I'm still digesting the knowledge that it's been ten years. A decade. I remember when a day would creep on for eons as a child, now a day is over it what seems like one breath. One thing is clear: As we age, we not only get wiser, we get sillier, too, and amen to that! Thank you gals for another fantastic weekend!

"Wit is educated insolence." ~ Aristotle

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