A commission…or quit horsing around and paint the sodding horses already!

I was recently asked to paint this pair of beautiful horses – a portrait that would end up being a gift for their owner.
Horses make gorgeous muses; they have wonderful expressions and the way shadows carve out beneath their muscles makes their bodies almost fluid. That and the fact they’re not really hairy. Hair is a bugger to paint.
Now, I could harp on about the way they tilt their heads, hold themselves with innate poise, and have eyes that are almost human…or I could stop being such a pretentious art-nerd and reminisce about the fact that they almost didn’t get painted at all.
Because, dear reader, somewhere in my confusing mind full of alternate realities and wilderness-rambling monsters this portrait came to symbolise the departure of a very good friend who has gone to live 9000 miles away. She’s roughing it barefoot, naked, running free with the horses in the wilds of a foreign land.
At least that’s what I’m telling you she’s doing. If you ever come across this part of the internet, Julia, I’m not even sorry ❤

More cinder than toffee: HONEY I Shrunk the COMB

This year I made more gifts. I know, I never learn.
But this year a lot of them were edible, which is even more stressful given that you can’t make baking three weeks in advance…or rather you can but you probably shouldn’t.
Who am I kidding! I’d still eat three week old baking…and I was nothing like ready three weeks in advance.
But I’d left it late (again), and although I (foolishly) believed I had a foolproof plan things didn’t go quite according to said plan.
I was making honeycomb. Please join me for a blow-by-blow of this culinary melodrama.
All you need is caster sugar, golden syrup and bicarbonate of soda. 
And you might also want one of these (optional).

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What? 
So what if it’s three in the afternoon? It’s Christmas isn’t it?! Besides, you’re going to need some Dutch courage to see this recipe through to the end.

The recipe notes instruct us to be prepared. I was prepared all right. I was so prepared I had a couple of Crunchies in the cupboard on standby in case things got really ugly.
Got your ingredients measured and implements ready? Ok, here we go!
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First and foremost get yourself the largest saucepan you can lay your hands on and shove (tip, pour, shimmy?) the sugar and golden syrup in it on a really low heat until the sugar has all dissolved.
‘This,’ Mrs Berry tells us encouragingly, ‘should take about 10 minutes.’
Should it hell.
Maybe Mary Berry’s hob isn’t the fickle bastard that mine is. In any case I spent a good half an hour faithfully waiting for the sugar to dissolve or do something other than sit in large lumps in the syrup.
In the end I had to turn up the heat to medium, panicked when it seemed to be bubbling before its time, then turned it back down low. Perhaps I was too eager, but dammit I wanted honeycomb before next Christmas and I was done waiting for said promised sugar-alchemy – I’m a woman of action and never one to hang around flaccidly when a situation gets sticky….*Rimshot*
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After the sugar has dissolved you turn up the heat marginally, without stirring, until the mixture bubbles and turns golden brown.
Then you quickly chuck the bicarbonate of soda in, stir it like a maniac and tip it into your prepared tin.
If you’re a chronic overachiever you might want to place the honeycomb in a cold water bath because you read somewhere else on the internet that the faster you cool the mixture the more bubbles you’ll have in the finished sweetie. I also hear it helps to stare at your concoction desperately while pledging your soul to Satan in exchange for some sweet, sweet honeycomb.
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When it’s cool you tip it out of the tin, unleash your inner ninja, and karate-chop it into bite sized chunks.
Mine wasn’t quite right. Maybe because I didn’t really follow the recipe. Or, as I rather suspect, it’s because Mary doesn’t want anyone else to be as good of a baker as she is, so she deliberately sets you up to fail in the first place. What a witch.
But, with any gifts, and as we are so often told: it’s the thought that counts. And beyond that try coating it in chocolate. Or booze. Or boozy chocolate, which should help cover up the bitter after-taste of your culinary failure.
Perfect.

You can follow Mary’s recipe here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/honeycomb_crunchies_45484 hopefully a lot more successfully than I did.

Whatever you’re doing and wherever in the world you are this Christmas and New Year I hope it’s one filled with love and peace…and perfectly tempered honeycomb.

Badass Embroidery 101 – a newbie’s guide to thrifty badassery

I think hand embroidery has a bad rep. Largely because it’s…not naff…but incredibly freaking naff on the whole. There’s nothing wrong with florally adorned table cloths and handkerchiefs trimmed in lace if you’re into that sort of thing, but I’m just not that kinda girl.
As my brother so kindly pointed out to me on our most recent shopping trip: ‘all these other people look normal, but you? You look like a Tim Burton character. Seriously, you’re dressed like something from The Nightmare Before Christmas.’
With that in mind I give you my guide to freaky frugal fashion.

  1. Rummage the men’s sections of charity shops. Get your bargain hunt on! Go forth and forage!
  2. Acquire a men’s denim jacket for a ridiculously cheap price. Enjoy a self-esteem boost, ladies, when you discover that your ‘women’s large’ Amazonian-she-hulk-gladiator stature fits into a ‘men’s extra-small’.
  3. Bring your purchase home and hang it outside in the wind; because it may looketh barely worn, and it may have beeneth a steal, but it does smelleth most pungently of dudes.img_4779-copy
  4. Once you’ve aired the stench of random men-folk out of your new-second-hand garment the design phase begins. The design makes the product, my thrifty brethren, so take your time on this one and make it unique to you. You want the images to fit the shape of the jacket; think about it like the placement of tattoos – you want long shapes on long parts, broad shapes on broad parts, either deliberately centred or off-centred and facing the right direction. I think back-pieces look groovy and come with the added bonus of making you appear to be part of some exclusive motorcycle gang.
  5. Still stuck for a design? How about something from a dream, or your not-so-imaginary monster friend who happens to frequent the woods like a skeletal angel of death? Think about the freaky styley you want to achieve. Remember, this is Badass Embroidery 101, go hardcore or go home.

    In another anecdote from my most recent shopping trip –
    The jovial haberdashery owner asks: ‘Have you got any projects on the go right now?’

    ‘Oh yes, I’m making a dress and embroidering a denim jacket,’ I reply.
    My brother grins wickedly behind his moustache.
    ‘Right, but what are you embroidering on the back of that denim jacket?’ he questions, even though he already knows full well. He’s stitched me up right in front of this kindly stranger.
    I shrug, and with the assumed reticence of my Tim Burton worthy attire I utter simply:
    ‘A 30ft skull-faced antlered zombie deer guy.’

  6. Once you have some idea what you’re stitching hit up the nearest craft store and get yourself some embroidery threads. Colour-wise the choice is yours. I went for the ‘realistic’ tones of decay for my zombie deer guy, but you could just as easily go for the most psychedelic hues on offer.
  7. Trace your design onto a piece of grease proof paper, then pin the paper template where you want it on the jacket. Keep the material as flat as possible and use the natural weight of the denim to your advantage.
  8. In a light coloured cotton running stitch the outline over the paper through the jacket. This will give you a guide to embroider without having to make any marks in pen/pencil on the fabric itself. When you’ve stitched the outline of the design very CAREFULLY tear the paper off.
  9. Place an embroidery ring around your outline. This is essential as it keeps the fabric taut while you sew. Embroider without one and you’re liable to get puckers in your fabric. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. You learn this the hard way.
  10. When you’re all set up pick a colour and start stitching! Stitching in contrasting directions will give the illusion of shape and depth. Don’t know what you’re doing? Anything goes. Here at Badass Embroidery we don’t play by the rules; get some thread on the fabric and see what you think.img_4637-copy
  11. Repeat the mantra: I am the Henri Matisse of embroidery floss, the thread is an extension of my own being. I am one with the zombie deer guy needlework. Bonus points if you’re muttering out loud in the garden when the postman comes down the path.
  12. Stitch. And stitch. And stitch some more. Embroidery is time consuming – you’re making every single mark to form the picture. Colour by colour the design will come to life (or death, if you’re sewing the antlered guardian of the Otherworld). If you’re a bit obsessive about getting it finished you may develop ’embroiderer’s arm’, an embroidery specific form of repetitive strain. This might manifest as aching, tingling or unpleasant weakness in your sewing arm which leads you to drop a bag of cat litter on your toe in Tesco and swear loudly in the crowded aisle. It should clear up when the embroidery is finished, unlike the mental scars which will last forever.img_4641-copy
  13. Admire your handiwork and wear it with pride. When people compliment you and ask where you bought it gleefully tell them you made that badass sucker yourself and it’s as bespoke as you are.
  14. Keep adding to it. Why not turn it into a long-term project and allow it to organically grow like the antlers of your zombie deer guy? The opportunities are endless.
    (Author’s note: if you’re really insufferable you could even document the whole process to post on your blog)

My jacket is nothing like finished; it’s going to take many more hours of sewing to complete the first (of many planned) designs. But I’m still wearing it as I develop it, and I love each and every stitch. 

Greater than > reciprocated generosity (or how to gain the upper hand when your munificent neighbours persist in giving you stuff)

Recently I had to paint a portrait of a border collie puppy because a philanthropic Polish lady keeps bringing me eggs. Morally it was the only logical course of action. Let me start at the beginning.

Not long ago one of my neighbours got a puppy. I wouldn’t even have known had it not been for the weird bloke next-door (whose ancient border terrier I sometimes look after while he’s out) who said so. I didn’t know the family, but apparently they were looking for someone to keep an eye on said puppy when they weren’t home.
‘You could do that!’ the weird bloke cried and before I knew it I was knocking on their front door and offering up my services as bona fide pet-sitter extraordinaire. It was arranged that I would go back the next day for ‘coffee’ so they could ‘get to know me better’.
I’m not socially inept or particularly reclusive (I’ll have you know I’m in regular communion with the neighbourhood ninja, but that’s a story for another time) but I knew that ‘coffee’ meant a minefield of polite conversation and I was abjectly terrified. It felt like an interview. I suspect in a large way it was.
I became paranoid about my appearance but eventually settled on wearing a high-necked fluffy orange jumper* and a pair of indigo flared jeans, because that’s about as fancy as my wardrobe gets. Retrospectively I probably looked like the lost member of Mystery Inc. but if you’re alive long enough you’re bound to end up dressed like Shaggy Rogers’ bride at some stage.
I had ‘coffee’ with the lady, A, and we talked about life and the future. They were originally from Poland, she was chatty and easy to talk to and she clearly adored her pets. Then came the question I’d been dreading.
‘Have you got any animals?’
I don’t know if you’ve ever had to tell someone you own seven cats, but I’ve had lots of practice and the best way about it is just to get it over with.
‘Yes, I’ve got seven cats…’ And I went on to give her a comprehensive list of my family’s glorious spectrum of fauna. Her eyelids flickered in surprise but she soon reeled it in.
She can’t have been too worried, or put off by my orange jumper, because she let me look after her dog.

When the dog-sitting became more regular she asked for my mobile number.
‘Oh, I don’t have a phone.’
She eyed me speculatively. Because what twenty-one year-old doesn’t own a mobile phone in this self-indulgent technological zeitgeist!?
‘No phone…’ and her words tapered off in question. I couldn’t stand that she might think I was lying to her.
‘No really, I just don’t have one. I never have. I kinda missed out on the whole mobile phone hype.’
‘But what do you do in emergencies?’
‘Oh, I don’t have emergencies.’ I grinned at her. She looked wildly unconvinced and a bit concerned as she left.
But she came back the next day, and with a phone in each hand.
‘Which of these would you rather have?’ she asked brandishing the offending gadgets at me.
I was dumbstruck.
‘Maybe the iPhone,’ she mused aloud, ‘you might find the BlackBerry difficult to use. I will set it up for you.’ She smiled warmly at my surprise. ‘You must have a phone for emergencies,’ she said.
So I was to have a mobile. And that was that.

I continued to mind her dog, and she text me the times on my brand new phone. But it wasn’t long before her unprecedented selflessness surfaced again.
‘Are you home?’ she text me. ‘I have something for you.’
She appeared at the door with a box of fruit so heavy she could barely carry it. Then the next day she showed up with a tray of thirty eggs!
I couldn’t keep up with her kindness.
I baked her biscuits and cakes with my copious clutch of eggs hoping to reciprocate some of her generosity. But when she returned the Tupperware boxes she also presented me with a ruddy great block of cheese and a packet of Parma ham!
We were at gift-wielding loggerheads. Somehow I’d become embroiled in an all out neighbourly war of the most wholesome variety. Never before in my life had I encountered someone so altruistic in such an everyday way.
I had to give her something she was at a loss to return in equal…

Portrait Progression

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Even during the interim it took me to paint the portrait she’s gifted me thirty more eggs and two kilos of caster sugar. If the world was filled with more people like my neighbour no one would ever go hungry.
I’m hoping to gift her the portrait soon, preferably before she arrives with anything else.

*Incidentally, since then that fabulous top has earned itself the moniker ‘Lorax jumper’ and prompted multiple friends to tell me I look like something off Sesame Street. Jealous much?

Last Christmas I gave you some art…

This Christmas I had a fabulous plan. I would make all the gifts. They would be thoughtful and considered. It would be lovely.

And it was lovely – it nearly rendered me a mental breakdown, but it was lovely. Everybody adored their presents which made it all worth while.

I’ll never forget my Mum’s words as I handed her my present on Christmas morning:
‘Oooooh, it feels like a piece of wood!’ she crowed.
Erm, it sort of was. But it was a very nice piece of wood.

So, if you’re looking for a surprising gift next Christmas – they rarely expect a 2-foot abstract portrait of their rabbit…

I hope you had a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!