Way of the Samurai (Revised)

It’s not often I get to take a holiday but when I do, it’s usually to visit families. Fortunately for me, my family lives in places where it’s known for its food so I can’t complain.

This time round, I went to see my mother in Taiwan, where she is meant to spend a few months. While I was there, I reconnected with an old kindergarten friend. We actually saw each other again while we were in college but that was a LONG time ago. In any case, she purchased an old set of dolls I painted over a decade ago because she’s a wonderful and supportive friend, but I could not in good conscience send her something when I know I can do a better job of.

The Samurai set had always been one of my favourite to paint, but I never got a chance to do it again…until now.

The previous version.

The new version.

I hadn’t meant to paint a cat as one of the samurais, but her cat is incredibly photogenic and adorable that it’s a no brainer. As long as there was an animal motif going on, I decided one of the masks should also reflect the theme. The “hair” on the main samurai is meant to be a lion’s mane. I’m pleased with the outcome although it took far longer for me to paint this set than anticipated.

I’d made a banner for the original set and decided to give it another go with this one and had a great time working it out with minimal failure rate!

We Go Together (like rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong)

It took a shockingly long time for me to get started on this Grease set. It seemed simple enough: A few core characters from the musical painted in pattern-free outfits. Simple pimple. But the first doll was what tripped me up. The first doll is the Greased Lightning. A car. I didn’t say no because Grease and the Greased Ligtnin’ go together. It’s like painting a set of Christine without Christine the car, right? I’ve seen some insanely creative matryoshka sets that are just cars, but I’ve never been interested in just outright painting a doll as a car. No, it had to be an actual car or else. And that is the part where I complicated things even further.

I’m no carpenter, so I had to dig an old art school friend out from the woodworks (see what I did there?) and enlist his help with just what sort of wood would work on this one. He’s a master with a jig saw, a tool I’m pretty sure I A) cannot find in my garage and B) that I will lose a thumb if I attempt to use one. First things first though. I measured up the dolls and looked around for suitable types of wood before settling on the two I know I could comfortably work with. Then I made some patterns and passed them off to my unpaid intern (husband). This turned out to be a stroke of genius because it turned into HIS project. He’s one of those guys who needs everything to be Exactly Right, unlike me, who would often allow a millimeter to slide here and there. He introduced me to types of glue I didn’t even know existed and sawed and hammered and even designed and 3D printed some fairly important elements like the wheels and the windscreen and even the headlights. I had in my mind some wonky looking wheels I was going to cut out of foam but these are even better!

While the car that I have outsourced was being made, I focused on the more traditional aspects of this set.

(Clockwise from top) John Travolta as Danny Zuko, Jeff Conaway as Kinickie Murdoch, Didi Conn as Frenchie, Stockard Channing as Rizzo and of course, Queen Olivia Newton John as Good Sandy.

The painting of the car took two nights. I had to put down several layers of white paint and create templates for the lightning bolts because if you, and I learned this from experience, attempt to put white on top of red, the red will always reign supreme and seep into the white and that’s when the crying begins. So the bolts had to be taped down and cut out first. Then the four layers of red, three of them different shades, were put down. A few harrowing hours were spent taking the tape off the bolts and cleaning them up. When all the external bits were glued on and everything was dry, I was able to put the entire set together for the first time!

In the seventh grade the popular kids in my grade got together and performed “We Go Together” for the school talent show, complete with appropriate costumes. This was rather sweet, except they went on right before the school band (me included in the flute section), where the horns section decided to empty their spit valves right after they tooted out the last note of “Little Brown Jug.” I still cringe every time I think of my classmates having to put their hands on the damp stage floor during one of the maneuvers. And get this, two of the boys in the performance also contributed to the spit-a-rama.

Sex and the City Updated

I remember not being impressed watching the pilot episode but a friend promised that it would get better. It did, and I was hooked mostly by the fashion worn by the actresses on the show as well as the locale. Even though I lived in NYC at the time, I was struck by how lovely the show made my hometown looked. I was always under the impression that NYC, for the natives anyway, was more Law and Order than SATC. I knew people who moved to NYC because of the show and boy, were they disappointed…that is, the ones who weren’t wealthy enough to actually afford to live in Manhattan were. The show was a little candy treat at the end of a long work day and I was happy to paint a set depicting a happy time in my life…about ten years ago. I never got around to updating it until recently when a request came.

How much I’ve learned over the course of a decade! The buyer liked my original version, but wanted it updated except for the costume choice. Instead of painting on the massive corsage on Carrie’s dress, I found some crepe paper and silver gilded papers and made an actual one!

The original, painted 10 years ago.

The updated version, 10 years later.

The buyer had a wonderful idea of featuring a pair of shoes for the last “doll.” I had originally thought about tossing in a shoe charm and calling it a day but something kept gnawing at me until I sat down and ordered a pair of Barbie knock off stilettos. The simple pumps from my childhood was hard to find, or that I had to buy them in bulk, so I settled for a buckled model and modified it with my good ol’ X-acto knife. A few coats of paint and some beading later, a pair of Manolo Blahnik featured in the SATC movie was born. It didn’t look done, however, until I was able to create the labels in the smallest font possible and stuck it inside the shoes. I hope it won’t be another 10 years before I make another SATC set!

I Got You Babe

Every now and then a good friend of mine will come to me with a project and I will always say, “I got you, Babe.” These are people who know me so well that they possess an unwavering confidence in my ability to create seemingly impossible tasks. I am grateful for that, of course, but it still gives me a bit of a spaz attack every now and again, like this daunting Cher set. 

I love Cher, her music, her acting, her daring fashion choices, her attitude, her incredible figure…basically,  her overall presentation. When people are having a freakout around me, I’d channel MY inner Cher and tell them to: “Snap out of it!” This is why I happily agreed to paint the set, not only because the friend requesting it is one of the best I’ve got, but also I. LOVE. CHER. 

Creating the headdress for the first doll was daunting. I initially thought I could make one out of this furry pelt thing baby photographers use as a prop. When it arrived I immediately rejected it and thought long and hard for an alternative material. I finally found it in my box of papers—vellum! They’re durable and can be snipped to the right shape and size easily. It is also a great excuse to check out the new Office Works that just opened near me. I happily beelined for the markers section as soon as I was let loose inside. I bought 5 markers, one of them a whopping $9.89, but it was the only one that created the sort of patina that I was after without weighing the vellum down or casting a weird purplish sheen. Then I boosted up the volume with some cut up foam sheets. 

My friend and I kicked around the idea of whether or not to include Cher’s exes. For me it’s a resounding yes because I so very desperately wanted to paint Sonny Bono. We decided they will be of equal size and fit into the Aerobics Era Cher. Gregg Allman was another one I didn’t mind painting. Years ago I saw the Allmans Brothers Band at the Beacon Theatre, and I cannot tell you anything about it except there was a lot of aromatic fog and also a drum solo that went on for about 3 days. 

This set is a gift for THE ultimate Cher fan, according to my friend, because she wants to give him something to help him to “snap out of” the doldrums he is currently in. I hope it does the trick!

The Godfather

This was not the first time someone’s asked me to paint the best movie ever made on organised crime. I used to spend my Christmas breaks in Canada with my godmother’s family. They have an awesome collection of movies on VHS and my brother and I would systematically go through their entire catalogue whenever we were visiting. The Godfather trilogy was on the docket the day I was whisked away to participate in a holiday not celebrated by Americans: Boxing Day, so I missed the first one. I did come home in time, laden with several books and socks, to sit in for the second and the third one. The second one I loved, the third, not so much. So when my friend asked me to paint the original Godfather set, I was down.

This gave me the perfect excuse to watch the first one, which made me think: Why didn’t I see it sooner? My friend is the sort of customer I love, decisive but not micro manage-y. I did take some notes throughout the movie and looked at some stills and came up with this set. The cat was not suggested, but since I am now a cat person, I threw it in just for fun.

Clockwise from top: Don Vito Corleone, Michael, Tom Hagen, the horse head unceremoniously left in a bed, Fredo, and of course, Sonny.

The horse’s head was my idea, but my friend green lit it so here we are.

A Charlie Brown Christmas

For my Christmas set this year, and I usually have to start brainstorming in June, I decided I wanted to travel back in time and do something nostalgic. I was in a bit of a pickle earlier this year, when the war in Ukraine broke out. The embargo on Russia affected my supplies and I was having a hard time acquiring dolls through my usual channels. I decided to save whatever stock I had and find an alternative solution. After looking at some options, I realised that one particular single doll has the exact same shape as the Peanuts characters, and I absolutely adored every single one of the characters. The idea of doing a nativity scene but with the Peanuts gang was too appealing to tamp down and I immediately got to work. 

There were a lot of elements I wanted to include so I narrowed it down to the most manageable ones. The Husband helped with the major components but I still had to hunt down some bits and bobs and figure out how to put it together. 

The hardest thing I had to locate was the lone red ornament for Charlie Brown’s tree. I had left that to the eleventh hour because I didn’t have time to leave my studio and do any hunting/shopping. I still didn’t find what I was looking for when I finally went to the shops. Luckily, during one of my delirious states from not getting enough sleep, I actually managed to order a string of baubles meant for dollhouse trees and it was the right size but the wrong colour. A brush over with a red Sharpie marker fixed the problem. 

It’s hard bringing a 2-D character to life. The noses on my dolls were “prosthetics”, and by that I meant I had to have a hole drilled into the head and affix a little protrusion, which in itself was another item I had to source and alter in order to make it fit. Linus and Pig Pen’s hairs were also “found objects.” I couldn’t use my regular resin to sculpt the characters’ hair for fear of it being too top heavy and the dolls wouldn’t be able to balance unassisted, so I went with paper clay. They were not the easiest to sculpt, but they did the trick. I am grateful that my past experiences, mistakes, trials and tribulations have given me the ability to know how to solve many problems. A lot of credit has to go to an SVA teacher who encouraged us to hit junk shops for our creations and another who made sure we were well acquainted with all facets of materials and mediums and the proper accompanying applications in which to compliment it.

I’ve had this Christmas tree nesting doll (yes, it opens up!) for several years now. It seems fated to become the tree Charlie Brown’s friends fixed up for him. 

Well, Merry Christmas, one and all! 

When Art Meets Man

I have to confess I was a little upset when I received the photo references for this set. There will be four dolls featuring the outrageous costumes of a drag queen. Normally I LOVE painting drag queens because I get to dig through my collection of glitter and feathers and metallic paints and go to town with the wigs and accessories. But this was more installation art on a human body…no pretty gowns in sight. But the more I studied the photos, the more excited I became because when was the last time I got to paint real art on a human form? I don’t think I have ever done such a thing.

The whole endeavour was surprisingly easy and fun despite the complicity of the abstract designs originated by the creator. I thought long and hard about how to recreate the tiny Troll dolls for several months and decided that I won’t just paint it on, but to simply print them out on card stock, put on a coat of matte gel coating, and then emboss it to give it a little 3D effect. Over the years I have amassed a huge assortment of fibre and was able to construct the hair for them, the smallest one about 2mm!

The only glittering I got to do for this set are for the earrings.

These are some of the photos I was given as reference. You can definitely see more of Kurt Fowl’s outrageous costumes on Instagram under the same handle.

The Alfred Hitchcock Halloween Extravaganza

Just to change things up a bit, this year’s Halloween set does not have a horror theme, but rather, more of a thriller vibe.

My Dad had been the one to introduce me to Alfred Hitchcock movies at an early age, that and John Wayne. Suffice to say I’d rather a good old fashioned thriller than a western. We sometimes compromised on war movies and James Bond films, but if it were up to me, I would always pick a Hitchcock on movie night.

I’ve been toying with the idea of painting the leading ladies from some of my favourite Hitchcock movies for a very very long time and I’m glad I finally got around to painting them this year…and just in time for Halloween too!

Let’s talk first about The Birds. It had not been my introduction to Hitchcock, which I found a bit surprising. I don’t think I even saw it until I was in my late teens. A few years ago, I did something boneheaded at the Sydney Airport (nothing illegal, mind you), and it required me to go into one of those “side rooms” to sort things out. I saw a girl sitting glumly near the service counter and figured she did the same boneheaded thing as me (she did) and chatted her up. Us lunkheads need to stick together, you know? We ended up flying back to the Gold Coast together and bonded over our love of seriously bad movies and she introduced me to “Birdemic: Shock and Terror.” It’s a film made by James Nguyen who modeled three of his films after his idol, Alfred Hitchcock and even managed to get Tippi Hedren to be in one. “Birdemic” was a 90’s take on “The Birds” but with far far less competence. The only thing shocking about it was the numerous scenes where the audience were treated to sensible driving and parking and the “special effects” involving bird attacks. I ended up watching the original version of “The Birds” as a palate cleanser and found that it had not lost its magic after all these years. Tip for Mr. Nguyen: Maybe don’t use paper birds that flaps in place and then call it a homage to Hitchcock? It’s kind of insulting if you ask me.

I found some plastic birds meant for models and painted it black with the now discontinued Liquitex “Glossies” paint (please bring it back!). There are so many Halloween costumes where people would fashion birds onto their green dresses like in the schoolhouse bird attack scene. The problem with doing that with the nesting doll version is that you need to be able to grip the doll with both hands in order to open it and you don’t want to disturb the birds in any way. It’ll definitely fall off if I were to just glue it on. I was also obsessed with the idea of having them hover over the doll instead of them just sitting on it and looked for the sort of wiring that will withstand the weight of the birds as well as the force it will have to endure during opening and closing of the doll. I also didn’t want the wires to show (much). Finally, I found the answer in a really thick gauge clear jewelry wire. When you shake the doll a bit, the birds will actually wiggle.

“Rear Window” was my first foray into Hitchcockverse. I loved everything about this movie. In ’83 when my family immigrated to the US, our first stop was the California and we spent a day at Universal Studios and I was fascinated by the Rear Window apartment display. It could’ve been the catalyst to my lifelong obsession to miniatures and dollhouses. I got to paint Grace Kelly for the first time and enjoyed every minute of it. What an absolute beauty she was!

“Vertigo” was one of those movies that went over my head when I was little but meant a lot more when viewed it as an adult. It was also the basis of another James Nguyen disaster called “Replica.” If you want to see one of the funniest death scenes in cinema, this movie is it.

“North By Northwest” is my second favourite Hitchcock movie. If it weren’t for my Dad showing me this movie I wouldn’t have been able to show off my cinematic prowess in my screenwriting class when the instructor showed the crop duster scene and asked us to guess which movie it was. I was shocked that no one in my class knew it. Often times I have trouble capturing the faces of some actors but not Eve Marie Saint. Nailed it on the first go.

I decided to paint “Notorious” in colour and photograph it with a filter. I’ve only ever seen two Ingrid Bergman movies and this was the one I liked most (sorry, not “Casablanca”). I’ve been painting her daughter Isabella Rossellini for years now and was not surprised by the similarities, but I don’t think I nailed this one. My excuse is that it’s rather tiny to paint.

Oh, we need to talk about “Psycho.” What an absolutely wonderful movie. The heroine was by no means an angel but of course she didn’t deserve to get slaughtered in the shower. I also liked the Gus Van Sant remake and being the purist that I am, I really liked the fact that he had copied the original shot for shot. Most may disagree with me on that front, but I stand by it because I myself do a lot of reproductions and I know how much effort it takes. If James Nguyen tries that technique with “The Birds,” he will most likely F it up royally. But of course I will pay a lot of money to see that too.

Happy Halloween!

A Nightmare Before Christmas Upgrade

It has been a minute since I’ve updated the Nightmare Before Christmas set. Since I normally paint this one around the holiday season, I don’t have the time nor the mental capability to upgrade it. As luck would have it, I got a chance to do so this time, and with a bigger set too!

A bigger set allows a lot more liberties as I have more of a physical wiggle room. I decided, instead of just knocking out the usual set of six dolls, I’m going to add a few more characters to it!

The usual suspects includes: Jack Skellington, Oogie Boogie, Sally, the Mayor of Halloweentown, Professor Finkelstein, and Zero. I added Sandy Claws, and the trick or treating henchmen of Oogie’s, Lock Shock and Barrel.

I’ve always been unhappy with the Mayor’s hat. In the movie it’s a stovepipe hat that went too far. When I brought this up with the Hubs, he immediately designed one for me. I knew it’s a good idea to keep him around!

I have also wanted to paint Sandy Claws for a long time so this is a dream come true right here.

As for Oogie, I rooted around my supplies until I found the glow-in-the-dark paint I had initially procured for the Guillermo Del Toro set. It was almost all dried up, but a little water revived it. I didn’t have enough to make him really glow, but he does illuminate a bit in the dark and that’s all it matters!

I have painted Lock Shock and Barrel a long time ago but they were their own standalone set, so I’m thrilled to be able to put them into this set. They’re my absolute favourite in the whole movie!

Tiki Star Wars

I felt a little apprehensive when I was approached to make a Star Wars set, but as Tiki statues. As someone who often went mad with details, a lot of it architectural, I wasn’t sure if I could correctly execute something so stylised and simple. The buyer sent me photos of Tiki statues as reference, which I pored over with a discerning eye and decided I’d love to give it a go.

Clockwise from left: Chewbacca, Darth Vader, Storm Trooper, C3PO, and R2D2

The buyer also mentioned that he’d like to have a lei added, as this is for a special birthday boy who is set to celebrate his special day in Hawaii. It didn’t even occur to me to paint the leis on. I looked for some flowers to make a physical, removable lei and couldn’t make up my mind about what colours to use. In the end, I ordered a bunch of white ones and figured I’ll decide when the time comes.

When the time did come I’ve made up my mind to hand dye them, which was so much fun that I had to tell myself to stop after reaching a certain point!

They’re soaked through, then dipped into watered down paint, tips only, and laid out to dry.

As there are two extra dolls in this set, I kicked in Boba Fett and Yoda, hoping the buyer or the birthday boy wouldn’t mind! It’s really the only the limit of time that made stop, which happens sometimes with a set.

Happy Birthday, Ryan!