Lauren's Art Adventures: Making "Carnation: Syrup"

Note: This is the first in a series of posts I call "Lauren's Art Adventures," because they detail my experience in running face-first into problems in making my art and how I solved them. Every work of art has a story about how it came to be. Artists struggle with how to make their art look the way they want, and problems and setbacks are inevitable. It’s important to know how to work around these problems and change obstacles into features whenever possible. This post focuses on the problems I had making "Carnation: Syrup" for my thesis.

As part of my edible flowers project, I made a painting of each flower ready to eat. I wanted people to feel they could actually try eating the flowers, so I had to have an attractive image and a simple food. I chose syrup for the carnation display because it’s pretty much the easiest way to cook with flowers.

That brings me to my goal:

The Goal: Paint an interesting picture of carnation syrup.

My final painting. Watercolor, micron pen, gouache. (c) 2013 Lauren Ellenberg
My final painting. Watercolor, micron pen, gouache. (c) 2013 Lauren Ellenberg

Task One: Make syrup interesting.

Problem: Syrup is just thick colored water. It’s too plain.

Solution: Fun container.

Syrup is, of course, a liquid, so it takes on the shape of the container it is placed in. Syrup being plain itself, the container that holds it has to be the interest. I found this little “potion bottle” in a teashop in Manhattan and bought it for about $3. I just love that shape. It looks old-fashioned, but not too fancy. The bottle is simple so I don’t have to worry about complex light refraction. And I get to keep the bottle when I’m done!

Task Two: Make the actual syrup.

The Problem: I’m lazy, it’s winter, and I’m on a deadline.

Solution: Don’t actually make carnation syrup; use pink sugar water instead.

While I could buy cut carnations to get my petals, I would really like to be able to eat my work if I’m going to go to all that trouble. Cut flowers are sprayed with chemicals and unsafe to eat.

So instead, I’m going to fake the syrup. After all, no one will ever know. Plain water won’t do. Carnation syrup is pink, and refraction angles depend on the density (among other things). Syrup is more dense than water. Since real carnation syrup is just sugar and water boiled with petals, I can get the refraction right (or close enough) by making sugar water with pink coloring.

We don’t have pink food coloring, so I used a tiny bit of watercolor pigment instead. That means that my potion bottle is contaminated with pigment and cannot be used to hold anything edible (or drinkable). Paint pigments are very toxic and should never go anywhere near food or drink containers (and in fact should not be inhaled or allowed to touch skin). That’s fine with me because I can’t use the bottle for food anyway; cleaning that bottle would be a nightmare.

Task Three: Paint the picture.

The Problem: Boring color palette.

The Solution: Use a slate blue instead of grey for shadows.

As I prepared to paint the bottle of syrup, I noticed that I really had only two colors. One was the pink of the syrup, and the other was the brown of the cork. These would be on a white background, the standard for scientific illustration. That color palette could work, but is lacking in contrast. I need this image to be attractive, so it has to have something more to stand out.

Brown and pink are both warm colors, and the desk I was painting on was slate blue. I picked that color to put in my shadows, as a practical and artistic choice. Painting on that surface meant the color would be introduced anyway. I had to be careful, though; too much blue-grey would suck the life out of the painting. It could live safely in small amounts in the shadows. The cool blue would make the pink a little warmer and brighter, and therefore more interesting.

With all those problems solved, I went on to create the final painting used in my thesis. You can see the full-sized final image at my deviantART account, where I keep my nonprofessional art.