I’ve developed a bit of a preoccupation with watercolors. I was a prolific painter as a child, then grew out of it as I got into cartooning. Then I discovered that Randy Milholland of Something Positive also makes these gloriously whimsical watercolors that are a perfect mash-up of both mediums and I just had to try it out.
My first attempts last year were… not the greatest. I started on the wrong kind of paper, then the colors were dull, and the black permanent ink I was using for the line art didn’t stand up to the watercolors, which would either cover the lines or run right over them. For someone like Randy, who draws and paints in a much looser style and has better control over his brushes, this isn’t necessarily a problem. I, on the other hand, am enough of a control freak that I can’t stand coloring outside the lines, but I have very little experience using brushes for fine details, so I did a little experimenting to find more suitable materials.
I started with this cute line drawing of a giraffe with a parasol:
I actually initially created this as digital drawing practice.
It’s still a work in progress.
In the mean time, I really wanted to pull out the watercolors and play this weekend, so I re-drew the giraffe on watercolor paper, and got out my Speedball pens for a little fancy inking. Unfortunately, on my first pass at the supply cabinet, I couldn’t find my bottle of India ink, and instead used Black Magic which, it turns out, bleeds a lot before drying on the page. So I had the lines down, but they were really fuzzy.
I unearthed the India ink, and was very happy to find through some controlled experimentation that it did not bleed, and that after a little practice, I could make pretty nice lines with a size 0 brush that would mostly cover the fuzzy sins of the Black Magic ink. What followed was a very long evening of painstakingly slow drawing with an overabundance of careful muscle control.
The finished line drawing had only a few hints of the messy first layer.
I took even more time coloring. I started with the easiest bits – first the yellow ochre and burnt umber sand, then the base cobalt blue layer for the water and the lemon yellow of the sunset. I still have a good bit to learn about color theory, but I was pretty happy with the layering effects of vermilion for the darker red/orange shades, and Prussian blue in the sky and reflected colors in the water. The main lesson of the background work was to leave more white space. Watercolor is not a reductive process, and white paint doesn’t very effectively dilute or cover color that’s already down on the page.
The India ink solved several of the problems that had plagued me before. It did function as an effective barrier for the more watery paint (to a reasonable extent). It also resisted some of the paint that ended up on top of it. The dryer mixes were more prone to showing up over the black lines, but even then, the black is bold enough to show through.
I finished the parasol and put down the base yellow on the giraffe then left everything to get really good and dry before I tackled the spots.
I was actually pretty terrified of the spots. Giraffe spots are distinctly indistinct – they’re irregularly shaped yet relatively regularly spaced. I am fairly awful at randomization, but I intentionally didn’t include the spots in the line art because I wanted to challenge myself to be a little messy. It was a very pleasant change of pace to just let the brush wander where it wanted. I wound up having a grand old time making all the little mismatched spots, and only lost focus and drifted out of the lines once.
I am really pleased with the final results:
I call her “an American giraffe in Peru” – inspired by a very funny friend who has spent the last few months adventuring in South America and sending back amazing stories and pictures along the way.
My usual method of cartooning is pencil drawing, relatively quick-and-dirty inking with permanent marker in the sketch book, then scanning and inking a second time digitally before coloring. I waste time with the extra inking step because I generally don’t have the patience or trust in my own fine motor control to get the lines right on the first try, and digital inking allows me to use the “undo” function to maddening excess.
I learned a few things by depriving myself of that “undo” option:
- Once you put India ink on paper, it doesn’t move.
- Brushes don’t go where you want if you rush.
- Brush lines will be uneven if you do not carefully mind the pressure exerted by your hand.
- Thicker lines cover more sins and add character.
- Water will dilute many sins, but won’t remove them completely. Watercolor is not a reductive process.
- Evaporation makes your paint darker. Once you have the color you want, don’t hesitate.
- If you have to go back and mix a close match that isn’t quite right, that’s ok too.
- When you step back a little, all those tiny mistakes are barely noticeable.
I will almost certainly be doing more of these. I feel like I’ve learned a lot in the last week, and now I want to practice. A lot of what I’m learning on paper will help my digital drawing as well.
Back on set with Firefly: The Musical.
While I was pondering the bonnet, I discovered that another other costume was incomplete.
Shepherd Book, the ship’s resident preacher-man, had a very distinctive grey shirt on the original show. It looked like a standard dress shirt, but with a plain strip of cloth where the buttons should be, and a flat collar that evokes the typical look of modern-day clergy, with a stiff white liner peeking out the top all the way around the neck, instead of showing an inch or two in the middle of the throat. (This may, in fact, be a style some real-world priests wear, but I haven’t seen it.)
Our Shepherd was wearing a lovely grey dress shirt backwards.
This worked for the photo shoot, but the moment the rehearsal started, I spotted a problem. He had more than one scene where he spent a majority of the time with his back at least partially to the audience – buttons, backward collar and all. He looked ridiculous.
I stole his shirt at the end of the rehearsal and promised to have something better by the final run-through on Sunday.
I miraculously found a cheap grey that was a perfect match for the Shepherd’s shirt. I cut two strips about 4 inches by 2 feet, folded them long-ways, and stitched together the edges and one end. I turned them inside-out, pressed both along the seams and fold, and then started pinning.
With the shirt’s original collar tucked safely inside-out (outside-in?), I stuffed the stitched end of one of the strips into the top of the shirt, then safety-pinned it down the side of the placket so that the button holes were still accessible. The second strip was pinned around the collar so that the stitched-up end could overlap about four inches on one side, and the unfinished end was again unceremoniously stuffed into the top of the shirt.
The final product looked a royal mess on the hanger, with loose ends hanging out and safety pins everywhere, but our Shepherd could get the shirt on and off with minimal fuss, and with the shirt tucked in and the collar fully pinned up, it looked remarkably like the original.
It wouldn’t have won any fashion awards, but it looked pretty great for a $5 thrift-store-and-scraps costume. And as an added bonus, the alterations could all be easily undone, leaving the actor with a nice, normal grey dress shirt.
When we last left off, I had just delivered a super-quick Jayne hat to the dress rehearsal and photo shoot for Firefly: The Musical.
It will surprise absolutely no one, but that was not the only costume piece I created for that show.
I made a pretty floral bonnet.
…and a shawl.
…and I retrofitted a shirt.
…and I made a starship console.
I’ll start with the bonnet.
While waiting for the Firefly: The Musical dress rehearsal to start that Friday, I learned that the cast was unable to procure a pretty floral bonnet, a critical prop for the opening scene of the show. (If you’ve seen the episode of Firefly, you know exactly what I’m talking about. If you haven’t seen the episode, you will have no clue what I’m referring to. Just know that a main character wears said bonnet to great comedic effect, then references it later for greater comedic effect. It is a seriously critical prop.)
Naturally, I hop on Twitter to ask my two best seamstress friends (Dear Roommie and her previous Dear Roommie) for help putting together something that could pass as a pretty floral bonnet.
Dear Roommie, naturally, had a bonnet and matching apron stashed away in her costume collection at home in San Antonio.
Dear Roommie’s Dear Roommie tweeted instructions for a possible bonnet design. Four tweets. Full instructions.
I love both of these women more than I can possibly say.
I ran home after the rehearsal and put together a bonnet mock-up from the muslin that I just happened to have on hand – because I am apparently getting serious enough about this sewing nonsense to have a muslin stash.
Even in its thin, floppy state, it looked like an actual bonnet.
I took it to the tech rehearsal Saturday morning, and the stage manager nearly kissed me.
After rehearsal, I ran out and purchased the gaudiest floral calico print I could find. I made a few adjustments to the design, including fusible interfacing in the brim (because I keep that on hand now, too – wow, I feel like a grown-up seamstress, almost), and about an hour later, I had something that actually looked like a pretty floral bonnet.
In case you want to make your own pretty floral bonnet, here’s a brief explanation of the construction:
I think my favorite part is how much more hilarious it is than the bonnet used in the original show. Brown frilly bonnet with dainty flowers? Pfah! I want to hear that bold, flowery print screaming from the back of the theater!
I hadn’t slept a whole lot in the last week, and had to get up pretty early for that Saturday rehearsal. Then I constructed a pretty floral bonnet during the time I’d initially intended to spend napping to make up for that lost sleep, so I was pretty loopy by the time I finished construction and headed out to watch a truly amazing musical improv extravaganza that evening. I think I showed that picture to everyone I saw Saturday night. (Sorry about that guys – it really was the sleep dep talking.)
Needless to say, the squeals and hugs from the cast and director when I showed up with the actual bonnet at Sunday’s rehearsal were well worth the lost nap time.
Aside from the ego stroking involved in having a dozen talented actors and crew ooh and ahh over my creations, this has actually turned out to be a good educational project.
I don’t think I’ve sewn anything completely without a pattern before, so mentally designing and then just making a frakking bonnet has been a good creative exercise. I feel a good bit more empowered to design future projects, rather than be completely dependent upon expensive and confusing patterns.
Putting together the bonnet has also just been good practice with the sewing machine. I’m still not as skilled at putting stitches right where I want them to be as I’d like. I have difficulty making straight lines, and I’m even worse at making curved lines that move the way I want them to. It basically comes down to a dexterity problem, and the best way to overcome coordination issues is to practice. But you can only practice so much when materials aren’t especially cheap and can’t be recycled as easily as, say, beads or yarn. I generally only pull everything out when I have an actual project, at which point I’d rather it look right when I’m done. While I was madly assembling the bonnet, it dawned on me that because stage costuming doesn’t have to look perfect up close, it actually makes for ideal sewing practice!
So, friends, if anyone needs something ridiculous sewed/crafted for a show, you know where to find me.
…and I have now said “bonnet” in person and text more times this week than possibly the rest of my life.