Saturday 5 September 2015

Conversation with a Bee. A Midsummer Night's Dream Gingerbread Stage Set and Video

You know that scene in A Midsummer Night's Dream where Titania gets bored of the donkey and goes off to gossip with a bee? No? Understandable. It's a little known deleted scene from the play*, but having a bee in my bonnet about such things, when I was invited by Bella Baking to participate in a Midsummer Night's Dream sugarcraft collaboration, I jumped at the opportunity. Originally the idea was to reveal our work on Midsummer's Eve, but the project was picked up by Cake Masters magazine for publication in September or October (which is how I got caught out and hadn't written this post, or edited the video when the feature was published!), so we've held on to our work for quite some time!

*This is of course a load of rubbish

My first thought was to turn to Arthur Rackham's illustrations for the play. I knew I wanted to create something gnarly and natural, but what really caught my eye was this gorgeous little bumble bee painting. I knew he had to feature, and somehow he became the centrepiece, with everything else, including Titania, merely suggestive of the play.

Close up of Arthur Rackham's watercolour of a bumblebee.

So I knew I wanted to create lots of naturalistic handpainted elements, with a gnarled background, but that wasn't enough. I wanted to be able to convey the warm twilight of Midsummer's night, using a tiny metallic thread of LED lights I have. I had my backdrop, my lighting, I simply needed to add the rest of the stage set...

I began with a six inch square of gingerbread, microplaned after baking for perfectly straight edges. The side pieces I created by eye, out of a second six inch slab of gingerbread, using a scalpel, and a straw to create the gaps.

I wasn't entirely sure how I was going to hold up my side pieces, whilst keeping the sides free for the lighting, but in the end, I made dozens of tiny 'buttons' of gingerbread, figuring I'd stack them up with royal icing glue to make colums. I knew there was going to be fiddling and adjusting - this was not a technically accurate piece of work!

The royal icing elements I piped, again by eye, in white icing, directly onto a sheet of acetate. I piped lots of little heads, and whole bodies, so that I could choose the best. I had pictures of mushrooms and bees (inluding Rackham's illustration, above) to reference.

I handpainted all the transfer pieces once fully dry (after a couple of days) and whilst still attached to the acetate, and allowed the paint to fully dry before attempting to detach them (a tricky business as the acetate was quite stiff - I have since used much thinner cellophane, taped to card, to do this, and once the tape is cut, the flexibility of the thin cellophane makes removing the pieces much easier). I used the same handpainting technique as I demonstrate here in my Christmas Robin video.

Several heads were painted and attached to the stage side pieces, whilst I chose the smallest most delicate fairy for Titania. I barely painted her as I felt she might end up a little clumsy. Her wings I flipped over when they were dry, and used the smooth base as the upper side, and I added just a few sprays of dots above her head to imply some form of headress, seeing as she's meant to be a Queen.

I coated all the base and side pieces in stiff white icing with an offset palette knife - this was trickier than it sounds, due to all the fiddly shapes, and getting the icing to be rough in just the right places and directions. This is sprinkled strategically with white and gold tiny sugar pearls. I scraped a hole for the moon, which I then filled with flood icing. The side pieces had further wriggly piping on top, to suggest branches, roots and leaves in the Rackham fashion, and the whole was painted with washes of green and blue, with some dark bronze lustre to highlight some branches.

Construction occurred just as I predicted, with a fair amount of fiddling and adjustment. I experimented with different heights and arrangements (in the process breaking a mushroom, Titania's neck, and an entire side piece snapped in two. Still, with clean breaks, you can hide most damage!). I had quite a few little ladybirds, and mushrooms left over. I ate those.

So here's the film, vastly speeded up and edited, as altogether it was nearly an hour of film (and I didn't film the entire project. I do want to film handpainting of some of these naturalistic royal icing elements, so I've got some on the go at the moment - don't forget to subscribe to my Youtube channel so you don't miss anything!)

To take the final photographs, I wound copper wire with tiny embedded LEDs  in and around the sides; another painstaking and delicate operation for fear of pulling the heads off fairies. The whole thing was tucked into black velvet so the lights glowed prettily.

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