Chocolate Art–The Process

Once upon a time about thirty years ago, I dreamed about opening a restaurant. I would have called it Noodles or Meatballs because I wanted a kooky name to match the creative menu. The restaurant would feature noodles and eclectic, ethnic and exotic tastes. I made a mean spicy turkey meatball dish in a sweet sauce with garlic and green peppers to serve over noodles. While I knew it was a good idea, I also knew I didn’t have all that it took to make it work. But hey, dreams are fun and free. Today I take joy in knowing that somebody had a similar dream, Noodles and Company and they did it!

I don’t think I’ll ever grow out of playing with food.

As an artist I mostly work alone. Collaborating on this piece of chocolate art with Don was truly a thrill partially because it was fun to get out of the box, off of the canvas and try something new. It fulfilled a desire to create with food and I got to play with chocolate, create and paint all in one project!

I’ll attempt to share process of creating the chocolate art piece called Taste and See. The piece was a collaboration between Don McCormick, Chocolate Artist and Pastry Chef and myself. The new piece is based off my painting of Tree of Life from the Garden of Eden.

As I mentioned before in my post Why Chocolate Art, Don and I worked together on a project that he featured in my space in 2013. It was super fun. Although we jointly worked on the event, I didn’t get to touch the chocolate until I got to eat it.

This year, I approached Don to create a piece of art, made out of chocolate, for the What’s So Good About Good Friday Art Show. He was gracious and the project was a special memory. It’s always great to work with someone who is so talented in his profession.

Since I know mostly about eating chocolate, not making things with it, you aren’t going to get the “how to’s” in this post, but you will get my observations.

We started by discussing size and how much chocolate the different sizes would take. We began by planning to duplicate the original art size which was 8″ x 10″. He said he could use a regular open-backed frame, and we discussed the possibility of getting an identical frame as the original art to make the point of replication. We also discussed dimensions. We knew that changing the ratio would mean changing the design. We had some options, but we weren’t going to make it 2′ x 3′ like the chocolate sculpture he installed in my studio in 2013.

One thing he mentioned that happened at Disney, people would scratch the sculptor to see if it was really chocolate. WHAT?! Really? In discussing options, he mentioned a shadow box so that the art would be protected. By using the shadow box we would gain safety, but the art would be less viewable. Don would let me decide. Identical size and frame? Open frame or shadow box?

Original Tree of Life and the shadow box frame for the new piece.

When I shopped for the frame, I decided that I didn’t want the exact frame. We wanted to replicate the art to a point, but it wasn’t about an exact knock-off. While looking at frames, I saw this shadow box and decided I preferred it’s look and size. And, as much as I wanted the art to be easily seen, I wanted it protected more. I called Don and we discussed the change of dimensions.

Shadow box dimensions were larger and not in proportion to the original design.
Dimensions were larger and not in proportion to the original design.

The dimensions were larger and not in proportion to the original design. How many artists actually enjoy problems? When it comes to creativity, I think artists sometimes create problems so that they can creatively solve them. I admit it. I do.

I sketched out a new larger design, only to realize that I had a different problem. The OUTSIDE dirmention was 10″. The inside dimension was 9″ and what you could see when the shadow box was closed was only 7″. Hum. A bigger frame, but you will actually see less of the work. What I did not realize–because I hadn’t thought about it–is open back frames that are 8″ x 10″ actually measure the opening and the shadow box dimensions were the outer ones.

What we were going to end up with was less width than the original art. That was more of a challenge than I had planned for. However, the reason I like the shadow box dimensions was that I planned on elongating the tree trunk. Even though we had the extra problem, it became more necessary to elongate the tree trunk. I think it makes it look more elegant or regal like a graceful long-necked giraffe.

New design with original width but elongated trunk.

Don said if we painted the whole thing, that it would be hard to know it was chocolate. Good point Don. He discussed leaving some chocolate at the top and bottom; chocolate chunks, so the viewer could see that it was not yet sculpted. I suggested pushing the image to the top and leaving the unformed, unpainted chocolate at the bottom.

Detail of raw dark chocolate.

The sculpture was actually four different pieces. He sculpted the halo with a reverse bevel and slightly hollowed out for the tree top. The tree top was separate as was the tree trunk.

Pure dark chocolate, ready to eat, I mean paint.
Pure dark chocolate, ready to eat, I mean paint.

Don purchased several specialty colored cocoa butters, like gold and iridescent violet to mirror the colors I used. Time to paint! Almost.

Emerald green cocoa butter--edible of course.
Emerald green cocoa butter–edible of course.

The colored cocoa butters are solid at room temperature. Don had to microwave them to get them warm enough to pour some out into the metal cups that sat on the warming plate. We had a few delays when we blew a fuse using the microwave and the overhead lights. Don’t you love old buildings and their temperamental ways? The colored butters have a very interesting smell and between the warming plate and warm cocoa butter, Don put his finger on the aroma..melted crayola! It smelled like working with encaustic.

A hot plate and metal cups are Don’s painter’s palette.

You mix the color like you would acrylic, but they act different in how the color looks. I cannot remember what was happening, but adding the white really muted the color, instead of lightening it like with paint. There was one color, a medium bright blue that Don wished he had. There was zero way of mixing it and that is part of the creative process. We made an adjustment to the palette, were both satisfied and moved forward.

The colored butters mix somewhat like acrylics.

Don was a typical artist and painted on himself! Actually, he used his hand to mix colors on because the warmth of his skin kept the butter fluid.

Sometimes Don used his hand to mix colors on.

In the image below, Don is laying in the sky. He said if you rub on the chocolate, the warmth of your fingers will melt the chocolate enough to smooth it out. We wanted the part that would remain unpainted smoother. I volunteered to help! As I am melting and rubbing the chocolate, I’m getting hungry. Because of the warmth of the lights, the chocolate began to give off that hot cocoa smell…ummm. Luckily for me, I had a stash of leftover chocolate that I brought from home while trying to adhere to My January Rest. Although I did offer some to Don, he had the willpower to decline. I partook and repeated as needed.

Laying in the sky.

I was getting a bit antsy watching the painting. It looked so fun. It was fun to discuss what the differences and similarities are with both mediums. At this point, the bottom slab was mostly painted. The brown space you see is the slot that the tree trunk will be inserted into. Like painting, this creation was made in layers. The bottom had to be painted and the other parts too, then assembled. Our plan was to get it mostly finished at my studio, then Don would put the finishing touches and assemble it in his working space.

The background is mostly painted!

Don painted a few coats of gold on the halo then gave the halo to me (Don gave me, Angel, a halo) to add a few more layers to brighten it up. I got to paint with cocoa butter–insert happy dance here! While I painted the halo, Don began the detail work on the tree top. He wasn’t satisfied with the green, so he added another layer of lighter green over a darker green. After he was satisfied with the colors, he began to paint the fruit.

Don concentrating on detail work.

He had to be careful that the fluid paint didn’t run off the brush and puddle on the tree. Being warm, the butter was very thin and runny.

Detail of the tree top in process.

You can see the wet cocoa butter on the tree. He let me paint the little bright green leaves. The butter was so fluid, it was hard to get it to make a shape. After he painted the fruit, he layered a coat of iridescent pink on top. I was enamored with how similar the colored cocoa butters were to some of my specialty acrylic paints.

Detail of tree top with wet colored cocoa butter.

It was harder than I thought to paint detail with the cocoa butter. You can see how wet it was.

Gold cocoa butter–my favorite.

I think the gold cocoa butter was my favorite. I should have tasted it just to see what it tasted like.

Detail of the tree trunk.

I suggested leaving the trunk unpainted too, again to emphasize the chocolate aspect of the piece. Because it was such dark chocolate, it turned richly deep brown.

Still wet and not fully assembled.

He put the pieces together so we could see how it was going. That was exciting!

Close to finished.

At this point, we are finalizing our concept. I wanted the art to come out of the box. I had the idea to have some of the fruit off the tree and coming out of the art. I saw colored Sixlets when making something for a wedding and they would be about the right size and they are of course, chocolate! We discussed layering–I love layers in art–and how to make the fruit look like it was coming out. I liked the idea of having something outside the frame, but Don thought there was a chance of someone picking it off. He said we could place one inside toward the bottom, and that is what we did.

I especially liked it because of the piece I did called Peas and Carrots that I did around sixteen years ago. In that piece, I layered with candy and in the midst of all the green candies, one little pink one was mixed in. It was a happy accident and I decided to leave it in. This pink Sixlet reminded me of that one miniscule pink dot from a piece of art made nearly two decades ago. For those of you reading that are not artists, this is what we do to amuse ourselves.

The art piece turned out beautifully. Because we decided we were not eating this one, Don covered the chocolate with a real varnish instead of an edible one. Yes, you read right. There is an edible varnish!

The artwork was on display at the What’s So Good About Good Friday Art Show and I’ve already taken it to an after school program to show the children. I will feature it again for our Downtown Artist Showcase in Bloomington, May’s First Friday. And, I have the privilege of having a couple schools tour my studio, and I will break out the tree.

Don said that dark chocolate won’t go bad due to the high level of antioxidants and sugar. My only worry is melting! It is the only piece of art that I will haul back and forth, because my studio gets hot enough to melt me, let alone the chocolate.

I’ll have a final post about this piece. I will write and share images about the space and show it was created for.

Thanks for reading and if you are local, I hope you get to see this beauty in person someday.


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