Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Cut Paper Christmas: Encore with a Solstice Slant

My goodness, there has been a lot of Christmas-time paper cutting at my house over the years! Here are some more paper cuts that we've done in years past - some by my kids, some by me - mostly with a snow/winter theme. I'll add some tips for making your own.

The snowmen above were part of a large quantity of paper bag papercuts we made one year to adorn our packages, which were wrapped with either plain white or plain red paper. One of my kids did the cutting for the one above, following a free hand drawing I did on the back side of the paper. It was cut on a fold (sort of paper doll chain style, only with just a single repeat). I reused the lightweight paper bags the kids took their lunches in - they have enough body/stiffness to cut cleanly, but are light enough for small hands to get the scissors through two layers easily. The eyes and buttons were made with a standard circle hole punch. I let all my kids graduate to real scissors (often Fiskars embroidery scissors) at a relatively young age (6 or 7) and just supervised their cutting. No one ever got hurt, not even a smidge, though my guys did not have especially good fine motor skills. (I think kids are sometimes more careful when they're using real tools - and the results are definitely superior.)
The house above is basically the same method, but a single picture with no fold/repeat. Also cut by a child (though I may have cut the windows - don't recall).  For interior cuts (like the windows and door), I usually (re)folded the paper so the kids didn't have to poke scissors into the middle of the paper to get the window or whatever started. Afterwards, I ironed the paper cuts on a low setting to get out the folds. (You can even mist kraft paper lightly to steam it and make it smoother.)

This was our Christmas card one year. I apologize for the crappy image - my cheap scanner seems to have a tough time with hard edges and it's made them look all uneven, which they aren't in the original. I cut this one, using a craft blade rather than scissors. The papers are thin origami papers, though a heavier paper likely would have worked equally well.

What I like about it is that the polar bear is a negative - I cut away part of the blue paper to leave the figure. The moon and stars are also negatives. It's somewhat trickier thinking the drawing through - and also harder to cut (you have to be careful not to cut away the lines of the legs and make an effort to keep the lines thin enough), but going slowly and holding the thin unconnected bits with a fingernail to stabilize them as you cut are the keys. I start first with the small interior cuts, like the space between his hind feet and the rearward front leg - it's easier to do those while the paper is still mostly whole. Then I cut the edges of the lines for the legs before cutting away the rest of the interior bear. Last I cut away for the snow and forming the outer edges of the polar bear's legs.

The shadow is a piece of gray paper added separately - though obviously I didn't think through the direction the moonlight would cast it!

This was also our Christmas card one year - made by my oldest when he was in kindergarten. We planned the picture together - and what was notable was his idea not to show the whole person, just part. That's an unusual approach for a child that age - but it shows the value of sharing good art and talking about it with your children. Just before we made this, we visited the Carnegie Museum of Art here in Pittsburgh. I have forgotten which painting served as his inspiration, but I clearly remember our discussion about cropping images and choosing what to show and what to leave out.

He cut the snowflake freehand (I folded the paper for him first). Making snowflakes was a constant winter activity for my kids in those days. Then he cut out the shapes for the mitten, sleeve, face and hats from white paper following lines I helped him draw on white printer paper. He also cut fringes from black construction paper for the hair and shirt cuff and we glued everything onto another piece of black paper. I cut the curves for the eyes and nose, and he made circles for the pupils with a paper punch. To make the cards and gift tags, I photocopied the image, reducing it to a variety of sizes and ganging them onto a single sheet so I could print a bunch at a time. This was pre-photoshop years! We cut and pasted the images manually onto white cards or manilla tags. They looked pretty sophisticated for a five-year-old's work.
The images above and below were cut by me from silhouette paper, using a craft knife. They look challenging (and were, because the originals were fairly small - but carefully planning and working slowly are again the keys to success. 

Real silhouette paper is nice to work with - a good weight and reasonably strong.  You can buy it here. For these kinds of images, I draw the image on vellum tracing paper with a soft drawing pencil (like an Ebony pencil - love those guys) because they make nice thick lines that are easy to leave behind as I cut. It's best to use a slightly dull pencil. I then turn the drawing upside down onto the back (white side) of the silhouette paper and transfer the image with a wooden stylus. This means the final image will have reversed back to the same as your drawing.  Be careful not to press too hard or the lines will show through on the final silhouette.

Again, I always do all the interior cuts first.

I like how the pinecone and some of the needles "violate" the borders in these. I always like that in book illustrations too. The illustrator Tomi Ungerer often had elements in his pictures violating the borders.

You can often reattach bits you've accidentally cut away by taking a thin scrap and gluing it to the back side of the main piece and the cut away part. Touching up with a little permanent black ink will hide any telltale white lines.

Below is a Santa cut by my son when he was nine or ten. I did the drawing, and he did the cutting using embroidery scissors and silhouette paper.  I cut the black frame for him with a craft knife - it gives the work a nice finished appearance, I think.

My son wanted to make a Santa holding a star like the one in this charming, quirky vintage Christmas book first published in 1956. It's by Mary Chalmers, one of my all time favorite writer-illustrators.

Elizabeth discovers the star for the top of her tree has gone missing, and she bravely sets out into the snowy woods to find a new one. This was a favorite holiday story in my family growing up. We always called the book "Wizbiss" - which was how my younger sister pronounced the protagonist's name.

Unfortunately, the original, which was lovely and just the right size for small hands, belonged to that same younger sister, and I wasn't able to steal it away once we were grown. For years I tried in vain to track down a copy of my own - luckily it was reprinted a while back, though in a larger, glossier format I just don't like nearly as much.

Sigh. Books like this that were scarce before CPSIA have only become rarer still. But if you want an old copy, you can hunt for one on sites like Amazon, Alibris and AbeBooks.

I'll leave you with one last snowflake blizzard - arranged into a wreath one year to fill the space above my mantle until I could come up with some art to put there. (We'd just taken down the damaged mirror that was there before and repaired the wall.) I think I got the idea from a magazine. (Martha Stewart?)

Friday, December 10, 2010

Sydney Taylor and the All-of-a-Kind Family Books

First book in the series of five, first published by Delacourt in 1951
Poop! I started writing this ages ago and meant to get it finished while it was still Hanukkah, but life is hectic these days. Well, it's not too late really, because these books, although they center around a Jewish family, also make fabulous gifts for Christmas, birthdays, and other present-giving occasions. They're universal, timeless, wonderful. (If you can track copies down - only the first seems to be in print still, though some of the others are available new as audiobooks.)

When I was a young child during the early 1960s, I knew little about the Jewish faith or holidays - even though I now realize one of my best friends was probably Jewish (her mother was a Holocaust survivor). My family, though not religious, celebrated the standard Christian holidays, and at school, we only discussed and celebrated these Christian holidays or the official American ones like Thanksgiving and Memorial Day. The local stores and my community then (Arlington, VA) only decorated for them too, and so if there were Jewish kids in my midst, it just didn't come up. In short, there was little to expand my cultural knowledge - except books, which I was lucky enough to have in abundance.

The Stair-step Sisters checking out library books in an illustration by Helen John
The All-of-a-Kind Family books by Sydney Taylor introduced me not only to a Jewish family and the special days of their faith, they transported me in space to the Lower East Side of Manhattan and in time to the turn of the 20th century. But however long ago, far away, and set in a different culture these stories were, the characters rang absolutely true to my life and family. Although there were only three girls in my family rather than the five in the books, my sisters and I were also stair-step siblings with similar squabbles, alliances, and shared experiences - and a warm, close family. I particularly identified with Sarah, who, like me, was the square-in-the-middle sister, and who, also like me, wanted badly to be a good girl, but fell short periodically through carelessness or stubbornness. (I was particularly pleased to learn recently that the author, Sydney Taylor, was actually the Sarah of the books, which were based on her own childhood and family. She changed her first name during high school - kind of like I did for a while during junior high when I added a fashionable "e" to the end of mine.)

Second book in the series
My sisters and I loved the whole series of five books, but I think our group favorite was the first one. I do know that after we moved to Ohio when we were on the cusp of adolescence, our tattered copy lived in the crammed-full bookcase in the third floor bathroom. That bathroom boasted a deep claw-footed tub where we took turns soaking away our teen angst while reading voraciously. Over time, that collection of much re-read childhood favorites became known in our family as "The Bathtub Books," and we squabbled again as we grew up and left home over who could lay claim to which ones. Which was silly, since they were all utterly waterlogged, stained, and tattered to the point of falling apart. (You can read more about them and other ideas for encouraging a love of books in your kids in an earlier post here.)

Third book in the series
To me, these books exemplify the best in multicultural literature. They are never preachy or didactic; instead, they focus on characters that nearly any child finds recognizable and interesting and feature strong stories with universal appeal. Long before the American Girls dolls appeared on the scene, they provided a gentle, inviting path into history and caring about people who might come from different backgrounds. And I can only imagine how much they must have meant to Jewish-American children, who at the time had few role models in children's books.

Fourth book in the series
All five books were beautifully illustrated in detailed pen and ink drawings by Helen John, though many of the later paperbacks have illustrations by other artists. Despite searching every which way, I was unable to track down any biographical information about Ms. John, other than a reference to her having been an author as well as illustrator - but then I couldn't find the titles of anything she'd written. If anyone out there knows more about her, I'm dying of curiosity.

Her illustrations added enormously not only to my enjoyment of the books, they really brought the time and place to life for me, by providing information not necessarily clear in the text. Looking these over again made me sad that relatively few middle grade novels today include any illustrations - kids don't outgrow their pleasure and profit from pictures when they begin to read alone.
Illustration by Helen John from chapter "Rainy Day Surprise" in All-of-a-Kind Family
The image above shows a scene from one of my favorite chapters. Papa, who has a junk shop, has just gotten in a large collection of old books. Before he resells them, he allows the always book-hungry girls to sort through them and choose some to keep. Among the treasures they find is a book of paper dolls, a wonder they hadn't even imagined existed. Here's an excerpt from near the end of the chapter:
With the volumes of Dickens, the book of fairy tales, and The Dolls That You Love parceled out among them, they trooped back to the front of the shop to show Papa their finds.
     "May we keep them all?" Ella asked.
When he said "Yes," they could hardly believe their ears. They never thought to own even one book and now they had twelve. It was too wonderful!

Fifth and final book in the series

Most of my family's copies of these books arrived wrapped in white tissue paper and tied with white ribbon in the giant boxes of Christmas gifts my grandmother sent to our family from her home across the continent in California. Most of the gifts were books obtained from the bookstore where she was a clerk and squirreled away all year until the holidays in a large sandalwood chest she owned. To this day, the sight of red ribbon against white paper or the scent of sandalwood sets my heart beating with anticipation.

Now for the sad part: as I mentioned in the first paragraph, most of these books are no longer in print, and even the old editions are hard to find. What's worse, many have not been in print for years. Most of my copies are pre-1984, the year of doom under CPSIA. Yes, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act continues to prohibit all children's books printed before 1984 for use by children, regardless of how miniscule the risk they might pose (see the links in the sidebar for more information about the law and the safety of books). Many libraries have already removed all these older copies from their shelves (and discarded or destroyed them); many used booksellers won't carry them for fear of incurring gigantic fines and criminal penalties; and they are getting harder and harder to find at prices families can afford. I thank God every weekend that the yard sale people still don't seem to have heard of the law.

 I have hope that with a new chairman of the commerce committee (Henry Waxman, former chair, will be replaced when Congress reconvenes) that Congress will finally relent and revise the law (or at least hold hearings on it) - but meanwhile, these precious books continue to fade away. It would be a crime if they were lost altogether. After the holidays, please write again to your senators and congressional representative. (By the way, the stay of enforcement for testing of new, harmless books expires in February - so expect prices of kids' books to rise still further and choice to drop still more if nothing happens legislatively. See this Publisher's Weekly article here.) And maybe we can all persuade Delacourt to re-print them again...

Hope springs eternal in this season.

To end on a more upbeat note, it's clear that many adults still have strong and happy memories of these books. Check out the Amazon reviews about the books, and Anita Silvey's wonderful book-a-day blog post on the books here. You can also read a detailed tribute to Sydney Taylor, who lived a fascinating life (including a stint as a Martha Graham dancer), at the Association of  Jewish Libraries here. Finally, much of what I learned about Sydney Taylor, I gleaned from her thorough biography in Children's Books and Their Creators: An Invitation to the Feast of Twentieth-Century Children's Literature (Houghton Mifflin, 1995), edited by the always fabulous Anita Silvey! (If you love kids' books, it's a great reference book to add to your wish list.)

Friday, December 03, 2010

St. Nicholas Day Paper Boots: For When a Paper Shoe Simply Isn't Big Enough

Not-big-enough paper shoe - Needs more room for chocolate
My tutorial for making paper shoes for St. Nicholas Day is probably my most popular post ever, which kind of cracks me up, since I hadn't imagined there would be much demand for such a goofy thing as a paper shoe. It's so popular that this cool online magazine, InCulture, asked me if they could reprint it this month as part of their holiday issue. You can find it here - and check out the rest of the magazine while you're at it. Lots of interesting articles on multicultural issues for kids and parents.

Anyway, I've recently learned there is an even greater need out there: a tutorial and template for a paper boot! Because boots are also traditional to put out for St. Nicholas Day and well-worn ones tend to smell even worse than used sneakers do, if that's possible.  More importantly, a paper boot can hold WAY more chocolates and other goodies than a paper shoe can. That's a need I can appreciate.

I didn't really have any idea how to make a paper boot, though, so I turned to my smartest, most trusted friend: Ms. Google.

And she let me down. The only templates/examples I could find for paper boots were really lame. In particular, they failed on the most important characteristic of a paper boot: capacity. This is because they were basically boot-shaped envelopes.

I have limited footwear engineering skills. Really, that paper shoe pretty much exhausted them. Though I do have these really, really cool vintage-maybe-antique children's shoe "lasts." (See, I even know the technical lingo.) They're iron and really, really heavy.
I bought them at an estate sale recently, even though I have no intention of becoming a shoemaker and don't have young children anymore. My husband says I'm insane. But he says it lovingly, so I forgive him.

So I was kind of stumped. Then I tripped over someone's boots in the hallway (oops - they were mine. It SNOWED yesterday. The nerve.) And then I had a flash of inspiration for how I could adapt the basic St. Nick paper shoe into a paper boot. And it only took me two tries to make something that works.

Here's how you do it:

You'll Need
  • Scrap papers
  • Cardboard from a cereal box (for making the original shoe, if you haven't already)
  • Printed templates (see below)
  • A pen or pencil
  • A pair of scissors
  • A glue stick (preferably the strong craft kind) or white glue with a toothpick or something to apply it.
  • A handful of unused tissues
  • A smidge of patience and frustration tolerance
1.Make the paper shoe from the template and tutorial here.

2. Print out this new template for the boot's upper, and transfer it to a paper of your choice.
I used the test print sheet my stupid printer wastes ink on every time I install a new cartridge. Cut out the two pieces. (Mine has nice decorative edging because I accidentally got Sharpie all over it when I was tracing it to make the printable template. I'm pretending it's a design feature.)

3. Stuff the shoe with the unused tissues. (You can reuse them later, so just sniffle for a bit until this is done.)
Stuff them loosely. You're going to need to extract them from the finished boot later.

4. Slather some glue stick on the piece that attaches to the heel and stick it on. Be patient. Wait for the glue to dry.

5. Now glue the sort of pointy part of the other piece of upper onto the top of the shoe. (There are probably fancy technical names for these parts, like "flange" or "gasket" or "whippersnapper," but I don't know them.) BE PATIENT. It will be much easier to do the next, a-little-bit-fiddly step if you let the glue dry.

6. Pressing hard, run the glue stick along the edges where the boot part will attach to the rest of the shoe upper and turn the corner to run glue along the part that will stick to the piece you already attached to the heel of the shoe.
Then stand the shoe up and stick everything together.
This is easier said than done. In truth, it is a bit fiddly. It might not be perfect. I have a little gappy place in mine. That's okay. This is a paper boot, people, not a pair of ridiculously expensive Frye boots like my daughter wants for Christmas. Just pretend you're one of the little elf guys in this story.
Only with less hammering. You won't have much boot left if you break out the hammers.
Do one side at a time, because otherwise the glue on the other side will dry out before you finish attaching the first side.

Here's a closeup of the attached bits.
7. After the glue dries, pull out the tissues, wipe everyone's noses, and dispose of them properly. Not in recycling, even though they're paper. Too gross.

There! Not bad for a paper boot, is it? And it totally beats those envelope ones in the important capacity category. You can have a rush of enthusiasm and decorate it if you want - glue some ribbon or rickrack around the top, attach some real or paper buttons or silk flowers or something. Be creative - I bet you can come up with some very good clever ideas using common household items, like flourescent-colored cereals or wheels that have come off little cars.

Just don't forget to put it out for St. Nick on the night of December 5th. Because it really looks best all filled up with chocolate and other lovely goodies.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Happy Hanukkah! With Coloring Tutorial!

This is a paper doll based on the star of my book Mimi, which I first posted last year in a longer piece about the holiday (complete with book recommendations and latke recipe) here. I've colored the sheet with colored pencils (though unfortunately it hasn't photographed great and scanned even worse...) Anyway, as a gift for the first day of Hanukkah, I'm going to offer some tips on coloring for young artists.

Below is the uncolored page, which you can dowload and print as a pdf here.
By the way, I apologize if you tried to download this or any of my other free printables recently and got asked to pay a monthly subscription fee to Scribd first. Apparently they were trying an "experiment" by asking people to subscribe in order to use "archived" documents (which they defined as anything that had been on there more than a couple months). They didn't notify users, so I didn't realize. But I've now changed my settings and you should once again be able to download all my printables for free. Sorry!

Tip Number One: Use the Best Quality Supplies You Can
One thing many people don't realize is that the kind of colored pencils marketed for kids are, well, lousy. If you are lucky, you'll get even a small set of artist-quality colored pencils, like these ones made by Prismacolor for Hanukkah or Christmas or whatever holiday you celebrate.

As you can see, good supplies are much more expensive than the kid-quality ones - the smallest set of 12 pencils is $10 US at 50% off at the above retailer - but they are totally worth it for several reasons. First, they work better which enables kids to produce a better final product which encourages them in turn to work harder and longer at their artwork. Second, kids are more likely to take care of and keep track of something that is special and valuable; this teaches them respect for their tools and good lifelong habits. And finally, giving them "real" art suppplies lets you demonstrate that you take your kids and their interests seriously. Two of the best gifts I ever received in my life were a set of artist quality watercolors that I got when I was nine (and which I still have and use) and a drawing table my folks got me for my birthday when I turned eleven. I still have it too, but my daughter uses it now.

One caveat: artist quality supplies don't have to adhere to the same safety standards as kid materials. Make sure you choose appropriate materials for kids who still mouth things or lack the dexterity to handle tools which are sharp or otherwise dangerous. And remember the real stuff is more likely to stain...

Tip Number Two: Start Light and Work Darker
You can always make things darker, but going light again is less successful. If you start out light, you'll be able to add some darker areas around edges or in folds to give a sense of dimension. In the image below, see how I've colored Mimi lightly all over, then gone back and added darker areas (fading toward light) around the edges of her face and in her ears to give the sense of roundness and/or depth. (I've also used a slightly darker pencil for her nose, mouth and eyebrows, but you can get almost the same effect by using more pressure on the pencil.) Another note: the pink pencil I used wasn't Prismacolor but highish quality kid pencil - and see how much less waxy and smooth the coverage is than with the yellow.

 By the way, I'm no master with colored pencils (which is why I work in other media professionally). You may notice I still tend to color outside the lines (and I wasn't great at coloring as a kid either). It's okay here, though, because Mimi will get cut out!

Another tip is to use dull pencils (or crayons) for large uniform areas of color and sharp ones for picking out details. And an advanced technique (which I did not use here) is to go over your colored pencils with a white one - it creates a smoother texture. That's called burnishing.

One other thing: many art educators frown on coloring; they feel it stifles creativity and doesn't teach kids real art skills. While I agree that coloring alone is not art, I disagree about its value. It lets kids (and adults) experiment and practice with basic skills and color use in a very low risk way. Similarly, using tracing paper, stencils and other "cheating" ways of drawing can help kids develop an understanding of how to draw things and muscle memory that lets them work more quickly on similar things in the future.

Tip Number Three: Shade with Other Colors
You'll get even better effects using blues, grays, and browns to add more shadows. To decide where to put shadows, look at things around you. In general, shadows go in areas that are under, behind, etc. depending on the light source. Learning to look carefully is a core skill for artists and worth cultivating daily.
In this close-up, notice how I've used some blue-grey for extra shadows (Payne's Gray is my favorite paint color for adding shadows). I have some around Mimi's nose, the tops of her shoulders, and the edges of her undies (to give a sense of puffiness). There's also some in the folds of her undershirt, but it didn't show up well in this photo.
Tip Number Four: Play with Color - and Leave some Areas White
I made Mimi's new dress a pale blue, in part because blue is a traditional Hanukkah color, but mostly because I like how the blue looks against her pink skin - a nice cool (blue) color contrasting with a warm (pink) one. With her underclothes, I went with yellow as an experiment to see which pairing I prefer (I like both, but prefer the blue a bit.) I used my light-dark technique to make the detailing on her dress look different from the main fabric too. And I chose green and yellow for the dreidel and gelt bag because I like the contrast with her dress. (Plus I made the menorah colorful, because I like the joyfulness the color scheme suggests - colors are strongly linked with emotions.)
You can play around with creating different shades by layering different colors on top of each other. I didn't here, but it is a fun and often overlooked technique.

Another thing I did was leave some areas white - we forget that the absence of color makes a statement too. So the bib of Mimi's dress is white instead of light blue (looks subtle in the picture), and her tights are lightly striped blue and white. I've also use white for modeling/texture. For example, by leaving areas of white on the toes of Mimi's party shoes, they appear both rounded and shiny.

Tip Number Five: Add Details, Make Changes, Make It Your Own!
You don't have to be limited by what is in front of you. I added an "embroidered" snowflake to Mimi's dress and yellow and orange stripes to her undies. I could have done more things - made Mimi a brown pig or even a green one. That's the beauty of coloring and drawing - you can make anything you choose!

I've always loved this description of one of the "Useless Presents" the poet Dylan Thomas recalls in his now classic book, A Child's Christmas in Wales by (I know - wrong holiday):
"...and a painting book in which I could make the grass, the trees, the sea and the animals any color I pleased, and still the dazzling sky-blue sheep are grazing in the red field under the rainbow-billed and pea-green birds."
 And that's it! If you want more advanced tips on drawing with colored pencils, you can also check out this tutorial.

Here's Mimi assembled but uncolored :(.

By the way, I LOVE paper engineering. It was lots of fun for me to figure out how to make a menorah that "works." By that I don't mean light the candles on fire. You can insert the proper number in for each day. Maybe you could craft another cool thing for Mimi yourself, like a little box of colored pencils where the pencils really go in and out. Or a dreidel that really works. This site is a cool if nearly overwhelming place to get some ideas and references.