Painting Chloe’s Toy Chest
Chloe’s Papa got her a wooden chest to use as a toy box and suggested that I might like to paint some kind of decoration on the lid. Our girls had a similar chest when they were little and I had painted a folk-art design on it. Unfortunately, this was in the era when “antiquing” was popular, and I put a faux antique finish over the design. When the children no longer used it as a toy chest, it was stripped down to more or less its original finish, and it now provides storage in my studio.
My first thought for Chloe’s box was to do something colorful and bright—flowers, or her name in fancy letters, or maybe a graphic. But driving her to our house I commented on how pretty the sky was that day, and Chloe said she liked to look at the clouds. I recited a poem that my mother used to say to me when we looked at clouds:
If I had a spoon as big as the sky
I’d scoop up the clouds as they drifted by.
I’d take them inside for mommy to cook
and hope that they tasted as good as they look.
Chloe said she likes to lie in the grass and look and clouds and sometimes falls asleep. That gave me the idea to do a simple blue sky-cloud motif on the toy chest.
We moved the chest to our house, and for the next few days I took photos of clouds and sky and, with some difficulty, a couple of Chloe lying in the grass. The “simple” idea turned out to be harder than I anticipated.
When I took art in the junior high school, a group of us set out to paint a mural with a blue sky. Using tempera paint, we poured blue paint into a bucket, then started mixing in white. Of course by the time we got it down to pale sky blue, we had almost enough to paint the actual sky, or at least the school. Our teacher was furious, but if my eighth grade art teacher is still alive, I would like her to know that the lesson stuck: when painting sky, start with white and add blue a little at a time.
I used cerulean blue for the first coat, shading from darker at the top and paler at the horizon. But the cerulean was not blue enough, so next coat I used ultramarine. Still not dark enough, even with a little cobalt added, but I stayed with the paler sky rather than adding coats.
The thing about painting sky on a large surface is that it’s harder than it would seem, especially when you’re trying to create a gradation of color. Brush strokes show, paint goes on unevenly, and when you go back to smooth out an area you realize it’s lighter than the color on the brush. The grain and flaws in the wood added their own challenges.
If I thought sky was challenging, I had no idea what lay ahead with the grass. My original sketch had just a fringe of grass, but the final painted version is a hilltop meadow, about 250 square inches, with clearly painted blades in the foreground, blending into a darker textured area in the background.
I wanted the figure to be mostly obscured by the grass, and since Chloe was holding her “blankie” in the photo, and she is rarely seen without it, I used it to help obscure the figure. Chloe said I made her a little too long, but since she’s a growing girl I think it’s ok. She also asked where the sun was. I was a little flummoxed by that, but just told her it’s not in the picture.
Whenever I caught myself agonizing, I told myself that it’s a toy box, and will not be treated like a painting hanging in the Louvre, so don’t put too much effort into it. It will get battered, even with a few coats of acrylic lacquer.
I was curious about my mother’s source for the poem so I googled it. The original is by Dorothy Aldis, an early 20th Century writer of children’s literature. I like my mother’s version better, perhaps because it’s what I grew up hearing, and who nowadays would have a cook to give the clouds to?
If I had a spoon
As tall as the sky
I’d dish out the clouds
That go slip-sliding by.
I’d take them right in
And give them to Cook
And see if they tasted
As good as they look.
I will include both poems inside the lid, along with an inscription from me to Chloe, with the date. I doubt it will be an heirloom, but you never know. Maybe I should tackle the old stripped one next.