My Foray into the World of Alcohol Markers

Or, How I Came to Purchase a Set of Prismacolor Premier Colored Pencils

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A few years ago, alcohol markers became a big thing for coloring images in the crafting and card-making world. Like most others, I was intrigued. I started to do my homework. I looked at basically all the brands that were available in the United States and listed the pros and cons of each. Prismacolor markers were made in the U.S. but were not refillable. Copics were refillable but expensive. Spectrum Noir markers were refillable, had the best price per marker, but were made in China.

I watched videos about how to use the markers. I read reviews on several blogs. I read the fine print details on the companies’ web sites. I went around and around for months–many, many months. I also watched videos comparing the Sharpie and Bic alcohol-based markers to the more expensive, artist-level alcohol markers.

In the meantime, I had about 10 or 12 Sharpie markers that I played with a little bit. This gave me a little taste of how the alcohol markers work, if not the superior blending qualities of the more expensive brands. What I concluded was that I didn’t like the smell of alcohol markers. I also didn’t like the look I got in the finished project. I am not a trained artist and got results nowhere near some of the fabulous artists I have seen on YouTube.

At the same time as I was doing all of this research, I was also watching videos on wax-based colored pencils, watercolor pencils and watercolor painting. These demonstrations and tutorials looked like fun to me. They looked more like a style I would be comfortable with making my own. For many years, I have played with pencils and paints, so am much more familiar with the products, how to use them and what result I could get from them.

I came to the conclusion that alcohol markers weren’t for me. I can get along with a small handful of Sharpie or Bic markers for anything I might want to do now and then. I saved my pennies and looked for good sales (something I recommend everyone do). I found an awesome sale on Prismacolor Premier Colored Pencils and bought those. I am now researching and looking at the watercolor paints and pencils that I think I will enjoy using more instead of following a trend.

If you love alcohol markers and they are right for you, I don’t have anything against people using them. Just do your homework into which brand is right for you. Don’t be afraid to mix brands. And as always, be patient and look for the best price that fits your budget.

A Little Review

I found an amazing 70% off MSRP sale on Prismacolor Premier colored pencils at Dick Blick. I have never seen the price that low. (As of the DATE OF THIS POST, the pencils are STILL ON SALE at Dick Blick . I don’t know how long the sale will last.) I bought the 48 count set which has a pretty good selection of colors. There are some colors not in the set that I want to buy later, but the pencils are easy to find to buy individaully. I am extremely happy with the Prismacolor pencils. They are creamy enough to blend well even without using a solvent like Gamsol (odorless mineral spirits) or mineral oil (baby oil).  My only disappointment is that the pencils are now made in Mexico instead of the United States. So if you are interested in colored pencils, save your money and buy a set of Prismacolor Premier Colored Pencils. You won’t be disappointed.

 

Disclaimer: I do not have any affiliation with any of the companies mentioned above. I am simply a satisfied, paying customer of Prismacolor Premier Colored Pencils and DickBlick.com.

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Playing with ATC kits

…from yourATCstore.com

What is an ATC?

For those of you who know what an ATC is, you can skip this part. For those of you who don’t, here’s the scoop. ATC stands for Artist Trading Card. It is a small card that is 2 1/2 by 3 1/2 inches in size, the same size as a baseball card or a standard playing card. The cards are not to be sold, only traded. You can use any form of art media in this small space. Some people paint, others collage or stamp. The possibilities are endless. According to Wikipedia, this practice was started in 1996 in Switzerland. Most people credit an artist named M. Vänçi Stirnemann for starting the current popularity of Artist Trading Cards.

Review of the Kits

I bought several ATC kits from yourATCstore.com. These kits were very inexpensive at about $1 to $1.25 each. Lisa, the owner, puts together some really fun kits packed with lots of goodies. I like to use these kits when I don’t feel like sifting through all my paper and embellishments to design an ATC on my own. I just want to sit down and do a little crafting.

The kits from yourATCstore.com are in the collage style, which is one of the styles I like to do. The kits are so generously packed that there is a significant amount of things left over after making one ATC. If you add another quote, a printed image or a stamped image, you can easily make another ATC with the leftover supplies. There are many different kits on the site to choose from. New kits are created often, about every month, so there is always something new to see.

The online store is also stocked with charms, collage elements and other items you might want to use on an ATC of your own creation. One of the things I like about the store is that the charms are sold individually. Many times, I see a charm that is really cute, but it comes in a package of several charms. I usually need one piece for my project and have all the others left over. At yourATCstore.com, I am able to buy only one charm at a time, which I really appreciate. And of course, they are reasonably priced.

So head over to yourATCstore.com for some easy, inexpensive ATC fun! Click on “ATC Kits” and scroll down to find your favorites. It looks like the February 2011 and the July 2010 kits I used are no longer available, but I saw so many other fabulous kits that there are plenty for you to find something you like.

My ATC Project

I am eventually going to finish a series of twelve ATC kits that I bought. The theme of each kit will be related to each month of the year, at least loosely. I want to make a small wall hanging like this to display the cards all at once. It will be fun to look at when I am finished and see all the details that make up each card.

These are the four kits I used.

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January ATC kit 2014 Red Riding Hood

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February ATC kit 2011

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July ATC kit 2010

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June ATC kit 2014 Floral Beauty

These are the cards I made with the kits. 

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“Little Red Riding Hood” So cute!

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“A Valentine Special” Love the vintage valentine image.

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“Celebrate Freedom” I struggled a bit with this one. Can you tell?

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“June Wedding” Such a pretty image and colors.

All I had to do was add my own adhesive, both regular and dimensional. I plan on putting together another 8 more kits. I’ll share those with you when I finish them.

 

 

It’s Gingerbread House Time, Part 3

Decorating the House

Now is the time to really let your imagination go wild. Start looking at food in a new way. Look at colors, shapes and textures to see if that food can be used as something to decorate your gingerbread house.

About Icing Consistency

You can use the same icing you used to put your house together to “glue” your decorations in place. You will probably need to thin the icing a little to get it to spreadable consistency. Add water a drop at a time and stir it in until you have reached the right consistency. You want your icing to be thin enough to spread easily but not so thin that it is runny. For spreading or “gluing” icing consistency, you want your icing to be about the thickness of honey. You want the icing to still mound on a spoon but drop off the spoon in a thick stream, not a glop.

If your icing is too thin, just add more powdered sugar or a bit more of the thick icing if you have more left. However, it is easier to add a bit of water to thick frosting than it is to make a thin frosting thicker. This is where adding the water drop by drop comes into play. I’m not trying to be tedious. The icing thins out quickly, and you don’t want to overdo it.

Gallery of Houses

These are houses that were decorated at my 2015 Gingerbread House Party by kids of all ages. Click on a picture to open the gallery. Sorry about the quality of the pictures. I was concentrating on having fun, not being a good photographer.

My Favorite Decorations

I like to use edible things for my decorations. Here’s a list of my favorites:

  • Tootsie Rolls–These can be warmed in your hand and shaped like clay into many shapes; stack them up to make a woodpile. You can also shape caramels and Starbursts, too.
  • Necco wafers–These are great for roof decoration or broken to make slate walkways or a stone look for your house.
  •  Popcorn–looks like snow so spread it on the roof or around the base of the house for a nice wintery look; make popcorn balls into snowman or bushes.
  • Shredded coconut–also looks like snow over the roof or around the yard
  • Sliced almonds–good for roofs or siding
  • Cereal–great for roofing shingles; try Shredded Wheat or Golden Grahams or whatever your favorite is.
  • Gumdrops–These are cute used as is or sliced to make different shapes and decorations. They come in different shapes and sizes including rings which make great wreaths.
  • Licorice–both red and black are nice additions to your decorations. You can even find black licorice in Scottie dog shapes.
  • M&Ms or Skittles–These give a very festive look used anywhere on your house.
  • Graham crackers, sugar wafers and Hershey’s small candy bars–These make convincing doors and window shutters.
  • Candy canes–add festive color; these can be cut with kitchen shears or other strong scissors; I like to use these along any edge of the house.
  • Rolos, miniature peanut butter cups or Hershey’s Kisses–Put them wherever you wish. A little chocolate never hurt anybody.
  • Pretzels–You can make a log cabin look with these. Different shapes make good windows.
  • Ice cream cones–Spread or pipe green frosting on sugar cones to make trees for your yard. These make great turrets if you are going to make a castle.
  • Marshmallows–Glue these together to make a snowman.
  • Shaped Cookies, either homemade or store-bought–These make cute additions when propped up against the side of your house or made into some other thing like a chimney, door or window. Animal crackers and gingerbread people can be especially fun.
  • Fruit leather–use your imagination with this one–maybe a scarf for your marshmallow snowman or a bow for a wreath…
  • Rice Krispie treats and Corn Flakes wreaths–The wreaths are self explanatory. The Rice Krispie treats can be warmed in the microwave for about 10 seconds and shaped into anything you want them to be. Leave them plain or cover them with icing and/or candies.
  • Hard Candies–just about any type would work.
  • Red Hots and other nonpareils–adds a little bling to your house
  • Et cetera, Et cetera–This is by no means an exhaustive list. Keep on the lookout for any other interesting things you can use for your decorations.

Use Icing instead of Candies

You don’t have to use any candy or different foods to decorate your house. You can spread or pipe icing onto your house for decoration. You could keep your icing all white and get a certain look, or you could separate your icing into several bowls and add colors to the icing. There are also tubes of colored icing you can buy, but I find those are often a little too thick to stick to the gingerbread. (You could squeeze all the frosting out of the tube and add a little water a drop at a time to thin it out.)

If you don’t already own cake decorating equipment, I would recommend to start with plastic disposable bags and circle, star and leaf tips. The bags are not too expensive and the tips are very inexpensive. You can use couplers with your icing bags if you want to be able to change the tip on the bag containing a certain color, or you can simply put the frosting tip into the bag by itself.

If you are not going to eat your house and everyone including children and pets know not to eat your house, you can use anything you wish to decorate your house. Paper, wood, cotton balls…

When Things Go Wrong

When disaster strikes

When disaster strikes

Sometimes gingerbread houses fall apart. Here are some of the common culprits:

  • Using icing other than royal icing–buttercream-type frosting is just not strong enough to hold the pieces together.
  • Not waiting long enough after assembling the house–the icing needs time to dry.
  • Humid weather–moisture in the air is not good for gingerbread houses.
  • Embellishments are too heavy–this is still just cookies and icing. The structure simply can’t hold the weight.
  • Soft cookies–Underbaked cookies will sag or break.

So what do you do when disaster strikes? Have fun with it! Decorate the inside of your house. Take the whole house apart and decorate the pieces like large cookies. Try putting the house back together with more icing. Remember that you can look back and laugh at this next year.

The recipe in Part 1 can be used for any size or shape of gingerbread house. If you haven’t looked at Part 2, go there to see how to put the house together. This series covered the basics of gingerbread house making. There are more elaborate ways to design, assemble and decorate a gingerbread house. This year, the series is for the beginner. Start with this easy gingerbread house and next year you’ll be ready to try something more difficult.

 

It’s Gingerbread House Time! Part 2

Building the House

The “Cement”

Royal icing is the standard icing used to glue a gingerbread house together. The icing contains egg whites that cause it to harden enough to hold the pieces together. I use a meringue powder to make my royal icing. No messing with separating raw eggs or worrying about food poisoning. The basic recipe is:

  • 1 pound (4 cups) sifted powdered sugar
  • 3 Tablespoons meringue powder
  • 6 Tablespoons warm water
  • Starting with the mixer on low, mix the ingredients together until all the sugar is moistened. Increase the speed to high and beat the icing until it is stiff and glossy. This will take about 5 to 7 minutes with a Kitchenaid mixer, about 7 to 10 minutes using a smaller mixer, or might take longer than 10 minutes using a handheld mixer.  Store the icing in a glass bowl with an airtight lid or press plastic wrap onto the surface of the icing. The icing dries out quickly, so keep it covered when not in use.

For an egg-free icing recipe, I use this recipe. It is nowhere near as strong as royal icing, but I have yet to find an egg-free frosting recipe that works better. I have tried using a recipe that uses glycerin instead of egg whites. That was a miserable fail.

Preparing the Foundation

You will need a surface on which to build your house. You can use just about anything that is sturdy. After the house is decorated, it will be heavy. I like to use cardboard cake bases. I use 13 by 19 inch pieces of cake board cut in half to make 9 1/2 by 13 inch pieces. My “large” gingerbread house fits nicely on this size with space around the house to decorate a yard. You can also use a platter or a sturdy cutting board. If you are using something like a piece of plywood or cardboard that is not food-safe, cover it with tin foil or decorative foil used in cake decorating to cover cake bases. You will need to “glue” the foil to the board with a thin layer of icing so that the house doesn’t rip the foil and fall off the board.

Squaring the Sides

Look at your gingerbread cookie pieces and make sure the edges are straight. If you need to, you can use a knife, a microplane grater or a grater with small holes to scrape the edge until it is flat. Be very gentle with this procedure. It’s better to have a little bit of unevenness than to break your pieces. If you squared off your pieces when they came out of the oven, you might not even have to do any straightening at this point.

You can hold the edges of the cookies against the tabletop to see which side is the straightest. The straightest edge of the side is the edge that goes toward the bottom. You want the side edges to be relatively straight as well since they will be connecting to the front and the back of the house. It doesn’t matter if the top edge of the sides are a little uneven. For the peaked front and back pieces, I like to check the bottom and the angled edges to make sure they are relatively straight. The straightest edge of the roof needs to go toward the peak of the roof. It doesn’t matter if any of the other edges of the roof pieces are not flat.

“Gluing” the House Together

Put your icing in a pastry bag fitted with a large tip. I like to use a round #12 or a star #18 or #21. I lay my pieces out on the cardboard to set every thing up to get ready to start assembling the house. This is how I like to assemble my houses. I’m sure there are other ways to do it. You can follow my lead or find what works best for you.

House pieces laid out on cardboard

House pieces laid out on cardboard with a bead of icing to anchor the pieces.

I like to place a line of icing on the cardboard base to set the cookie pieces in so they won’t slide off the cardboard. You can also run a line of icing along the bottom edge of the pieces before you glue them together. This step is optional. Since the people decorating my houses will be transporting them, it makes the houses more likely to survive the drive home so I do it this way.

Applying icing to the first piece

Icing on the front piece of the house

I draw a line of icing along the inside edges of the front of the house. I stand up the front piece, then gently push one of the sides into the line of icing. Those two pieces will usually stand on their own long enough for me to take the other side and affix that to the line of icing on the other edge of the front piece.

Front and 2 sides attached

Front and 2 sides attached

This is what it should look like so far. You can use canned veggies, fruit or soup to prop up your sides if they don’t want to stand on their own yet.

Adding icing to the last side

Icing on the back piece ready to finish the main part of the house

I put the icing on the back side just like for the front. When I have assembled all four sides, I gently squeeze the house together so that all sides are making good contact with the icing. I look at the house from the top to make sure that the house is straight. I like to wait about 15 minutes for the icing on this part of the house to firm up a bit before adding the roof.

Adding icing for the roof

Adding icing for the roof

To attach the roof, I run a line of icing along the angled sides of the front and back pieces. I put one of the roof pieces on the house, and run a bead of icing along the top edge of the roof that will make the peak. Then I add the other roof piece on the house. I gently press both sides of the roof in an upward motion so that it fits tightly at the peak.

The house is now complete. I recommend letting the icing dry overnight before you start decorating. Again, the thing to remember is to be gentle with your house. It is still just cookies and icing. Keep the icing you made to assemble your house covered in the refrigerator until the next day. You can use it decorate your house.

Repairing a Broken Piece

If, heaven forbid, you break a piece and don’t have another to replace it, here’s what you do. Get a graham cracker. Place the broken gingerbread cookie face down on the table. Spread some of your royal icing all over the graham cracker and “glue” it over the crack. Let it dry for a while until the icing is stable. Use the piece just like you would if it hadn’t been broken. When you decorate your house, you will most likely be covering up the crack anyways, so no worries.

For the gingerbread recipe and how to cut out the shapes for the house, go to Part 1.

Part 3 will share my ideas for decorating your house. I like to stick with edible things to decorate my house. Pretty much anything goes. Start looking at food and candy in a new way. Would that make a nice window? Would this make a good roofing material? Doesn’t this look like snow?

 

It’s Gingerbread House Time!

Part 1: Baking the Pieces

Josh and Lily's Gingerbread House 2015 front view

One of the things I look forward to the most at Christmastime is my annual gingerbread house decorating party. Kids of all ages can get involved in the decorating. Making the houses is not as hard as it looks. I’ll give you some tips that will make the process easy. Even a beginner can make a simple house. The decorations can be as simple or as elaborate as you choose.

The Recipe

Sara Jean’s Gingerbread House Recipe This is my tried-and-true recipe. I have two versions–a regular one and one that is egg-free. The modifications for the egg-free recipe are at the bottom of the page. I’ll add an egg-free icing recipe in Part 2.

It’s best if you bake the cookie pieces ahead of time so they have time to dry out a little. Keep the pieces in an airtight zip-top bag or an airtight container. You don’t want air and moisture getting to your pieces and making them soft. You can bake your cookie pieces ahead of time with no problem. Gingerbread cookies seem to last for a long time. I have made my pieces anywhere from one week to two months ahead of time.

Baking Tips

In the recipe instructions, you will find several good tips. The first is to refrigerate your dough. The eggless dough needs to be refrigerated longer than the recipe with egg in it. Allowing the dough to rest and cool makes it so much easier to handle for rolling out and cutting.

The second tip is to roll out your dough directly onto parchment paper or a silicone mat like a Silpat. That way, you can move your pieces directly onto the baking sheet without distorting the pieces when moving them. Carefully grab the edges of the mat or paper and slide it onto the baking sheet. You can use tinfoil if you don’t have a silicone mat or parchment paper, but I find that the dough doesn’t roll out as well on tin foil. Tin foil also doesn’t seem to release the cooked pieces as well as a silicone mat or parchment paper. (Parchment paper can be found in the grocery store in the aisle with tinfoil and plastic wrap or at any store that sells cake decorating supplies.)

The third tip is to adjust the thickness of the dough and the baking time according to how large the pieces are. A small piece (about 3 to 5″) can be rolled thinner than a larger piece and still not break. The smaller and thinner pieces also bake faster. Gingerbread is hard to tell when it is done because it is brown to begin with. The pieces should be firm on the edges but will still be a little soft. The pieces will harden as they cool. Carefully take your finger and nudge the edge of one of the pieces. If it feels dry and slightly firm, it should be done. The pieces should look dry over the whole top side of the piece.

The fourth tip (which I don’t think I mentioned in the recipe) is to gently shape your pieces when they come out of the oven. They will still be soft at this stage.  You can take the flat edge of a spatula and straighten up the edges of the cookies by gently pushing the spatula against the edge of the cookie. You can also easily cut the cookie pieces when they are still warm from the oven. Cut with a gentle  up-and-down motion. To get a completely flat cookie, make sure your cooling rack is flat. If it is bowed, your pieces will be curved and might not fit together correctly when you are assembling your house.

The last tip is to treat your gingerbread pieces gently. Let them cool for about 5 to 10 minutes on the baking sheet before you try to move them. Use a spatula to remove your pieces from the baking sheet to the cooling rack. For larger pieces, use two spatulas or a cake lifter or a bench scraper to move the pieces so that the whole piece is supported. You can also use the silicone mat or parchment paper to move the pieces to your cooling rack if your cooling rack is large enough to keep all the pieces level. Gently take the edges and slide the mat/paper onto the cooling rack just like you slid it onto the baking sheet before you baked the pieces. You might want a helper to do this step. Four hands are better than two. In Part 2, I will tell you what to do if a piece breaks and you don’t have an extra piece.

Templates

I like to make my own templates. You can make any size or shape you wish. Just remember that steep angles are hard to attach your pieces to. You can find a variety of designs online or in books about gingerbread house decorating.

You can use several types of materials to make your templates. You can use cardboard. If you do use cardboard, I would recommend using a cardboard cake board since they are food-safe. I wouldn’t want to use a dirty old cardboard box that had been used for shipping–unless you are definitely not going to eat the gingerbread. Cardboard will get dirty as you use it so it is not good a good choice if you want to reuse it later.

I like to use plastic for my templates because I can wash and reuse them. I am still using my original templates I made 12 or 13 years ago. I like to use plastic sheets like this used for making quilt block templates. You can usually find these plastic sheets in any store that sells fabric. You can also use stencil plastic, but I find that plastic to be thin and flimsy. Since it’s not as sturdy as the quilting template plastic, it’s harder to get an accurate shape cut out of the dough. You could also use something like the lid of a whipped topping container. That plastic is sturdy and flat enough, but you are limited by the size of the lid.

I draw my shapes on graph paper so that I know the lines are straight. I cut the shapes out of cardboard first to make sure the shapes fit together correctly. That way I can go back and make any adjustments before I cut into the template plastic. Once the design is finalized, you can trace the shapes onto the template plastic and cut them out with scissors or a craft knife and ruler. Here are printable drawings of  my Gingerbread House Templates for you to use. Do not use “Fit to Page” when printing the drawings. Do a test fit with cardboard first to make sure the sizes are right.

When you are designing your house, just remember that you need two rectangles for the roof, two rectangles for the sides and two sides with a peak for the front and back of the house.  So, let your imagination go wild. You can make the pieces as big or as small as you want. You are only limited in size by how big your baking pans and your oven are.

If you have any questions, leave them in the comments below. Part 2 will show you how to assemble your house. In Part 3, I’ll share several ideas for decorations.  See you soon.