Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Tale of a Storybook Toy Chest

A Storybook Toy Chest
Its been a very long time since I've done any miniature painting.  So long in fact that I had serious doubts that I could still manage to hold a tiny brush steady and remember how to apply paint to a surface.  And, therein lay the challenge before me. 

About a month ago, my friend, Betsy, sent to me a small wooden chest that she'd picked up at a crafts store.  The dimensions were approximately 5 1/4" long, 3 1/2" wide and about 4" tall to the top of the decorative back.  She had an idea for me to paint scenes, or characters, from her favorite childhood storybooks on the piece, and turn it into a toy chest for her little dolls (probably most specifically her 9" Lawton dolls). 

In the beginning, there was wood and paper....
Since I'd not painted in awhile, and especially since she requested Alice and the White Rabbit, I readily agreed to give it a go.  What I didn't anticipate was how rusty at the brush I would be. 

The first task was to prepare the box for paint.  In the past I've gone out to the garage and with my miniature table saw, cut up pieces of bass wood to make my own little trunks.  I thought, "Cool!", the box is already made!  Ha-ha!  But, the wood these boxes are made from require just as much, if not more prep work. 

I sanded the piece by hand, then gessoed it, covering the exterior and interior.  Because the lid was stationary, I had to apply the gesso in thin layers so the lid wouldn't stick to the interior of the box.  I let it dry over a couple of days, which is more easily done in dry summer conditions, then sanded the heck out of it by hand, trying to achieve as smooth a painting surface as possible.  The very nature of the wood with its deep grooves would prove a problem on several sides as I began the actual painting of the characters. 

The First Panel Painted
The next stage was choosing an acrylic base, and Ceramcoat is my bottle paint of choice.  I chose Ivory White, and gave the box several coats for an opaque finish.  Again, dealing with the stationary lid would be tricky in getting as much surface covered as possible.  While coats were drying, I selected images from the four stories she chose.  Alice in Wonderland, Beatrix Potter (Peter Rabbit), Winnie the Pooh and Raggedy Ann and Andy.  In the long past, I became familiar by paint, with these characters, as I've made the tiny 3 1/2" Storybook Trunk Sets from all these beloved tales.  It would be interesting to combine them into one piece.

The Second Panel Painted -" Is there any honey for me?", Piglet asks.
One of the most important things an artist must do is create a balanced design, pleasing to the eye, to encourage the eye to travel naturally and enjoyably over a painted surface.  I must have spent several days just looking over my books and selecting images that worked in coordination with the shape of the box.  Pooh was the most difficult.  Pooh and Piglet were requested, and it was hard to find one illustration by Shepard (from A.A. Milne's book) that featured them together in such a way to compliment the slanted side of the box.  I finally found two separate images and combined them together for the side panel.  Also requested were bees and the honey jar.  Initially I wanted Pooh's face to show, but in the end, I selected images from three separate pages to paint, and Pooh's nose appropriately stuck in the honey jar.  A good place to be for Pooh. 

What's all the fuss?  Again, the design must be correct and often the pre-work, the brain work behind the piece isn't taken into consideration by a commission.  That, to me, seriously, is where half the work comes from. 

Peter Rabbit getting ready to make some trouble in McGregor's garden was the first panel I painted.  With this, I had to relearn the techniques I'd practiced long ago and had forgotten.  No, its not like riding a bike.  And, its been that long!  But, by the time it was done, I was ready to move onto Pooh and feeling more confident.

Marcella's Treasured Companions
Another factor to take into account is that the illustrations were all done by different artists.  So after you've gotten into the hang of painting "Potter style", you have to learn a different style like Shepard's and so on.  We are not doing "master forgery" here,  but we are giving our best representation of the artist's work.

From Pooh I moved onto Raggedy Ann and Andy by Johnny Gruelle.  I love Gruelle, and everyone knows it.  The gentle, sweet stories and very loving characters who always make a happy ending for every situation they come in contact with in their adventures.  We should all live and behave so generously as Raggedy Ann and her companions. 

Finally, it was Tenniel's time.  Alice came first, then the White Rabbit.  Betsy sent me a book, The Nursery Alice, so I could have a color plate to work from for his costume.  Of all the characters I painted, I truly feel he came out the best.  I cannot tell you why...maybe because he was the last, but I just love his checkered jacket and that wonderful pocket watch!

Alice and the White Rabbit
I know it will sound silly, but I was ready to be done.  Each character , on each panel had been painted to perfection with all the tiny, thin black outlines - all done with a teeny weeny pointy brush with about three bristles on it.  But, it wasn't done.  Betsy wanted more.  So on came the radish and carrot with Peter Rabbit, and the Gruelle garden flowers for the curved back decorative panel and corners.  Hmmm....  Still not done.  She suggested a tea cup for Alice and the White Rabbit.  So I drummed up the Tenniel teapot pouring a "spot of tea" into the gold rimmed cup.  Hmmm...  Still not done. 

With Corner Illustrations and Tea
By this time I'd photographed everything several times, including the last photo at the bottom of this journaling post (which is why you don't see the cards!).  However, the inclusion of cards would come, and those were just painted yesterday.

 I love ending of the first book when the cards fly up and over Alice, so I took a short "spray" of them, and in a half semi-circle, painted them in below the White Rabbit.  And, added a few in the top left corner for balance.

But wait!  There's more!  Before the inclusion of the corner art, I'd pulled all the stories together with an illustration I made up of my own.  Open the lid and there are old books with different characters from each story "coming alive" from them.  Timmy Willie with his, what looks to me like, a gingko umbrella, Beloved Belindy, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, and Eeyore, the sweet, silly donkey whose very name is a donkey noise.  I love this interior panel piece.  It, alone, was a full design combining the stories and I enjoyed painting it so much. (photos further down)

Lastly, a thin coat of matte Mod Podge to seal the artwork was done, and of course, I signed the bottom.

From the Front, But Not Quite Done
What surprises me more than anything when I finish something like this, is that I actually do sit back and admire it.  Gone are the struggles and re-dos and trials of creating the piece.  In the moment, is the satisfaction and wonder that I even did it in the first place.  Was able to create it.  I know I can.  I know I can do anything I put my mind to.  We all can.  But, still, it humbles me that someone would have such confidence in my abilities.  Betsy is good for this.  She understands what I'm capable of and pushes me to excel.  I had to laugh as I imagined her Pope Betsy and me Melissangelo.  "Keep painting!"

Thank you so much, my friend, because I know you'll treasure this piece for years to come! I love you!

Please enjoy the following photos I took, and remember to enjoy each moment.   We grow by challenging ourselves, learning new things and thus, further discover who we are.

Please remember that you can click on the photos to enlarge and see them better!

Miss E. Mouse

Close Up of Radish and Carrot

Gruelle's Garden Flowers

Storybook Characters

How It Looks Opened

The Cards - "Time for tea?", inquires White Rabbit.


In the Works.  That's my great magnifying lamp.

Itty Bitty Brush Tips

A Storybook Toy Chest For Dolls


  1. Melissa,
    I am in love with my storybook toy chest. Your brilliantly colored, intricately detailed painting has enabled Alice, White Rabbit, Raggedy Ann and Andy, Pooh, Piglet, Mrs. Rabbit, Peter, Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-tail to "literally" pop off their respective storybook pages. And, what a treat to find Beloved Belindy, Tweedledee, Tweedledum, Timmy Willie and Eeyore on the inside of the chest! You are truly a perfectionist who never stops until every detail is exactly the way you want it to be. This is a miniature masterpiece. My nine-inch Lawtons and I thank you. (In fact, they are now wondering just how I will fill this beautifully painted toy chest. Their eyes are lighting up at the prospect of new dolls and toys!)

  2. Ok, I am so jealous! :) I am in love with this little toy chest, I love absolutely everything about it, it's a masterpiece in miniature! Miss Mouse, you know how much I love your painting, you excel in this area of art! I've been checking almost daily to see if you had finished this piece, and I read every word and thoroughly enjoyed seeing the beautiful pictures. What a true delight for my eyes!