Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Alice Doll Furniture

The Alice Doll Furniture
Two of my very favorite books of all time are unmistakably Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.  Whether its due to the intriguing fairytale that Dodgson wrote for his little friend to entertain her, or because of the marvelous illustrations Tenniel (and other artists), came up with to accompany the stories, they simply are.  Certainly the combination of the two have inspired readers and artists ever since the first publication in 1865.  In fact, this year marks our story's 150th birthday!  Exhausted as I am from this recent endeavor, I could never, ever tire of reproducing Tenniel's illustrations on every imaginable surface possible.

My Two Beloved Books
The last time I did this, if you recall, was on the lid of the Storybook Toy Chest I painted for my friend Betsy.  (And, on the inside of the lid with Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum.)  I seldom bring out the paints and tiny brushes these days as I've been so happily absorbed in doll costuming.  But, then Betsy sent to me three pieces of Gail Wilson doll furniture.  Two were made specifically, years ago, for a 9" doll.  The pouting chair, I believe, was made for Gail's Hitty doll.  I was asked to paint on the pieces to accompany and compliment the toy chest.  Displayed together, they would form a 9" doll's play room or nursery.

The Alice Game Table
We began the creative process by considering individual characters to paint on the pouting chair, and perhaps flowers on the table and ladder back chair.  The selected images would have been from the same favorite stories as the toy chest.  Yet, for some reason, the furniture asked that I step back and think carefully as I approached this project.

We had darkly painted pieces in a deep teal and rust-brown.  I was concerned that the small images might be lost somehow in the dark palette chosen by Gail.  One thing I did notice was that the table had a little drawer beneath it, and to me, this made it a game table.  Then my mind took off.  A game table would require a chess board painted on it, and this was very Through the Looking Glass.  I knew, also, that all three pieces should be themed as such to compliment each other.  How do you take three seemingly unrelated pieces of furniture and make a "set" from them?  By what you enhance them with.

The Pastoral Chess Board
The first effort with the chess board was a "wipe out", literally.  After completely painting the chess board in the center, I went to clean the edges, and off the entire work came!  How could I be so stupid?!  Anytime you paint on wood, the surface must be prepped.  Especially if it has been sealed with a finish.  Nothing will adhere to it.  So I went back to Betsy and explained the situation to her.  I was quite nervous she'd ask me to send them back when I described that I'd have to sand the surfaces (to paint) down and prep them with gesso to do it right.  However, she explained that these pieces were "seconds" in her collection and told me I could do with them as I see fit.  In that case, I asked, would she allow me to "go for it" with an idea I had, and she said yes.  She knows my work, and she knows how I think. 

Red Royalty in Pen and Ink
The result was a couple of days of heavy sanding and prep work to the pieces, and the plan to cover the surfaces with elaborately painted illustrations from the Alice books.  I began with the table since I already had a plan for it.  What I attempted to achieve was the look of one of those intricate Italian micro mosaic tables we see in museums and high-end antique stores.  I would repaint the chess board, centered, and around it, a pastoral background to situate chess themed characters in.  Tenniel provided me with the Red King and Queen, the White King and Queen, Alice crowned, and the Unicorn and Lion who fought for the crown. 

Color Choice for Red Royalty
I had to "be an artist" to accomplish this since the characters were scattered throughout the book.  The White King and Queen were on different pages, and the Red Queen and King were in black and white, pen and ink.  The Red Queen, on another page with Alice, would be the color theme I would use to paint our "looking glass" pieces.  I took the Unicorn from the inside of the book cover, and the Lion from his illustrated page.  In order, I painted Alice crowned, the red chess pieces, then the white, and finally our Lion and Unicorn.  Do, please, click on the photos so you may see their detail.  They were quite a delightful experience to paint.  Each is around 1" high.

I finished the table with a mix of colors to match the deep teal, by painting the beveled edge to frame to the pastoral chess board.

The Unicorn and Lion - My Favorites
Next, I approached the very limited space of the ladder back chair.  I began searching through the Looking Glass book and could not find an appropriate character or flower set, so I turned back to "Adventures" and spotted my subject right on the paper jacket.  The flamingo croquet mallet would be wonderful stretched into three sections.  Whimsical and colorful.  Sometimes simplicity in design is more.  I love this little chair. 

Its funny but as I thought about what I might be able to add to the ladder back chair, I'd considered a hedgehog "ball", and could paint it on the seat.  Seat?  Where was my mind?  The seat was roped.  And, so the ladder back chair maintained its simplicity.

Flamingo Ladder Back Chair
The pouting chair would be an Alice Throne.  Here I had three "large" spaces I could cover as I desired.  I love Humpty.  Can't help it.  He's quite a character, and so much fun to work with.  I'd painted Humpty once on the inside of one of my Alice Storybook Trunk Sets, and would now get the chance to elaborate on the theme.  The sides would be decorated with the garden of talking flowers. 

Humpty Dumpty
The most difficult thing I encountered while painting the pouting chair was its dimension.  Although the table had legs, it was still a flat and large enough surface (at approximately 6" in diameter), that I could position it at an angle to rest my hands on the edges when painting the tiny features.  The chair was awkward and difficult at every angle, especially painting the lower half of Humpty's wall since I could not hold the tiny brushes close to the surface.  All of this is extremely intense work done under a magnifying lamp, and my eyes did take a toll on this project.  Our little pouting chair is only 4 1/2" high.  I have to chuckle (insanely) just thinking about it.

Yes, this is "crazy work", but the results are what drive me to create such pieces.  One thing I can be assured of is that by now, my painting skills are once again in top form.  Yes, I always worry I will lose them.

The Lilies
The flowers were lovely to paint, and I always learn a lot about Tenniel's style when I reproduce his work.  He accents the foremost areas of his watercolors with pen and ink outlines.  He uses the standard pen and ink cross hatching, or straight hatching to give depth to his shading and shadows.  Since I was using only brushes, I outlined the "fore-mosters" in Brown Iron Oxide and Dark Umber with my four bristle brush, and did the "hatching" in color.  Sometimes you have to be innovative and PUSH the work, and yourself, to achieve lovely results.

The Talking Flowers
For those of you  familiar with Tenniel's work, you might have noticed something interesting about the flower scenes.  In designing the artwork for painting the flowers, I did a "horizontal flip" on the lilies to balance the sides of the chair.  Those not familiar with this illustration should know that the two flower scenes are from one illustrated page that includes Alice talking to the flowers.  I simply split it in two, and reversed the lilies.  Orange is my favorite color, and these lilies were the last scene I painted on the furniture.  A delicious was to wrap up the project.

I use a both  a watercolor approach, and an old master oil technique in painting with acrylics.  I build the color layer upon layer for luminescence and richness.  I also love painting clouds.  When working in this style, you must be very careful with the washes since the paint is not absorbing into watercolor paper, but dries on a hard surface (puddling).  I could talk about painting for hours, but I'll conclude.  I'm tickled to pieces with the way the furniture turned out.

Please celebrate with me the 150th anniversary of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.  Enjoy the photos, and I'll be back with doll costuming in my next journal.  I do miss it.

Miss E. Mouse

A Side View
Another Side View

A Little Masterpiece


  1. Love this furniture! It's absolutely a work of art!

  2. Very nicely done Melissa! What a Lucky friend.

  3. Miss Mouse,
    You know how I love your painting, you outdid yourself on this beautiful Alice In Wonderland set! I absolutely love, love, love it all! This is some intense painting with such a small characters, and in hard to reach angles with a steady hand.....but you did it with perfection! So happy to see more of your painting, congratulations on some very fine art!

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  5. Be still my heart. I LOVE my Alice-themed table and two chairs. Your work is phenomenal. I could stare at these pieces for hours, just studying and re-studying the details of your beautiful, precise painting. Oh my, oh my! Leave it to you to creatively flip the Tiger-lily, reinforcing the topsy-turvy, turned around world of Through the Looking Glass! I cannot even choose which piece I like best. The table with the chessboard surrounded by Looking Glass characters and lush scenery? (I LOVE the perennial antagonists, the lion and the unicorn.) The pouting chair with the Humpty Dumpty, talking Tiger-lily and talking flowers with faces? Or, the ladder back chair with its whimsical flamingo croquet mallet? I'll just have to keep perusing these museum-quality painted pieces and choose a daily favorite.

    Thank you, Melissa, for so lovingly (and skillfully) painting this furniture for me which has taken me on a mental flight of fancy into Lewis Carroll's magical world of silliness.


  6. Oh so beautiful! Wouldn't you have loved child-sized furniture of this quality when you were small?
    I have some of these kits but have neer quite had the courage to do anything with them except a coat of plain, matt colour. You are an examplle that I doubt few of us could follow, Melissa -lucky, lucky dolls!