The look of a steamer trunk

The company I work for is having a “designadore” contest. The idea is to take a single cabinet door and decorate it. You can paint on it, collage it, bedazzle it…whatever works. The theme is “what America means to me.”

Lots of ideas came to mind, but I wanted to do something that represented travel, especially to national parks. Inspired by a box of luggage labels that I’ve had for years, I decided to turn my door into the top of a steamer trunk.

The project was inspired by these travel labels.
The project was inspired by these travel labels.

The first step was a Google search of steamer trunks. Many common features stood out, including strips of wood, metal or leather protecting edges, metal corner guards, decorative hinges and leather straps for closures.

Leather-look paper, washi tape and "metal" hinges start things off.
Leather-look paper, washi tape and “metal” hinges start things off.

A quick trip to the craft store gave me the parts and pieces needed. The door is beechwood with a java stain, and it was way too pretty to be a well-travelled trunk. Some sandpaper and markers gave it a bit of patina.

These aren't even all the supplies used!
These aren’t even all the supplies used!

In fact, every component was aged in some way. Wood strips for the edge protectors were painted, then distressed. Some of the labels were sanded, then colored with markers and colored pencils. Grey leather was toned with shoe polish and markers to make tabs for the leather straps. Bright brass tacks were toned with three colors of metallic Sharpies.

Everything was aged and distressed.
Everything was aged and distressed.
Before and after of the leather tabs.
Before and after of the leather tabs.
The brass tacks were a bit too shiny...
The brass tacks were a bit too shiny…

The finished door steamer trunk took about 9 hours to complete. The labels were the last item added. Some were aged more than others to represent years of travel, and one has even been partially torn off. Once the contest is over, this will definitely have permanent wall space in the studio!

The completed "trunk."
The completed “trunk.”






Sketching horses

For me, drawing horses goes back to the early days of “pencil + paper + horse photo = happy place.”

Recently, as I’ve become more serious about painting horses, I’ve been drawing and live sketching a lot more. Working from photos is a great way to practice shading and to learn the structure of the horse.

Learning how the different parts & pieces connect is invaluable.
Learning how the different parts & pieces connect is invaluable.

Live sketching is an exercise in speed and observation. Horses almost never stand still, especially at a show, so I’m looking to capture shape, posture and mood.

Outside the arena before a class, when everyone is waiting...
Outside the arena before a class, when everyone is waiting…
Quick gesture studies - no chance for details here!
Quick gesture studies – no chance for details here!

Some shows are open and friendly about barn access, so more time can be spent on a single sketch. I look for horses that are calm and not concerned with observation. As prey animals, horses can get agitated about being watched closely, especially when confined to a stall.

It's always a good sign when a horse can't keep his eyes open.
It’s always a good sign when a horse can’t keep his eyes open. (This is Cowboy again.)

I always pay attention to body language when I start sketching. If a horse fidgets, shifts weight back & forth, continually looks at me or starts pacing, I’ll move to another stall. Even with calm subjects, I make sure not to stare too long, and will look down and around frequently.

OKW Berlyn, hanging out between classes.
OKW Berlyn, hanging out between classes.

Every sketch outing is a great learning experience, and continues to build observation skills and my knowledge of equine anatomy and moods.

Found lots of relaxed horses at the Region 5 Arabian Show.
Took a tan journal with a pencil, black UniBall and white GellyRoll pens to the Region 5 Arabian Horse Show.
Not all horses like shows...some of them get pretty testy...
Not all horses like shows…some of them get pretty testy…

Subtracting paint

Years ago, I took a “treated paper” workshop with local artist Kay Barnes (see her treated paper gallery). Smooth, “hot press” paper is coated with an acrylic medium, giving the surface a slightly textured yet plastic-like surface.

At that time, I was still learning the basics of watercolor, so the treated surface was simply too frustrating. I kept the blank sheets we’d prepared though, because, well…they were art supplies!

Fast forward a few years, and one of those sheets found its way to my desk. In a previous post, I talked about searching for simplicity in a horse portrait. With that goal in mind, I dropped lots of granulating colors onto the treated surface, and let it mix & mingle.

Treated paper progress

Once the paint dried, I started lifting out the horse, using clear water and a medium-sized round brush. Once the shape was established, more pigment was added, and edges were adjusted.

The finished piece (7″ x 10″) has a very earthy quality, with the feeling of a cave painting. I’m already planning a larger painting, with a trio of mares in a Montana field.

Now I just need to figure out how to sign these – with pen, white paint, or by lifting it out? (It has a digital signature for now!)

The story of Jacob

This painting was very emotional on a number of levels. Jacob was born with a terminal illness, and at age 7, had been aggressively fighting it for more than two years. His grandmother’s sister wanted the family to have a reminder of their feisty, brave and mischievious warrior.

While on a family vacation, she snapped a dozen pictures of Jacob. They reflected his illness, of course, but also captured the “little shit” that always looks like he’s about to pull a prank. We quickly agreed that we wanted that to be the focus of the painting.

Jacob's Eyes

I believe that the eyes are the key to a successful portrait, so after laying in a colorful base, that’s where I started. At this early stage, I sent it to his great aunt. Her response – “it makes me cry” – was a green light to proceed.


This painting was all about acknowledging Jacob’s illness without painting him as a sick kid. So the eyes are a little shadowed, his face a bit gaunt, and the hair is wispy. To balance that, the colors are bright and energetic, and his eyes shine with the fun of a recent swim.

His grandmother loves the painting, and told her sister that when Jacob saw it, he got a big grin on his face. He turned to his mother and said “hey Mamma, that’s me!”