A “New” Recycled Christmas Tree

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At this time of the year I always like to cheer up our home with some Christmas decorations and try to be a bit creative by reusing old ones in a new way. I wanted a change from the music stand tree we have had for the last few years but buying a new one was the last thing on my mind, as recently Ellie and I have had a lot of expenses after dealing with our mother’s funeral costs. So what to do for a change without spending any money, as well as sticking to a recycling ethic?

I remembered that several years ago a small potted camellia tree had died because the roots had become pot bound and we left it too late to replant. It was a lovely shape so I cut off the dead roots and leaves and put it in the studio for a while to display some bird nests that had fallen in the garden. When I became tired of the clutter I put it in the roof because I did not want to throw it out. After some careful maneuvering I managed to get it out of the roof in one piece. Once the spider webs were removed I could see that it would make an interesting Christmas tree. If you have any trees with dead branches that need pruning these would work as well.

All I needed was a container to stand it in and found that it looked good in a white indoor plant container that we already had. Anything reasonably large would do like a ceramic pot, a vintage milk can or a huge glass jar or vase. I decided that as the planter had a wide opening I would put a narrower container in this to hold the tree in place. What to use that was the right size? I came up with a unique solution using an old WWI brass mortar shell case. Not something that everyone has kicking around but a tall jar would also do the trick. I put marbles around the tree trunk to stop it from wobbling in the shell case (you could also use small pebbles or sand) and packed newsprint paper around the container to stop it from falling over in the planter. A layer of white polyester stuffing for toys etc., that came from our craft supplies was used to cover the paper and hide the shell case. It simulates snow. Anything fluffy and white could be used, like cotton wool or you could use sand or pebbles, depending on your theme.

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Now it was time for the fun of decorating the tree. I used the same decorations that had been on the previous tree, but added a mass of aluminum butterflies that were in storage. All of these were bought on sale. Because I try to stick to a colour scheme of silver, white with a touch of gold, it is easy to add or make more matching decorations. We also have some large silver glass balls, but with dogs this is risky because they will go for any baubles of this shape. I don’t want to have these crashing to the floor and smashing into tiny smithereens so left them off the tree.

With stars, angels, tiny Santas and musical instruments, the silver fir trees and butterflies, a peace dove and a white horse, the tree looks really great. We don’t have any suitable Christmas lights, but at night the silver decorations really reflect any light in the room and the tree glows. These also reflect the bright sunshine of a summer’s day.

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In the front hall I did something similar by hanging a star and some embroidered butterflies on a single branch sitting in an ultramarine blue glass vase. Gold and white glass ornaments were placed on mum’s vintage aqua glass platter. The decorations look lovely with green and aqua vintage glass vases and a colourful Italian hand painted platter. These were found at op shops or were gifts. Again I just used what we had already.

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On the front door I hung a wreath made from a plaited straw circlet that had once been part of a Swedish Christmas mobile. I decorated this with some green and cream ribbon that came from a florist’s arrangement. It looks summery and cost nothing.

Reusing old stuff is a fun and inexpensive way to make the festive season brighter. Nature is also a great supplier of tree materials and decorations, from dead branches to evergreen leaves. If these can be found in your own garden so much the better. You can also put any vegetable matter back into your garden as compost or mulch.

Just because you don’t have a lot of money does not mean you can’t have a beautiful and fun celebration. Never forget that your creativity is beyond price.

Kat

One of the best Christmas songs is How to Make Gravy by Australia’s Paul Kelly. It is happy, sad and touching all at the same time. Here’s a live version.

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A Hand-Made Halloween

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Over the past ten years in Melbourne the festival of Halloween has become more widely celebrated and seems to be getting more commercial with large public events in many shopping centres. The St Kilda Town Hall even has a hugely popular Haunted House experience. We are increasingly getting Halloween themed catalogues in our letterbox advertising elaborate and expensive decorations and costumes, as well as the usual treats. Before all this commercialization most local Halloween celebrations were limited to home parties where decorations and costumes were usually homemade and trick or treating was rare.

Magazines used to be the main source of ideas for making party decorations and costumes. We have that really old party magazine from the 1890s, mentioned in a previous post, which has a wonderful section on Halloween, as well as the more recent Australian Women’s Weekly Home Library publication, Perfect Parties. No one was expected to spend a fortune and it was so much more fun and creative to make things.

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As children Ellie and I had a Halloween Party. As there was little available in the way of decorations, except for plastic spiders and orange and black balloons, we invited some friends for a sleepover before the party and had a great time making decorations for the family room and garden. Out of black card we cut black cats, owls, bats, broomsticks and the like and hung these from sticks of bamboo to create mobiles.

In one corner of the garden we built a witch’s house against the side fence with a sheet of corrugated iron for the roof and bamboo poles (cut from the garden) tied together with twine to form the walls and a window. We painted a sign that said “Witches Hollow”. In front of this structure dad made a tripod from wooden poles and hung a cast iron camp oven for a cauldron over some unlit wood. These days you can have a fire in a metal fire pit. Probably one with a wire safety grill is best to protect from dangerous sparks.

A decorated table is a wonderful centrepiece for a Halloween party. You don’t need to buy special tableware. Our grandmother gave us a vintage tablecloth with embroidered black cats, but you could make a tablecloth from orange fabric or just use orange crepe paper decorated with cutout black cats, bats, owls etc. She also made us a beautiful cake decorated with black cats. It is easy to make cupcakes and decorate these with black cat sweets, jelly babies and snakes, together with orange or chocolate sprinkles on plain white icing. There are so many creative ideas around for making Halloween food these days, especially online. Fresh fruits and vegetables, like pumpkins, turnips and tomatoes make great table decorations and are a reminder of the autumnal origins of Halloween, even if it is spring here. And you can use them to make a soup or put them on the barbeque after the party.

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Black Cat Cupcakes

Only recently in Australia has it been possible to get large orange pumpkins to carve at Halloween. Supermarkets now have these to buy for the occasion. We had to make do with the green kind. Our grandfather carved a jack-o-lantern out of a pumpkin and fitted it with an electric light bulb to put on the front veranda. He also had a very old papier-mache mask of a skull and put a bulb in this as well. They looked wonderfully spooky to welcome the guests. Now front porch decorations seem to be becoming more elaborate and more common here, but you don’t need to buy frightening manikins that cost a heap. A homemade scarecrow could look just as creepy especially if you give it a scary clown face.

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Most people who came to our party had homemade costumes. I created one from a long white satin bridesmaid dress that I had worn the previous year. Over this I wore a filmy pale blue robe of my mothers and made a cone-shaped hat from white cardboard, stuck on some gold stars, attached a filmy white scarf from the peak and stapled some hat elastic to keep it on. With a wand made from a piece of silver painted dowel I was a Sorceress. Mum made Ellie a skeleton costume by sticking white electrical tape to a black polo neck top and tights.

Guest’s costumes ranged from the usual witches or ghosts, to someone dressed as a pea pod with green balloons for the peas. There were some very creative costumes, such as a hand painted skull and crossbones outfit and a witch doctor, who had lots of small handmade mojo bags attached to a belt. I remember we all had a great time dancing to pop music and playing Murder in the Dark, which still seems to be a popular party game. Of course there were prizes for the best costumes and little bags of treats for everyone to take home.

With a bit of creativity you can avoid a lot of the cost and over commercialization of Halloween and still have a great party. And if it is for just for adults, substitute more appropriate food, drink and entertainment. Be as crazy as you like. Why should kids have all the fun?

Kat

Probably one of the best songs ever written about a ghost is Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights. The famous “red dress” video of this song has had many millions of hits on You Tube so here is the “white dress” version.

Wisteria and Witches

It’s October again and in Melbourne we are now in the middle of spring. As I mentioned last October when I started this blog, we have the strange combination of the Spring Racing Carnival and Halloween celebrations. There is nothing more typical of Melbourne than scenes of costumed witches, wizards or zombies mingling with the more traditionally dressed amongst the stunning roses at Flemington racecourse on Melbourne Cup day.

Over the last two weeks I have been busy doing some badly needed gardening. At this time of year the air is sweet with the smell of blossom. Our garden is full of the fragrance of wisteria blooms, which cascade from the branches like waterfalls of white flowers. They are fragile and could be easily destroyed by a spring storm so I have taken photos to remember their beauty.

With all of nature’s exuberance it seems strange to embrace the autumnal mood that surrounds the festival of Halloween. One of the disadvantages of living in the Southern Hemisphere is the topsy-turvy nature of traditional festivals. But at least daylight saving gives us longer hours of light in which to party during these celebrations.

Fun costumes make both race days and Halloween parties more enjoyable. I am a big fan of DIY costumes for both the creativity and uniqueness. As I have mentioned before, you don’t need to sew or spend a lot of money to wear a great costume. A good eye for a bargain and for reworking existing items is invaluable. In the past I have created my own Halloween costumes from clothing found at op shops (thrift or charity stores), weekend markets and by using fabric offcuts, cardboard and paper scraps to make accessories.

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Illustration by George Cruikshank for The Witches Frolic by Thomas Ingoldsby

Items that can be reused with different accessories are worth collecting so that you will never be stuck for a costume idea. Witches or wizards costumes are a favorite for Halloween and easy to create with black clothes. Using the same long black dress and a charcoal grey cape found at a weekend market, I can transform into the medieval witch Morgan Le Fey or Samantha Stevens from Bewitched wearing her flying costume. All this requires is a change of headgear.

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For the Morgan Le Fey costume I made a type of hat known as a Hennin (seen in gothic paintings) from cardboard covered with black silk fabric and gold paper. It was decorated with gold braid, glass jewels and gold glitter glue from a craft store. I pinned an old black silk scarf as a veil from the top of the hat. To turn the outfit into Samantha, a blonde wig (try to find a better one than mine as it itches) and a witches hat from a party shop are all that is needed to change the look. Black boots complete both costumes.

A simple way to make a witch’s broomstick is with a length of thick dowel and a pile of flexible twigs or thin bamboo (whatever is easiest to find). Just divide the twigs into four equal bundles and tie each securely with some twine. Place the bundles around the dowel and wrap them all tightly together to form the broom. You can wrap ribbon, fabric or raffia over the twine to hide it. Then you’re ready to fly.

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Whether it is spring or autumn, these are great seasons for festivals and celebrations before the weather gets too hot or cold.  And if you live in the Southern Hemisphere or a tropical location, enjoy the contrast of the light with the “Darkness” of Halloween. You will have the best of both worlds.

Kat

Ukulele virtuoso, Taimane Gardner from Hawaii, taps into the Halloween mood with her haunting instrumental, Rings of Saturn, although she lives in the tropics.

Vision: Seeing Things or Not

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Photo by Ellie

The human brain is strange. Sometimes it allows you to see things and sometimes it doesn’t. You can look at an image for ages and not really observe it clearly and at other times you can see things that aren’t even there. This can be both annoying and great for your creativity.

In my last post I put up several photos of Ellie’s and was so focused on the images that I did not notice there were some hand blurs at the edges of some of the pictures. It was not until I saw the photos on a larger screen that I saw the problem, which I have now corrected. I was so busy looking at the main scene that I could not see this detail. Sort the opposite of “not seeing the forest for the trees.” It was a definite case of selective vision that can happen to all of us at times.

This got me thinking about the way we see things. If you want to go into the art history and cultural side of this John Berger’s seminal book Ways of Seeing (1972), based on a BBC TV series, is a good place to start. What I’m talking about is more from the personal creative side. One person can look at the same thing and see something totally different and our individual vision is what gives us original ideas.

I was looking at some of Ellie’s old photos and found the one at the top of this post. It was accidentally snapped when she was holding her phone and she had completely discounted the shot. But I saw this as a wonderfully evocative image with her hair floating out from the dark silhouette of her hat against the bright cloud filled sky. She saw it as a mistake but I saw a quite beautiful scene. Always take another look at what you have done. You might be surprised.

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Ammonite Fossil

Seeing things in another way can provide inspiration. We have an unusual polished ammonite fossil that was bought on a holiday as a memento. It was not chosen because it was the perfect specimen, but when you view it from a particular angle it looks like there is the head and torso of a Shakespearian Gentleman wearing a puff sleeve jacket and a neck ruff. Can you also see him?
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This ability to see things that are not really there can lead to interesting artwork. I have a small piece of driftwood, that when you stand it vertically, is like a tree that resembles a figure. This inspired the following ink drawing in my sketchbook.

 

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Dryad, Pen and Ink Drawing by Kat

The brain often sees figures and faces in trees and foliage because we are wired to recognize the human form from birth. Using this concept I did a pen and ink drawing of the imaginary faces that I could “see” in the trunk of a vine-covered tree. It is called Spirits of the Forest, and depicts some of the scary and strange beings that may be encountered out in wildness of the Australian bush.

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Spirits of the Forest, Pen and In Drawing by Kat

The human mind is sometimes selective and we can miss seeing the obvious but it can conjure up all kinds of images if we see with both our eyes and inner vision. Just keep looking.

Kat

A great feel good song is I Can See Clearly Now. Jimmy Cliff did a terrific version in the 90s but I also love the 70s original by Johnny Nash.

Inspiration is Closer Than You Think

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Sometimes you imagine that you need to find inspiration in exciting far away places. You know, that “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” It is wonderful to travel but it is not always possible and inspiration can be closer than you think. Your local area can be full of inspirational locations if you take the time to look. Often when you visit the same location over and over it can be a great source of creativity.

We don’t live far from Port Phillip Bay and one beach in particular has been a source of inspiration. At various times over several years Ellie recorded this beach on a simple phone camera. This series of images show the changes of season, light and mood, often from the same angle. Such a location never stays the same and can keep giving you new ideas. There are pictures of the scene with a sandbar, still water, and the exposed rocky shore and at different times of day. Sort of reminds me of Monet’s obsession with Rouen Cathedral that he repeatedly painted under various light conditions.

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In each of these photos you can see the City of Melbourne’s skyline, which is ever-changing. A couple of the images are from 10 years ago and there are now more tall buildings that can be seen from the beach. The beach itself has undergone development with new board walks and is less peaceful than it once was so it is great to have it frozen in time in these photos.

It is also inspiring if you can collect interesting items for your creations at a favorite place without damaging the environment. The same beach has provided me with interesting material for some of my found objects that I have in the studio. Over several years Ellie and I would pick up sea glass of various colours from this beach. A vintage milk bottle was filled with white glass to give it a milky appearance and I arranged a lot of the coloured glass in layers in a large old spaghetti storage jar to form an interesting sculpture. It sits on my work table and the light from the windows makes the glass glow.

Other bits of archeology are washed up on the shore. Fragments of old patterned china and earthenware look wonderful in interesting old glass jars. Did these shards wash into the bay from storm water drains or were they tossed from ships? It seems that eventually all rubbish will end up on a beach somewhere and some of it not good. At least these items do not affect the eco-system and can once again become something to enjoy. You never know what you will find.

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Whether you live near the sea or a lake, a park or nature reserve, hills or mountains or a desert, there is sure to be some special place that will keep attracting you. Don’t ignore your local environment. Familiarity does not have to mean contempt. It’s all about paying attention to details and changes, which are in themselves inspiring.

Kat

I have included my favourite 80s beach song (I love that era for music). It is one of the few girl beach songs, as most of them are by boys. Echo beach by Martha and the Muffins is full of nostalgia and is about enjoying the beach on your own as a place to escape the rat race.

Getting Around Life’s Obstacles

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Creativity isn’t just about making art. It is also about solving problems. Sometimes you come up against an obstacle in your life, whether physical or mental, that seems impossible to remove so you must find a way around it. This may involve a bit of rethinking of the situation to find a satisfactory solution.

In some ways we create our own obstacles with thoughts like “I must wait until this or that happens before I can do such and such.” I know I am guilty of this type of thinking at times. Dishwashing is my least favorite housework activity. It never stops and I would rather use the time for creative activities.  Before we had our renovations several years ago we could not fit a large dishwasher in our kitchen. We previously had a bench-top dishwasher that had given up the ghost and the brand was not longer available. We thought that we could not get a new dishwasher until we had renovations, which still required a few more years of savings.

A friend who was renting a house said that this was stupid and we were putting up unnecessary barriers. She had bought a second hand mobile dishwasher that could be attached to a tap without it needing to be permanently installed. We did not have the space for this so looked around and eventually found one made for caravans and put it on a shelf near the sink. This worked well and when we finally had our renovations we sold it to someone who needed a small bench dishwasher for their workplace. So our problem was solved and we got around an obstacle that was driving us crazy.

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Old Kitchen Shelves

Lack of money is often an obstacle to doing things but you can usually work your way around this problem. Still on the subject of renovations, our finances did not extend to putting in a new bench and a linen cupboard in the laundry. It previously lacked a bench and had some large old wooden shelves, which took up too much space. We reused an Ikea stainless steel bench and some industrial metal shelves that were in the old kitchen, together with an Ikea drawer unit on wheels that had been in the laundry. With a new marmoleum (linoleum) floor and freshly painted walls the room looked more spacious. Reusing existing items gave us what we needed. Just because you don’t have the money does not always make a situation impossible. A compromise can work well.

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Old kitchen bench

When in the middle of any kind of project you can run into problems and these should never be an obstacle to getting it finished. Just think of Michelangelo. When he was carving his figures he sometimes came across flaws in the marble and would have to adjust the composition accordingly. We might not all be Michelangelo’s but we can take a leaf out of his book and think on our feet if some difficulty pops up in the progress of our work.

Seeing beyond an obstacle is sometimes what is required to solve a problem. After playing my ukulele and singing before an audience for a while, I suddenly developed stage fright and became extremely nervous. Performing was now more stressful because of anxiety. I knew this was ridiculous as I really enjoy singing so looked up ways to cope on the Internet. As with most skills in order to build confidence you must practice and practice so that you know your material thoroughly. If I imagine the audience as friendly and ready to be entertained, I can look beyond my anxiety and have fun. I will never be able to get rid of my nerves completely but they can be used to increase the energy necessary for a good performance. Now I can control them rather than the other way around and I look forward to performing.

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Even if you cannot remove an obstacle it need not become a huge barrier in your life. Try to work around the problem, be flexible and use creative thinking.

Kat

As a child one of my favorite performers was Jerry Lewis. I loved watching his films on TV. He was a comic genius and always seemed to be confronted with some kind of obstacle that led to hilarious situations. I like this scene from The Bellboy (1960), which uses visual comedy to great effect.

Creative Life: Be Inventive

 

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We all need some kind of tools to be creative. For those who work with their hands these can be simple or complex depending on what you do. Often due to lack of money or availability art and crafts people have needed to make their own tools and equipment, which has led to some imaginative solutions. I have made some simple examples myself because of the expense or if I could not find something suitable. It is good to be inventive.

Looking at homemade inventions from the past can be inspiring. I have a very old metal yarn winder (a swift) that was inherited from my grandmother. I don’t know where it came from but it was obviously homemade by someone who knew how to use a soldering iron. It is made up of an old curtain rod finial, a metal nut with screw holes on a brass and wooden base, screw-in horizontal brass rods that have vertical brass rod attachments to hold the yarn. Someone went to a lot of trouble to make this winder, probably at a time when they were difficult or expensive to buy. It is quite an ingenious solution to an old problem and might have been created by someone who was sick of holding the yarn as it was wound into a ball.

Everyone who works with yarn needs some kind of winder. I had a look on Google image search and many craftspeople still come up with interesting DIY yarn winders using a variety of materials, from old coat hangers to collapsible wine racks. It is good to see in this consumer-oriented day and age that the inventive spirit is alive and well.

This sort of inventiveness has led to home cottage industries. While I have made my own basic wooden frame looms, I needed a larger adjustable loom for tapestry weaving and found one made be a local man who made these from basic plumbing supplies for a reasonable price. He started out making one for his wife who was a tapestry weaver and others liked his design so he made them for students. DSCN5344

When creating your own equipment try not to get too bogged down in detail. The great illustrator W Heath Robinson was famous for his hilarious drawings of ridiculous inventions and contraptions. These made even the most basic of processes complicated. There is no need to go down this route and it is best to simplify as much as possible.

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Mackintosh’s Toffee Advert, Illustrations by W Heath Robinson, Public Domain Image, freevintageillustrations.com

With very basic carpentry skills you can make all kinds of things with a drill. I made a basic tapestry frame loom shown in a previous post. If you get the wood cut to size at the hardware store, all you need to do is screw it together. I inserted a couple of dowel pegs on each side of the frame to hold a narrow wooden crossbar so that I could suspend my design behind the warp. This made it easier to transfer my designs onto the threads and was an improvement on a simple frame.

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Ellie also made a pegboard for holding cones of yarn so that it was easy to wind it onto bobbins for tapestry weaving. She just used an off-cut of Oregon pine left over from our arbor and drilled holes for a couple of pieces of dowel. Then she sanded the whole thing and coated it in varnish. Didn’t cost a thing because we already had the materials.

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Sometimes you want to try out a craft but do not want buy expensive equipment, especially if you don’t know whether you will like it or not. This is a good time to create you own. As a part of learning about the weaving process I tried out spinning with a drop spindle (How to video). Luckily a relative who had done this in the past gave me her spindle. It is of very basic manufacture and if you had access to the right cutting equipment you could easily make your own. It only requires a short section of dowel and some thick plywood. Here is a link (How to video) that shows you how to make a similar spindle from scratch or with pre-cut discs.
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But there are always even simpler ways to make tools when you look on-line. It is possible to make a workable spindle using a couple of CDs, a piece of dowel, small hook, some glue and small rubber rings (here are the instructions for those interested).

Finding cheaper alternatives to expensive items is a clever way to learn a new technique. With spinning, the wool needs to be combed (carded) and formed into rolls (rolags) before it is spun. Some ingenious craftspeople worked out that it was possible to use slicker dog brushes instead of costly hand carders for this process. These are a fraction of the price. They might not be quite as good as the proper equipment but are ok for the beginner. I was glad that I had learned something about the spinning process without spending a fortune as I prefer to concentrate on the weaving with ready-made yarn.

Sometimes you don’t want a big piece of equipment cluttering up your workspace especially if you will not use it often. That’s when you need to think creatively. I needed to be able to draw up large designs for tapestry but did not want a large, expensive drawing board table. So I went to the hardware store and had a large sheet of melamine fibre board cut to size. I can put this on my easel to draw and then put it away against a corner wall of the studio for storage. It did not cost much and saves space.

When you can’t find just the right tool it is time to make your own. I wanted a mahl stick. This is a piece of dowel with a padded end that is used for resting your painting hand against when working on fine details. It is essential that padding does not touch any wet areas of paint or cause dints in the canvas surface so it is best that this rests on the edge of the painting. At the time I could only find ones with a short shaft and wanted one for larger sized works so I made my own. All I needed was a long piece of dowel, a champagne cork, some felt, twine and glue. It works really well and I enjoyed some sparkling wine in the process.

A tool can be made from anything if you use your imagination. For textural work with ink or paint I have used all kinds of things to create my own tools. Corks, sponges, a jagged cut toothbrush, pieces of carpet, homemade bamboo pens, disposable chopsticks and skewers can be used. An emery board is great for sharpening charcoal pencils to a fine point. They are so many things that can be employed as a tool.

Whatever your art or craft, it is great to make your own tools and equipment. Being inventive is part of the creative process and what you make can be as basic or as complex as you like.

Kat

It is wonderful to use your imagination. Here’s an oldie but a goodie by Gladys Knight and the Pips.