Saturday, December 11, 2004

The ornaments of 2003

We have a tradition of exchanging presents within my group at work. In the past my offerings have ranged from homemade chocolate chip cookies for everyone to different gifts that all cost exactly $3.99 (and these ranged from motorized toy cars and light-up yo-yos to a giant fish pillow.) But last year I decided to do something a little more personal.

Lee Valley sells an unfinished wooden ornament ball that offers semi-endless possibilities for customization. These are fairly small - about 1 and 5/8" - so painting designs on each one is a bit of a challenge, but one I decided to take on.

Miniature art has always fascinated me, and I decided to see what I could do. I made over two dozen individual ornaments in a little more than three weeks. I would usually work on three at a time, each one carefully held in a housing made by turning one of those little doll-sized tables that is placed in the center of a pizza to keep the lid from collapsing on it upside down. (I always wondered why I was saving those things.)

I have very bad eyes. I am terribly nearsighted, and without my glasses or contact lenses I am almost blind beyond about six inches, but (until recently) I have (had) excellent vision within those six inches. (In the past year the farsightedness that usually accompanies advancing age has started to kick in, and I cannot focus within three inches of the surface of my eye.) So for four to six hours at a time I would sit hunched over my ornaments, my bare eyes just a few inches from the surface, carefully painting one of several designs that I gradually standardized over the course of my project.

I striped a couple like peppermint candies, coating them when dry with a high-gloss varnish that gave them the look of glass ornaments. On some I painted a miniature landscape, dark blue sky over snow-covered hills with trees and falling snow, in an oval image that created the illusion of concavity, almost as though the ornament were a snow globe with the image inside. One was turned into a dreidel with the help of a friend's woodworking shop and some online dreidel lettering.

Others I called Escher spheres, after the famous self-portrait by M.C. Escher made from the image in a mirror ball that he was holding. These Escher spheres were completely white at the bottom to just below the midline of the ornament; from there on up they were dark blue again. On them I painted snow-covered trees and a starry sky. The idea was that these were like little mirrored ornaments being viewed from deep within a snow-covered forest on a clear night by an invisible observer.

Two designs I was very pleased with are shown below. The first is a wreath, made from two shades of green paint brushed in semi-straight lines along a path that was always turning clockwise. Red berries were then dotted on - possibly with the point of a pin, I don't completely remember. The wreath itself is about 3/4" across. (Note my thumb and forefinger for scale, but keep in mind that they are about 3/4" farther away than the center of the ornament. This is poor man's digital photography: I am holding the ornament by its hanger on the bed of my scanner.)

Ornament 2003: Wreath Posted by Hello

Another nice design is the snowman. This is not one of the better snowmen; all of those were given away. The "coal" was again (probably) applied with a pin. (It might have been a toothpick.) I had to buy a two-ounce container of orange paint just for the snowmen's carrot noses. The blue background circle is a little over 1" in diameter.

Ornament 2003: Snowman Posted by Hello

The white snowy-looking stuff is special snow paste that comes in a small jar at the craft store and looks like marshmallow paste. It dries with a beautiful texture and is quite hard. The sparkly effects are from some other craft stuff that came in a kit with a small jar of snow paste and some Christmas-oriented paints.

Both of these designs are from a single ornament, which also had a crappy-looking third design of a snowflake on it. All of the ornaments had at least two designs on them. You could see how all this took a bit of time. After each four-to-six-hour session I was unable to focus my eyes for at least an hour; each eye was independently focusing on some nearby focal plane, and this had the effect of making me feel like I was wearing somebody else's glasses.

The best ones I gave away to my friends at work, packing them in too-small pasteboard boxes wrapped in ribbon with handmade tags tied on with pieces of gold elastic.

People liked them, I think. I don't know how many of them realized how much work went into them. Just over a month later, one-third of the people I gave them to would be gone, but that is a story for another time

This year I've decided to do something less creative and personal, but still fun. In terms of dollar value this year's presents are much more costly, but in terms of time and physical effort the cost is much less. I hope people like them. But since some of the people I work with visit this site from time to time, I won't say what this year's present is just yet. Not until after our department's Christmas party!

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