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The Creative Corner: "Art for Dessert"

creative corner cake
Photos: The Creative Corner

Home Learning  |  The Creative Corner

Episode 9 You’ve been told to eat your vegetables, but have you ever tried to paint them? Artists have been featuring food as a subject in their work for centuries — learn why on this episode of The Creative Corner. Special Guest Lisa McLaughlin, the baker behind Jesse’s Girl Cookies, invites us into her kitchen to experiment with modern art techniques on cakes, and then we’ll make our own painting of a scrumptious treat inspired by 20th-Century painter Wayne Thiebaud.

The Creative Corner is an  Art for the Journey production, presented by VPM and brought to you by  Earthsong.

Virginia Standards of Learning Connections (Grades 4-6):

  • Arts (Visual): 4/5/6.5, 4.6, 4.8, 4.14, 4/6.16, 4.19, 5.12, 5.13, 6.6
  • English: 4/5/6.1, 4/5/5.3, 4/5/6.4
  • Math: 4.10, 4.11, 5.10
  • History & Social Science: WHII.1, WHII.2

Art Project Guide:

Wayne Thiebaud-Inspired Pastry Paintings

Wayne Thiebaud is an American artist known best for his colorful, nostalgic (inspiring pleasant memories of the past) paintings of desserts. Take inspiration from Thiebaud’s work and paint your own pictures of mouthwatering snacks in this watercolor activity!

Supplies Needed:

  • A piece of thick paper (watercolor paper will work best, but another thick or textured paper will do)
  • Watercolor paints
  • Paintbrushes (in different sizes if you have them)
  • A cup of water
  • Paper towels
  • A pencil or colored pencil
  • A delicious-looking subject to paint

Step-by-Step Instructions:

1.  Use a pencil (or colored pencil) to draw a light sketch of your subject. Hold the pencil lightly to create soft lines that will blend in when you paint over them, and think about the geometric shapes that make up your food item: Is it a cylinder? A cube? A triangular prism (like a slice of cake or deep-dish pizza)?

2.  To create the illusion of depth and make your picture look three-dimensional, you can use the one-point perspective method. Draw a dot above or to the side of your subject, and draw or imagine a line running from that dot to each corner of the object. Use these as guidelines to create a realistic three-dimensional-looking shape on paper.

3.  Place a few drops of water on each color in your watercolor set to “activate” the paint and get it ready for use.

4.  Begin by painting the lightest colors in your image, and work your way toward the darker colors. For example, if you’re painting a vanilla cake with chocolate frosting, you’ll want to paint the cake first. (It works well to layer darker colors on top of lighter ones, but it’s very difficult to make light colors show up on top of dark ones.)

5.  Use different brushes — or different brush techniques — to create texture in your painting. A thin brush, or the edge of a flat one, works well for making straight lines. Tapping or making short, choppy brushstrokes is helpful when painting something with a rougher texture.

6.  Once you’ve painted your delicious subject, add its shadow to your picture. When you look at your subject in real life, which way does its shadow fall? What color is the shadow appear to be? We tend to think of shadows as black or grey, but in reality, they are usually made up of a combination of colors from the object that casts the shadow, the surface it’s resting on, and the light in the room. Thiebaud also used playful, cake-like colors in his painted shadows, so don’t be afraid to experiment with some creative color mixing.


  • Remember that the more water you add to your paint or to your brush, the lighter and more translucent (almost see-through) the color will be. If you need to lighten a color, try dipping your brush in water before applying the paint to your paper. For more saturated (bold, intense) colors, use a brush with very little water in it.
  • When painting different colors next to one another, it’s best to wait until one is dry before adding the other. Wet paint next to wet paint will bleed and blend together, erasing sharp lines and changing the colors you’ve carefully mixed.
  • Paper towels are handy tools when painting with watercolor; if you add too much color to an area or have drips on your paper, dabbing (not wiping!) with a paper towel works almost like an eraser.
  • If there are white elements in your painting, experiment with adding tiny bits of color to those areas. White paint doesn’t stand out well on white paper, so consider adding just a hint of blue, pink, or orange to make things like white frosting or a white plate appear bolder.
  • Use the lid from your watercolor paint tray — or something solid and slick like a plastic or foam plate — to mix your paint colors. If you mix colors directly in the paint pots, all of the colors will combine and become muddy. Mixing on a separate surface keeps your colors clean and vibrant (bright and pure).


Lisa’s Modern Art Cake

For some true edible art, grab an adult and experiment with classic modern art painting techniques in the kitchen! Lisa McLaughlin’s cakes were inspired by watercolor sunsets, Jackson Pollock’s action paintings, and Georges Seurat’s pointillist masterpieces. With some white icing and a little food coloring, you can recreate her art-inspired bakes at home, or make your own!

Supplies Needed:

  • An apron or smock
  • A cake (or cupcakes)
  • White cake icing (store-bought or homemade is fine; just remember that colors won’t show up well in chocolate or other dark icing)
  • Powdered sugar
  • A hand- or stand-up mixer (optional) or a whisk/fork
  • Food coloring in a few different colors
  • Small bowls and spoon(s) for mixing
  • A tool (like a butter knife or clean popsicle stick) for spreading icing
  • Clean paintbrushes (use new brushes, and/or wash thoroughly with dish soap before using with food)
  • Something to cover your work surface (parchment, foil, paper, or a trash bag)
  • Paper towels
  • A toothpick (for pointillism/dots)
  • Piping bags or plastic baggies (for pointillism/dots)

IMPORTANT: Food coloring can stain both clothes and skin, so it’s important to have an adult present for this activity, and to cover your work surface and your clothes before you begin!

Step-by-Step Instructions:

1.  First, thicken up your icing by adding a small amount of powdered sugar to it. Place the icing in a large bowl and add the sugar a little bit at a time, mixing with an electric mixer or a whisk/fork until the icing is able to stand up in stiff peaks (like tiny mountains) and not flop over.

2.  To create a watercolor effect, you’ll need to cover your cake in a thin layer of white frosting, and then mix three different colors of icing. Lisa used warm colors (red, orange, and yellow) to create a sunrise/sunset look; you can use any three colors that look nice together. (Keep in mind that complementary colors, such as red+green, yellow+purple, and blue+orange, create brown tones when they mix, so you may not want to use those colors together for this step.)

  • Place a small amount of icing in each of three small bowls. Add a few drops of food coloring to each bowl, and stir until they’re well-mixed.
  • Use a butter knife, spoon, or clean popsicle stick to apply small blobs of each color around your cake, distributing them randomly and leaving white space in between.
  • Use the same tool (or something with a smooth, flat edge) to slowly spread your color blobs into a smooth layer of color. As you smooth them out, the colors will touch and blend to create a soft, colorful, watercolor effect across the surface of your cake.

3.  For a Jackson Pollock-inspired “action painting” cake, you’ll need a plate and a clean paintbrush. You’ll also need a layer of frosting on your cake before you begin.

  • Squeeze a few drops of food coloring in various colors onto a clean plate. This is your color “palette.”
  • Dip the bristles of your paintbrush into one of the colors, position the brush above the cake, and tap the handle of the brush against your finger so that the color gently splatters onto the surface of the cake.
  • Repeat this process with each color until your cake is as colorful as you want it to be!
  • For bigger splatters of color, you can squeeze food coloring directly from the bottle onto the top of the cake. This method creates bigger puddles of color, however, so you’ll need to dab them with a paper towel before serving your cake; otherwise the food coloring will stain your teeth.

4.  To imitate Georges Seurat’s pointillism, frost your cake with a layer of white frosting (or work on top of what you’ve created so far), and mix one or more colors of icing in small bowls, just like you did for the "watercolor cake.”

  • Once your colored icing is mixed, use a spoon or rubber spatula to scoop it into a plastic baggie or a baker’s piping bag. Use scissors or ask an adult to cut a very small hole in one corner of the bag, and then gently squeeze the icing into that corner. Twist the baggie so that the icing is only able to come out through the hole you’ve cut, not out of the opposite open end.
  • Use something small, like a toothpick, to draw or poke guidelines into the frosted cake to help you create your design out of dots.
  • Place the tip of the bag (where the hole is) against the cake, and use both hands to hold it steady and gently squeeze until a small dot of icing comes out. Repeat this process again and again, moving the bag wherever you want more dots.
  • This process is what bakers call piping, and it works best if you go slowly. (Both bakers and pointillist painters are patient people!) You can use it to create either words or pictures on your cake.

5.  When your cake is ready, take a moment to clean up your workspace. Food coloring will stain surfaces, so be sure to wash or wipe off anything that got color on it. Then you can enjoy and share your edible masterpiece with others!

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