Behind the Work: Mini Cake Paintings

Exploring shape, shadow, light and texture with this color story.

Earlier this year I started experimenting with impasto - a beloved process of the masters where paint is laid on thickly so that it stands out from a surface. When I was younger and first experimenting and learning how to paint, I loved working with oil, and painting on a layer and waiting days or weeks for it to dry. As I got older I just didn’t have the level of patience I once had and I started to feel in a rush with my artwork just like I felt with everything else. In a way I think maybe that feeling of always rushing and running to the next thing was why I turned my focus to photography for so many years. It felt so accessible and fast even though my images were (are) always so methodically planned out and I am so picky about what, when, who, where and how I shoot.

As I got older, and specifically over the last few years, when I was working mostly in acrylic, it was really difficult for me to achieve the layering and texture that I was seeking in my work. I loved mixing my colors but I just couldn’t get that heaviness that I was craving. My life is layered, my feelings are layered, my family is layered, my experiences are layered and I wanted my artwork to reflect my life, feelings, family and experiences.

So, I turned to oils. But, I worried that I wouldn’t have the patience required to work with this medium the way I did when I was much younger and didn’t realize I had all sorts of time. Still, I really wanted to open up my mind and try it and I really desperately wanted to push myself beyond my comfort level. I started doing some small color studies, pouring paint straight from the tube, making color patterns and mixing super thick and heavy amounts of paint. That’s how my love affair with oil paints was rekindled and how my mini paintings were born. I caked that paint on so thickly dabbing my brush up and down, swirling the oils together and watching how they formed random patterns and mixtures. “They look like mini-cakes” I thought. Not quite cupcakes but not a full cake, either.

At first they were just tests to see whether I could work with oil paint after so many years. I needed to remember how the paint felt on my brush and how it went on to the canvas or the board and whether it mixed well with my brand of linseed oil and turpentine. It was like traveling through time. Just the smell alone took me back to my old art studio on Long Island where I grew up and first learned to paint. I was younger, I was more patient, I painted with more purpose and I needed more of a plan. I loved painting with acrylic but it felt less urgent and I sort of like to do things the hard way. Half an hour after painting something it could be erased. Make a mistake? Paint over it within the hour. Hate the color? No matter, just erase it with another one in 20 minutes. I loved it but it didn’t feel like me. It definitely wasn’t easy because painting with acrylics is not only fun but it is super challenging, but my heart and creativity were needing another element.

The mini paintings, or “mini cakes” started to become a road map for my larger paintings. I also took the inspiration for them and the color choices and mixtures from both photographs and paintings. With the texture they feel like sculptures. They look alive. I love them in a pattern as a set or on their own. I love them on a wall because they look like they’re floating and I love them on a table for a vignette paired with other objects. I just love them.

The mini-cakes experiment gave rise to The Travelers and Ghosts We Knew (more on this new series soon) and surely whatever countless other paintings, works and projects are to come. I love when something that you think will only be an experiment and nervous to do turns out to be so much more.

Mini Cake Wall Sculpture