Kristen Cuming’s Sweet JellyBelly Mona Lisa

“ The more I … slow down to enjoy each step, the more satisfying the final product will be. ”

Kristen has shown her emotive art with Eclectix over the years and when I got wind of her JellyBelly escapades I asked her to share the sticky details with us. Kindly, she consented and gave us this in-depth look at the process of re-working Mona in sugar. 

How did this project come about?  The Mona Lisa project was commissioned by Jelly Belly for their collection. I’m not sure if they are planning on using it for a specific event, but I’m guessing it will eventually go in the visitor center at their factory. I have wanted to do Mona since I started working for them, so it was really exciting when they said they wanted to do it. I started working with them around June 2009. The first project was for the California State Fair “It’s a Candy Nation” exhibit. It was a portrait of a grizzly bear and I worked on it during the weekends in the exhibit at the fair. I also did a cupcake a couple of months ago and then the Mona Lisa.

Can you tell us a little about the process?  When I first started looking at the Mona Lisa with the idea of doing it in jelly beans, my main concern was that the original is so faded and dark it would be difficult to render in such a colorful medium. It was hard to see what exactly was going on in the background.  The sky is very age-yellowed and much of the shadows in her clothing looked extremely dark. I looked at some images online of the piece that people had digitally “restored” for some ideas.

It was an easy choice to make the sky blue but with her clothing and the background- I squinted a lot at the original and made my own choices about what would look good. The biggest deviation from the original was to crop out the darkest area at the bottom, making the figure larger on the picture plane. Because the beans are a fixed size, you can really only go so small – before it is impossible to make facial features come out right. I wanted to make sure she was big enough that I could do that.

What size is the piece?  She ended up being four feet by six feet.  I also changed the color of the drapery that goes over her shoulder for the sake of clarity. I wasn’t sure I could make clear in beans what was going on with all of those folds, so I made the shoulder drapery a gold color instead of matching it to the original color of her bodice.

Can you give a little step-by-step here?

1. First I have the framed board made at The Hardwood Resource, which is a local business in Martinez. I learned the hard way on my first piece that the frame had to be part of the piece to start out with, instead of adding it later. For the first piece I just glued the beans right to the board and ended up having to build a tape and cardboard wall around the entire piece to contain the resin sealant. It didn’t contain it entirely and there were bumpy resin bits that had to be sanded off the edges before it was framed. Fortunately the guys were very patient in doing what it took to get the piece framed well and advised me that it would be a good idea to frame the board before putting the beans on from now on.

 2. Once I get the framed board, I gesso the board on both sides.

 3. After that dries I do a charcoal drawing on the board, to get the correct values. I spray fixative over that.

4. I do a loose under painting in acrylics, usually mixing the paint to match the colors of the beans.  Sometimes I will mix it slightly lighter or darker than the beans are, especially if it is a color that doesn’t come in a big range of values in the beans.  For example, I never match the blue of the sky in the underpainting exactly to Sour Blueberry (usually the dominant sky color), because there aren’t a lot of different blues and even the effect of a slightly different blue peeking out from underneath makes the sky more lively.

5. Once the paint dries, I get my Krylon Spray Adhesive and begin gluing on the beans. I usually choose a palette of 25-30 colors of beans per piece. In small containers, I line them up, from light to dark on a table, to make them easier to grab. I generally work with 5-7 colors at one time, then put them aside and load up the table with a different set as I move onto a different section of the piece.  I tend to keep the colors separate, but sometimes it makes sense to make four or five mixes ranging from light to dark in areas where I am using a bunch of different colors together, like when I am trying to create the look of a light area blending smoothly into a darker shadowed area. For sections like these I use three or four light, three or four medium, and three or four dark beans and make a range of mixes from lightest to darkest. I did this for Mona Lisa’s face. The mixes make it easier to break up hard lines that would form if I just use one light color, one medium color, and one dark color. For the Mona Lisa I started gluing the beans at the bottom and worked my way up. It is easier because each row of beans supports the one above it.

 6. After the beans are all on, I lay the piece flat and mix a two-part resin, which I pour on and spread around with sponge brushes.  This part is always nerve-wracking, because you have to pour exactly the same amount of liquid from two different bottles, mix in one bucket, pour the whole thing into another bucket and mix again, and hope you got it mixed well enough. Then going over each inch to make sure that every bean is sealed but that there are no puddles…it just isn’t my favorite part. So far it has hardened just fine.

Have you had any specific problems with the jelly beans?  It took me some trial-and-error to find a glue that would work with the support in an upright position.  I didn’t want to work with the support horizontal to the floor because my studio ceilings aren’t high enough for me to get far enough above it to be able to tell if it is working. I have to be able to step at least eight to ten feet back. Most of the glues I tried first were water-based and tended to dissolve the outer coating of the beans. I’d glue a section on, think it was working fine, then come back later to find the beans had all fallen off onto the floor, leaving a sticky residue behind that had to be scrubbed off and dried before I could try again.  Eventually I found the Krylon Spray Adhesive, which works great.  It was a little sketchy sometimes at the fair last summer, as it was very hot and the glue took longer to dry. If it got too hot it softened and beans fell off. I always lost several beans between my weekend work sessions.

Another issue was adequate ventilation in my studio for working with the spray adhesive for hours at a time. I ended up getting a good respirator because it was too cold to work with the door and windows open and I started to get headaches and nausea after working for a couple of hours. I thought I was just getting the flu but finally realized that the illness coincided with my work sessions and invested in the respirator. I’m actually pretty thankful I came out of that as well as I did. : )  I haven’t been that concerned about safety in the past because I usually work in acrylics but after the adhesive scare I am rigorous about paying attention to the safety precautions on all of my supplies. I want to be able to do this for a long time.

Did you learn anything new as far as your technique?
I learned that the more I study the subject, the better my foundational drawing and painting are and the easier the project will be. In some of my earlier projects, both in painting and in the bean mosaics, I’ve been so excited to get to the main event that I rush through the initial steps and often have to backtrack and fix things that aren’t quite right. What the Mona Lisa emphasized is- that these initial preparatory steps are a very important part of the process. The more I accept that and slow down to enjoy each step, the more satisfying the final product will be.

LINK to Kristen’s website for her current art and events.


(This entry was  originally posted on 4/15/10 and transferred here –  as we are discontinuing our other blog site)

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