Growing up, my grandmother Nan was an absolutely amazing watercolorist. She introduced me to the idea of watercolor art and I loved watching her work – and her results. Always artistically inclined, I did a couple of camps to start to learn more. Then later when I studied art formally in college, I took watercolor classes to learn the techniques. Whether it’s the connection to my grandmother or to something more unknowable, there’s something about watercolor that brings out the part of me that can really get lost in art.
I’ve been a fan of WC on nontraditional surfaces for a long time; in fact my senior thesis for my degree involved watercolor painting on plexiglass. Then when I discovered painting on cookies I felt like I was being invited to explore a fascinating room that I didn’t even know existed.
Art You Can Eat
Watercolor cookie painting is simply the process of using food coloring as watercolor paint. You’re simply painting on the surface of cookies (as opposed to paper or canvas.) If you want to do a really in-depth design on a cookie that’s very detailed, this is the perfect choice to experiment with.
So way back when, in the babyhood of TMC, I had a good friend who wanted to order cookies as a gift for a creative agency client. The client’s business had a name that included the word “Koi” in it (like the fish.) I didn’t know anything about koi, or fish, or making cookies that looked like them. It was only my second year decorating cookies and I was still learning on the job. I didn’t feel inspired by the idea of koi at all, but obviously I had to find my way into the project somehow.
I surfed over to Insta to see what I could find. Maybe there were other bakers who had done some koi fish cookies? Not only were there very few examples, but I hated everything I found! So on a whim I just started researching paintings of koi instead. I started to warm to the idea of painting a koi fish on the cookies somehow. So then I decided to kick things off by finding a tutorial for painting a koi fish.
The watercolor tutorial was the perfect next step. It showed how to add the little details that really made the design come to life. Right away, I was hooked! I added blue to make the fish look like it was in water which really helped it to feel more authentic. I played around with several different versions and I found that every image was turning out better than the last, and SO much better than I had expected.
Never Underestimate the Power of Necessity
I will never forget these koi and remembering it now it stands out as one of my all-time favorite orders. (It also has remained one of our best performing posts on Instagram.) Chances are that I would never have accepted an order like that if it hadn’t been a need for a personal friend. That was the day that I felt like I broke through a barrier of being constrained by traditionally decorated cookies. I had been forced to think outside the box. I finally felt that I had found a way to be able to bring my personal touch to them.
There are 2 different ways that I offer watercolor cookies. The first is traditional hand painting on individual cookies, which I do love. But when you’re doing a hand painted project in that way, you have to be able to charge a premium price tag for the work. That’s of course because it’s time and labor intensive, but also because you’re essentially creating a variety of singular art pieces. It’s a different type of work and aesthetic and each one is completely original.
One thing I had to figure out early on is that you have to add a water agent to the gel food coloring in order to make it less viscous and easier to paint with. You’ll want to use alcohol (such as an inexpensive vodka) or an alcohol-based substance, like a clear food extract. You can’t really use just plain water; too much water on royal icing will cause it to pit and ruin the whole look.
The other type of watercolor cookies that I’m able to offer is a little more accessible for some buyers. With this method, I paint the original artwork on paper, then I scan it in digitally. Then I actually print the design onto the cookies with The Eddie.
Who Is This Eddie?
The Eddie is a food printer (and a truly amazing invention that deserves its own separate blog post)! But for the purposes of this description, all you need to know is that the Eddy is a digital printer that uses food coloring as its’ ink to print designs onto cookies and other confections. At The Messy Cookie we use it to print onto hand baked iced white sugar cookies.
Lots of our clients are local businesses who are welcoming people to Maine in some way, such as mortgage lenders and real estate agents. I have an original set of Maine-themed paintings such as lobsters, blueberries and lighthouses. I can scan those paintings and coordinate them in beautiful designs, often with the business’s logo to pull it all together. This allows me to hand paint it only once and then replicate it as often as we need to for the client. It’s more affordable and less time consuming for some clients who are ordering large numbers of cookies.
And they all taste delicious either way.
Stay tuned for another post on this topic where I continue to geek out on the watercolor art form and all the ways it can be used and enjoyed.