Archive for the ‘DIY’ Category

In part one of this long overdue update on my creative exploits for 2015, I filled everyone in on the totally mundane effort of cleaning out and reorganizing my studio — a rite of well-meaning passage for pretty much every artist. One would think that a clean well-organized studio would immediately send creative bolts of electricity through an artist and see him or her instantly filled with motivation to create amazing new works of art. In my case, wrong. A clean studio was merely the first step in my 2015 Art Career reboot, and in Part Two of my three (or maybe four) part update on 2015 I’m going to talk about the next step.

If it ain’t broke… it probably is, so buy all new equipment!

The studio process for creating my images has remained relatively unchanged for the past 7 years. I’ve used the same 10 megapixel Canon XTi purchased in 2007, shooting scenes setup inside a 30″ light tent surrounded by three 500 watt photo flood lights. The tent has always provided really great light, and it made a huge difference in my work when I began getting more serious about creating art in 2007. However, this magical little studio cube has a few shortcomings:

  1. The size of the tent limits the size of the pieces I’m able to create.
  2. The tent itself is very confining and it is very difficult to contort my hands, arms, and (quite often) the upper half of my body deep into the tent to make small stage adjustments without bumping the camera, tripod, or precariously balanced objects already in the scene. Disasters are routine. My work is fraught with the perils of alphabet avalanches, and album covers that topple over in an earthquake of pop culture destruction.

These problems are magnified by a factor of about a thousand when creating videos or stop motion animation. Once the tripod is nudged, or the camera is jostled, hours or even days can pass before I’m able to accurately get everything back where it was. Take a look at just a few short moments to shoot a single frame of stop motion animation. 

See? What a pain! So that was the old process. To make things a little easier on my back, my neck, and my patience, I wanted to make the task of building and animating my stage sets much less constrictive, but still have the benefits of enjoying 1500 watts of glorious light. Basically, I wanted 360 degree access to the stage set; if a little plastic Jesus decided to fall behind a stack of books, or a plastic sheep plummeted through the hole in a vinyl 45, I wanted at least a fair chance to retrieve the fallen character without having to rip apart large portions of the construction. So… no more light tent.

No more light tent?!?! But what about all that “glorious light” you’re always bragging about? How in the world are you going to replace that? Huh, Mr. Barely-knows-how-to-use-his-camera?

Patience, please! I didn’t say I was eliminating the light, I was just eliminating the tent. Eliminating the tent, however, meant I’d no longer have the lazy benefit of light bouncing all over the place off of the reflective white fabric. The tent made lighting super easy. Just place a floodlight on the left, another on the right, and hang one more over the top and let the laws of physics take care of everything else. Replacing the tent just meant that I’d have to be a lot more strategic about how my pieces would be lit.

No more light tent. Instead, a soft box!

No more light tent. Instead, a soft box!

The first step in replacing the light tent was  to provide a simple workplace that would give me access to the scene from any direction, so I just laid down a large piece of black posterboard where the tight tent would have normally sat, and erected a sheet of white foam core to act as a visual backdrop, as you see to the left during the initial stages of setting up the first new photo I created with my new equipment. Without the constraints of the light tent, I now had access to the scene construction from all around the table (which actually stands about a foot away from the wall).

Quick Note You see five light sources in the photo above: two photo flood lights, a brand new LED soft box, and a pair of desk lamps. The desk lamps are used to provide illumination to the scene during stage construction; they are turned off when I’m taking photos.

The soft box is now used as my primary light source, providing soft, even light from above. With the lamp mounted to a sturdy boom, I can easily adjust the height up or down to get the coverage a given scene might need. Best of all, the soft box can be moved away entirely so I can easily change the composition of a scene without risk of upsetting the whole cart of apples — something that was not possible within the light tent.

Soft box, flood lights, and translucent diffusers

Soft box, flood lights, and translucent diffusers

But wait! Just like Ginzu Knives… that’s not all!

To supplement the soft box I retained the original 500 watt photo flood lights, but front those with a couple of 20″ translucent diffusers to soften the otherwise harsh light produced by the floods, as seen on the right. Positioning the lights and diffusers is super easy, so I can get the same level of “coverage” formerly available in the light tent, while again having the luxury of moving all of the lighting out of the way to dig into the construction.

Wait! What about that really BIG diffuser you have hanging over the entire scene? It looks like you have even less space than you did with the light tent! And why even use a diffuser and the soft box IS a diffuser? How about that, smart guy!

Very observant, and, true! Suspending that large disc over the whole scene made it virtually impossible to make any more changes to the scene you see buried beneath all those discs and lights — which is why the stands, lights and reflectors come in after I’m completely happy with the scene I’ve constructed. As for why the big diffuser is there…

Oh look! Soft box times a million red beads!

Oh look! Soft box times a million red beads!

During the shooting of this particular photo, and at the point where I thought I was done, I discovered that the octagonal shape of the soft box was being reflected in each and every bead that had been used within the scene! This hadn’t been a problem with the light tent… and, so, the big 40″ diffuser was brought in to better distribute the light and eliminate the reflections.

Why stop with new lights when your camera is 7 years old?

Exactly! As stated in part one, I’ve been using the same Canon XTi since 2007. By no means has this been a “bad” camera; it’s super easy to use and takes very nice photos. But, over the years, as I’ve continued to develop a technique for creating better images, I’ve found the camera lacking certain efficient features. Most notably:

  • Falling behind the megapixel curve. Even though 10 megapixels was a lot in 2007, there are now cellphone cameras that can (badly) capture images at that resolution, and while the number of megapixels may not equate to better pictures, it does limit how large you can effectively print.
  • The lack of an LCD view finder that can display a scene “live” as it is being composed. I didn’t mind using the built-in “by sight” view finder, but I’ve always thought it would be easier to see what I was planning on shooting on an LCD display, or…
  • …view an interface to an external monitor, a feature the XTi lacks.
  • I also felt somewhat constrained by the focusing limitations of the XTi, which provides 9 autofocus points, and for the past few years I’ve been relying more and more on taking multiple shots of the same image, all at different focus points, then “smooshing” those photos together, as layers, to create the final image. I figured, the more autofocus points, the better!

My solution was to take the plunge into much better equipment, so I purchased a new Canon EOS 70D — 20 megapixels instead of 10, 19 autofocus points instead of 9, LCD display with a live mode, and…


What the camera sees, I see

What the camera sees, I see

Absolutely the best feature of the new camera is the ability to tether the camera to my MacBook and control every aspect of the camera (aperture, ISO, focusing, pressing the shutter, etc) from my computer, all the while seeing what the camera is seeing on the laptop display! And why is this so cool? Well, let’s take a look at the process I used to take to setup my images using the XTi:

  • Setup a scene in my studio (which is outside, across a small patio, in my guest house).
  • Take a photo.
  • Remove the camera from the tripod, take it into the house and upstairs to my office.
  • Plug the camera into my iMac and import the photo into Aperture.
  • Analyze the image, writing notes on a scrap of paper: turn yellow kewpie clockwise by a little, nudge blue buddha to the left by a smidgen, replace small goat with small lamb…
  • Go back to the studio
  • Make the noted changes
  • Remount the camera onto the tripod (and hope that it is in the exact same place as it had been when I took the previous photo)
  • Take another photo
  • Repeat ad infinitum…

Toss in several clumsy disasters dealing with the iron-maiden-like constraints of the light tent, and… well, you get the idea. But with the new camera and Canon’s software, I can see the scene live, zooming around the entire composition to immediately evaluate where one figure stands in relation to all the others. Even better, I can fine tune the focus since the software also allows me to control my L-series lens — and, I’m able to see the eventual histogram in real time, so I can adjust things like the shutter speed or the lighting conditions on the fly to produce the best image possible. Needless to say, this has cut down the above steps drastically! So, does that mean I’m going to be able to produce work faster than in the past? Ha!! Don’t jump to conclusions… We’ll get to that in part three.

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Custom designed DIY album covers

Custom designed DIY album covers

It should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with my art that I like record albums. I’ve been collecting records since my earliest days of college and they became a natural fit when I began taking photographs of cool things like records, books and toys. I’ve always had it in the back of my mind that one of my many “someday” projects would be a set of limited edition prints packaged in a real album cover. How cool would that be?!?!

(No, sorry, no such print set is being announced in this post. But… someday!)

Future plans aside, I recently did have the opportunity to create my own record album cover, and it came out great! So today I’m sharing my experience in a “how to” tutorial for others who may be so inspired to create their own record album packaging.

The Background

Years ago, I sent out an elaborate Christmas card package, which I dubbed, “It’s a Copyright Infringement Christmas!” The package included an 8 1/2 x 11″ card and a 110 minute cassette mix tape of the coolest Christmas music imaginable — Detroit Junior, James Brown, various Motown greats, etc.  I printed all the cassette labels and inserts on a (rare, for the time) color printer, and filled the envelopes with glitter, broken cassette shells, and tangles of audio tape pulled from the destroyed cassettes. The star, though, was the music, as everyone loved the selections I made (said the former college disc jockey with much modesty).

As the years have passed, with cassette players giving way to CD players and iTunes, fewer and fewer people have been able to listen to their hand-picked Christmas collection, but EVERY year since I’ve been encouraged by family and friends to make a new version. “If you ever copy Copyright Infringement Christmas to CD,” they would hopefully plead, “you’ll never have to give me another thing!”

Promising rewards aside, dubbing the collection to CD has always been something I’ve wanted to do, but year after year the project has been pushed way, way off onto a back burner without the time to do the project right — whatever that meant, as I had no idea how I could better the original package by just dumping the music onto CD.

I then realized that I’d made the original tape in 1992, and 2012 would be the 20th anniversary, so…

I  did it!

Where the original had filled both sides of a 110 minute cassette — 55 minutes per side — in the CD era I’d be able to fit 80 minutes of music per disc. Bonus tracks could be at play!

CDs? Dude. No one uses CDs. It’s all about streaming and downloads.

Well, yes, I thought about producing the 2012 version of my illegal Christmas compilation on a USB flash drive, but:

  1. A couple of the recipients (most notably, my parents) don’t use iTunes, iPhones or iPods, and would not know an MP3 from a hole in the ground.
  2. Handing someone a flash drive and saying “Merry Christmas” seemed like a hollow offering.

My plan, then, was to produce a set of 4 CDs. The first two would reproduce the 55 minute A and B sides of the original cassette, while the last two would be loaded to the digital gills with newly discovered (and equally cool) bonus tracks. The discs would be packaged inside an LP-size album jacket, with the CDs mounted on a full color cardboard insert. Rounding out the package would be a limited edition Christmas-themed print suited to the copyright infringing nature of the music.

Got it? Good! Let’s go to work!

Geography of an album cover

In order to design my album cover I first had to figure out how an album cover is constructed. Those of us who grew up around records have the basics: an LP is about 12″ in diameter and fits into a square cardboard sleeve that’s a little bit large. Easy! Take two pictures, glue ’em together, and — voila! — album cover!

Not so fast!

Careful attention to how an album cover is actually laid out and constructed will provide a guideline for generating a design template that can be used for applying art to the front and back covers, as well as the spine you’ll see on the edge when the album is stored on a shelf. Using this template, the cover can be printed on a single sheet of paper, then cut, folded and glued to produce the final sleeve.

Template of an album cover

Template of an album cover

The template for designing an album cover is shown above. Note that the image to appear on the front of the cover is on the right, while the back cover image is on the left. Designed in this manner, if you were facing the album in a sales bin, the spine would be on the left and the record (or in my case, CD tray) would slide out from the right. Virtually all album covers are designed in this way to be consistent and prevent dust from sifting down into the record jacket.

On occasion you’ll see variations on this design, with the jacket opening on the top, or the position of the front and back covers swapped. Usually, these are design mistakes that are sometimes corrected in later pressings of an LP.

The dimensions you see above are as follows:

  • The front and back covers are typically 12 ¾” tall and wide.
  • The top and bottom tabs you see on the back cover are folded over and affixed to the reverse side of the front cover. I chose to use 1″ high tabs, which seemed like a good size to get a good firm seal between the two covers.
  • Plus… the spine. Read on!

Does a record album have to have a spine? Well, no, not really. Vinyl records aren’t very thick and a 12″ LP will usually fit fairly easily into a simple spine-less (ha, ha ha) 12 ¾” sleeve. But that would be boring! After all, don’t we want to see the sideways title of our album when it sits on a shelf squeezed between other records? Sure we do!

Spine detail

Spine detail

So, between the front and back covers we also need to provide a bit of space for the spine, and the spine needs to be wide enough to accommodate whatever we plan to put inside the jacket. For an album that holds a single vinyl LP, the spine is usually 1/8″, varying slightly higher when the packaging also includes a booklet or other inserts. For my project the album needed to hold a CD tray, a limited edition print, and a very thin sheet of protective bubble wrap. I estimated that a spine of 3/16″ would be sufficient.

The image above and to the right is a detail of the spine measurements for my album cover. It is important to understand that an album cover is actually a box construction. So, if we provide a 3/16″ spine running up and down between the front and back covers, we must also provide a  3/16″ margin between the cover and the tabs, effectively forming the “sides” of the box we’re going to construct. The spine and the top margin are illustrated in the diagram.

Color note!
It’s worth noting that I chose to color the tabs dark gray, even though they were to be glued to the reverse side of the front cover. I used the color change as a visual clue when folding the tabs, and the dark gray color was close enough to the margin color (which in turn matched the front color) so as not to be visually distracting if the construction of the “box” was not precise.

Software note!
I used iDraw on my iMac to layout and design the cover you see above. Nice piece of software!

Printing the cover

Once the cover art had been designed it was time to print. Recall that we’re going to be printing everything — front, back, spine, margins and tabs — on a single sheet of paper. How big does that paper need to be? Adding up all the dimensions…

Height = 12 ¾” + 1″ + 3/16″ + 1″ = 14 15/16″
Width = 12 ¾” + 3/16″ + 12 ¾” = 25 11/16″

20 x 30" prints  on Kodak Endura photographic paper

20 x 30″ prints on Kodak Endura photographic paper

Okay, the total dimensions of a flattened album cover are roughly 15 x 26″, and that means we need to print on a big 20 x 30″ sheet of paper — 16 x 30″ if that odd size is offered by your favorite lab. While I suppose it would have been most preferable to print on lightweight cardboard to mimic the stiffness of commercial record jackets, I didn’t have that option, so instead decided to print my covers as 20 x 30″ glossy enlargements through my regular lab, myphotopipe.com on professional grade Kodak Endura paper.

Whoa! 20 x 30″ photo prints? Isn’t that, uh, kind of expensive?

Yes, it is. Making your own album covers is fun and amazing, but definitely not cheap!

Constructing the record album

Once the prints arrived (and after a few days of allowing them to lay flat), I used an X-acto knife and metal L-square to trim away the excess paper, as illustrated in the photo below.

Trimmed cover ready to be folded

Trimmed cover ready to be folded

On the right is the spine and the front cover, while the back cover, tabs, and top/bottom margins are on the left. Constructing the record album was then simply a matter of making the proper folds and gluing the tabs in place. I found it helpful to make my folds in a set order, with the printed side of the paper face down, and using the edge of the L-square as a sturdy guide to insure that the creases would be straight and square. In all, you’ll need to make 6 sharp, square folds:

  1. Left edge of the front cover where it meets the right side of the spine.
  2. Left edge of the spine where it meets the right edge of the back cover.
  3. Bottom edge of the top tab where it meets the top edge of the top margin.
  4. Bottom edge of the top margin where it meets the top of the back cover.
  5. Top edge of the bottom tab where it meets the bottom edge of the bottom margin.
  6. Top edge of the bottom margin where it meets the bottom of the back cover.

Photo paper is not generally meant to be folded, so — with a ruler or square edge in place along the crease line — go slow, and gently ease the paper up against the edge of your ruler or square edge, using pressure where you want the crease to form. Once a crease is in place along the entire width of where you want to make the fold, remove the straight edge, fold along the crease, and gradually apply pressure until you have a firm, sharp fold that is able to stand up on its own. Remember — photo paper will fight back!

After folds have been made

After folds have been made

Belated trimming tip!
Note in the photo above that the tabs, which were originally designed to be square, have been tapered slightly. This extra bit of trimming is done to allow greater flexibility while gluing, and will prevent any excess paper from from sticking out beyond the edge of the cover.

Ready to be glued!

Ready to be glued!

All that remains is to glue the front cover onto the folded tabs. I used rubber cement for this job, as it doesn’t bubble, provides a good solid bond, and is very forgiving and easily removed should you “over glue.” The tricky part of gluing the tabs is that the tabs are actually inside the cover and sit suspended in air at a height equal to the width of the spine. Yes, this is only an eighth of an inch (or, three 16ths, in my case), but still enough space to prevent a solid seal — especially at the edges — between the tabs and the cover. To workaround this problem I found magazines of the appropriate thickness that could be placed inside the cover and beneath the folded tabs to provide a solid surface upon which the cover and tabs could be glued with sufficient pressure. The magazines also made it easier to “square up” the corners where the cover, spine and top/bottom margins all meet. Once the glue had been applied, and leaving the magazines in place, books were used to weigh down the construction until the rubber cement had completely set.

That’s all there is to it!

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We’re going to take a short break from my Comic-Con wrap-up for a quick little instructional post on how to make your own alphabet blocks. They’re just like regular alphabet blocks except they don’t necessarily have the alphabet on the face—but we’re still going to call them “alphabet blocks.” Basically, we’re going to be creating photo alphabet blocks, placing alphabet block-sized images on the face of each small wooden cube. Like a lot of my how-to posts I’m going to ramble for a bit about the motivation for creating custom alphabet blocks, so if you’re in a hurry, scroll down to the section titled “New and improved Mexican Loteria blocks.” Otherwise, read on and enjoy!

A little background

Arlene measures the value of her soul while listening to the insidious sounds of Musica de los Muertos — 2007

I’ve been using traditional children’s alphabet blocks in my photography for several years, dating back to around 2007, when I discovered that blocks would allow me to build more elaborate stages for my photos. Until that time, most of my work lived on a single horizontal plane atop the stacks of records that formed the physical base of each scene. Using blocks I could create tiers and steps, and better integrate the objects in the foreground with the vintage album covers in the back.

The blocks also allowed me to interject words and numbers into my compositions in a manner that stayed true to my vintage sensibilities. Like many of the toy figures that roam about my surreal constructions, alphabet blocks are objects that connect to past memories, and set the narrative in a familiar—yet unsettled—time period.

Money blocks!

The drawback of traditional alphabet blocks is that each set contains only 38 different characters (A-Z, 1-9, +, -, =). Sure, that’s plenty for creating words, numbers and equations, but I soon found the blocks somewhat limiting. My work relies quite heavily on symbolism and iconography to represent ideas in a much more interpretive way than the literal communication of letters and words. While working on my 2009 solo show Plastic Prophets of Vinyl Redemption I “invented” money blocks, which are nothing more than regular alphabet blocks wrapped with a piece of old-style U.S. currency like a little birthday present. A good example of money block use is seen below, with the blocks adding both compositional structure and narrative symbolism.

Mindy dreams of pearls and the envy of all the girls at Kappa Nu — 2008

My next foray into alphabet block customization came in 2010 as I was preparing new work for Seven Signs of the Kewpie Apocalypse. For this show I had it in my head that several pieces would benefit from alphabet blocks that looked like Mexican Loteria cards. Surely, such blocks must exist, or so I thought, for several reasons:

  • Loteria images are everywhere! You can find them on greeting cards, matchbooks, cigarette cases, shopping bags, wallets, pendants, mouse pads, and beaded curtains.
  • There’s no possible way that I’m the first person in all the world to have thought that Loteria images should be on alphabet blocks.
  • They simply should exist because the idea of stackable Loteria blocks is just too cool!

Nope. I searched and searched, along the way finding alphabet blocks for languages across the globe from China to Egypt, but nothing that even remotely resembled what I was envisioning for my new photos. So I made my own.

A little history for those unfamiliar with Loteria cards
Loteria is a bingo-like game played by matching colorful images selected from a deck of cards with identical images on a player’s game board. It’s a simple but entertaining game, largely because of the wonderful pictures of people and things such as the sun, the moon, the devil, and the human heart. The images that most people associate with Loteria were created by Don Clemente Jacques in 1887, which continue to be produced to this day.

Mexican Loteria blocks — the early years

My first attempt at creating Loteria blocks was mildly successful, but not particularly satisfying. Having a nice deck of Loteria cards I simply scanned the card faces as high quality TIFF files, arranged the images into a document as one might envision the faces of a cube unfolded to lay flat, printed, then wrapped the paper around a normal alphabet block as I’d done previously to create money blocks.

Yeah, I guess they look okay, but the images are only so sharp, the colors are rather dull, and the folded end flaps were too thick and bulky, so you couldn’t really stack the blocks without first setting them beneath heavy books for a few hours to coax the paper flaps to lay flat. You also see only one image on each block, as I never could quite get the dimensions right to center images on every side of the block (and forget about the top or bottom flaps). Still, I used them for the photos in the exhibit with reasonable success.

Seven Signs of the Kewpie Apocalypse — 2010

Which brings us to the present day.

New and improved Mexican Loteria blocks!

Always looking to improve the look of my photos, I recently set out to create my own custom Loteria blocks that would improve upon the quick’n’dirty paper-fold blocks I’d previously produced. To this end, the blocks needed to be:

  1. Colorful!
  2. Sharp!
  3. Printed on all 6 sides!
  4. Easily stackable!

Rather than wrap traditional blocks with paper, I decided that a better solution would be to either apply or transfer existing Loteria images directly onto blank wooden blocks. I’d attempted photo transfers onto wood in the past, but had been less than happy with the results. DIY photo transfers are great if you’re willing to sacrifice a little bit of clarity and accept some distress to the image as you peel away layers of the transfer material. I’m not one to generally sacrifice or accept  quality—unless that’s exactly what I want, and in this case, it was not. So, for this project, I’d be applying existing Loteria images directly onto the face of blank wooden blocks using decoupage.

Step one — Preparing the images

Finding Loteria images that would fit onto the face of an alphabet-size block was not as difficult as I’d imagined. Pasatiempos Gallo makes a set of mini Loteria games that are intended to be tucked as prizes inside a piñata. The whole game—cards and boards—is printed on a single sheet of perforated light cardboard that is folded up to fit inside a playing card-size plastic wrap. Perfect! Though the cards were too large to fit on the side of an alphabet block, the images on the game boards were juuuuust right! Using a pair of scissors, I cut out each image, trimming to just outside the black line that borders each colorful illustration, effectively creating a deck of super mini Loteria cards

Trimming images from the mini Loteria game boards

Note on the printing process!
The Loteria images used for this project were professionally printed, likely using an offset printing process. If you consider using this same process for your own photos or images you will want to make sure that the images are similarly printed using either a laser printer or professional printing equipment other than ink jet. The process of applying the image to another surface involves the use of goopy liquids that  may cause standard inks (even when dry) to blur or smear. Be forewarned!

Traditional Loteria sets include 54 different images. Unfortunately, the mini game includes only 36, choosing to leave out 18 “less essential” images such as La Botella, El Arpa, and La Maceta (the bottle, harp, and pot, respectively). At first, this caused me no special grief… until I realized that La Calavera (The Skull) and El Musico (The Musician) were not included in the set. Oh, sadness.

Step two  — Preparing the blocks

Alphabet blocks come in all sizes, depending on the manufacturer. The alphabet blocks you see in my photos are produced by Melissa & Doug. They are really great blocks measuring 1 and 3/16ths of an inch on each side. There are a number of manufacturers of plain, unpainted blocks around the country, but the precise dimensions used by Melissa & Doug eluded me. For this project I chose 1 and 1/4 inch blocks from Barclay Wood Toys and Blocks located in Hebron, Indiana. Their blocks are made of kiln dried hardwoods (maple, birch, ash, etc) and at a cost of 16 cents per block I bought 16 for about $12 (including postage). Since there were 36 different Loteria images and I wanted to place a different illustration on each side of my blocks, I’d need to make six blocks (leaving ten for mistakes, er, future custom blocks.

I wanted my new and improved blocks to somewhat resemble the blocks I’d made using the paper wrapping method, so I made the decision to place the Loteria images on clean, white backgrounds—kind of replicating the white backgrounds of traditional alphabet blocks (though without the colored edge borders). A different approach would have been to stain the blocks to give them an old world feel, and while I think that would have looked spectacular, the white backgrounds would provide greater image contrast when incorporated into my work.

First coat applied to the unfinished wooden blocks

I applied two coats of white enamel spray paint to the blocks, placing each atop a quarter to prevent the painted blocks from sticking to the newspaper drop cloths.

Step three — Organizing the images

Didn’t we already prepare the images? Yes! But now we are organizing the images. Remember, my intention was to use these custom blocks in my photos, and how calamitous would it be to be in the midst of composing a scene and discover that El Diablito (The Devil) was on the same block as El Alacran (The Scorpion)? Horrors!

I divided my mini images into six groups—one per block—making sure that there would be a good distribution of  illustration themes and colors from one block to the next. So, for example, a single block might have one side depicting a person, another with a celestial body, another with something that grows, etc. I also used this time to plan the orientation of each image on each block. There really aren’t any hard and fast rules here, but have you ever looked at a drawing or painting of a pair of dice and had the feeling that something is wrong? That usually happens when the artist mixes up the number of dots that should appear on each face—i.e. one is next to six, three is next to four, two is next to five—combinations that won’t be found on a real die.

‘A’ is for apple…

The same holds true with alphabet blocks where, generally, the painted letter on the front of a block will be right-side up, with the letter on the opposite face will be upside down. Likewise, the outlined letters, numbers and illustrations on the unpainted sides (those that wrap all the way around the block between the painted sides) are flipped 90° from the main letters on the painted faces. (Go ahead, if you have some blocks handy, check it out.)

In any case, decide on a strategy for how your images will be oriented on the faces of your blocks. In my case, I decided that images on opposite sides of a block would be vertically flipped (like on traditional alphabet blocks). Images on adjacent blocks would be flipped 90°, so no two touching faces would ever have the images oriented in the same direction. I did this, again, to provide greater contrast for the image that would be facing the camera.

Organizing the images might not sound important, but will save steps later on when you discover that an image 30 seconds from drying solid has been affixed to the block upside down.

Step four — Attaching images to the blocks

With the paint dry we’re finally ready to attach images to the sides of our custom alphabet blocks! If you’ve ever decoupaged, this part is super easy. Of course, prior to this project, I had never decoupaged… and it was still easy!

I used Mod Podge to affix the mini Loteria images to the sides of my painted blocks. Mod Podge is, basically, a bunch of goo that acts as a glue, finish and sealer, that comes in all kinds of “flavors” such as matte, gloss, and sparkle (and probably a lot more based on the dizzying array of bottles I found at my local craft store).  I chose Gloss Lustre. I also chose a container with a flip-top drip applicator, as I didn’t anticipate the need for a whole lot of Mod Podge. For larger projects you may want to get a big ol’ vat of Mod Podge and a paint brush to slop on your glue and sealant.

Attaching an image to a wood surface is a two step process:

The Glue Step

    1. Place a few drops of Mod Podge on the surface of a block.
    2. Spread the goo over the surface using a foam brush (or a paintbrush), thoroughly covering any area where you plan on attaching the image.
    3. Place the image face down on your workspace, and place a couple of drops of Mod Podge on the back of the image.
    4. Once again, spread that goo around, making sure that you brush the goo up to and over the edge of the image.
    5. Take the now gooey image and place it—face up, of course—on the equally gooey surface of the block. The image is going to slip and slide a bit, which is actually to your advantage as you can slip and slide it right into place at the very center of the alphabet block. I actually used the backside of a fork for this task, as the width of the fork was a little narrower than the height of the mini Loteria images, so I could easily eyeball the horizontal and vertical center points of my blocks.
    6. You want to make sure that every little piece of the image is well attached to the underlying block, and that evil air bubbles get squeezed out from beneath the commingling layers of goo. How? Oh, I suppose you could use a fancy rubber roller for this kind of job. I used the fork from step 5, rocking it back and forth to firmly seat the center of the image and squeeze out bubbles. I then ran the rounded edge of the tines along the perimeter of the image to squeeze out excess goo and make sure every edge and corner was firmly affixed to the block.
    7. Wait 15 or 20 minutes for the Mod Podge to dry. You can pass the time by reading my blog or by cleaning your brush using ordinary tap water.

Remember that Mod Podge is a glue, and though it is water soluble (to a point), your brushes will be very unhappy if they are allowed to dry solid in a coat of Mod Podge goo!

The Sealing Step
Once the first application of Mod Podge has dried, you seal and finish the now glued-on image with a second application of Mod Podge. Yes, the same Mod Podge. Remember, it’s a glue and sealer all in one!

    1. Place a few drops of Mod Podge on the surface of your image.
    2. Spread the goo over the image surface, making sure of three very important things:
      • Cover the entire surface, spreading beyond the edges and corners.
      • Brush as smoothly as possible (which is why a foam brush is recommended).
      • Brush in one direction.
    3. That’s it!

Allow 15 to 20 minutes for the sealant coat to dry—perfectly clear!—and one face of the alphabet block is finished.

For the Loteria blocks I worked on all six at the same time, basically doing the primary (i.e. the coolest) image for each block first, then rotating to an adjacent side to affix that image, and so forth until all six sides were complete.

The results?

My set of six finished Loteria blocks!

I’m incredibly happy with the way my blocks came out and I can’t wait to begin using them in upcoming photos! Next—and since I still have 10 unused blank blocks—I think I’ll begin brainstorming future custom alphabet blocks. Famous authors? Notable scientists? Tarot cards? What do you think, Patient Reader; any suggestions?

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