Painting small: A lot of creativity goes into ceramic pendants

News-DemocratMarch 9, 2014 

It's a small world, after all. That could be artist Michelle Meyer's theme song.

The artist sits in the studio of her Highland home -- it was originally the dining room -- with the sun streaming across the table where she works. She dips a slender brush with long, fragile hairs into a dish of green paint. In her hand, the brush hovers over a ceramic white disc the size of a quarter.

"I was looking in a magazine and saw pendants made out of broken china," Michelle said of her "ah-ha" moment. Her steady hand delicately adds green to a leaf about 1/4 inch long on the disc. "They were so expensive and I thought, 'I wonder if I can make my own?'"

She can. And does. Delicate violet hydrangeas bloom and tiny hummingbirds take flight on petite jewelry canvases. Some pendants are round, some square, some rectangular. She calls her business The Painted Cottage Studio.

The former computer programmer met her husband Tony, also a computer programmer, in college. Michelle, 47, stopped working to raise their son Collin, now 15, and daughter Autumn, 11.

"I've been painting and drawing since I was a kid," she said, recalling that "I did a lot of pencil drawings and I'd redraw birthday cards."

That led to painting on canvas, usually flowers and still life as she got older. When her children were smaller, she created a 15-foot SpongeBob SquarePants on a wall of her son's bedroom and a carousel horse for her daughter.

In her studio, filled with vintage cabinets stocked with supplies, hangs one of her paintings -- a bicycle leaning against a white-washed wall.

"I painted big," she said with a smile. "I was curious to know if I could do that small."

Michelle spent months honing her technique before brush was applied to ceramic. And she had to find the right products to use, such as porcelain paint, high-quality brushes and a source for her metal frames and chains.

She looks for inspiration in nature -- birds and flowers in her backyard and elsewhere.

"The Missouri Botanical Garden is my favorite place in the world" for that, she said. "I take a lot of pictures there."

Year-round, "I'm always tearing things out of magazines," she said as she opened a drawer and pulled out a selection.

She searches for more detailed images on her Kindle, then props it up next to her as she paints.

"If I'm working with something I'm not familiar with, I need to see the details more closely," she said, noting that whorling feathers need to be arranged properly on birds and something as infinitesimal as a leaf should be the right shade of green.

"I needed seven colors for this little bird," she said, pointing to a cardinal she was creating for her mother's birthday. A miniature landscape of a field of poppies took 10 colors.

The red birds sell well, she said, laughing.

"In the summer, it's hummingbirds; winter, it's chickadees." And then there are the dogwoods, speckled blue eggs in a nest, fleurs-de-lis, a quartet of birds on a wire, holly, lilies of the valley and so many more.

Almost three years after she started painting miniatures, she has a loyal following on paintedcottagestudio.Etsy.com and her website, PaintedCottageStudio.com.

"I'm sold all over: Russia, Italy, Australia, Canada."

Besides the pieces she sells online and at the Tiadghton House in Lebanon, Michelle takes commissions, creating unique pieces such as the Titanic, a pet parrot, a sheep and even a pendant that incorporated natural symbols of a woman's two children's names: Oak and Poppy.

"My most exotic was a request for a Yucatan Jay. I had to go look that one up!"

To make a pendant, Michelle first sands the edges of each ceramic disc to fit in its metal frame. No matter how hard she looks, she can't find frames that match the size of the discs she uses, which are handmade by an artist, she said.

Background colors come next. This is allowed to dry completely before she draws an outline of her image in pencil on top, though sometimes she has to sketch on paper first.

"Then I mix a lot of paint!" she said.

How long a piece takes depends on the details and her familiarity with the subject.

"I do hummingbirds so much that I can do one in an hour and a half. Others that are new to me can take all afternoon."

After the last brush stroke, the pendant sits for 24 hours to dry, then is baked a half-hour "in a regular oven" to help set it.

After it's cooled, it's glued to a silver metal frame, which come in a variety of designs. Then it rests for 24 more hours. Each pendant comes with an 18-inch chain and costs between $34 and $40.

Michelle says she loves the challenge of the work.

"It doesn't bother me how long it takes. It's knowing I can do it and the pleasure it brings people."

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