A Letter to the Year

Dear 2009,

I just realized that you are on your way out the door in a few hours and thought that you might enjoy this little note as a memento to our times together the past 365 days. I know you're in a hurry right now, so I'll make it short.

Honestly, when you first got here, I don't think I remember much of you. I was still living in Pennsylvania at a job that wasn't fully satisfying my desires. Those days all blend into one. I think it was around February that things started to pick up. Some time in March, as you remember, my parents got back from Ghana safely. That started off a bit of a chain reaction to the rest of the year.

I guess one of the most important things happened in April of this year when I made the decision to end my employment at Pride Mobility, move back to Utah, and start graduate school. There was a lot of things that needed to happen in order to carry that out, though, so the next few months were filled with packing and closing up shop there... and carrying a secret for a while. Honestly, that was hard to carry that decision in secret for all those months! I wouldn't have had to keep it, except that my boss happened to go to church with me and I'm sure he wouldn't have liked to hear about it through that channel.

In May (or June... I can't remember) I was happy to get a visit from Greg and Sally for a day. It is always nice to see family, even if it is for a brief visit. We had a fantastic time seeing the sights of my neck of the woods and getting to go get Grandma's Pizza, some of my favorite.

In July, right as I was starting to really box things up, I finally decided to get my new computer, a Mac Pro. I had told myself that I wasn't going to get a new powerful workstation if I wasn't going to use it, and finally graduate school allowed me the opportunity to delve into the funds and purchase one. It has been a significant investment in a powerful tool and I am happy to have it. I also got my first iPod Touch, which replaced my Franklin Planner, oddly enough. It has been an interesting year for technology (especially that whole episode of my PowerMac G5 dying literally 2 minutes after I ordered the Mac Pro).

I recently spoke with Col, my former boss at Pride Mobility, and he still thinks I was crazy to give up a salary and go back to school. I'll tell you, though, I was kind of nervous in giving him my notice (especially since I chose to do it, oddly enough, on the same day he was doing our reviews and giving us our raises for the year). However, I knew it was the right decision at the right time and was able to leave the company on good terms. It was hard to say goodbye to the wonderful people I knew out in Pennsylvania and the good friendships I had made, but, as you very well know, life never stays the same.

August started out very interesting with a cross-country move. Bless the hearts of my parents, they helped me carry all my junk across the midwest and back into Utah. Three days crammed into the front cab of a 26 foot moving van was not a fun experience, but we survived and everything moved like clockwork. Of course, you know all of the fiasco of trying to find a job and new place to live somewhere in Utah, but that, oddly enough, wound up working out in the end as well.

School started up this fall and it took a few weeks to get into the groove of things, but it turned out to be a lot of fun. I also wound up getting good grades and getting some good criticism from my professors. I just hope I can keep it up and get even better as time goes on.

It has been fun to be back in Provo around people of my same religion and age. The church ward I attend is one of my favorites that I have been in and I have found my niche in it. Being called to be in the activities committee was a much welcomed experience compared to being in the bishopric, although I think the spiritual challenges are fewer and far between here. Honestly, it feels like I'm fighting complacency in my testimony more than I am combatting temptation. I don't know if that makes sense, but we both know that in the coming years I will be moving out of Utah.

Well, it's almost time for you to leave, so let me end this here. Thanks for sticking around for the past 365 days. You've been much better to me than 2008 was (man, what a jerk...). I hear that your replacement is an interesting fellow, fresh and new to the job. Hopefully he'll be able to pull it off like a pro. Enjoy retirement. I hear they have lots of shuffleboard and bingo where you are going. Give my regards to 2007 and 2003.


-Brad Reynolds


Dear Santa

Dear Santa,

I thought about sending you a letter this year, but decided that, since your global intelligence network already is keeping tabs on me to see if I have been naughty or nice, I thought it would be safe just to post this on my blog. Besides, it's environmentally friendly... sort of. I mean, sure I could have chopped down a tree and written this all out on it's pulp, but instead I'm just storing it on a computer server that is happily humming away burning a few kilowatts every now and then. You'll have to tell me which you prefer because, honestly, I think I'm contributing to greenhouse gasses either way and if I keep it up, by the time I hit fifty your workshop may be located on a house boat around where the north pole used to be. If that happens, I'm fairly certain you could relocate to the northeastern corner of Pennsylvania because it's just about as cold as where you live right now. Anyway, you already know that I'm on Al Gore's naughty list, so I'll just skip the greenwashing.

So how are things up at the polar ice caps? (Do most people that write letters to you just jump straight into asking for things for Christmas? Because I think that they should at least have a few informalities to take care of first.) Don't you live next door to Superman's Fortress of Solitude? If you could get me one of those crystals that he has in there, I would certainly enjoy it. Wait, I wasn't supposed to jump into my list of greed just quite yet. Sorry. How is what's-her-name, your mistress? What IS her name, anyway? We've got plenty of names for you, but she is just known as Mrs. Claus to the rest of us. What would you like for us to set out for you this year when you come to the house? The same old milk and cookies? Or would you like something more wholesome like some bran flakes? If you get a little bit more peckish, feel free to look in the fridge. I'm sure we'll have lots of leftover food from that night. Just don't take all of the Nesquik or else you'll be on my Dad's naughty list.

Well, on to the list of demands for this year. I'm sure you already know what types of temporal goods I am wishing for this year, seeing as I emailed my Amazon.com wish list to you earlier this month. Any of those items will do just fine, seeing as all of my needs are met, really. This year is the first year that we will have had Christmas with a security system on the house, so you'll have to ask my mom what the passcode is for it. I don't want to be awoken to a fright on Christmas Eve with sirens going off everywhere.

There are a few things I just would like to discuss with you in terms of non-temporal goods that would be nice to have: First, could you please get Osama bin Laden for the CIA? I would really like to have that all over with and besides, I'm pretty sure that he doesn't really celebrate Christmas and probably refers to you as 'that fat infidel in the red suit'. I just would really like all that mess in that area of the world to be over with so that all of the soldiers could spend their time doing other things that they can tell their families about. If it's not too much trouble, could you try and fit bin Laden in your big bag and drop him off at the following address:

c/o Leon Panetta
Army Navy Dr. & Fern St.
Arlington, VA 22202

I would appreciate it.

Next, let's talk about my love life. Thankfully, I'm now back in an area of the country where I can go out on a lot more dates and be around more people my age. It would be selfish and wrong of me to ask you to deliver the perfect woman to me in a bag (that would also qualify as kidnapping, so I'd prefer to skip a felony on my record). Instead, I would hope that you can somehow help me be a better man, preferably one that doesn't turn into a shy, melting glob of man-goo whenever he tries to talk to a woman that he considers stunningly beautiful. I'm pretty sure your intelligence agents have managed to pick up a conversation or two in their surveillance where this was blatantly obvious. They probably also know in whom my current romantic interests lie, so anything you can do to help would be, uh, helpful. But please just don't send me a copy of The Secret and tell me to read it. I have read it and there is a whole lot more to life than just imagining stuff happening. Trust me. I'm an animator and have a HUGE imagination. So far I still don't have a giant battle robot at my command.

Another thing, if you could please do something about the huge vein on Tom Cruise's forehead to make it not noticeable, I, and many others, would appreciate it. I can't sit through any of his films without staring at it the whole time.

Now if you could do me a favor and just do something to watch out for my parents. This year my dad lost one of his best friends and fishing buddies. It's had a noticeable impact on his attitude towards his life and he's been making a point to do as many things with us young'ns as he can. I don't think he's expecting to die tomorrow, but if you could just ensure that he gets to do as much as he can, I know we would all appreciate it as well. I would like him to see all of my kids born (which given my current track record, isn't going to happen in the foreseeable future. See the above paragraph that starts with, "Next, let's talk about my love life."). I didn't get to know one of my grandmothers at all, which is a shame because I know she was a darn magnificent lady. Anyway, you'll know what would be best.

On a side note, could you also ensure that John Travolta and Robin Williams never make movies ever again? Or that Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan ever do anything in public ever again? That's one of the things that the world needs more of.

Just one more thing, if you have a minute. I've been thinking about it for a little while and I don't think that the world needs more things in it this year. It just needs more good memories. I'll be honest. I don't remember what you delivered to me for Christmas when I was five. However, I do remember eating shrimp and pizza with my family that New Years Eve and having a great time (until I ate too much and threw up). I don't remember what clothes I got when I was twelve. But I do remember playing floor hockey all night long and caroling with the Puzey Family. I don't remember what was under the tree when I was the only one left at home for Christmas. Instead, I remember my parents inviting over those in our ward who were going to be all alone that Christmas Eve to spend an evening with us. I don't remember everything that you sent me for Christmas last year, but I do remember having a hard time when there really wasn't any family around for me to spend it with. Essentially, if you can tell, I think the only things we will find valuable are the good memories that we take with us. Electronics will get outdated, toys will break apart, and clothes will wear out. But our memories will be something that we get to take with us. So, please, for the sake of everyone, maybe you could leave a few X-Boxes, plasma televisions, and Blackberry Storms in your bag when you finally get back to the North Pole late Christmas Morning. Maybe you could show us that those things really aren't what we need in the end, despite how much we may want them. That, if you could do it, would be something I, personally, would appreciate.

Well, this has gone on too long already. I'm sure you need to get to whomever is next on your list of people to check out. Brett Reynolds, is it? Anyway, have a Merry Christmas, Santa, and fly safely.


-Brad Reynolds

P.S. By the way, President Obama just mandated that you can't sit on the tarmac loaded with toys for more than three hours without unhitching the reindeer. Just FYI so you don't get fined by the FAA.


The Magnificent Balzini - Progress

Many of you are wondering what I am doing with my life since the semester ended and won't pick back up again until February. Well, This week I have been furiously modeling and texturing all the characters, props, and environments for my alive ball short: The Magnificent Balzini.

I'm sticking to what I know and have been working on the animation totally in Cinema 4D, not Maya. There are just too many buttons to push in an order I'm not familiar with yet. That being said, there is still a heck of a lot that I'm not familiar enough with in Cinema 4D that I am still trying to figure out. This is a perfect opportunity to learn 3D in general.

I'm planning on rendering this animation out in 720p HD, which is the mid-size HD. There are a few more settings I know I am going to have to tweak in order to get the render optimized, though. Just to give you an example, the above test render of the theater with the busted floor took about 35 minutes to render. Now, if I'm going to be making a short about 2 minutes long at 24 frames per second, that puts me at 1,680 hours of rendering. There are a few things to tweak to bring that back down, but in the end, it is still going to take a while.

Learning how to paint textures is another fun experience. Our badly burned fellow above was all painted in by hand with a computer mouse. That's when a graphics tablet comes in handy.

Anyway, I'm almost ready to animate. I just need to place all the characters and organize the scene structure so that it's easy to work with. After that, I will jump into lighting and rendering. Should be fun. Wish me luck.


Another Satisfied Customer

Some of you may remember that a while ago I blogged about my love affair with a piece of technology, namely my iPod Touch. Needless to say, when the backlight on it recently went kaput, I was a bit dismayed. Apple makes fine products, but when they die prematurely, it makes me angry (like my G5 tower that I can only sell for parts now).

Let me preface the rest of this post by saying that although I used to be an Apple Fanboy, I no longer am as vehement in my devotion to them as I used to be. Truthfully, I have two hard drives in my Mac Pro, and one of them is running Vista (*gasp!*). Personally, I think Steve Jobs is an incredibly wealthy hippie-turned-egomaniac and hope that some day he has an Ebenezer Scrooge-esque experience. That being said, he has done something incredibly brilliant with the company: creating a seamless total brand experience (albeit at a pretty penny).

Back to the story: I tried all the normal stuff like rebooting, recharging, and restoring, but nothing would work. My little iPod had lost it's backlight. Thankfully, I discovered that it was still under warranty until June of 2010. Thus began one of the best experiences in customer service I have had in all of my life.

First of all, I started on Apple's support web site by answering a few generic questions on a submission form. I then added a comment about all of the things that I had tried and sent the support request form on its merry way. The web site had an option for you to put in your phone number and they would call you with a support call. I only waited a few minutes on the line until I spoke with a real human being.

The customer support lady was very nice and after verifying my information took a look at the note I had added to my support ticket and said, "Well, it looks like you've been completely thorough. At this point it looks like the only solution is to get you a replacement." She then gave me a few reference numbers and emailed me a link to a web site where I could check the replacement status. She even offered to keep the same laser engraving on the back of the replacement as I had on my original. Quick and painless, I was off the phone in under ten minutes.

The next morning I found a box on my doorstep that contained the following:
  • A return shipping label underneath the current shipping label.
  • Packaging foam with a removable cutout for whatever size iPod you have.
  • A plastic bag for placing the damaged iPod in.
  • Instructions for returning the damaged iPod.
  • A few pre-cut strips of tape to seal the box back up.
After following the instructions, I was able to drop my old iPod off at a FedEx office and have it shipped overnight to the iPod repair facility.

I then could visit the link and was continually updated on the status of my replacement. Because I had requested my original laser engraving, it took a little longer to receive the replacement, but it got here all the same.

The whole experience has left me very satisfied with Apple as a brand. I still have my qualms about their sneaky business tactics, but as a consumer, I appreciate what I have paid for. I have had some bad experiences in the past with other brands, but this one was quick and easy. Let's just see how long after the warranty expires that the replacement lasts....


Walk Cycle - Final Product

Well, after lots of nitpicks and extra careful details, the walk cycle is complete. You'll notice that even all the little joints in the fingers are animated and have some sort of weight to them. Does it make you crazy to think of doing this sort of thing yet?

ANIM 619 - Walk Cycle Final from Brad Reynolds on Vimeo.


Figure Drawing - Final Assignment

This is the last time I have to draw the naked lady this semester. Essentially, what we had to do was a long pose drawing, figuring in all of the techniques that we had learned throughout the semester. I don't like the proportions of some of these. I guess that's just something that I haven't gotten down yet.

Some people will probably ask themselves, "So what will you do with Naked Lady now that the semester is over?" Well, thankfully, I will be using her for a few more fundamental classes, so it wasn't just a waste of money for this semester.

But, seriously, when I'm done, she's probably going to be donated to the community college.

Coming Attractions: The Great Balzini

I have a few weeks free after the semester, so I thought it would be a great time to work on some personal projects. One of the projects I plan on working on is an extended version of my CG Alive Ball assignment. I have a bit of a head start on it, but need to figure out some of the details in the rigging and such.

Fun stuff. Stay tuned for the progress.

A Very Interesting Use of Holographic Technology

Stumbled upon this in reading the news today. I don't know how expensive it is, but it sure is a good idea:

Holographic Architectural Imaging by Zebra from Core77 on Vimeo.


Art History - Final Essay

The following is an analysis I did for my Renaissance Art final essay. Hopefully it makes some sort of sense to those who aren't familiar with this sort of thing:

Raphael Sanzio: Marriage of the Virgin
by Brad Reynolds
Final Essay
GS 601 - OL5

Few Renaissance artists were able to execute such an exquisite level of depth in their work as Raphael Sanzio. His mastery of the medium of painting is world-renowned, setting the bar very high for the mannerist painters that followed him. His ability to absorb new techniques and artistic concepts was unique, although he still had to rely on the foundational principles of those artists and philosophers who preceded him. Richly infused in his work are the ideas of Neoplatonism while his paintings commonly depict symbols of the human struggle between spirit and flesh. The subject matter he often chose to depict conformed to the guidelines of narrative illustration developed by his predecessors while still maintaining his individual style. By taking a closer look into the artwork that marked the rise of his particular approach to painting, one can more fully comprehend the breadth of his skills.

Raphael was born in 1483 in the city of Urbino to Giovanni de’ Santi. His father was an average painter, but had the intellect to guide his children down a more provident path than had been available to him in his youth. Not wanting Raphael to learn the rude manners of the peasants, his parents made it a special point to personally raise and nurture him. At a very early age, he appeared to have talent in the areas of painting and draftsmanship. Realizing that Raphael possessed far greater artistic abilities than himself, Giovanni knew that the boy needed greater tutelage than he could personally provide. Giovanni eventually found favor with Pietro Pergunio and arranged for Raphael to begin an apprenticeship under the master painter in Perugia. As Raphael studied and replicated his master’s style, it was remarkable how closely he was able to imitate it. Eventually, his painting skills progressed to the point of being indistinguishable from Pietro’s. During this time period, Raphael also began to develop the beginnings of his own personal style, which in later years would be influenced by the great Florentine masters Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarotti (Vasari 306-7).

Following his time at Pergunio’s workshop, Raphael spent some time working in Cittrà di Castello, southeast of Florence, creating altar pieces for various churches. In 1504 he painted the Marriage of the Virgin for the church of San Francesco, a piece that marks the genesis of Raphael’s personal style. The moment depicted in the painting is derived from The Golden Legend, a thirteenth-century collection of stories about the saints’ lives. According to the legend, there was a competition for the marriage of the Virgin Mary. The high priest was to award her to the suitor who could present a rod that had miraculously bloomed. Joseph was the only suitor able to perform this task, thus winning Mary’s hand in marriage. The captured moment shows the anticipation as the high priest guides Joseph’s hand in placing the ring on Mary’s finger. Other virgins congregate behind Mary on the left side of the painting while the defeated suitors stand dejectedly behind Joseph, one of them breaking his rod over his knee in frustration. In the background a temple stands, almost exactly identical to Bramante’s Tempietto, but with Brunelleschian arcades rather than Bramante’s post-and-lentil system (Kleiner 655).

The painting shows a great influence of the compositional stylings of contemporary artists, as well as a strong inspiration of his former master. The painting was most likely modeled after two of Perugino’s paintings: Christ Giving the Keys to Saint Peter and an earlier Marriage of the Virgin. The image itself is compositionally divided into three distinct planes with the main event in the foreground. Diagonals in the high priest’s beard, as well as the central axis of the painting, direct the viewer toward the dramatic moment. The orthogonals of the plazza tiles lead to a central vanishing point at the open doorway of the building, which corresponds to the architectural ideal of antiquity and the Renaissance. In addition, Raphael’s signature can be found over the door, declaring his centrality in the conception and execution of the work (Adams 324-6).

The influence of Neoplatonic thought is prevalent in the construction and subject matter of the painting. The composition is symmetrically balanced with equal visual elements on either side across a vertical axis while the use of scientific perspective shows Raphael’s keen attention to nature. Notable, as well, is the Christian symbolism that is integrated with Neoplatonic quest for illumination. Along the central axis of the painting is the temple, representative of the Temple of Solomon (Adams 326). Temples throughout history have symbolized humankind’s desire to commune with God, and the temple depicted in the painting conforms to this aspiration. Its style is a centrally planned building contemporary of Neoplatonic ideals that the circle was the most appropriate geometric form to represent universal harmony (Module 11, Session 2).

In Christianity, the role of high priest was synonymous with Jesus Christ and his role in atoning in behalf of humanity for their sins. Raphael’s decision to place the high priest centrally in the painting is suggestive of Christ’s centrality in one’s desire to commune with the Divine. At the same time, the cross shaped embroidery on his robe refers forward in time to Christ’s Crucifixion (Adams 326). Joseph, interestingly enough, is depicted as the only individual who is barefoot, possibly a reference to God’s admonition to Moses on Mount Sinai: “Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground” (King James Bible, Exodus 3:5). Joseph had previously been informed in an angelic dream of Mary’s significant role in the salvation of mankind, and therefore would have the foresight to be respectful of her sanctified presence (King James Bible, Matthew 1:20-24).

Also of interest is the symbology of the event depicted. The marriage ceremony is a symbol of unification between husband and wife, although in this case it can be interpreted as mankind’s union with God through Christ. Joseph, a representation of mortal man, is joined harmoniously with Mary (a symbol of the Divine) through actions of the high priest (a symbol of Christ). The painting is saturated with symbols of man’s search for enlightenment, the key element of Neoplatonism.

It can also be observed that Raphael was aware of engaging viewers visually through the principles of istoria consistent with Leon Alberti’s treatise on painting (Module 9, Session 11). Though the figures in the painting are of varying age and fashion, their complexions are unblemished and almost idealized. Their gazes all vary in focus, mainly concentrating on the marriage ceremony or the reactions of their companions. Two figures in particular address the viewer with their gazes: a virgin on the left of the painting and a suitor on the right. Implied motion is found throughout the composition from the angered suitors breaking their rods, to the tension of the moment as Joseph slips the ring on Mary’s finger. The viewer is enveloped as a bystander to the ceremony, able to sense the frustration of the defeated as well as the anticipation of the couple’s union.

Although the event depicted is one of union, there are also many symbols of dualism that can be observed in the composition that are quite common among Renaissance artworks. First, there is a visual separation between the men and women in the painting not only in grouping, but in action. While the group of virgins looks patiently and almost longingly at the ceremony at hand, the suitors exhibit anger and frustration at the results. This, perhaps, symbolically portrays the struggle of mankind between divine virtue and the appetitive carnality of the soul. Also, two of the figures in particular bear an interesting resemblance to one another: the virgin directly to the left of Mary and the suitor behind Joseph who is bending his rod in discontent. Their heads tilted at the same angle, both display essentially the same facial features, the only subtle difference being the focus of their eyes. While the suitor focuses his frustration outward toward the viewer, the virgin chooses to direct her attention to the harmonious celebration at hand. The choice to practically duplicate the same figure in opposing genders suggests the duality of the soul in the struggle between the carnal and the divine, one part seeking after the satisfaction of inner desires while the other seeks after the understanding of the celestial.

Though his hands commanded mastery of the paintbrush, Raphael consistently built upon the artistic fundamentals of his predecessors, as can be seen in Marriage of the Virgin. He was keenly aware of the harmonious philosophies of Neoplatonic thought and sought to apply the principles of geometric beauty within his compositions. Additionally, he accurately melded the concepts of Neoplatonism with Christian symbols while his grasp of the principles of istoria draws the one emotionally into the narrative. Though his themes emphasize the individual desire for universal harmony, he was also able to metaphorically illustrate the internal struggle of mankind between earthly appetites and divine virtue. Raphael truly was a master, not only of the brush, but of transporting the viewer beyond the surface of the painting.

Works Cited
Adams, Laurie Schneider. Italian Renaissance Art. Boulder: Westview Press, 2001. Print.
King James Bible. Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 1979. Print.
Kleiner, Fred S., Mamiya, Christin J., and Tansey, Richard G. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, Eleventh Edition. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 2001. Print.
Vasari, Girogio. The Lives of the Artists. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1991. Print.



Since the human body is so small in comparison to its surroundings, there are a few different ways to depict depth. It is hard to do scientific linear perspective as well as atmospheric perspective because of this fact. Therefore, we use a technique called 'foreshortening,' which essentially means that parts of the figure are drawn smaller in comparison to the others in order to give the sense of depth.

For this assignment, I had to lay my figure model casting on its side and pretend that I was looking at it from above. It was a little bit difficult to get back into drawing the whole figure after a few weeks of focusing of just features, so a few drawings weren't that well proportioned. Also, you'll have to forgive the quality of some of them. I was fighting off a severe migraine headache when I started two of them:


Walk Cycle - Progress

I'm trying a different video system for the moment. Vimeo seems to have the best video quality of any Flash video site I've seen. The downside is that they take their sweet time in encoding your video unless you fork out $60 a month. I can wait a few hours.

Anyway, here is Norman again, this time with his arms swinging, his head bobbing, and his torso turning. After this, it's time to add the details:

ANIM 619: Module 13 Progress from Brad Reynolds on Vimeo.


Gingerbread House 2009 - A How-To Guide

It's the most wonderful time of the year... well, for the most part... unless you are rushed to make a gingerbread house. If you think my pumpkins are crazy, just you keep reading.

People keep asking my mother and I how we do our gingerbread houses, so I decided to document our process as best as I could and post it here in all of it's glory. Some people may say that we are giving away our secrets, but I figure if you are brave enough (or crazy enough, most likely) to give them a try, then you can have some fun at it... or incredible amounts of frustration.

(Blogger's note: I may be editing this with corrections made by the technical director of the project, i.e. my mom.)

First of all, it starts with an idea. I like to sketch up a few ideas, drawing from different architectural styles. We've done all sorts of different styles before from gothic cathedral (complete with flying buttresses), to southwestern adobe architecture, to simple bungalows. I always have to keep in mind that for the most part, you are limited to flat planes for your construction:

This year we decided to go with some cues from Thomas Jefferson's Monticello home. This isn't really an activity for kids, keep in mind, because unless you are insane, you spread it out over a couple of days. The first time my mother and I did a gingerbread house from scratch, we wound up starting at 5 PM and didn't finish until 1AM or later... and that one was a simple house structure.

The first thing I always do is to lay out the floor plan of the gingerbread house. Remember, the pieces you make have to be able to fit on a pan in your oven, so it can't be too big unless you want to create your own pan out of sheet metal. Also, creating the floor plan also gives you an idea of how big your base will be. We do a few crazy things with our designs and have used cardboard bases, styrofoam bases, and plywood bases. I think we like the plywood the best because it stays sturdy and you can mount hardware and lights to it.
The next step is to create all of the patterns for your pieces. I use the professional illustration software Adobe Illustrator to do my patterns because I can just line them up with each other and the floor plans to create exact measurements. Also, if your pieces are too big to print out on a single piece of paper, you can divide them up and tape them together later. I also like to do mine digitally because I can always print off more if I need them.

IMPORTANT NOTE: When designing your pieces, keep in mind that they will be around 1/4 inch thick or more when finally baked. It is the worst thing in the world to put your roof on only to find out that it is a half inch too short.

Next, you need some gingerbread. My mom and I have found a recipe that we tend to like the best out of the ones we have tried. To give you an idea, the gingerbread house we created this year was approximately one batch. We made two just in case we needed to make more pieces in case one broke, but usually one batch will do.

Gingerbread Dough Recipe:
  • 6 Cups All purpose flour
  • 1 3/4 cups sugar
  • 2/3 cups shortening
  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon ground ginger
  • 2 teaspoons double-acting baking powder
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 eight-ounce container of sour cream
  • 2 eggs
  • Parchment paper
To prepare dough: Into a large bowl, measure 3 1/2 cups flour and remaining ingredients. With mixer at low speed, beat until well mixed, constantly scraping bowl with rubber spatula. With hand, knead in remaining 2 1/2 cups flour to make a soft dough. Wrap dough in plastic bag and refrigerate 2 hours or until dough is not sticky and is of easy kneading consistency.

Next, after your patterns are created, it is time to roll them out. We typically roll the dough out onto parchment paper first, that way we can easily transfer them to the cookie sheet that they will be baked in.

Before you put the patterns on, spray them with a cooking spray to prevent them from sticking to the dough when you need to pull them off:

You can then place them in the pan to bake at 350° until the pieces are golden brown and are very firm when lightly touched with your finger. Remove them from the oven and place the cookie sheet on a wire rack to cool for 5 minutes. Carefully remove the parchment paper with the baked pieces from the cookie sheet and place on the wire rack to cool completely. You will want to use new parchment paper if you are going to make hard candy windows for your gingerbread house. It is at this time when you can use a small serrated knife to trim off any pieces that may have made your gingerbread crooked.

Next, we always create hard candy windows for our gingerbread houses because we place a light inside them and like for it to shine out. The light adds nice ambiance and also the smells of all the ingredients is great when the house warms up. We use a typical hard candy recipe that you would use for lollipops, just with a few things omitted. You can either do it on the stove or in the microwave:

Microwave Hard Candy:
  • 1 Cup granulated Sugar
  • 1/2 Cup light corn syrup
Thoroughly mix sugar and light corn syrup in a 4-cup microwave glass container. Cover with plastic wrap. Microwave on HIGH for 3 minutes and 15 seconds. Remove from microwave. Peel back plastic wrap, taking care to avoid the hot steam. Stir and then cover with a NEW sheet of plastic wrap. Microwave on high for 3 minutes and 15 seconds. Remove from microwave. After boiling subsides, feel free to stir in coloring if desired. (The natural color is a light yellow, so keep that in mind when mixing colors. We once tried to create a blue color, but wound up only creating green.) Carefully spoon into window areas and wait to harden. If you are using parchment paper, the hard candy shouldn't stick to it.

I believe this recipe can also be done on the stove, but requires the use of a candy thermometer. Heat ingredients to the 'hard crack' stage and spoon in.

After you have created your windows, one trick we have found is that it is easier to decorate them when they are laying flat, rather than standing up. This is a great time to do so without tearing your hair out later. Now it is time to create the icing.

A WORD ON ICING: Royal icing isn't like your typical cake frosting. When it hardens, it is close to the consistency of concrete and very sugary. It also requires using raw egg whites, so I don't recommend eating it because it can sit out for quite a while some times. The last thing you want is a case of salmonella ruining your holiday cheer.

Royal Icing:
(Makes 2 cups. You will probably have to make several batches)
  • 3 egg whites (We typically get the health food all egg whites in a carton or even powdered egg whites)
  • 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1 sixteen-ounce box confectioner's powdered sugar
In a large bowl combine all ingredients. Beat 7 minutes with an electric mixer until smooth and thick. A good test is when a knife blade drawn through the icing leaves a clean cut. Store in a tightly sealed container if you are not using it right away. You can also cover the top of the mixing bowl with a wet paper towel to keep it from drying out:

It also helps at this point to have a good set of frosting bags and tips. I think we are using a set of tips that is older than I am, so they are a good investment if you like doing confectionary decorating.

You can also mix in food coloring with the icing to create different colors. We have typically mixed in green for doing trees and bushes. We have also found that small waffle cones work great as pine trees and marshmallows work great for short shrubs:

A WORD ON DECORATIONS: Let your imagination run wild. Typically, we try to get stuff from the bulk section of the grocery store. It's fun to walk through and imagine the things there are something else and see what you can come up with. We found a small can of these holiday cookie decorations and they worked great:

Once you have your windows decorated and dried, you are ready to put up your walls. This usually turns into a three man job, so make sure you have someone to help out: two people hold while one works the frosting. You should only have to hold the walls for a few minutes because the frosting dries out fairly quickly depending on your climate (In Utah it dries quickly, but more humid places, it can take a while unless you add more powdered sugar to dry it out.) Yes, we even put some trees up inside next to the windows so you could see them from outside.

You may find yourself accidentally cracking a piece. If that happens, don't worry too much because you can 'glue' it back together with frosting. I have this crazy personal rule that all construction materials have to be edible. It makes it more of a challenge. You may choose to deviate from that a bit, but remember, that Elmer's Glue is non-toxic and therefore probably edible...
Also, you may find that some of your pieces don't fit in their crevices and need to be trimmed. If this is the case, you can delicately use a knife with a small serrated edge to do your trimming. Just be careful because your gingerbread can crumble fairly easily.

After you feel confident that your walls are sturdy enough, feel free to put up the roof:

I like to let it sit for a bit to dry at this point, but you can still keep working from here. At this point there is no real prescribed order, but we typically work on the house, then the surrounding yard.

You can use different materials on the roof, but one of our favorites to use is Big Red gum. It gives the house a great fragrance as you walk by it and it also has great color. (Some other ideas include Smarties or Spree for terra-cotta tile or Frosted Mini-Wheats for a thatched-roof look.) You can do whatever pattern you like. This year, we went for a terra-cotta tile look, but you can also do a staggered asphalt shingle look using gum as well. Just to give you an idea, the roof on this house took approximately 73 pieces (cut into thirds) to cover it.

Another trick we learned it how to use gumdrops for your own creations. I typically use them for wreaths and ribbons. You can microwave them for about ten seconds to make them warm, then roll them out flat over some spread granulated sugar. Then you can cut them out to whatever shape you so desire:

From there, let your imagination soar. We did a lot of decorating from this point and finished the house for the most part:

Creating icicles in probably something you can do before working on the yard, although you could also save it for the end. This can also be a two-man job: one person works the frosting and the other cuts it off at the right length. We have found the best cut-off tool to be a simple toothpick, but with a bit of a trick. Between icicles, stick the toothpick in your mouth and slather it with saliva. It sounds gross, but it makes the end of the icicles not stick to your toothpick. After three or four in a row fall down, you'll see what I mean:

Every year we try and do something innovative that we haven't tried before. This year it had to do with the yard. Before we have either tried painting or using flock to cover the base to make it look like snow, but it either dries and shows the texture of the plywood or cracks and falls off. This year we decided to frost the entire base. We wound up also sprinkling decorative granulated sugar on top of the frosting, which creating the glistening effect of new-fallen snow:

Well, after many man-hours, we finally completed it:

I have to give most the credit to my mother. She is the technical skill here and I wouldn't ever be able to do it without her. All in all, it is a fun thing to do each year and I am glad that we get to do it. Hopefully my future wife, whomever she is, will be up for the challenge some year.


Mid-Tone Paper Drawings - Hands & Feet

Again, I'm getting a bit ahead, but I want to enjoy the holiday next week. This week we were focusing on using a medium value paper to draw on. This give you the advantage that you don't have to cover the whole paper in charcoal and smear it around to get your medium tones. This also means that you have to put in the highlights yourself with a white charcoal pencil or contè crayon. This week I also wanted to focus on just keeping the sketch lines and adding value that way. I usually use a paper stump to blend all the shades together, but I decided against that here. I guess it helps keep the sketchiness to the drawing rather than making it look too much like a photograph or something.

This week's focus was also on hands and feet. Compare these to the last ones I did and you'll probably see some improvement. It is nice to know that things are coming along, even if they come along slowly.