A Book of Trees in a Dream

January 17, 2012

I have always wanted to write an illustrated natural history book.  It began long ago, when I began to see scientific illustration as more than just an old-fashioned art form, and started to work on it as a spiritual practice.

Morel - watercolor, 1984

Morel - watercolor, 1984

Science. Nature. Art. Spirit.  For me there is no division between these things, although Science typically argues otherwise, and continues to shatter Itself into smaller and more isolated fragments.

“Things just get further and further apart, The head from the hands, and the hands from the heart.”
– Lhasa de Sela (from the album “The Living Road”, 2004).

 It recently occurred to me that I have been looking for this book all of my life, subconciously searching for it in libraries, nature centers, bookstores, and even online.  But I’ll never find it there, and my unusual combination of interests probably means that it must be purely a personal project.  In years past, I’ve made several attempts to plan it, and succeeded only in writing a few disjointed paragraphs to go with a handful of random images.  But it began to crystallize about a year ago, as I refined the Lichen Oracle and decided to let it evolve into a larger project.  A diverse collection of notes, lists, and drawings – some of them years or decades old – slowly came together, like iron filings drawn by a magnet.  I drew a huge diagram that evolved into a tangled net of tiny interconnected sketches and single words.  It sat rolled up in my studio for months as I conjured inspiration to fill in the gaps.  New sketches accumulated on the shelf above it.  One day I unrolled the chart, intending to make a second draft, more organized and detailed.  I realized that half of it was sketches for four drawings that I had since finished.  I rejected some of it as no longer useful.  Only a small piece was left.  I added it to the pile of recent sketches, put them all in an empty, newly-prepared drawer of my flatfile cabinet, and went back to work on a pencil drawing.

Slowly and quietly, all the bits and pieces began to speak to each other.  Irrelevant or duplicated ideas vanished.  Hidden connections surfaced.  A simplified structure emerged.  I began to see it, like a path through a thicket.

A book of drawings, paintings, illuminations, and writing.

The Graphis Lichen Oracle and the Oracle of Sticks, Stones, and Bones.

A record of sacred natural treasures:  trees and precious pebbles, seedpods, shells, fungi, pieces of wood.

How to look at a deer antler, or a desert fern, or a quartz crystal, or a turtle shell.

A Creekwalker’s account of the Gates into the Otherworld:
The Lichen Cloak, the Thorn House, the Wheel of Hawks.

And other pages, still unspoken here…

Of course some of it is already finished.  A lot more resides in the drawer of rough drafts, waiting.  A new red ochre drawing lays on my desk.  One night I saw a version of the book in a dream, a sure sign that the project is well on its way and ready for more energy and a tighter focus.  In the dream, the pages held only pencil drawings of sacred native trees and their wood:  oak, hackberry, saguaro, swamp tupelo, beech, and others.  Its purpose was to “banish the fear of death” in the viewer.  (I expect that would take a very special and unusual viewer, given the incomprehension, unease, fear, or hostility with which most people view this type of art).  But it was good enough for me.  The work continues, more seriously now, as the path rises into the desert oak forest.

Tree Book - Wood Drawings

Tree Book - Wood Drawings

O’bon L’Artiste pencils in a Moleskine large sketchbook.
LEFT:  weathered live oak wood (Quercus virginiana), Nags Head, NC.
RIGHT:  part of a walking stick made from Arizona black oak root (Quercus emoryi), Santa Rita Mountains, AZ.
TOP:  saguaro “boot” (scarwood), baldcypress driftwood, and rockmat (Petrophytum caespitosum), a miniature shrub.


Just got my first three 8″ test swatches of my original designs from Spoonflower, the fabric printing company.  Spoonflower offers several natural-fiber fabric options.  I chose the two that I thought I’d actually use.  Colors for these three designs were all picked from the “preferred colors” chart that Spoonflower provides in an attempt to help designers choose colors that will print accurately.  Apparently some colors, when printed on fabric, look very different from what is shown on the computer monitor that the designer is working with.  Some of this is inevitable, since color monitors show a much wider variety of colors than printing inks do.

PRINTING QUALITY:  The printing is extremely crisp, quite different from commercial silkscreened fabric, and without the “blurry” look that you get with an inkjet printer on paper.  These designs have laser-printed precision and are very faithful to the original drawings.  So I don’t need to worry about whether I can reproduce small and/or detailed designs!

Tiger Tattoos: Lapis Lazuli

Tiger Tattoos:  Lapis Lazuli is printed on linen/cotton canvas.  Individual motifs are 3″.  This is a midweight fabric, similar to English tea towels but a bit smoother and with a tighter weave.  It is a warm white with a slight sheen and a surpisingly nice drape.  I thought it might work for a jumper (a sleeveless dress that is worn with a shirt underneath).  Linen is cool and comfortable here in the desert, but the sun and dry air make it brittle, so the lifespan of a linen garment that gets regular wear is only about 18 months.  So I’d choose this fabric for a dress that I didn’t wear for hiking.

The color is lapis lazuli or ultramarine (a slightly reddish blue), which is a bit off from the dark greenish-indigo that I chose from the chart.  It is a bit bright for my taste but is fine for non-clothing items.  I bought a “fat quarter” of this since the 8″ swatch wasn’t big enough to show all the motifs.  So I have enough for several nice bags for bells etc.

Tiger Tattoos: Black and Red

Tiger Tattoos:  Black and Red is printed on quilter’s cotton.  Individual motifs are 2″.  This is a smooth, high quality but slightly transparent fabric.  As any crafter knows, quilter’s cottons vary widely in weight, thread thickness, and tightness of weave.  I’d put this one somewhere in the middle – it’s not as coarse as some, and not as fragile as the goods that are often used for commercial “designer” fabrics.  I feel confident about working with it and wearing it.  The skulls do look rather weird in red, and I’ll probably change them to black before I order any more of this, but Spoonflower particularly recommends this color on their chart, and I wanted to see what it looked like.  On the chart, it’s a dark red ochre.  The printed version is brighter, more of a “true” red like a ripe New Mexico chili pepper, but not screaming scarlet.  I was concerned that the designs wouldn’t show all the details at this size, but they are fine.

Kitten with Cat Skulls

Kitten with Cat Skull Checkerboard.  The small checks are 2″ and show realistic domestic cat skulls.  The large squares are 4″ and show a newborn kitten sleeping on a cat skull.  This bold and rather large print shows all the details of the original drawings but I think they’d lose their impact if I made them any smaller.  The color that I chose for the background was a light coral pink, because I have always liked the pink/black/white combination but didn’t want a “strawberry” pink that would make it look like a box of GoodNPlentys.  The printed version is definitely NOT pink, but a light peach (or pale, muted, “baby aspirin” orange).  Unlike the black, the peach isn’t a uniform color, but shows the very faint horizontal banding that is typical of inkjets when printing a large area (more than 1″x1″) in a single color.  Hardly noticeable from a few inches away, but I’ll remember to make the background more multicolored in future designs.  Not exactly the color that I wanted, but probably close enough, and finding just the “right pink” in fabric is notoriously difficult.  Overall it’s a stunning fabric and will be a nice addition to my All Souls Procession costume.

WHAT’S NEXT?  I’ll make some more designs and order more swatches, this time using more colors in each design, and without using Spoonflower’s color chart (which wasn’t useful except for the red).  Ultimately I want to design fabrics for my own dresses and for craft projects such as bags and masks.  I also want to make some spreadcloths and/or altar cloths with centered square or circular designs that fit on a yard of fabric, and a couple of those are already in the works.

Fabric Cat Mask Pattern

February 4, 2010

I recently posted about my Feral Black Cat Mask made from cotton fabric.  Here’s the white version, for which I shortened the pattern so it covers a bit less of the face.  Snowball the Shelter Ghost Mask is made from undyed 60%hemp/40%cotton muslin, a single layer of cotton batting, and a backing of unbleached cotton muslin.  This mask is hand-embroidered with three sizes of pearl cotton thread, handcut polished aluminum shisha mirrors, and tassels of Nepalese undyed recycled silk yarn.  A larger photo is available on my Flickr page.

Snowball the Shelter Ghost

FABRIC MASKS have several advantages over leather, papier-mache, or metal masks.  They are soft, flexible, and comfortable to wear.  They are not messy to make, require no special equipment beyond basic handsewing materials, and are suitable for a variety of quilting, embroidery, and embellishment techniques.

This 2-D half-mask covers only the upper half of the face.  It can be made very simply from a single piece of heavy nonfraying fabric such as leather,ultrasuede, or felt.  But for most fabrics you will need a front piece and a lining, and some way to bind the edges if you don’t want to stitch the two pieces inside out and turn them.  I chose to stitch both masks right side out and bind the edges with buttonhole stitch, which is time-consuming but very elegant looking.  It also adds weight and stiffness to the finished mask.

Below is the pattern for both masks.  You can download a large printable version for free HERE.  The outer line is the cutting line.  There are two variations for the bottom corners of the mask.  I used the longer, downcurved points for the black mask, to anchor for the metal ornaments.  I used the shorter horizontal points for the white mask, to give a lighter look.  The other lines are the quilting pattern that I designed for the black mask.

ADJUSTING THE EYEHOLES:  Before using a pattern, you may need to adjust the size and/or position of the eyeholes.  Trace the pattern onto a piece of scrap paper and cut it out, including the eyeholes.  Hold the pattern up to your face and look in the mirror.  You should have a clear, unobstructed view through the eyeholes.  Mark any needed adjustments, redraw it with your “custom-fitted” eyeholes, and check the fit with a second tracing of the paper pattern.  Once you are satisfied with the position of the eyeholes, you’re ready to make the mask.

Fabric Cat Mask Pattern

Fabric Cat Mask Pattern

Here’s a comparison photo of both masks.  Although the black one was cut from the longer pattern, it’s a smaller mask because I used a wider seam allowance than the one shown on the pattern.

Fabric Cat Masks

Ironwing Tarot Book

December 2009 is the fifth anniversary of the publication of the Ironwing Tarot.  Although the full 78-card deck/book set sold out 18 months ago, I still get occasional requests for copies of the deck and/or book.  Since I don’t plan to reprint the deck, I’ve decided to make the book available for free download from my website.   

Download the Ironwing Tarot Book HERE.  (.pdf file, 6.7 mb)


The 112-page book is intended to print on half-sheets of 8.5 x 11 inch paper, so you’ll need to cut the printed sheets in half and assemble them.  (A note to collectors:  The version that I sold with the deck had a black spiral binding but otherwise looked no different from what you’d print on a home computer.)  The book includes background material about iron geology, blacksmithing, and shamanism.  There are detailed descriptions and a tiny image for each card, several spreads and creative exercises, a few poems, and some other odds and ends.  All of it is intended to make the deck more interesting and usable.  The entire book is black and white, including the images for the Major Arcana, so you don’t need a color printer.

Needless to say, the Ironwing Tarot deck and book are protected by copyright.  Feel free to download the book for your personal use, but not for publication or resale.

I have NO copies of the 78-card deck available for sale.  Decks can sometimes be found for trade on various Tarot forums and occasionally on Ebay.  I am not currently a member of any online Tarot communities, and have stepped away from that world to work on other things (including the Black Cat Deck, which is non-Tarot).

To everyone who has purchased a deck and/or offered their comments about it, either online or privately:  Thank you very much for your support, interest, and contribution.  It was a great project and I have enjoyed sharing it with everyone.

 Go HERE for the first post on how to design and shape the mask.

Copper Jaguar Mask

Copper Jaguar Mask

The Copper Jaguar Mask could be used as it is, but I want to add spots and fabric decorations.

RIVETS:  A jaguar’s spots (like the markings on any spotted or striped cat) are unique to the individual, just like human finger prints.  Even black jaguars have spots, though they may not be visible except in bright sunlight.  But the spots on the mask will be highly stylized decorative rivets for a 3-D look.  Rivets are small cylindrical pieces of metal that are commonly used to join two pieces of metal without heat (in blacksmithing, large steel rivets are heated, though the pieces to be joined may not be). 

I drew dots on the copper with a permanent marker and used a drill press to drill holes from the inside of the mask, with the metal resting on a block of scrap wood.  The three hole sizes fit the three sizes of wire that I chose for rivets. 

Holes Drilled for Rivets

Holes Drilled for Rivets

Copper wire in gauges 14, 10, and 6 was annealed to soften it.  (Rivets smaller than 16 are more difficult to set, and anything larger than 6 is quite heavy).  The pieces of wire must be long enough to form a substantial domed or flattened “head” when they are hammered in, but not so long that the shank bends sideways or protrudes from the sheet metal.  For this project, I cut pieces of wire about 3/16″ long, and file the ends flat and smooth.  I usually lay the metal on the anvil for riveting, but the convex surface of the mask needed a domed support.  Fortunately I have a specialized tool for the job:  a forming stake, bought years ago from another blacksmith, made from a trailer hitch ball welded to a length of heavy square bar that slides into the hardy hole on my anvil.  For each rivet, I laid the mask right-side-up on the stake, put the rivet in the hole, and carefully hammered the end of the wire with the ball end of the hammer.  I worked on the edges of the rivet first, to stabilize it, then hammered the center to flatten it, and hammered the edges again to create a dome.  I flipped the mask over and hammered the rivet a couple of times from the back, just to make sure it was securely fastened into the metal.  Here’s the finished mask, with a closer view of some of the rivets.


Jaguar Mask - Rivets

Jaguar Mask - Finished

 Instructions for making a wearable mask made with sheet metal and basic metalworking techniques, using tools and materials that can be found at most hardware stores.

SAFETY NOTES:  This is not a kid’s project.  It involves sharp-edged tools, hammers, fire, and hot metal.  It is designed for someone who has never worked with metal before, but it does require patience and concentration.  Choose a well-lit, uncluttered work area that is free of children and pets.   

CHOOSE THE IMAGE:  I first used this technique to make a Copper Cat Mask, but it can be applied to masks depicting other animals, birds, or human faces.  First, make a small, simple sketch that captures the essence of the face using only the outline and a few simple contours.  Remember that the mask will not be colored.  Hair, whiskers, etc. can be added later as embellishments, but to be most effective, the mask should be completely recognizable without them.  The mask below is easily identified as feline even without facial markings, whiskers, or pupils in the eyes.   

Cat Mask

Cat Mask

I want to make a jaguar mask, so I made this sketch:

Jaguar head sketch

Jaguar head sketch

Compared to domestic cats (and small wild cats), the big cats have longer faces, deeper muzzles, and eyes that are smaller in relation to the size of the face.  The jaguar has a round face and small ears that are set quite low on the head.

PAPER MASK:  Before cutting any metal, make a paper template.  Measure the following for the person who will be wearing the mask:  face width, distance between the eyes, height and width of one eye, and the depth of the mask (usually the top of the forehead to the tip of the nose, but it depends on the shape of the mask and how much of the face will be covered). 

FIRST DRAFT:  Use your measurements and your small preliminary sketch to draw the mask.   First, mark the placement of the eyes and draw the eyeholes.  Don’t worry too much about the eye shape at this point – a simple oval is fine.  Draw the outline.  Keep it simple – except for the ears, avoid sharp projecting points, since these will make it difficult to shape the mask and may be a nuisance when you’re wearing it.  Cut out the paper mask and the eyeholes.

CHECK THE FIT:  Look in a mirror and hold the paper mask up to your face, bending it slightly to fit.  Check the size and position of the eyeholes.  No part of your eye should be covered.  If you have trouble seeing clearly, you may need to decrease the distance between the eyeholes and/or enlarge them.  Mark the paper with any adjustments.  Look at the outline.  Are you satisfied with the way it covers your face?  Are the ears positioned and sized correctly in relation to the rest of the mask?  Check the position of the nose, since you may want to cut the nostrils out as breathing holes.

SECOND DRAFT:  Re-draw the mask.  Remember that it will probably be larger and wider than the face of the animal you’re depicting, and the eyeholes may be relatively large for the size of the face.   But even if the shape isn’t entirely realistic, you can adjust the relative proportions of all features except the eyes to make it look more convincing.  Now design the shape of the eyeholes.  Since they will determine the facial expression, try several outlines to see which one gives the effect you want, but be careful to stay within the boundaries of the size and placement that you measured with the first draft.  Cut out the second draft and try it on.  You may need to make several paper versions to get it perfect. 

TOOLS YOU WILL NEED:  Sheet metal snips or shears (several types are available; two are shown here), file, awl or sharp-pointed large nail, small propane blowtorch and lighter, medium-sized ballpeen hammer, and a sheet of 400 grit emery paper.  The only specialized tool that you will need is something with a round hole that is slightly larger than the ball end of your hammer.  This tool is the “anvil” that will support the work while you hammer, and the hole gives you something to “sink” the metal into.  Probably the simplest such tool is a wood block, such as a piece of 2 x 4, with a hole drilled in it.  File the top edge of the hole so it is smooth and rounded, so you don’t hammer a crease into the metal.  (You can also use a thick-walled piece of plastic pipe or a flared piece of steel pipe clamped in a vise.)  

If you have them, a jeweler’s saw and a motorized grinding tool (such as a Dremel moto-tool or its heavier-duty, more expensive cousin, the Foredom flex-shaft machine) can save time, but they are not essential.

Tools for a Metal Mask

Tools for a Metal Mask

CHOOSING AND CUTTING THE METAL:  Copper is the easiest metal to work with, though you can also use brass (a little harder) or sterling silver (dramatic but expensive). Aluminum and steel require different techniques and are not covered here.  If the metal is too thin, it will not hold its shape, and if it is too thick, it will be difficult to hammer and heavy to wear.  The easiest metal to find (and work with) is the sheet copper that is used for roofing and other building projects, and is available at many hardware stores.  It should be roughly the thickness of a piece of poster board.  I’m not giving an exact gauge here because it will depend on the manufacturer, if it’s given at all.  The rolled-up metal foils that are sold for craft projects are too thin for this particular project.

Lay the paper template on the metal and draw around it with a Sharpie or other permanent marker, or score the metal with an awl.  Cut out the shape with metal shears.  For the eyeholes, poke holes with a hammer and large nail so you can get the shears in,  and cut a rough shape.  Use a file to smooth the inside of the eyeholes and the outside edge of the cutout.  (Or cut the eyeholes out with a jeweler’s saw).

Jaguar Mask:  Paper Template and Copper Cutout

Jaguar Mask: Paper Template and Copper Cutout

ANNEALING:  Before hammering, the metal must be annealed (heated and softened).  Work outdoors.  Ordinary UV-blocking sunglasses should offer sufficient eye protection.  (Yes, the torch gives off UV radiation.  All flames do.)  Place the metal on concrete, a stone, or a firebrick and heat it with a propane torch.  Move the torch slowly over the metal until the entire piece has turned dark and/or shows swirling iridescent colors.  Shut off the torch and let the metal cool.  It may be covered with black or brown powdery firescale (copper oxides) that will flake off as you work. 

HAMMERING:  Using the ball end of the hammer, begin hammering on the BACK SIDE of the mask, in the center of the forehead, placing the metal over the hole in the wood block.   Use light, even taps that are very close together or overlapping, and keep the metal moving – don’t hammer too hard or long in one spot.   Work outward towards the ears, the bridge of the nose, and the edge of the mask.  You will slowly “sink” the metal into the hole.  Hammer the cheeks, then the muzzle, and then the bridge of the nose in the same way, starting in the center and working towards the edges.  You’ll see the nose automatically begin to define itself between the domes of the other hammered areas.  Hammer it last, just enough to give a shallow dome without distorting the surrounding metal.  Flip the mask over, and hammer the ears.  To hammer the edges of the metal into a gentle curve, tilt the mask up about 45 degrees, resting on the flat part of the block (not the hole), and hammer along the edge.  For this first heat, try for even, gently domed contours over the entire mask, and don’t worry about details.

JAGUAR MASK after the first hammering session:

Jaguar Mask - First Heat

Jaguar Mask - First Heat

ANNEALING AGAIN:  You’ll eventually feel the metal begin to harden and become more resistant to shaping.  Once you begin to feel this effect, stop hammering, anneal the metal again, and let it cool.  You will do this several times before you’re finished, so be patient.  Annealing the metal softens it and relieves the stresses of hammering to keep it from cracking.  If you hammer the metal for too long without annealing, you risk developing creases, flat spots, cracks, and other permanent flaws.  When you take a break to anneal the metal, it gives you a chance to inspect the work carefully and plan what you will do next.   In any metalwork, studying, imagining, and planning are essential parts of the entire process, not just the beginning. 

HAMMERING – ADDING DETAIL:  As the mask takes shape, you’ll see areas that need to be raised higher, edges that need to curl under, or areas such as the ears and nose that need more definition.  After the second heat, you’ll refine the shapes of each area and begin to add details.  It will become easier to see which areas need work, and your hammering will feel less random.  If your hammer blows are overlapping, you’ll see the surface begin to smooth out and look less dimpled.

Here’s the JAGUAR MASK after the second hammering session.  The relief is higher, the nose and forehead are better defined, and a file has been used to begin to refine the bottom edge of the mask.  But the  eyes haven’t been touched, and the forehead and muzzle need more definition.

Jaguar Mask - Heat 2

Jaguar Mask - Heat 2

HAMMERING – FINISHING TOUCHES:  By now, there should be only a couple of areas that still need a lot of work, and most of your hammering will be to refining the domes and making sure both sides of the mask look the same.  (The jaguar mask was finished in three heats, but the cat mask took four.  The exact number doesn’t matter, since YOU are the one who decides when it’s done.  You should remember that the metal grows a bit thinner as you hammer it, and as you develop higher and more complex relief, the shaping becomes more of a challenge and the chance of spoiling the previous work increases.  Don’t overwork the metal.)

JAGUAR MASK – Finished!  The forehead has been given a “brow ridge” to add definition, the muzzle has been refined, and the top edges of the mask has been filed into shape.  Nostril holes were drilled in the nose, the edges of the mask were sanded smooth (very important to avoid cuts and scrapes when you’re wearing it, and to give a finished look) and 14 gauge copper wire rings were added to the sides.  (Punch or drill holes for these.  If you don’t have any wire, get a couple of 1/2 inch  split rings, such as are used for keyrings.)  Note that the domes are not completely smooth, and the metal still has a slightly dimpled look.  In order to get rid of the dimples, you would need to anneal the mask one more time, place it over a round polished stake (or the ballpeen hammer clamped in a vise) and use a very flat silversmith’s hammer to planish the metal on the FRONT SIDE, which will give the domes a smoother shape…IF you know what you’re doing and you have stakes that are the right size and shape.  This is a lot of extra work and could spoil the lifelike, hand-hammered vigor of a mask made of copper or brass, though I’d do it for one made of sterling silver.  I didn’t do it for the cat or the jaguar.

Jaguar Mask - Third Heat

Jaguar Mask - Heat 3

You could stop here.  If you want the copper to be bright and shiny (as I did for the cat mask, since I was wearing it at night), you can sand the mask with emery paper (400 grit first, then 600 for a higher polish).   Here are the two masks shown together for comparison.  The jaguar hasn’t been polished, and the cat was polished and has since tarnished.

Copper Jaguar and Cat Masks

Copper Jaguar and Cat Masks

Copper Jaguar and Cat Masks, side view

Copper Jaguar and Cat Masks, side view

 TIES:  Ribbons, leather cords, strings, and even elastic bands will not hold the mask securely for a long time, especially if you will be walking or dancing while wearing it.  Instead, make ties from strips of cotton fabric, about two feet long and two inches wide.  Tied in a square knot, these will be very secure (try wearing the mask around the house first to get the fit right).  Make the ties out of black fabric (simple, elegant, and inconspicuous) or use a fabric that will integrate with the rest of your costume.

The Jaguar Mask isn’t finished.  It’s wearable now.  But in a later post, I’ll add spots and ornaments.

Desert Incense

June 2, 2009

The desert is a fragrant place, since many of its shrubs contain aromatic oils.  Some of these plants have medicinal properties and are usable for incense.  Here are a couple of my favorites:

BRITTLEBUSH or INCIENSO – Encelia farinosa



A very common small shrub among the saguaros, with triangular leaves that are covered in dense white fuzz.  The pale stems are woody but very fragile.  They exude beads of sticky golden resin that are a bit tedious to collect, but the wonderful incense is light, airy, and well suited to indoor use.  Good for daytime purification work, and even the cats like it.  It invokes the clean, arid brightness of the desert morning.

Brittlebush Gum

Brittlebush Gum

Along with creosote bush (Larrea tridentata) and seepwillow (several Baccharis species), brittlebush is one of the characteristic unforgettable scents of the Sonoran Desert after a rain.  The yellow daisylike flowers bloom in spring, giving way to fuzzy seedheads in high summer.  The plants drop their leaves during the dry months and may freeze to the ground in winter, but they sprout new leaves and branches very quickly after a rain.  Brittlebush is easy to grow and is popular for xeriscapes.  Individual plants usually live for fewer than ten years, but the seeds sprout easily, and a single plant can populate an entire hillside with tidy, rounded gray shrubs within five years.  When the dried leafy branches are burned, they give off a creeping smoke that is an excellent mosquito repellent.  Tea made from the leaves is good for colds – it is a mild analgesic and decongestant, gently calming but not a sedative. 

COPAL, TOROTE, or ELEPHANT TREE – Bursera microphylla

Bursera microphylla

Bursera microphylla

Bursera is a genus of aromatic Mexican trees that are the source for copal resin, which is sold for incense, perfume, and medicine.  There are several species, but all Bursera trees have unusually thick, pale, gnarled trunks, which is why they have been nicknamed “elephant trees”.  B. microphylla is the only species that is cold-tolerant enough to grow wild in the U.S., where it is restricted to south-facing slopes in a few widely scattered and remote desert mountain ranges in southern Arizona and California.  The U.S. plants like the one in the photo are typically large, multi-trunked shrubs, and rarely reach tree size.  Young twigs are dark red, older branches have a red and gray netlike pattern, and the stout trunks have pale, papery outer bark that peels or shreds away to reveal the smooth green inner bark.  Bright green feathery leaves appear with the summer rains.  The entire tree emits an exotic tropical fragrance, and the beads of resing are collected from wounds in the bark.  Its scent is strong and complex, but not irritating.  Bursera gum is an astringent with many medicinal uses.

 When using incense for purification or healing, I employ a primitive form of “smoke divination” during the work.  I burn the incense in a tiny forged iron bowl and carefully watch the smoke color and quantity, the direction it moves, any flames that are present, and how easily the incense burns.

How to Draw Fire

April 1, 2009

The title phrase has shown up in my blog stats every day for about a year. 
What does fire look like?  Regardless of the art medium or style that you are using, you need to be familiar with what fire looks like and how it behaves.  Here’s the photo gallery at wildlandfire.com, the ultimate online resource for PICTURES OF FIRE.  Under the first heading, “Fire Photo Pages”, you’ll find 40 pages, each with several photos.  There are more photos at the bottom of the page under “Incidents by Name and Year”.
Symbols for Fire:  The Ironwing Tarot uses several symbolic techniques to represent fire in small ink drawings.  It shows fire, sparks, or smoke on 27 cards (Major Arcana and Spikes).  Many of these are rather subtle, since fire isn’t usually the main subject of the card.
Painting Fire:  Fire is surprisingly easy to render effectively in mineral pigments, especially against a dark background.   This egg tempera sketch shows a whitetail deer scapula painted in charred bone, with a smoky background painted with forest fire charcoal.  The fiery figure is painted in yellow ochre with red ochre accents.  Commercial transparent watercolor would offer more color options, but the idea is the same – keep it simple, with thin glazes of intense color against a darker, more neutral background.
Scapulimancy Fire

Scapulimancy Fire

Here is a rather stylized egg tempera painting of fire glowing in the earth, surrounded by charred thorns:

Fire and Thorns

Fire and Thorns

Previous posts on this blog that include fire paintings include a painting of an iron pomegranate with fire inside (rendered in realgar, not yellow ochre), and a painting of a pomegranate made of fire.
GREEN fire?  Yes, when copper ore is heated (or copper metal that has developed a green patina), it gives off green flames.  This watercolor miniature was painted in iron oxides and copper ores (red cuprite, green malachite, and blue azurite).
Copper Fire Bowl

Copper Fire Bowl

Moon Turtle Mandalas

February 18, 2009

The circular turtle shell is a motif that I have used in several drawings, the most detailed of which is the scratchboard Tsunami Turtle.  The first time I used it, I painted the Dark Moon Tortoise Mandala in forest fire charcoal, charred bone, and silver metallic powders.  It’s been holding a collection of white chalcedony “moon pebbles”, though now I’m drilling some of the pebbles for other projects.  Here it is with an old pencil drawing, Coyote Imitates Uroboros.

Coyote Imitates Uroboros

Coyote Imitates Uroboros

The design was modified from a realistic drawing of a box turtle shell:
Box Turtle Outline

Box Turtle Outline

I’ve used box turtle shells for several drawings that are inspired by the infinite variety of yellow and brown designs on the shell.  The one below is a fanciful handprint design painted in realistic colors using handground iron oxide mineral pigments (goethite, limonite, hematite, and Fe-Mn oxide).  I have a collection of more than a dozen shells, all with very different patterns.  One is nearly black with only a small brown patch on each scute.  Another is mostly yellow.  Most are about half brown and half yellow, with concentric, radiating, or irregular glyph-like patterns.
Box Turtle Hands

Box Turtle Hands

Download a large printable version of the Box Turtle Outline template  HERE to decorate with your own “cheloglyphs”!
The Turtle Shell as a Moon Calendar:  In most turtles, the carapace (the top half of the shell) has 13 scutes (thin brownish and/or yellowish plates that are made of keratin, the same material as hair) and the plastron usually has 12 (some species have 10).  The scutes cover and protect the bone underneath, and develop concentric ridges as the turtle grows.  The number of marginal scutes (the small rectangular plates around the edge of the shell) varies depending on the species but their are typically 12 to 14 on each side, sometimes with a tiny scute called the nuchal at the center front.
All these divisions make the turtle shell an interesting way to lay out stones or other natural objects, divination spreads, drawings, and similar projects that are based on the lunar calendar.

This Moon Turtle design is a very stylized and fully reversible circular version that I adapted for use with many different media – paper, fabric, metal, etc. :

Small Circular Turtle Template

Small Circular Turtle Template

Download a large printable version for your own project  HERE.
(Downloadable images are for personal use only, not for resale .)

Tarot Bag Pattern

December 14, 2008

Lined, reversible, with double drawstrings.


LEFT:  Padded, flannel-lined embroidered bag for “All Souls Procession Bell”

CENTER:  Flannel inside and outside, for jewelry.

RIGHT:  Half-size bag for Pod Knife:   Hemp/cotton hand-dyed with pomegranate husks, with hemp cords and silk tassels.

This pattern is sized to fit most Tarot decks, but I use it far more often to make bags for my bells and jewelry.   If it is not embellished with embroidery or ornaments, it is completely reversible.  Suitable fabrics include calico, flannel, muslin, and other quilter’s cottons, as well as lightweight denim, hemp/cotton, and corduroy. Construction can be a challenge with lightweight or unstable material (silk, satin, handkerchief linen, etc.) unless you are sewing by hand or have experience with these fabrics.  View a larger version of the pattern here:



Cut four pieces, two for the outer bag, and two from another fabric for the lining.  The pattern is 8.5″ x 5.5″ but can easily be resized.

1. To be sure the pieces are the same size and the notches line up exactly, stack the four cut rectangles on top of each other, and cut all the notches at once. 

2. Fold the top (notched) corners over twice onto the wrong side of the fabric, and stitch flat.  The folded triangles will not be stitched together, because they will form the open ends of the cord channel.  Complete any embroidery, applique, etc. for the outside of the bag now.

3. With right sides together, sew the two pieces of the lining (inner bag) together along the sides and bottom (NOT the top of the bag above the side notches).  Use a 1/4″ seam allowance.  Repeat with the the outer bag.  Clip seam allowances to 1/8″.

4.  Turn the outer bag right side out and press so seams and corners are straight.  Leave the lining as is, with the wrong side facing out.   Put the lining inside the outer bag, fold and press 1/2″ of the the tops over towards the wrong sides so they face each other to make the seam, and pin the two bags together at the top.  You should now have one bag with a lining.

5. Tack with a few stitches to firmly anchor the four top corners and the bottoms of the two”V” openings that form the cord channel, matching the pieces carefully. This step reinforces stress points and and helps keep the outer bag and the lining from slipping when you are stitching the top edges of the bag.

6. Stitch the two bags together at the top, about 1/8″ from the edge.   This can be done by hand or on the machine.  If the two pieces are different colors, match the top thread to the outer bag and the bobbin thread to the lining, since this stitching will be visible on both sides.

7. Use a ruler and a fabric-marking pencil, draw a straight line parallel to the top of the bag to connect the bottoms of the two “V” openings (note that the two pairs of folded triangles are facing each other).  On the pattern, this line connects the side notches to indicate the bottom of the cord channel.

8. If  you want the bag to be fully reversible, topstitch this line on the machine.  Since it is prominently visible on the bag, you may wish to handstitch it with embroidery thread instead, to give a more elegant look, especially if you are embellishing the outside of the bag and/or you don’t need it to be reversible.  I use herringbone stitch because it is quick, easy, attractive, and durable. 

9. The bag is done! If you are using commercial cord or ribbon, choose carefully and do not use cord that is too slippery or too small, or the bag won’t close properly. This pattern is really designed for 1/2″ or even wider ribbons, or for flat 1/4″-1/2″ drawstrings made from cotton fabric scraps.  Fabrics can be chosen to complement the colors of the bag, and the result is an attractive, long-wearing cord that is washable and closes very securely.  Photo shows the top of a completed bag with herringbone topstitching. 


Choose a solid color or small print, keeping in mind that the finished cord is only 1/2″ wide. Fabrics should be the same weight as the bag fabrics or a bit lighter. Since you will be stitching through four layers, avoid heavy fabrics. Cut a piece 1 1/2″ wide and about 30″ long.  Fold the piece in half lengthwise and press. Fold the sides into the center, then fold in half lengthwise along the first fold.  You will have a strip that is four layers thick and 1/3 the original width.  Press and pin shut. Topstitch within 1/8″ of the edge.
Now you have a cord.  Cut it in half.  Attach a safety pin to one end of the cord, close it, and use it to help you thread the cord through the two channels.  Repeat with the other cord.  Pull cords until ends are even.  If they are too long, cut to desired length.  Ends can simply be knotted, like any other cord, but the raw edges will show.  You can finish the ends in various ways:  Fold them over and stitch them, add shapes in contrasting fabrics, felt, leather etc., make tassels or stitch the end into a loop for beads or bells, wrap them with wire, or crimp them with pieces of metal tubing.