Here’s a little mid-winter project that will have you thinking of spring every time you sit down at the kitchen table. Pick a favorite herb, one with a pretty shape and colorful flowers, and design a pattern around it. Transfer that design onto canvas, paint it, then give the canvas a durable finish. What you’ve got is a placemat that proclaims your affinity for herbs. Make a set, then set the table.
I chose chives for my placemats because their playful pink pompon blossoms are among the cheeriest sights of the spring garden, and their readily recognizable shape is simple to reproduce. You can make your own design or use mine, which is shown in outline form on page 46. This project is meant to be easy; you don’t have to be an artist to achieve a pleasing result, and the technique is adaptable to any skill level. It uses materials that a person who does a lot of crafts is likely to have around the house or which are readily available. I find these mats to be useful and practical, and they wipe down quickly at cleanup time.
I wanted my placemats to have an antiqued country look, so I painted the background in translucent layers of color in tawny hues that I mixed myself, using an old plate as a palette. The chive pattern flows around the wide cream-colored border, and the darker rectangle in the center features a single stem and flower. The directions that follow describe the procedure I used to make a set of four placemats.
Cut the cotton canvas into four 18- by 15-inch pieces, which allows a 1-inch margin on each side. Attach the canvas to the stretcher by positioning it, stapling along one edge, pulling the opposite edge taut, and stapling it in place, then doing the same for the other two sides. The stretcher makes it easier to paint on the canvas by holding it smooth and firm. Although they’re inexpensive to buy, stretchers can also be made easily from scrap lumber. After the canvas is firmly attached, lightly mark the edges of the finished mat with a pencil to a size of 16 by 13 inches.
Use the plastic dropcloth to protect the surface you’re working on. With a large brush, apply a coat of gesso to the canvas within the pencil marks, and let it dry. This will stiffen the top surface. I used a hair-dryer to lessen the drying time between coats of gesso and paint. On the palette or plate, put about a 2-inch dollop of dark brown acrylic craft paint. Fill the sponge with water, then squeeze it a bit so that it’s not drippy. Dab the sponge onto the paint, squeezing and dabbing again so that the water in the sponge dilutes the paint, which is drawn into the sponge. Then apply the brown paint to the gessoed canvas, staying within the lines and adding more water or paint as necessary. Rinse the sponge and the palette. To the side of the palette, put a dab of antique gold paint about the size of a quarter and about twice as much of the cream paint next to it. Using a corner of the wet sponge, pull out a bit of both colors and mix them on the plate until they are a shade you like, then sponge that onto the canvas atop the brown. Mix the colors as you use them and spread a thin layer across the entire canvas, adding more water to the sponge if necessary. You want the brown to show through the lighter layer here and there; this gives the effect of depth and translucency. Rinse the sponge again.
Now using only the cream color, dab the entire surface of the wet sponge with paint, position it at the edge of the canvas as shown, and pull the sponge along the edge to create the border. The length of the sponge (a little more than 3 inches) will be the guide to make the lines straight. Sponge on more paint as needed and continue to paint the cream. Don’t worry too much about making it exact; just judge it with your eye. Put two or more coats of the cream paint in the border section of the mat. Let it dry thoroughly.
The next step is to transfer the chive pattern to the mat. Position the design on one edge of the mat, centering it in the lighter border as shown and taping it into place. Slip carbon paper between the mat and the paper and trace the outline with a pencil so that the design is imprinted on the mat. Repeat all the way around. Then, using only the bottom stem and blossom of the design, center it in the middle of the darker rectangle and transfer it with the carbon paper.
Use the small, #00 paintbrush to paint the design. Start with the flowers, which you’ll paint in three steps. Dab red paint onto the palette as well as a little dark brown and a little white. Mix the three with the paintbrush, adding a little water to dilute it if necessary, then paint in all the chive blossoms. Let them dry. Using the same three colors, increase the proportion of white in the mix to lighten it and add a small amount of the blue paint to give it more of a lavender tint. Paint petal shapes onto the red backgrounds. Let the canvas dry again, then add even more white to the paint on the palette; paint in a few highlights on the petals of each blossom. It’s not difficult to get a fairly realistic effect of shadow and light, and, again, don’t worry about being precise. Wash the brush and the palette.
To paint in the stems and buds of the chives, put both green and white paint onto the palette. Paint green down one edge of each stem and leaf and white down the other edge, blending the two colors where they meet with the paintbrush as you go along. Let the canvas dry thoroughly.
(To simplify this project, you could just paint the flowers pink and stems green, but I enjoy mixing my own colors and adding the detail, shadows, and highlights. Try it: it’s fun.)
To finish the placemats, follow the directions on the polyurethane can, putting at least three coats over the painted canvas and letting it dry between coats. When dry, remove the canvas from the stretcher by pulling out the staples. Fold the edges of the canvas to the back and miter the corners; glue all the edges down flat. Cut the felt into rectangles about 1/8 inch smaller on each side than the canvas mats, and glue to the back.
Ann Young works for subscription services at Interweave Press, publisher of The Herb Companion. She also was the creator of the homemade candy boxes featured in the December/January issue.