Sunday, May 01, 2011

Learning to make sugar flowers with Alan Dunn

 As promised, here they finally are; the results of three intense days of tutelage under Alan Dunn, probably one of the best sugar flower artists in the world.  During those three days I experienced the whole gamut of emotions ranging from complete and utter self-doubt; "God, I'll never be able to these like he does" to hope and exhilaration; "Hey, not bad for someone as inexperienced as myself!"

On meeting him for the first time I was pleasantly surprised.  I think I had set myself up to expect him to be somewhat arrogant and worldly, but the man who answered my knock on his door was gentle, unassuming and infinitely patient.  He made me feel completely at home and relaxed, making the three days I spent with him very pleasant.
On day one we plunged right into the deep end and he taught me how to make this breathtaking open peony.  Watching him roll out these ultra-thin petals I was struck how easy he made it look.  My first efforts were pathetic compared to him and I was downright embarrassed! However, he remained patient and eventually he declared that we have enough petals to create a peony.  Putting all those wired petals together and wrapping them in florists tape was  harder than making the petals!  I really felt I had 10 thumbs and had great difficulty getting them wrapped tight enough.  But I got it, eventually!
 On my list of things I wanted to learn, I had put down lilies of the valley.  They are my absolute favourite flowers and though I had imagined them to be tricky to make, I still wanted to know how.  To my infinite surprise and delight, they turned out to be the easiest of all!  In fact, they were so easy that I almost felt disappointed.  When I was setting these lilies of the valley up to be photographed, I added a real one in the middle just for comparison.
 Sweet peas were also on my wishlist,  mainly because I simply couldn't fathom how they were constructed. Again, though not exactly simple, Alan's way of making them was far simpler than I could have imagined.  Putting them together was trickier, and although this picture makes them look nice, the petals on my blossoms were in fact a bit wobbly.  I should point out that the sweet pea buds and the uppermost flower are done by Alan himself.  Only the lower two are mine.  Even so, without me asking he wired them all together to make this single stem.
 No flower course would be complete without a lesson on how to make a rose.  The rose is far and away the most popular flower to put on cakes, but also one of the hardest in my mind.  It's not just a matter of putting all the petals together to make a rose, but learning to give the bloom life is an art form in itself.    What surprised me the most was how many petals are needed just for the centre.  Alan kept coaxing me to wrap them tighter and tighter, and to add more and more petals.  Just making that one rose took up most of day two.  In a moment of self-doubt I made some comment about being so very slow, but he was quick to reassure me that no, they take a lot of time and that he's had students much slower than me.
 When browsing through his website prior to the course, I came upon a picture of a butterfly he had made.  it was so breathtakingly delicate and beautiful, that I put that down on my wishlist as well.  By the time he showed me how to construct the body, I was no longer surprised at his attention to detail. Not only did he include the head, thorax and body, but antennae and a proboscus too!

I could go on and on with blow by blow accounts of how exactly we achieved these amazing flowers and the sheer effort (for me) to make them.  There was so much to absorb in each day that I was literally too exhausted to do anything in the evenings.  To be sure, good technique (and a steady hand) are essential for making good sugar flowers, but at the end of it all I don't think that was the biggest lesson I learned with Alan.  He never actually came out and said it, but listening to him, observing him in the garden during our lunch breaks, watching him demonstrate how to create a certain kind of petal, it dawned on me that how one actually sees a flower is what really counts.

Though I have always had an affinity to nature, I haven't ever truly studied flowers and how exactly they are constructed until now.  I have a computer full of photographs of all kinds of flowers and blossoms I have taken over the years, but still I never thought to look so close as to see the relationship between petals, sepals stamens and calixes before.  At first glance a columbine looks so very complex, but this morning I stopped and studied one on my way to the bakery and realized that in fact it was much simpler than I had ever suspected.  I studied flowering hawthorn, rambling roses, forget-me-nots and a host of other flowers this morning and marveled at nature's engineering.  Along with this child-like marveling, I am itching to put my lessons and observations into practice and start making flowers for no other reason than to recreate what nature has designed so well.
In closing I cannot resist including a picture of beautiful Lizy, Alan's oriental black cat.  This little imp provided endless hours of entertainment and comic relief with her attention-getting antics.  By far the most amusing cat I have ever met and I have fallen head over heels in love with her.


  1. Absolutely brilliant account, It's surprising that sometimes it is as simple as dissecting the flower to realise it's construction.
    Love the cat too! Bet you had an amazing experience! Sarah (Emilymadeawish)

  2. It certainly was amazing, Sarah! I just hope I retain the lessons and continue to improve.

  3. I love all the flowers you made.. absoluetly beautiful. It was nice to read how your classes went since I have never been fortunate enough to have a class from Alan Dunn. I learned gumpaste from Nick Lodge but then found Alan Dunns books and have gone his route of flower making and love to make his unusual flowers. I absolutely love Alan's work and learned quite a bit just from his books. You can see some of what I have done on my blog page.. thanks so much for sharing and hopefully one day I can have a course from him

  4. Having read some of your blog entries and gawked at your gorgeous flowers, I value your kind words even more. I read your entry on making lilacs and had to smile, because just yesterday I was admiring the lilacs in our garden. I remember thinking to myself how lovely it would be to make some, but sighing at the same time, because in reality I have so little time.
    Anyway, I am constantly amazed how much I was able to learn in just three days. Before this course I had only one, extremely outdated cake decorating book, but now I have one of Alan Dunn's books and will continue to enlarge my library. Like you I want to be able to create perfectly realistic, stunningly beautiful flowers of all kinds!

  5. i like this flower i want to participate with you. Because i like make flower please writing to me about this