I’m going to make a little assumption here. You’re probably reading this post because you fancy the thought of (or have been talked into) making a cake with a hand-painted design on it. And possibly you’re thinking “Oh, ain’t no way I can do that!”.
Well you know what, I reckon you can. Really. I have that faith in you. And also, I’m about to give you some Cake Painting for Dummies instructions on how to do it. Not that I think you’re a dummy, because clearly you had the initiative to find a tutorial to help you on the road to a fabulously painted cake, and dummies wouldn’t think of that. So instead of Cake Painting for Dummies, I’ll call it a Hand-Painted Cake Tutorial.
I actually find it pretty amusing that I’m about to share a hand-painted cake tutorial. I’ve never really thought of myself as artistic. Crafty, maybe, with the occasional artistic tendencies when cake decorating, but drawing and painting have never been something I’m particularly good at. My cake sketches are for my eyes only, so people don’t see them and get disheartened that my cake might be as terrible as my scribbles.
But with this tutorial I want you to know that even if you don’t think of yourself as artistic either, you too can paint a cake.
This is the cake I made in November for my niece’s birthday. Her party was very loosely boho themed, and I wanted to make a dreamcatcher inspired cake for her. For some crazy reason I thought to myself “my hands have been pretty steady lately, maybe I’ll paint the design, that’ll be easier than cutting it all out of gum paste.”
That probably would have been true if my hand tremor hadn’t suddenly decided to show up in force the day I needed to paint the cake, but with a bit of trial and error the end result wasn’t too bad…
Looks fancy, right? But once you break it down, it’s really not. I purchased this design, traced it onto the cake, and then it was basically paint-by-numbers.
I ordered some Edible Art Paint by Sweet Sticks* especially to use on this cake. Actually, who am I kidding, half the reason I wanted to make this cake was as an excuse to buy these incredibly pretty looking paints. Because they really are pretty. And even better, they turned out to be really fabulous to paint with!
My previous cake painting attempts had been done with gel food colouring mixed with vodka, which you can absolutely do with this tutorial too, but I found the Edible Art Paint so much easier to work with. They’re alcohol based and dry quickly, which reduces smudges. But, if you can’t get your hands on some, I’ve also heard good things about the Rainbow Dust range of edible paints.
Other than the paints, you’ll also need… paper, pencil, scissors or craft knife, ruler & cutting board, cellotape, a paint palette (or other container to put your paint into while you work), cake decorator’s alcohol or other high-strength alcohol such as everclear or isopropyl alcohol – this is used to thin the Edible Art paint down as it’s alcohol based, if you’re using a water-based paint then you’ll just need water, toothpicks or ice cream sticks for mixing the paint, a small empty jar or plastic container – to put alcohol in to clean your paintbrush between colours, and of course, some paintbrushes…
You’ll need one or two very fine brushes for outlining, and a couple of slightly thicker ones for the colours. I bought these ones pretty cheaply from our local emporium shop. You don’t need super fancy brushes, but make sure they are reasonable quality and the bristles are neat, with no straggly bits.
Now you’ve got everything, it’s time to get started!
First of all you’ll need to prep your cake. This whole project will be infinitely easier if you have a great cake base to work on. The straighter the sides on your cake, the easier it will be to trace the image neatly onto the cake.
I suggest ganaching your cake, as the ganache will give you a far firmer base than buttercream will. Check out my How to Ganache a Cake post for info on ganaching a cake for perfectly straight sides. Then once your ganache is set, you’ll need to cover your cake in fondant. My cake was an 8” tall, 6” round cake, and I wrapped it with fondant and let it dry.
Your fondant should be left to dry for at least 12 hours (24 hours is even better) before you try and paint on it.
Yep it’s so important that I wrote it in bold and italic. If your fondant is too soft, all you’ll succeed in doing is indenting your cake with all manner of finger/knuckle/thumb prints and possibly even rip through the paper with your pencil. If you can’t press your finger gently against the cake without it leaving a mark (try it somewhere inconspicuous), then it isn’t dry enough.
Then you need to pick out your image. To make it easier on yourself you can choose one that has a black outline, but if it doesn’t have one, you can just trace an outline around the edge yourself.
For Jazzy’s cake I purchased this dreamcatcher clipart set off Etsy. I ended up deciding not to do the whole dreamcatcher, and just the feathers, ribbons and beads, so I cropped the top section off. I used Photoshop, but any image editor with a crop tool will do. Then I resized the remaining image to fit my cake. When I traced the image I ignored the last remaining part of the dreamcatcher ring and continued the strings and ribbons up to the top (you can see it in the photo above).
If your image is not symmetrical, then you also need to flip your image so that it is backwards (when you trace it onto your cake you will get the reverse).
Print out your image onto regular A4 printer paper. Place another piece of paper on top, and trace the image. You can hold it up to the window if you’re having trouble seeing the pattern to trace it. You don’t have to trace all of the very small details (for example with my image, I didn’t trace all the lines on the feathers, or all of the lines on the braid) as you can add them in by eye when you paint the black outlines on your image.
Hold your traced image against something white (a wall, another piece of paper, the fridge, anything white) pencil tracing side down and check that you can see the lines through the back of the paper. If not, it probably means your paper is too thick. You may need to find a thinner piece, or buy some proper tracing paper. I had no issues seeing the pattern through the average-quality printer paper I used. If you do the tracing soon after printing the image, some of the ink will transfer to the back of your design and help you be able to see it.
We should talk briefly about the fact that we’re going to trace pencil lines onto our cake. Hopefully we all know by now that pencil ‘lead’ is not made from actual lead, rather from graphite, which is non-toxic. Some people are still going to have a problem with that (“it’s not edible, why would you put it on a cake?!”) so clearly if it’s an issue for you, you’re going to want to steer clear. Instead you could use a scriber to imprint the design rather than tracing pencil lines. It’ll be harder to see, but it’s definitely an option. Or you can instruct people to peel off the fondant from the cake before it’s eaten.
Personally I’m ok with the minuscule amount of pencil tracing that would be on a single slice of cake. I’ve been living with the tip of a pencil lead stuck in my leg since a certain over-enthusiastic-sharpening incident as a kid, and it hasn’t killed me yet. (And it’s still the only ‘tattoo’ I have :P)
Right, back to it.
Trim the paper so that it is the same height as your cake. You can have the paper smaller, but there is a chance it will shift up or down when you’re tracing the pattern, so having it the height of the cake is helpful. My cake was 8″ tall, so I trimmed the paper to exactly 8″ high.
Now we need to add some more paper so we can wrap the whole thing around the cake. I used waxed paper for this, but you can use another piece of printer paper if you prefer.
Cut a piece of paper the same height as the cake, and long enough to cover the back of the cake where the design ends. Tape one side to the edge of the design, then wrap tightly but gently around the cake, design side down, and secure the other end with tape.
Now you can start tracing the design. Use a slightly blunt pencil, so you don’t accidentally poke through the paper. You don’t have to be precise here, you can either trace the lines exactly, or gently scribble over them, it’s up to you. Just make sure you go over each line of the design.
And try not to poke your fingers into the cake, which this klutz over here manage to do (seriously, you’d think I have the knuckles of a primate who walks on their fists). Luckily my fondant was pretty dry so the dents weren’t deep, and with this design (and probably most semi-detailed designs) no one will really see it. The drier your fondant is, the less likely this is to happen.
At this stage if you’re worried you’ve dented your cake a bit, you can rub around the cake with a regular fondant smoother (or even a flexible fondant smoother will do) to smooth it out a bit. It won’t get all dents out as the fondant is set, but it does help a bit. It also has the bonus of helping transfer the pencil lines onto the cake, so you can give it a rub even if you’re not worried about dents.
Double check that you have traced over every line, then you can remove the paper from the cake.
Right, now take a moment to psych yourself up, coz we’re going to start painting.
Put drops of paint into your palette, and thin them down with a drop of alcohol or lighten them with a bit of white paint if necessary. I made the peach colour here by mixing pink and yellow paints together, and lightened the purple with a bit of white.
Exactly how you paint will depend on your pattern/design, but the basics will be pretty similar to what I did on this cake.
We’re going to ease into the whole painting thing by starting with just the outlines of the feathers. It’s helpful to keep the print-out of your image nearby so you can consult it if there are bits of line missing or if parts are too pale to see.
If, like me, you have unsteady or shaky hands, try experimenting with the best angle to hold your arm at, and where possible rest your elbow on something. That could be the bench for the lower parts of the design, or an upturned bowl or something, just to prop your arm up so it’s not shaking like a broken tree branch in mid-air. I also found it helpful to hold my right hand with my left while I was painting for a bit of extra support. I wish I’d taken a picture of it, but hopefully you get what I mean.
You don’t have to be too precise here, we will be outlining in black later, but it’s a good guideline for the next step which is…
…filling in the feathers. Use strokes of varying thicknesses for a bit of detail. I also thinned my paint down a bit to start with, then added in more strokes of the full strength paint. See, it’s almost like we know what we’re doing!
Keep an eye on the consistency of your paint, the edible art paint does dry out quite quickly, but a drop or two of alcohol will have it good as new.
Keep going for the rest of the parts of your design. I moved on to the ribbons and braid details…
…then the beads…
I also ended up going back and painting over those bits in the centre of the top few feathers. I can’t even remember why I was leaving them blank, but obviously I decided it wasn’t a good idea, whatever it was.
Now all that’s left to do is outline the whole thing in black. This is probably the fiddliest part, but I’m going to encourage you to look super closely at my cake and see that there are a fair few dodgy bits, that most people would never notice at first glance. So remember that the design as a whole will distract from a few slips here and there. Really. I promise.
Make sure you work from left to right if you’re right-handed, or right to left if you’re a leftie, the last thing you want here is smudged black across your design.
Refer to your original print-out for any additional details that you didn’t trace, and add those in. It’s hard to see in the pictures but I also added a bit of the Edible Art rose gold metallic paint on the peach-y coloured beads. Because a bit of shimmer is always welcome.
The outlines really tie the whole design together and make it pop.
And there you have it, one painted cake design. I can do it, and you can too. I won’t call myself a painter (I still almost cry every time I look at Sweet Deer Handpainted Cakes‘ work, seriously if you haven’t seen her cakes then check them out, she is amazing!) but until the day comes that Michaelangelo’s ghost taps me on the shoulder and bestows his gift upon me, I’m pretty darn happy to keep tracing and painting.
Once I finished the first cake I even did it a second time to make a little candle cake, since the
perfectionist artist in me didn’t want candles marring my masterpiece 😉
When you try this technique out, remember to pop over to my Facebook page and show me. I love seeing your work!
*That’s an affiliate link for the paints, if you purchase using this link I will receive a small commission, which will go towards buying more pretty cake things to share with you. As always, I only recommend products that I use and love!