Whether you have an appreciation for delicate sculpture or merely a craving for sweets, it's time to discover the intricate, edible Chinese art of sugar painting. This folk art gained popularity as street entertainment during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911 A.D.) and suffered a decline in recent generations as fewer and fewer artists took up the trade. Some artists blamed television and complicated modern toys for distracting children from the simple joys to be had from sculpted sugar.
However, in the last few years, sugar painting has been enjoying a renaissance–due, in part, to online videos making the intricate beauty of the sculptures available worldwide. The Sichuan Province honored sugar painting with an official government recognition as "Provincial Non-Material Culture Heritage" and sugar painting artists can be seen creating delicacies on demand at festivals across China.
It's not just for China, though. With its increasing popularity, a new generation of artists around the world are trying their hand at creating this beautiful, edible art form. If you can find a sugar painter near you, you can enhance your wedding festivities with not only gorgeous catering, but fascinating entertainment as well.
Creating a Spectacle
The wonderful thing about sugar sculptures is that they're captivating from start to finish. Watching the artist create the work is almost as fun as eating it later. By including a sugar painting stand at your wedding reception, you will have delighted guests lining up to see their requests custom-painted and brought to life while they watch.
A sugar painter works from a pan of melted rock-sugar and honey that has been mixed into a thick syrup. From the still-hot pan, the painter ladles spoonfuls of syrup and drizzles them onto a cold, hard surface like marble or metal.
The real artistry is in the way the liquid sugar falls on the slab. Because the sugar cools and hardens almost instantly upon touching the cold surface, there are no do-overs. The paintbrush is the long stream of syrup pouring from the spoon, and it happens very quickly. By tilting his hand to control the speed of the pour, the artist can create thicker or thinner lines. Every line and swirl of sugar must be absolutely precise, and it must all happen while the sugar is still warm enough to pour.
As the crowd watches, the figure takes form. What started as a few loops when the artist flicked his wrist now becomes the scales of a dragon. Wisps of smoke are added to the dragon's snout. A sugar tail curves around and connects the head to the feet. The entire painting is done in a few smooth, continuous strokes (one for each spoonful) and, after a few short minutes, the table boasts a work of art that could just as easily be framed as eaten. The artist drops a few quick dots of molten sugar in a line and presses a thin wooden stick into place. He slides a knife under the painting to release it from the table, and suddenly he is handing a glistening, golden dragon to the person who requested it. The whole process takes less than five minutes.
Using Sugar Sculptures in Your Wedding
While a live sugar painter is a sight to behold, you may also want to prepare a number of sugar sculptures ahead of time so your guests don’t have to wait in line to receive their treats. Some of the most popular sugar shapes include fish, dogs, birds, monkeys, flowers, horses, and, of course, dragons. You can ask your sugar painter to learn some custom shapes for your wedding, though. Think about incorporating hearts, lovebirds, or symbols that represent your wedding theme. If you're having a Chinese wedding, consider traditional Chinese symbols of luck.
Sugar paintings make spectacular adornments for the wedding cake. Placed around the curved surfaces of your cake tiers, the caramel-colored figures add intricacy to your cake's icing. Placed on delicate sticks on top of each tier, they become edible sculptures to make your cake seem even more ornate and impressive. You may even want to use sugar sculptures as your cake topper.
Don't forget your table centerpieces. Large, ornate sugar paintings become absolutely breathtaking when surrounded by colorful displays of flowers or when presented in elegant glass holders. Your guests will probably wish to take some home as favors, as well.
Support a Traditional Art
If you can't find sugar painters in your city, try asking local Chinese communities if they know of any resources. You may also want to ask local bakeries if they think they can learn the skill in time for your wedding. The most important aspect of sugar painting is not the mastery of the materials, however–while learning to manipulate the flow of molten sugar is challenging, it can be learned. The real factor that will determine the beauty of your sugar sculptures is the painter's skill.
With this in mind, you may want to get in touch with local artists whose work (especially whose sketch work) you admire. Show them online videos of sugar paintings and see who gets excited. If you give them enough time to practice, they may be able to produce beautiful sugar paintings at your wedding and learn a new skill. You'll not only rest assured of being the first wedding in your area to display this dazzling art, but you'll also be supporting a long-standing and beautiful tradition.