A Brief History Of Herbs and Spices

Shortly after the first caveman burnt meat in the fire and realized it was pretty good, the next one thought, “What will make this taste better? How about some of that green thing?”

We don’t have records of the first herbs used to flavor food, but there is no denying that herbs and spices have been used since before recorded history to flavor food, help preserve it, and to heal.

You may not think of it much nowadays, with everything in neat little jars in the store and on your counter, but every spice and herb we use has a long history behind it.  These days we use spices from all over the world, but there was a time when everything had to be carried by hand or horseback or boat from where it grew.  The history of spice is, in a way, also the history of civilization.

Basil –  Basil is probably native to India, where it has been cultivated for over 5000 years. Early travelers brought it to Ancient Greece and later Italy. The common Italian variety is Genovese, or sweet basil, but Thai basil is more commonly used in Asian cuisine.  In most areas it is an annual, but given a warm welcoming environment it will behave like any perennial.  Prune any developing flowerbuds to encourage continued leaf development.  Fresh basil is used in cooked foods and salads, but loses its flavor quickly when cooked.

Garlic – Garlic is a plant in the allium family like onions, leeks , chives and shallots.  Garlic grows as a bulb, which contains many cloves.  Most recipes use the cloves of garlic, chopped or minced fresh. Garlic is pretty widespread and used all across the world, and has been for thousands of years. Fresh garlic greens taste pretty much like green onion greens, with a slight taste of garlic.  Garlic has been used medicinally, including as an antiseptic during World War I and II.  Concentrated garlic juice was also used as glue for artisan’s gilding manuscripts during the medieval period.

Onions – Onions are another allium and also widespread in cultivation and use. Onions are baked, fried, grilled, pickled, sauteed , dried and eaten fresh. Onions grow in many regions, but some varieties take longer than others to mature, so do better in area with longer growing seasons.  Onion greens can be eaten fresh or dried.

Saffron –  A native of southwest Asia, the saffron crocus flower bears up to four flowers. In the heart of each flower the thin red threadlike stigma is the saffron. This tiny filament adds immense flavor and brilliant yellow color to dishes.  Saffron is one of the most expensive spices commonly used, in the Unites States saffron whole prices run from $500 to $1000 dollars a pound.  Thankfully you only need a tiny amount for any given dish. My itty bitty jar has lasted for over 10 years.

Cumin –  If you open a jar of cumin and sniff you will immediately think of Mexican food.  The signature flavor of cumin is in many Mexican dishes as well as traditional Indian cuisine. The plant is native to the east Mediterranean through to South Asia.  The seeds are ground and dried for use in cooking.  Historically there are records as far back as the New Kingdoms in Egypt.

Peppercorns – Black pepper is native to India. It has been cultivated and trade for thousands of years.  The path of the spice trade ran from India to Ancient Greece and Rome as well as many other countries.  Black peppers are the dried unripe berries of the vine.   White and red peppers are from the same plant, but are the ripe or undried versions of the same fruit. Pepper is so commonly used in western cuisine that pepper shakers and grinders are on almost every dinner table.

Vanilla – Vanilla is so common as a flavoring for sweet pasties and desserts that it is easy to forget that it is a relative newcomer to western cuisine.   This orchid from Mexico and Central America was brought to Europe int he 1500’s but proved hard to cultivate in other regions until the method of hand pollination was discovered in in the 1840’s. Vanillas is the second most expense spice, due to the difficulties in cultivation. However the bean and extract are used worldwide.

Cacao Chocolate – Another newcomer to western Cuisine, the beans of the cocoa plant are beloved by many in its more familiar, ground and sweetened form, chocolate.   The Mayans and Incans used the dried cacao beans straight up in drinks and foods.  The Europeans added milk, and sugar to form the basis of the chocolate we know today.

As people traded spices and herbs back adn forth, sailed for months to buy cargo, and carried their prizes back home they also carried  recipes, stories and culture from one end of the world to the other. Form the ancient Egyptian, trading to India, to the Spanish bringing New World Vanilla and Cacao back to the kingdoms of Europe, spice and herbs have always gone hand in hand with civilization.

 – Lyrra Madril









Introduction to Cooking Part 1 – Pancakes

Except for certain lucky people with a live in chef, almost everyone needs to know how to cook at least a little.  I was lucky that I learned a lot about cooking from my sister as a child, however not everyone has family to pass these skills along.  Plus of course, experience counts for a lot.

If you never delved into cooking when you are young, chance is that you left college and arrived at your first place of your own with absolutely no idea what you were doing. Unfortunately box mixes and fast food only takes you so far!  A diet made that way is going to be not very healthy and rather expensive.

So I decided I’m going to show you a few simple things to make, to help in your goal of not starving!

Today I’m going to talk a bit about pancakes.  You have eaten them at least once in your life .. those flat, golden brown discs served at breakfast time usually slathered with butter and syrup?  Well there are a lot more variations than that out there and bonus, pancakes are super easy to make.

The History

Pan-cakes, griddle cakes, crepes and flapjacks are some of the oldest foods known to man. Why? well .. they are pretty simple and flexible. In a pinch you can cook them caveman style, on a  hot rock.  When mankind first started eating grains, it was a fast step to taking ground grains, mixing them with a bit of water or milk, and frying them in some sort of grease.

Different cultures make their pancakes different ways. The European crepe is made with a thin runny batter, which cooks into a large thin flexible pancake ideal for stuffing with fruit, cheese or Nutella.  American flapjacks use baking powder to make them fluffy and have much thicker batter. These sweetened fluffy pancakes are usually smaller and thicker, ranging from the usual saucer size to the irresistible inch across ‘silver dollar’ pancakes.

In other parts of the world pan cakes are used like any other bread and served with savory dishes like the pancakes with sliced duck (or the American Chinese dish Mu Shu Pork).  In Russia they are stuffed with soft cheese and called blintz.  No matter how you eat your pancakes almost everyone agrees they should be hot!

The Chemistry

Pancakes come down to at least three main ingredients.  The starch, usually some sort of flour ranging from ground white wheat flour, to ground spelt, oat, rice or even coconut.  A fluid such as milk, water, or coconut milk is used to moisten the starch. The proteins in milk help bind the dough together, but if you are lactose intolerant use water and egg instead (I’ve had good results with coconut milk too).  And finally the batter or dough is fried in some sort of fat, usually oil or butter.

Without a leavener (something to make it fluffy) your pancake will be thinner and stiffer.  American pancakes and some crepes use baking powder to fluff them up more. As the batter heats up the heat starts a chemical reaction which makes bubbles in the batter. This fluffs everything up nicely.

The other three most common ingredients are egg, which adds protein to bind the ingredients together more strongly, salt and sweetener.  The sweetener is just there because well .. its sweet! Salt is there because surprisingly enough, it makes sweet things taste sweeter and enhances other flavors.

So what is in that box mix anyway? Well everything I mentioned above … flour, dry milk powder, baking soda, salt, maybe some spices and of course all those yummy six syllable chemicals.  They must be super expensive, since one box of mix is usually as much if not more than one bag of flour (which can make upwards of 25 pancakes, usually at least four times as much as that box).

Dietary Issues

As you can guess pancakes are full of carbohydrates, since they are mainly starch.  If carbs are an issue for you, you can swap out white flour for whole wheat, or oat flour. Your pancakes will be slightly different but still just as good.  Pillsbury makes a gluten free baking mix that makes excellent pancakes when swapped for the regular flour.  You can also swap around the starches or fats to accommodate gluten free or vegan diets.   Fill your low carb pancakes with sliced fresh fruit, a dribble of agave syrup or honey and all will be fine in pancakeland.

What you need to make this recipe

Frying pan or skillet – You need a flat, smooth, preferably non stick surface to cook your pancakes on. You probably have one already.  Just make sure to leave plenty of space for your pancakes and a little over so you can get under the edge with a spatula. If your pan is old or scratched up, you will need more fat to make sure nothing sticks

A spatula – It looks like a large flat spoon or paddle. Its purpose in life? to help you flip things over.

A measuring Cup – A measuring cup is exactly what it sounds like. This is a large cup, usually made of Pyrex, a heat safe glass, with markings on the side to help you measure things. I usually have several, but try to get one that measure at least two cups.  Smaller means you have to measure more times, and bigger cups are less precise for smaller amounts.

Measuring Spoons –  Same thing but smaller. Measuring spoons are little bitty scoops to help you measure out specific amounts of ingredients. These usually come in tablespoon, teaspoon, half teaspoon and quarter teaspoon sizes.

A whisk  and a big spoon – Whisks are those things made of a bunch of wires looped together with a handle. With a whisk you can quickly blend liquid ingredients together. Don’t have a whisk? mix your thicker batters with a large spoon.

A container – I usually mix my pancakes up in a big 2 quart mixing bowl .. that is to say, a bowl big enough to fit all your ingredients.  Not sure your bowl is big enough? measure out the same cup amounts as your recipe in water and check if that fits in your bowl.   You need space for your ingredients and a bit more for when they slop around as you mix.

The Most Basic Pancake Recipe Ever 1111
Makes about 4 to 6 pancakes

1 cup flour
1 cup milk
1 egg
1 teaspoon baking soda

2 tablespoon sugar or honey
1 teaspoon granulated table salt

cooking spray, olive oil spray or 1 tsp of butter to grease the pan

  1.  Measure your flour, baking soda, sugar (if using) and salt (if using) into your big bowl.  Use your whisk to mix all the dry ingredients together.
  2. Break your egg into the measuring cup. Why? well if you get shell in there its much easier to get it out, and if you have a bad egg, you won’t contaminate your other ingredients. Use your whisk to beat the egg. I usually beat it for at least 20 strokes, to make sure the white and yolk are well mixed up. Why the measuring cup? well its dirty anyway, and why use another bowl.
  3.  Measure your other wet ingredients into the measuring cup, that is the honey if using and the milk.  Mix well with your whisk.
  4. Pour your wet mix into your dry mix in the big bowl. Use your big spoon to mix them well. If you are using a wheat flour the batter will get thick and sticky. This is because the liquid is activating the gluten in the wheat. Your whisk may not do well here, so if you need to just switch to a spoon.
  5. Your batter is ready when it is well mixed, and still fluid enough to drip off your spoon. Too sticky? add a little bit more milk or water. Too runny? wait 5 minutes or add a little bit more flour.  Your local humidity changes day to day, so your recipe can change too if the ingredients are very dry or moist.
  6. Put your skillet on your stove and turn on the burner. I never turn my electric stove burner up above half way. Your stove may be different.  Until you know your stove really well, always be careful.  When in doubt, turn down the temperature. It will just take a little longer.
  7.  Grease your pan. I usually drop a small bit of butter in the middle and swish it around with the spatula. You want it to melt, but not turn brown or black. If it turns black, wipe it out with paper towel, turn down the heat and try again. If using a cooking spray it should go on but not sizzle.
  8. Using your spoon measure out about one quarter of a cup of pancake batter, you should have a circle about three to four inches across.  This does not have to be precise.  Once you see how big it gets, you can adjust the size of the next one.
  9. Watch the pancake. After a minute you will start to see bubbles forming and popping. This means your baking soda is doing its job and making the pancake nice and fluffy.  When the bubbles have slowed down and the outer edge of the pancake looks dry it is probably time to turn it over.
  10. Slide the spatula gently under the edge of the pancake. If all went well, you used enough grease so it didn’t stick, and the pancake is cooked enough on that side so it comes loose easily. If it tears, take out the spatula and wait for another minute or so for it to cook more and then try it again.  If it is stuck like glue, scrape it out, clean the pan and try again with more butter/spray.
  11. If all went well you have flipped your pancake over. Give it about two to three minutes on the other side and then use the spatula to slide it to a plate. Both sides should be dry to the touch, not sticky at all and some or all of it should be golden brown. Black is not a good color here.
  12. Finish up the rest of your pancake batter the same way. Stack the pancakes on top of each other to keep warm.

Serve your pancakes with honey, sliced fresh fruit, Nutella, or whatever else makes you happy.

If you have extra pancakes put them in a ziplok bag, squish out the air, and put it in the freezer.  They are easy to defrost in your skillet, toaster oven or microwave. Try to use them before a month or so. Make a big batch on the weekend and have breakfast to go all week long!

Variation – Crepes

3/4 cup flour
1 cup milk
2 eggs

2 tablespoon sugar or honey
1 teaspoon granulated table salt

cooking spray, olive oil spray or 1 tsp of butter to grease the pan

Mix these the same way as above.  However since crepe batter is much runnier than American pancakes, use a ladle or coffee cup to scoop it into your well greased pan.  Turn the pan to spread the batter evenly across the whole bottom of the drying pan.  After a minute, it will look dry on top.

Gently turn it with your spatula. Be careful, crepes are large and thin and super easy to tear. Give it another minute and then fill and serve.  Crepes are usually served folded or rolled around a filling such as chopped ham and cheese, sliced fresh fruit and whipped cream, Nutella, or sugar sprinkled with lemon juice.   If you want to impress your date, practice making these, crepes make an awesome dessert and look much fancier than they actually are!

After you have made pancakes a few times you can start messing around with other recipes or playing with amounts in your recipe to make your perfect pancake.  There are loads of variations out there … gluten free, vegan, chocolate, oatmeal, pumpkin spice.. pretty much everything.  Try small batches for new recipes and when you have a good one keep it in a recipe box for later.

 – Lyrra Madril









How to Make a Pen and Ink Illustration – Part Two

Welcome back!

In the previous part of this tutorial I showed you how I make a pen and ink illustration.

This time I am continuing with the fun part … Color!

You will need:

You can use watercolour, goauche, brush inks, markers, colored pencils or even crayons. I usually use Pelikan gouache or Windsor Newton watercolours.  These get expensive fast, but the good news is the starter set will alst you for a good long time. For this tutorial I am using my Pelikan goauche.

[amazon template=thumbnail&asin=https://www.amazon.com/Pelikan-Opaque-Watercolor-Chinese-720862/dp/B00170ZSLS/ref=sr_1_1?s=arts-crafts%26ie=UTF8%26qid=1492532827%26sr=1-1%26keywords=pelikan+opaque+watercolor+paint+set]

Clean water – you will need a jar or cup of clean water to wet and dilute your paints.  DO NOT LEAVE A DRINK ON YOUR TABLE.  You will, inevitably, dip your brush into your drink, and drink your painting water.  Although paints are much less toxic than they used to be, neither option is good for either you or your painting.  Leave your drink someplace else!  I know from sad experience that soda and tea are Not Good for art.

Paper towel – I use a pad of papertowel to dry my brushes and soak up extra water. I also you a twist up peice to dab water from the surface of the picture.

A flat table – watercolours are runny. If your table is not flat, you will know very soon as your paint all dribbles downhill.

Here is my final inked image from last week.

When painting watercolour images you need to remember and important fact, and that is surface tension.  Water colours are made mostly of water. As the water settles into the absorbant paper the paint goes wherever the water does. This means if you paint wet-on-wet the colours will merge.  It also means if you have a bright yellow thing next to a green thing, and both parts are wet the paint will jump your lines and blur together.  Since that is not an effect I want today, I will paint my image in sections.

My first layer of colour.  This is a solid almost taxi cab amber yellow. As you can see I slopped over onto the black parts of the wings in someplaces. I’m not all that worried about it, since I can tidy that up off the black ink with a wet brush easily.

This is where you have to work fast and not answer the phone (or stop to take pictures!) To get my second layer of a light orange and the yellow to naturally blend, I lay down the orange wet on the wet yellow paint. Well mostly.   My studio is very dry, so I have maybe five minutes to work with here.

The second layer, a light orange, is laid in wet right on the yellow.  If you look back at the source image from last week you can see how I’m matching the coloration of the actual butterfly.

I have also gone back with a small brush, with just water, and tidied up the edges where I went onto the black. As ou can see this has worked the colors into the wings a bit more in a very natural fashion.

I have filled in the branches with a layer of yellow ocher, and then a light olive. The same light olive goes on the leaves. The veins are picked out, while the paint is still wet, with another layer of the same green.  On the butterfly I’ve added a small amount of bright scarlet to the wings in  a few places to intensify the oranges.

Here is a closer view of the wings. You can still see the color laying on the black parts of the wings.

And the final (still wet!) image. I added a final layer of shading and detailing to the plant as well as the body of the butterfly and tidied up some details.

In a day when this is more dry I will layer it between several pieces of paper towel and stick it under a heavy book. After a week or so the paper will be absolutely dry and flatten out again. After it is bone dry and flat, I can come back and tidy up my one or two drips with white paint to make them less noticeable.  (you see them now don’t you!)

And that is the final image!

Thanks for reading through all this, and I hope this inspires you to try your hand at pen and ink illustration. I’d love to see what you have made, so please comment with links!

 – Lyrra Madril






How To Grow Your Own Herbs

(Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. These help me pay for my site and are no cost to you to click on)

As any cook knows, herbs add dimensions of flavor to your food. Dry herbs are easily found in markets and online shops, but fresh herbs are harder to obtain. Also since they only last so long, most of the time you buy more than you need at high prices and more than half goes to waste.

As a frugal (perpetually broke artist) person that bothered me.  So .. I started growing my own herbs so I can have a pinch here and a tablespoon there without breaking the bank.

First Consideration – Needs

What herbs do I need?  If you cook regularly then you can look back at your last few months menus and list out everything you have used and how often. You will see certain herbs and vegetables rise quickly to the top of your list.

For me my list started with basil, of course, since I use large amounts of it for pesto and other Italian food. After basil came rosemary, thyme, sage, cilantro, green onions and parsley. Add anything to your list you like at this stage .. this is the dreaming stage. Lemongrass? Ginger? garlic? add them all in and prune your list after you read through the other considerations.

For the person that doesn’t cook all that often, you can consider easy to grow herbs that have attractive scents or blossoms such as lavender, mint, and basil.  I also suggest green onions or chives, which may not smell as nice, but its hard to beat that sprinkle of fresh chopped green onions on a baked potato or nachos.

Second Consideration – Light

Where do I have a good place to grow these things?  Most herbs like lots of light and a relatively warm location. (but not too warm)

Look around your space for a window that gets sunlight most of the day. My kitchen table is right up against a sliding glass door, which made it a natural spot, but you may find the perfect location in a bed room or living room window.

Don’t have a sunny spot? make your own sun!  Plants need ‘full spectrum’ lighting, and will not do well with regular artificial lighting without a little help.  These days most hardware stores carry full spectrum or ‘growlight’ light bulbs which work in any fixture.    So find a nice spot that isn’t too drafty and set up your lamp there for your herbs.

A bonus for you .. if you suffer from the winter blues a full spectrum light can trick your body into thinking you are getting more sunlight and can help even out those winter mood swings.

You can find plant growing light stands already made but .. well .. they tend to the functional, not decorative.  If the best spot for your herbs is in your bedroom then you probably don’t want a clunky metal stand cluttering up your sanctuary. Opt for a full spectrum light bulb in a desk lamp or other fixture that is easy to adjust in height as your plants grow.

The next important thing here is a timer.  Plug your lamp into the timer, so the lights will turn on and off automatically without you having to remember them. If this is in your room match the lamp timer to your alarm clock.  Light can wake you up faster than sound, so consider it a bonus!

Third Consideration – Pets and Children

You love them … but they get into everything.   Most herbs are nontoxic for babies and furbabies alike but you don’t really want them digging around and killing your plants.

If you have small creatures that just wont stay out of your herb pots consider hanging pots, a closed bookshelf with glass door, or a tabletop greenhouse.  They can still find a way, but it’s going to be harder for Fluffy and Baby to dig up your basil and scatter it around the kitchen.

Tabletop greenhouses or terrarium planters range in size from just big enough for one plant, or a pocket sized garden, and in style from super simple to fancy Gothic enclosures.   While you are at it, why not fill the planter bottom entirely with soil and make a little fairy garden with your herbs? Green growing plants make a great focal point in a living room if you want to splurge on a fancier container. I’ve tried to pick out a range, but if you want to search for your own, or a DIY tutorial the magic words are ‘tabletop greenhouse’ or ‘terrarium planter’.


Fourth Consideration – I can kill cactus

Well .. you want to grow herbs and you love them but … your life is so busy that frankly you have forgotten to water a cactus until it died. I think we have all been there at least once.  If watering is a big issue for you, look into an automated watering system. This doesn’t have to be fancy, there are many ‘self watering’ DIY projects out there which consist mainly of a bottle and a piece of cloth. This takes watering to a once a week chore which hopefully is easier to handle.

[amazon template=thumbnail&asin=https://www.amazon.com/Hydrospike-Dripper-Worry-free-Adjustable-Watering/dp/B00AUN5IZ4/ref=sr_1_9?ie=UTF8%26qid=1491826787%26sr=8-9%26keywords=automatic+watering+system+for+potted+plants]

Or you can opt for a fancier solution. The Aero garden is a very nice self contained automated system. This is a hydroponic system which means no dirt for Fluffy to dig, as the plants grow in water. The top is closed, so Baby can’t get into the water. It has its own built in lights, timer, pump and everything so as long as you keep an eye on the red ‘feed me now’ light and check the waterlevel once a week, you are good to go.  One thing .. the pump can be a little noisy, so if you require an absolutely silent bedroom to sleep, keep this one in the kitchen or livingroom.

[amazon template=thumbnail&asin=https://www.amazon.com/Miracle-Gro-AeroGarden-Ultra-Gourmet-Herb/dp/B00FHXNG6U/ref=sr_1_1?s=kitchen%26ie=UTF8%26qid=1491826737%26sr=1-1%26keywords=aero+garden%26refinements=p_89%3AAeroGrow]

Fifth Consideration – Where am I going to get these?

I’m going to start with the super cheap and easy method and work my way along.

Many herbs propagate (make more of themselves) easily with cutting.  What that means for you is next time you buy a bundle of rosemary or sage at the grocery store …. take the extra branches, snip the dried out bottom end off and stick them in a container of water.  Leave it in a sunny place and within a week you should start seeing little white roots at the bottom. When the roots are an inch or so long, you can move your new plant into a dirt pot, or your hydro garden.

If you have friends who grow herbs, ask for cuttings of their plants. Transplant them home quickly with the cut ends wrapped in wet paper towel so they don’t wilt.  I’ve often been tempted to nip off a bit off of a plant at the botanical gardens, but that is definitely a no-no. (Don’t take cuttings without asking! it’s stealing!)  Source: Grocery store, friends

You can also start with grown plants. You can find some at your grocery store like basil and rosemary, or check your local area for a nursery. Failing that, look online. There are many plant and seed merchants that sell online and will send you herb plants without much more expense than a trip to the store. Source: hardware store, plant nursery

The last option, since it can take quite a while,  is starting from seed.  Many hardware stores and some department stores sell seeds and gardening supplies, but usually only in spring.  Again the internet abounds with seed sellers, but I have had good experiences with Gurneys Seed & Nursery, Burpee Seed and Park Seed. Source: Hardware stores, plant nursery

[amazon template=thumbnail&asin=https://www.amazon.com/Burpee/b/ref=w_bl_hsx_s_lg_web_3019902011?ie=UTF8%26node=3019902011%26field-lbr_brands_browse-bin=Burpee]

[amazon template=thumbnail&asin=https://www.amazon.com/Gurneys-Seed-Nursery-Company/b/ref=w_bl_hsx_s_lg_web_10407576011?ie=UTF8%26node=10407576011%26field-lbr_brands_browse-bin=Gurney%27s+Seed+%26+Nursery+Company]

[amazon template=thumbnail&asin=https://www.amazon.com/Park-Seed/b/ref=w_bl_hsx_s_lg_web_8200892011?ie=UTF8%26node=8200892011%26field-lbr_brands_browse-bin=Park+Seed]

Last Consideration – Get to Know Your Herbs

Every plant has different needs and herbs are no exception.  Once you have your list take a little time to read up on each of the contenders on your list. Each one will want a different amount of growing space, kind of soil and so forth. Some plants don’t get along and should never share the same pot.  Some grow super slowly, or super fast. Some really shouldn’t be grown inside … oh lemon tree how I wish I lived someplace warmer!

Basil – regular potting soil works for this one. They want lots of light and lots of water. In a good spot they will grow like crazy.  Dependent how much you need, you might fill up a whole window-box or 9″ pot just with basil.

Green Onions – Mine don’t like getting their feet wet. So add some gravel or rocks to the bottom of your pot to improve drainage. Many plants don’t like being near onions of any sort so these often do better in their own pot.

Ginger – This one is a super slow grower. As in years. It is semi tropical, so it wants things warm and damp. It grows mainly sideways so you want a large, shallow, saucer like pot. Be prepared to buy ginger for a year or two until this one gets big enough to harvest from.  Ginger is grown from a  ginger root, but the grocery store ones are soaked in anti-growth chemicals, so you will need to get a root from a nursery or possibly an organic produce store.

Getting Started!

Well once you have all of these things sorted out then actually assembling your herb garden is pretty simple.

Find pots which will suit your various plants.  Find dirt, gravel, sand, and so forth to fill your pots. Find your plants, cuttings or seeds. Find drainage trays or saucers for your plants to sit in so they don’t dribble dirt and water all over the place.

Drainage items go in the bottom, dirt goes in the pot, pot goes into a drainage tray or saucer.  Worried about Fluffy? fill your drainage tray with decorative rocks to keep Fluffy out of the plant water.  Soak the dirt with water for a bit, since most bagged potting soils are pretty dry. I like to put the dirt in the pot and water it every day for up to a week before sticking my plant in there. That gets the dirt nice and evenly hydrated before your plant gets moved in.  They don’t like being transplanted (who does?) , so water heavily the first day and keep an eye on it.  It may wilt at first, but should perk back up after a day or so.

Set up your lights and plant your plants, or cuttings.  Give them a few days to get settled before you cut anything.  Most herb plants love being pruned and will grow more and more leave when you do. When you cut herbs make sure to snip the stem right above a pair of leaves.  The plant will fork here and grow two stalks up from that spot.

Starting from seed? Read the directions on your seed packet! Read up on your plant online if you haven’t already. Most herb seeds take anything from 5 days to a month to germinate.  Fresh seed from a reputable nursery should have a 90-100% chance of germinating in the right conditions.  You can sow your seeds directly in your growing pot, or start them in a smaller pot. If you transfer them, let them grow at least 3 sets of leaves before you try transplanting them.

Have fun and good luck!

– Lyrra Madril














How to Make a Pen and Ink Illustration – Part 1

Pen and ink illustration has been around for a long time. There are many different styles.  I am going to show you a fairly simple and versatile style and method.  Please note some links are affiliate links to help you find products. These links make me money to keep this blog running, but cost you nothing to click on.

You will need:

Pencil and eraser – I use a plain old mechanical pencil from the grocery store, and a Mars white plastic erasor. The pink ones contain grit which damages paper. A damaged surface takes paint differently, so be careful with this.

A pen with ink – I usually use a Micon Pigma pen with a .005 tip and another that is thicker. This is very small, so remember to use a light touch with it so you don’t damage the tip.  Micron Pigmas use pigment ink, so it is lightfast and waterproof.  However you can work with any pen that feels good to you, just be aware many office supply pens are not waterproof.

[amazon asin=https://www.amazon.com/Sakura-30062-6-Piece-Pigma-Micron/dp/B0008G8G8Y/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8%26qid=1492532659%26sr=8-1%26keywords=micron+pigma&template=iframe image]

If you feel swanky you can use a dip pen like the Speedball dipper and a bottled ink. I use Higgins India Ink.  This takes a while to get used to.  Feel sorry for Harry Potter in his first week at school every time you make yours drip or scratch out!  With a metal nib pen like this be careful, it is easy to stab the paper and damage the surface, and also easy to stab yourself.

[amazon asin=https://www.amazon.com/Speedball-SB2964-Sketching-Project-Set/dp/B0007ZJ8RO/ref=sr_1_1?s=arts-crafts%26ie=UTF8%26qid=1492532708%26sr=1-1%26keywords=speedball+pen&template=iframe image]

Paper – I usually use Strathmore Bristol with a vellum surface. I find it holds pencil and ink better. The smooth bristol warps a lot more with watercolor.  However, if you are just starting out you can start with plain old white paper you use for your printer.  Just be aware it is super thin, so the ink may bleed and you wont be able to color with watercolors or liquid inks.

[amazon asin=https://www.amazon.com/Strathmore-Bristol-Smooth-12-Inch-Sheets/dp/B00254AU8Q/ref=sr_1_1?s=arts-crafts%26ie=UTF8%26qid=1492532756%26sr=1-1%26keywords=strathmore+bristol&template=iframe image]

And colour! you can use watercolour, goauche, brush inks, markers, colored pencils or even crayons. I usually use Pelikan gouache or Windsor Newton watercolours.  These get expensive fast, but the good news is the starter set will alst you for a good long time.

[amazon asin=https://www.amazon.com/Pelikan-Opaque-Watercolor-Chinese-720862/dp/B00170ZSLS/ref=sr_1_1?s=arts-crafts%26ie=UTF8%26qid=1492532827%26sr=1-1%26keywords=pelikan+opaque+watercolor+paint+set&template=iframe image]

Now find an image you like. I’m going to do something fairly simple yet interesting – a butterfly.

Butterfly stock image used by the kind permission of egil21 and found on Deviantart.  There are a number of sites where you can find stock images,. just remember the rights stay with the creator even if the let you use it for free. So be nice and say thank you!

My first step is to mark out the margins on my paper. Yup, margins. Since I expect (hope) someone will love and adore this picture and want to hang it on their wall, I need to leave space around the edges to go under the matte and picture frame.

After the margins I rough in the general shapes of the wings and anything else in the image.  Use loose circles and lines and draw very lightly. All this will get erased soon, but you need it to make sure you got your picture in a  good place on the page and still have space for everything.

Now to start the large shapes more solidly.  Pay attention to the relation of things .. this helps you match the proportions of what you are drawing.  This holds true for drawing from life, but photographs don’t fly away on you, so are much easier to start with. As you can see I’m simplifying the background and have made some random branch and leaves to make this image a little cleaner visually, and to finish it faster.

And now I’m sketching in the smaller details, and making some simply shading to show where I want the pen and ink shading later. I generally use crosshatching and line shading to indicate both volume and depth. With all the detail in it is time to start round one of the inking!

I start with my .005 pen and fill in my line work.  I always think this is the easiest part. The image is already there, I am just adding the ink. In some places you may miss the pencil line by a bit.  Don’t stop! that gives you wiggly lines and hesitation marks. Keep going!

With the first round of ink done, let it sit a minute or so to dry entirely. If you use a dip pen, give it up to a half hour or even overnight.  In the old days they would use a blotter (an absorbent paper) to soak up extra ink when writing letters. This is important in older detective fiction, since traces of the letters could be read that way, but not as common nowadays.

Now take your white plastic eraser and erase all the pencil marks, and those places where you have rubbed pencil graphite all over the page with the side of your hand. Or maybe that’s just me …

The eraser takes a small amount of the ink up, unfortunately. So now you can go back and touch up and lines that are too thin, or got a little faded.  As you can see with all the pencil up the image seems … thinner now.

I have gone back and added more detail and crosshatching to indicate both the fuzzy surface texture of the butterflies body, but also the shadowing of wing over wing and wing over leaf. On the branch I have used some curved lines to indicate both shadowing and a rounded surface.

I usually use single line, or crosshatching to shade in pen and ink image. However there are many other methods. Some people like dots, called stippling, and some use line thickness to make shading. I also use my shading line to help show when a shaded object is rounded, by curving the lines around the object



Most illustrations use several line thickness to add emphasis to the image, and to separate sections.  I am using my .03 Micron Pigma pen and going around the outside of the wings  to visually separate them.

Last step for the ink!   If any parts of the image are solid black, this is the time to put them in or make sure they are nice and solid.  I’m leaving a bit of texture on my butterfly wings, as the actual insect has a fair amount of shimmery texture itself.


With the actual inking all done, it’s time to take a break!

And by break I mean, bring the image over to my scanner and scan it in to Photoshop. A few small edits later, and I have one brand new image to add to my coloring page collection.  This also gives me a chance to mess aorund with various colors, if I can’t decide what I like best.

Tune next week for part 2 – the colors!

– Lyrra Madril
















Introduction to Cooking – Setting up a New Kitchen

(Some links in this post are affiliate links. They are no cost to you,but help pay to run this site.)

Everyone eats. This is a universal truth.

So eventually, everyone is going to need to sort out some way of cooking their food.  If you are lucky, you learned most of this from your family. If you didn’t, well in this post I will go over the basics of the things you need in a new kitchen to get started. Setting up a kitchen can seem like a big job, but if you break it down into sections it will be an easier job to tackle.

We can presume your kitchen has a stove, an oven, a sink, storage for canned and dry goods, a refrigerator and freezer for perishables.  Your kitchen may also start with a microwave, coffee machine and toaster or toaster oven.

Appliances – In general your most needed small appliance is a microwave. This will let you heat up and defrost foods quickly.  I also make sure to get a toaster oven (not a slot toaster).  A toaster oven can reheat foods like pizza, make toast and is the hands down, best way to make just enough chocolate chip cookies for one. You can get by without them, but life might be a little bit harder.

You can splash out for other things like a coffee machine, waffle iron or what-have-you but the more appliances you have the more space they take.  As you go on, you may want to add an electric mixer, and a blender to your kitchen. Did you know you can make ice cream with just a mixer and your freezer? best thing ever.

Pots, Pans and Bakeware –  you want at least one 12″ frying pan , one 9″ frying pan, one saucepan, and one pot big enough to boil water for pasta for 4 people.  I also like to have at least one baking try or cookie sheet and two 8×8″ pyrex baking dishes and at least one loaf pan, preferably two. (Nothing beats fresh baked bread, ever.) You probably need at least one 2 qt size mixing bowl, but you can use your big measuring cup or pasta pot in a pinch.  If you adore muffins, pick up a set of silicon muffin cups. These are super easy to use, and take up a tiny amount of storage space compared to a big metal muffin tray.  Plus they double as snack or dip cups. Score!

Dishware and Glasses – try to get a place setting for at least four people. This gives you day-to-day spares, and a reason to have friends over. A place setting is one large plate, one soup bowl, one small plate, one coffee/tea cup and saucer.  One large glass and one small tumbler per place setting. If you are clumsy, or have pets, I’d suggest plastic cups. Dog tails do terrible things to your cups!

Knives and Utensils – Each place setting should have at least a table knife, fork and spoon. You can also add a serrated steak knife for cutting meats.  You may also want up to four large serving spoons. For cooking utensils, try to have at least one spatula and whisk.  Most places have a set of kitchen knives, but you need at least one small paring knife and one big one for chopping.

Other Kitchen Tools –  Plastic containers and ziplok bags for storage in freezer and refrigerator. Kitchen towels, and oven mitts to protect your hands.  Pick up a large package of small washclothes and use those in the kitchen in place of expensive paper towels. After all if you just use them to dry, let the washcloth dry out and use it again. I keep a stakc on the country right next to the sink. When they get gross, throw them in the wash with plenty of bleach.  You can also add a vegetable peeler, salad spinner and a grater if you eat a lot of salads.  One or more cutting boards, either wood or plastic. Plastic can run through the dishwasher, wood have to be hand cleaned.

Measuring Tools – You want at least one 2 cup measuring cup, and maybe a four cup one as well (which doubles as a mixing bowl). You will want a set of measuring spoons. If you are cooking for one or two people, keep your eye out for one with a half tablespoon and 1/8 teaspoon included to make measuring small recipes easier.

Pantry essentials – Flour, baking soda, baking powder, sugar, salt, peanut butter, chocolate chips, olive oil, vegetable oil, soy sauce, rice, vinegar, brown sugar, shelf stable milk or dry milk powder, coffee and or tea, chicken broth, beef broth

Spices – vanilla, salt & pepper shakers, pepper grinder, rosemary, oregano, basil, cumin, dry chopped onion, garlic powder, chili powder, paprika, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cocoa powder

Perishables – milk or substitute, butter, eggs, cheddar cheese or Monterrey jack cheese, mozzarella cheese, lemons, garlic, onion, ginger.  Note: all of these can be frozen in small portions to use later. I also keep a bag of potatoes and some onions in my crisper drawer. Away from light they last for ages, and in a pinch a baked potato is a filling meal and takes 5 minutes in the microwave.

With all the above listed ingredients you can make: tea, coffee, lattes, chai, hot chocolate, pancakes, popovers, pretzels, bread, crackers, dumpling wrappers, ravioli, pasta, muffins, eggs, omelettes, quiche, doughnuts, salad dressing, fried rice, risotto, peanut butter cookies, cake, icing, chocolate chip cookies, brownies, chocolate pudding, rice pudding, coffee cake, spice bread, mashed potato, baked potato, hash browns, potato skins, sugar cookies and pie crust.   I probably forgot some too ….

This is a good basic starter set up, and as you go you can add anything needed for specific tasks or cuisines. For example most people will never need an apple slicer, but if you eat apples every other day, or bake apple pie every month, suddenly it looks like a better idea.

This is a lot of expense at once, so when you start out I suggest looking for a kitchen starter box at a big store like Walmart or Target, or go to a dollar store to get pans and utensils.   Stock up on disposable plastic storage containers and ziplok plastic bags for storage in the pantry and freezer. Many stores also carry pre-filled spice racks which may make the setup a bit easier and give you a place to put them.

Your kids or a friend just starting out? bring them a starter set of utensils in a big measuring cup. You can never have too many of either!


The below links are mainly starter sets – something to get you the basics. As your needs evolve, or you break things, or have the money, upgrade the important tools a piece at a time. A cooks kitchen is customized to what they need and use. I have two huge frying pans, and two large pasta pots when most cooks need just one. Why? because two frying pans means I can cook pancakes and bacon at the same time. No more cold pancakes!  And those two big pots means I can cook my pasta, and make my sauce at the same time for those big batches of ziti and lasagna going into the freezer.

Dishes well .. porcelain plates are not long for this world. Buy a set knowing you WILL break some eventually. Its a fact of life.  When you are running low on dishes, buy a new set and retire your old set to other uses (planters! storage!).  Some stores sell one place setting at a time, so you can even keep refilling your set … as long as they still sell that style.  I’ve tried to pick out dishware that is dishwasher and microwave safe where possible.

Kitchen Starter Sets

Other Sets

Dish Starter Sets

 – Lyrra Madril

Pen and Ink Illustration – A Brief History

‘Entwined’ by Lyrra Madril, original pen and ink illustration

What is illustration? An illustration is somewhere in between a diagram and art.  It is more decorative than a diagram, but less interpretive than art.  Most illustrations are created for use in print media such as books, magazines, posters, so on and so forth.

These three images are all illustrations, and though the style differs they are all recognizably a cat.

Illustrations can be done in a variety of styles and mediums.  In art lingo, ‘medium’ is the material it is made in such as ink, paint, wax, stone, cloth.  Style however is the visual style of the piece which ranges wildly depending on artist, era and purpose.  In your lifetime you have probably seen hundreds of illustrations of all sorts!  Most pen and ink illustrations have characteristic black lines, sometimes shaded with crosshatching or stippling, and sometimes colored with watercolors or other paint. As you can see above style range from simple cartoons, to very intricate realistic depictions.

Today however I am focusing on Pen and Ink illustration – the media is ink, and the tool is the pen.

Ink is generally runny and made of various dyes or pigments dissolved in a liquid.  Modern commercial inks have all sorts of things in them to change how the look when dry, to make sure they don’t run or fade.  The oldest commonly used ink was made of oak gall (those knobbly wart things on oak trees) and iron oxide. This ink started out a dark brown-black but fades to light brown.  The American Constitution was written in iron gall ink as well as thousands of other important historical documents, unfortunately this fading and the natural acidity cause many problems for archivists.

These days the most commonly used ink for illustrators is India Ink. This is a permanent, fade-proof black ink mixed with a varnish which makes it indelible. And by indelible I mean those ink stains on my jeans made it five times through the washer without budging.  There are many other kinds of ink, in thousands of types including metallic, neon, luminescent, and a rainbow of colors. This includes the very thick paste-like inks used in commercial printing and in ball-point pens.

Pens have been used for writing since recorded history. Well, obviously, since how else were they recording it? (well aside from painting on cave walls, and poking clay with sticks)

The first pens were made of reeds and later carved feathers. Yes those fancy feather quills you see in historical films and Harry Potter.   As time went on, iron nibs became more common.  There are two main kind of pens used today, nib pens which are dipped in inks and reservoir pens which contain ink. Fountain pens, and most disposable pens are reservoir type pens. They don’t do well sharing inks for various reasons, so be careful about that – always get the right kind of ink for your type of pen.

Pen and ink has been used for illustration for a very long time. Illustrations are  commonly used in textile design, greeting cards and other stationary.  Before photography, there was no other way to record botanical or zoological specimens.  For this reason many of the great naturalists of the Victorian era, were also proficient in illustration.  Most expeditions brought along at least one illustrator to keep records of the voyage and the specimens.   Botanical and zoological illustrators are still in demand these days, but now see their work grace museum displays, National Geographic, and many websites.

Some famous illustrators include John James Audubon, Norman Rockwell, Charles Schultz, and literally thousands more. Comic strips, graphic novels, greeting cards, fabric patterns. Illustration is all around you!

Why still use illustration? an artist sees things that a camera may not, and can isolate or combine elements.  That isolation and clarity can make it much easier for the viewer to understand what is going on in the image. Also, other forms of illustration such as cartoons, portraits, comics, and yes, diagrams,  cannot really be made any other way.  These stylized images can convey more emotion or  information than a plain photograph.

Pen and ink are also used by calligraphers, artists of the written word.  Some might argue that calligraphy is not illustration, but it is a very fine line between a letter and a very small piece of art.  In this era of digital reproduction, handmade is now a note of distinction, often reserved for important events such as weddings.  Many calligraphers are still employed by the US government for official documents.

One of the earliest forms of illustration is found in the small images adorning hand scribed manuscript pages, called ‘illuminations’.   The magnificent gospels manuscript, ‘The Book of Kells’, is adorned with intricate Celtic knot-work style illuminations as well as many illustrations showing the materials of the gospels therein.


These images are sections from various manuscripts, showing both illumination and calligraphy

Throughout history it is through art and illustration, preserved by the people of their times for their beauty, that we can see crumbs of the daily lives of long gone people. A great deal of what we know about long gone eras was gleaned from their artwork. We may not know how to speak true ancient Egyptian, but we certainly know what they were wearing because they thoughtfully left us illustrations all over their walls.

One of the most well known graphics programs used today is named ‘Illustrator’. And can you guess what it it is mostly used for? Illustration, of course!  Modern artist’s may use digital pen and ink, but the visual style is still the same.  Black and white, color, with hand drawn imperfections or perfectly clean and smooth.  Illustration is as strong today as it has ever been.

– Lyrra Madril










Grand Opening

Welcome to CyclopsStudio – the home of the artwork of Lyrra Madril

Please explore the site.  The gallery is full of new images, and the Print store is fully stocked with print-on-demand posters fulfilled by Zazzle printing.  You can also find a selection of Gothic themed greeting cards, perfect for that someone you know who likes things a little darker.  My Etsy store has hand drawn pen and ink illustration, printable coloring pages, and miniature one of a kind art dolls.

You can click through to the kindle and paperback formats of my book “How to Make Clothing For Poser” sold on Amazon to read more about my book, or buy a copy of your own. Keep an eye out for more art books, comics, calenders and other printed items.

as I work on and complete projects I will be posting to my various social media streams, so follow me on Facebook, Flickr, Pinterest, DeviantArt or Tumblr now so you don’t miss anything.  Sign up for email using the sidebar link to be alerted of posts here on this site!

Coming soon –  I have started a steampunk graphic novel. I am still in the early stages, so watch here for sketches, work in progress scenes and character images. The book will be published via Amazon and will appear here in the Books section.

Custom Work

Do you really like my style? Desperately in need of custom 3D artwork?  Need Poser or DAZ studio assets for your project?  Need that perfect pinup girl for your brands new logo launch?  You have the title and the book but no cover?  Need a pen and ink image to finish the redecoration of your living room?  Use the contact form to tell me about the artwork you need and I will give you a professional quote for my services.