Our CookieCon interview series continues this month with none other than Monica Holbert of Cookie Cowgirl, one of the most talented (and most humble) cookie painters I know!
We live-chatted with Monica what seems like eons ago (my, how time flies when you’re madly cookie decorating)! As a memory-jog, we talked a lot about painting: how to get a smooth cookie surface that accepts “paint” well; what three brushes Monica turns to time and time again; how to keep a fine point on your liner brush; and more. (For the complete transcript, click here.)
But today, it’s time to cover new terrain! Want to know how to improve your painting and illustrating without getting an art degree? How Monica juggles cookie-ing with her day job? What she’s got planned for us at CookieCon! Yeah?! Well, great, because that’s our game plan!
JMU: Hi, Monica! It’s such a pleasure to be talking with you again! Your cookies are wonderful works of art that give the impression that you’ve been decorating for years and years. I want to back up to the beginning to give readers a better idea of when you got started with cookies, and what or who launched you into cookie decorating. Can you share this history with us in a few sentences?
MH: Hey, Julia! Thank you so much for the opportunity to chat with you here. I got started in 2011 after buying some cookies from a local baker for my son’s birthday. I remember fighting with my husband over the cost of them and telling him next time I’d just learn to make them myself. I took a class at a local bake shop and never looked back.
JMU: I believe you work full-time as a graphic designer. And that you work on cookie orders in and around the margins of your day job? Is that right? How much time per week, on average, do you spend cookie decorating? And how many orders and cookies do you typically complete in that time?
MH: You are correct, Julia, I do work as a full-time graphic designer. I usually don’t work on any cookie orders until after my son goes to bed, so I joke that cookie decorating is my night job. I typically work from about 8 pm to 1 am, three to four nights a week, depending on what I have going on. My first year was rough with very little sleep because I was taking on too much. Saying no is one of the hardest things I’ve had to learn. I now usually won’t take more than two orders a week, ranging from two to eight dozen cookies total, but I’ve done as many as 30 dozen in one week (with some help from Starbucks and my good friend Rachel, whom some of you met on the Cookie Cruise.)
JMU: Ah! Rachel is awesome in more ways than the one you mentioned. Such a pleasure to have met her on the cruise.
So, where do you operate? In your home, in a rented commercial kitchen, or somewhere else? Why did you make the decision to operate this way?
MH: I do everything out of my house. My son calls our dining room the “cookie room”, because we only eat in there for holidays. It was important to me that my hobby did not take away from the time I need to spend with my family, so by working out of my home, I can spend more time with them and still do what I love. I have looked into renting commercial kitchen spaces, but I would have to raise my prices and that’s just not worth it to me at this point in time.
JMU: Let’s talk about your cookies for a bit. You’re a master of illustrated characters and handpainting (as anyone can see from your cookies I've already posted) but you have an illustration degree, so I imagine your artistry comes naturally to you to a large extent. (That’s not to suggest that you don’t work hard at your craft too! ) What advice would you give to cookiers who would like to do more painterly work, but who don’t necessarily have the innate aptitude? Can drawing and painting on cookies easily be learned? What steps should beginners take to master these techniques?
MH: That’s a tough one. I honestly feel that everyone has artistic talent, but you have to find out what you enjoy doing and what you are good at. Maybe you can't draw a character, but you may be awesome at drawing animals or even designing text. It sounds clichÉ, but practice, practice, practice, and your work will get better. Planning things in advance has been by best friend. I find that if I can trace a cutter and take the time to design and draw it out in my sketchbook, I can rework it until it is just where I want it . . . then I can project it onto my cookie(s) and get the exact result I want. Never be afraid to watch a tutorial or look at a how-to book. I love watching YouTube videos about drawing and seeing how other people work.
JMU: In addition to painting, you work with a lot of other techniques, as many of your cookie sets pictured in this post show. You also mentioned in your chat that you’re particularly fond of marbling. How do you go about determining what technique (or techniques) to use in a cookie order? What techniques, if any, do you seldom use, and why?
MH: Most of my reasoning for how I create an order is usually based on three things . . . First is time. I started painting because it was way quicker for me on certain orders to flood everything white and go back and paint, rather than mix 20 different colors. Second is color scheme. When I have an order that is limited to just a few colors, I love to work with colored icing. Wet on wet is probably the most fun for me because it so quick and looks impressive. I love playing and seeing what I can do by pushing the colors around to create designs; then it’s done and I can move onto the next cookie. Third is presentation. When I’m creating a dozen cookies as a gift, and the cookies are all characters or each cookie is different, it’s way easier to paint. On the flip side, when I do platters, I can use colored icing, mix and match techniques, and throw in some marbled or polka dot cookies as fillers, which is always fun. I seldom do a lot of airbrushing, which is something I hope to change. In the space I’m in, it’s a pain to pull out my airbrush, so I usually just find a way to do what I want without it.
JMU: What’s been the most challenging cookie order you’ve ever had, and how did you meet that challenge?
MH: You mean besides the dreaded Frozen characters above? LOL. My most challenging order to date has been a Star Wars order (below) that I did for EA Games here in Austin. The client ordered 350 cookies for a company party, but she wanted half of them to be ships that were represented in their game . . . that was probably the most piping I’ve ever done in my life. Again, planning was my best friend for this order. I baked everything in advance and stored the cookies in Tupperware until I was ready to use them. I planned out all the decorating in steps so it was easy to manage. One night, I did the background for all of the ships and flooded all of the white. The next night, I flooded the gray ship bodies, piped imperial/rebel logos, and flooded the smaller logos. Then I did all of the piping on the ships, and the handles of the light sabers. Last, I did the Jawas and Jabbas, and colored part of the light sabers and all of the logos. I remember my KK [EDITOR'S NOTE: Kopykake] bulb blowing on the third night as I sat down to start the ships, and totally freaking out. Thankfully, my husband ran out to Walmart to get me a new one.
JMU: Wow, what a process! Extremely organized, but that's a lot of detailed cookies in a short time!
Is there any particular cookie design, style of cookie, or technique that you’re dying to try, but haven’t yet gotten around to doing? If so, what is it and why does it move you so?
MH: I’m not sure about this one. I feel like I’ve had a chance to play with a wide range of styles and techniques so far. I decorate the same way I used to create art. I know in my head what I want the cookies to look like, so I figure out how to achieve it. I don’t really try to copy a particular technique or cookier, but I love to learn from others and apply what I've learned to things in the future. I am looking forward to learning more about building dimension in royal icing from Arty McGoo. I feel like that is one thing that can elevate my work to another level beyond what I offer now.
JMU: What have been the biggest triumphs for you during your four years in the cookie business? the biggest challenges?
MH: My biggest triumph was the first time someone walked up to me at CookieCon and said, “You’re Cookie Cowgirl!” I called my husband in shock because I had no idea how this person who I idolized and followed online knew who I was. My biggest challenge is still learning to say no. I get calls all the time asking for orders, and they all sound like so much fun, or the customer sounds super nice . . . And I always hate having to say no. It’s gotten better because I have gotten to know so many wonderful cookie decorators from all over, so I can usually recommend someone else to help. I also still struggle with pricing. I rarely follow my own pricing guidelines and almost always give people more than they asked for. It’s a good thing this isn’t my day job because I’d go broke.
JMU: What do you love most about your cookie business? What, if anything, do you not like about it?
MH: My husband and I were just talking about this, and I really want to say making people happy, but the truth is that it makes me happy. I really enjoy being able to create something from nothing and then just giving it away. I hate that it has to be a business. I suck at asking people for money.
JMU: LOL - I could ask them for you, but I'd have to take a cut!
What three tips would you give to cookiers who want to take their cookie interest from a hobby to a full-fledged business? Any must-dos? Any watch-outs when it comes to pricing, taking orders, or serving customers?
MH: 1) Be aware of your strengths and limitations. Don’t take on more than you can handle and don’t promise to do a million cookies in a style you’ve never done before. I promise, you will not like them by the time you are finished. 2) Remember, they are just cookies. Don’t take the cookies too seriously, and don’t freak out over every imperfection because you’re the only one who’s going to notice them. 3) Find a calendar system that works for you and pay attention to it. Nothing is more embarrassing than forgetting to do an order.
That said . . . this is not a full-fledged business for me yet for one big reason. I would have to make so many cookies a week to make up for my current salary that I don’t think I would still enjoy making cookies. I think anyone looking to turn his/her hobby into a full-time job has to think about what s/he is willing to give up in order to produce larger quantities of product. My husband has a saying when it comes to dealing with creative types, “Time, quality, or cost . . . you can only pick two, so choose wisely."
I guess my only words of warning would be that everyone is human and, at some point, you will make a mistake that will upset someone else. Don’t take complaints personally - easier said than done, I know. Good communication will smooth over the roughest roads, so don’t be afraid to admit you made a mistake or to ask your customer what you can do to fix it.
JMU: You taught some Night Owl classes on Cookie Cruise in January, which everyone said were fabulous. Was that your first big cookie decorating teaching gig? Or do you also teach classes in your area? What was your biggest lesson learned from teaching on the cruise?
MH: Night Owl was my first real teaching gig. I’d done some stuff here at home with friends for holiday parties, but nothing like what we did for the cruise. I think I took a few things away from that class . . . The first being that rocking boats make it difficult to paint sometimes. [EDITOR'S NOTE: And pipe straight lines, as in my case!] The biggest lesson I took away was that a lot can be forgiven if you keep a smile on your face. One night, we had everything that could possibly go wrong go wrong (through NO fault of Ginny, our wonderful organizer). But everyone went with the flow, and we ended up having an absolutely wonderful time together. I was super proud of the way everything went and of the projects and knowledge everyone was able to leave with.
JMU: How do you suspect teaching at CookieCon will be similar to or different than teaching on the Cookie Cruise? And how are you preparing for any differences?
MH: Well, I’m hoping I won’t get kicked out of my room this time. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Ahh, so I gather that was what went wrong on the cruise, though from all I heard, your classes came off wonderfully!] One big difference with CookieCon is that I am not teaching a project, but rather talking about my processes in a much broader scope. I haven’t done a lot of public speaking, so I’d being lying if I said I’m not nervous about standing in front of a group of people rather than working among them, but I am looking forward to putting together some really fun stuff that will hopefully inspire people to go home and try something new.
JMU: Can you give our readers a glimpse into what you’re planning to teach at CookieCon? I imagine it involves handpainting, but what specifically – and is there more?
MH: There is a painting, yes, but I’m also going to be talking about how I create some of my characters and some tips for planning orders to save time.
JMU: You’ve won top spots in at least a couple of CookieCon sugar shows and mystery cookie cutter contests! Congrats! What advice would you give to cookiers who plan to enter the show (or cutter contest), and who also aspire to top honors? The "competition" has gotten pretty stiff in the last year or so! ("Competition" is in quotes, because it's all really done for fun, folks!)
MH: Do what you love. I don’t go into a show thinking that I’m going to create a “showpiece”, but rather I think about what I would love to do for myself and then figure out a way to make that idea fit into the theme. The firefly cookies I entered last year were in my brain for over a year, and the sugar show was my excuse to finally make them a reality. As far as the mystery shape . . . have fun with it. I usually see an element in the design and then try to find an image around that element. For example, the first year, I saw a giant hat . . . then I had to think about who would be wearing a hat like that. The second year, I kept seeing pigtails . . . as I sketched it out, I saw a girl under water. Take your time and do some sketches if you want. The mystery shape is probably my favorite thing about CookieCon, because it gives everyone a chance to use their imaginations. Even when six people all do the same thing, none of them actually look alike.
JMU: If you were to do your first CookieCon all over again, what would you do differently while there and why?
MH: I would have talked to more people. I was super shy the first year and had to force myself to walk up to people and introduce myself. I did not mingle as much as I would have liked, BUT that being said, it was one of the best weekends ever. If you’ve never been, it’s hard to imagine, but it’s like Facebook in real life (well, maybe minus the ads). Everyone there is there for the same reason as you, and no one is unapproachable. CookieCon is all about making connections. If you see someone you want to say hello to, then walk up and say hi!
JMU: And, last, a twist on my usual parting question: what is your biggest, yet unrealized cookie dream? And how do you plan to go about achieving it?
MH: If I’m allowed to dream big here, I’d love to have a cookie studio where I could work away from my everyday living space. My dream is to have a space large enough for cookie getaways, where people come and visit and take classes from either me or visiting decorators, and where we can all hang out together. I feel like cookie decorating is a solo event that longs to be social. We have a long-term goal to make this dream a reality, but for now it’s just a dream.
JMU: Yes, dream big and go for it! That's a super exciting idea! Let me know when you launch it; I'll be among the first to sign up!
Thanks again, Monica, for such thoughtful answers, both here today and in your previous chat. I wish you all the best with your CookieCon presenter debut. I'm sure all will go swimmingly!
All cookies and photos by Cookie Cowgirl.
Interested in learning more about Monica? Please check out her site and Facebook page, and, when you see her at CookieCon, don't forget to say, "Hey, you're Cookie Cowgirl!" before asking for her autograph!
Cookier Close-ups is the place on Cookie Connection where we celebrate the change-makers of the cookie decorating world. Whether forging new enterprises, inventing novel decorating techniques, or consistently charming us with their cookie decorating prowess, each of our featured thought leaders has redefined in his/her distinctive way how we interact, create, or otherwise do business here in cookie space!
If there are other cookiers you'd really like to get to know, please post requests in this forum. We'll do our best to round them up for an upcoming Cookier Close-up! Thanks!