One recent morning, Elaine Thomas sat front and center at the Dunedin Fine Art Center, creating a tiny world while looking through a magnifying glass. Thomas was painting a golden vase filled with pink chrysanthemums on a 3-inch oval of ivorine, a synthetic type of ivory.
"Years ago artists used slices of real ivory and then crushed ivory," Thomas said, "but we can't get real ivory anymore."
A member of the Miniature Art Society of Florida for 25 years, Thomas, 78, has garnered expertise and success in her field. The fruits of her labor have won numerous awards at the annual International Miniature Art Society show and earned one of her paintings a place in the permanent traveling exhibit.
A crowd gathered to watch Thomas paint that day. In front of her were two small vases filled with fine brushes, toothpicks and cotton swabs, along with a palette of shimmering oil colors.
An array of her completed miniatures stretched across the table as well, most no more than 3 by 2 ½ inches. Several measured in at only ½-inch square.
In one, two fluffy white ducks nestle in snow; a lone figure walks through golden autumnal woods in another. A pair of unlaced baby shoes set against a dark background caught the eye of many, as did an open window with white lace curtains offset by a blackened surrounding. Fruit, bright flowers in vases and artfully curved pitchers pop up in several other works.
"The images for this show can't be more than 25 inches square," said Thomas, in reference to the size of the actual paintings without frames. "A painting can be 5-by-5 or 4-by-6, for example."
Thomas works in even smaller arenas. She said sometimes she must make her own frames to fit images measuring less than 1- by ½-inch in diameter.
"I prefer images no more than 3 or 4 inches in length," she said. "I don't think of anything larger as a miniature."
Thomas began painting at age 35, in her native Hammond, Ind., but on larger canvases. Her foray into the world of art on a tiny scale began five years later when she had a dollhouse built for her third and youngest child, who was then 5.
She began painting tiny pictures for the dollhouse walls, and her love of miniature art was born.
By the mid '70s the tiny paintings had led to a business in miniatures. Thomas and a friend began creating all sorts of accessories for dollhouses. They pitched their wares to Chicago's well-known department store, Marshall Field, and soon had a booming business.
The women made tiny bedspreads, kitchen brooms, curtains, cookie jars out of beads and, most successful of all, Christmas paraphernalia, including trees with tiny ornaments, stockings and wreaths.
"Our biggest success was a 6-inch Christmas tree encased in glass," Thomas said recently in her Palm Harbor home.
The base was encircled with tiny wrapped gifts, none more than an inch in length. Tiny hand-painted ornaments hung on the branches.
"They sold then for $250 each," she said, "and we sold hundreds of them."
In 1981, business came to an end when Thomas and her husband, Ted, moved to Palm Harbor.
Then an ad in the paper for a miniature art show in Clearwater caught her eye. "I went and I was wowed."
Thomas joined the society, took up her palette and again set to work using paint. She has her favorite themes. "I love still lifes and landscapes the best," she said. "I don't paint people or animals, except birds."
Thomas appears to have a natural talent. She said she has had only one formal art course.
"I got frustrated using colors and took a six-week art course on mixing color with a teacher in a nearby town," she said of her earlier years in Indiana. "Suddenly a light bulb went off, and I could see how colors worked together."
She learned the value of white.
"I use titanium white," she said. "It's not opaque, but smooth like cold cream."
Now Thomas watches five artists on public television each morning. "I learn something new most of the time," she said.
She enthusiastically praises the Miniature Art Society, which exhibits the work of its members each January at the Dunedin Fine Art Center.
"We had more than 800 paintings this year," she said, "and every one of them is checked for size, framing and quality of work."
She said only the best of the submissions is accepted.
"I've been at it for 25 years now," the artist said with a smile, "and I was just honored with a lifetime membership."
Elaine Markowitz is a freelance writer living in Palm Harbor. E-mail her at email@example.com.