Cake artist Karen Portaleo works on her cake sculpture Duck Face Dagmar.
Karen Portaleo grew up in bakeries in south Florida, where her grandfather was a pastry chef. Combining this history with her background in art has proved a seamless although unexpected evolution. Before jumping in to the culinary world, she created props and sets for advertising. Her client list included Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Target, Maybelline and Nestle.
Today, the Atlanta-based artist ranks among the world’s most gifted cake artists and instructors working in the cake and sugar arts fields. She has appeared on Food Network's Cake Challenge four times, Halloween Wars and Cake Wars, winning all but one. Her cake sculptures are true works of art. When asked what her favorite products to make are, she replies enthusiastically: “Big elaborate sculptures that people can rip apart and eat!”
At the Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show, Portaleo demonstrated how to use modeling chocolate to create a very expressive face on her playful witch character named Duck Face Dagmar.
Sculpting eyes
The eye is the window to the soul, so it is no wonder that Portaleo spends so much of her energies on perfecting the art of sculpting expressive eyes. “Sculpting age and character into a piece,” she says, “is one of my favorite things to do.”
When sculpting, the offers the following tips to other decorators:
Remember that the eye doesn’t sit on a flat surface. The eye sits deep inside the socket of a skull. The space between two eyes is about the size of one eye.
Form the eye socket by making soft lines – not sharp. Take a good size piece of chocolate and place inside the socket. The chocolate will form the eye and the eyelid.
Draw the eye by using the sharp back edge of a Dresden tool. Use the flat side of the spoon end of the tool and push back gently to create the illusion that the eyeball is behind the eyelid. The eye is a ball, so keep it round. Use the spoon end, gently pressing, to create indentions to make lower lid wrap around the eye.


If your marks go deep in the corner of the eye, it is a sign of age. Make some lines to create some pockets to show that gravity has taken hold and pulled down the eyes a little. Create the appearance that the skin is stretched out. As you make more marks, the piece will look older and older. Wrap wrinkles around the eye with curved lines.
“Deep straight lines look like tool marks, not wrinkles. When you see a line and it looks like a tool mark, it breaks the illusion,” Portaleo says.
Stay mindful of structure around the eye. The more hollow it becomes, the older the eye looks. Then extend your work beyond the eyebrow.
As a general overall guideline, when sculpting, Portaleo recommends that cake artists keep it smooth. Make sure all the lines on your sculpture are lines you want. “I want all of my lines to have purpose,” she says.