African masks and Illuminated Letters

A couple of years ago, I had a chance to see a remarkable collection of African art, both ancient and contemporary, at the North Carolina Museum of Art. Among the treasures exhibited was a collection of African masks. I have photos of a number of these, but I’ll just show one here, so that you know what I’m talking about:

I had never done anything with these photos, other than share them with friends, as the NCMoA, like many museums, puts a condition on its photography permission that any photos taken must be “for personal use only.” But last week Anita was making a card for relatives with a new baby, and she chose a jungle animal theme. As usual, the task of designing the envelope fell to me, and I happened to remember my African mask photos, and wondered if I might find some material there for an envelope design. As I studied the photos, and the wonderful abstract representations of creatures real and imagined, I was reminded of the ornamental “beasties” used in Celtic art, and I started thinking about writing the family name in a set of illuminated letters based on some of the masks and other art objects in the exhibit.

For a variety of reasons (basically because the idea was too obscure and complex), I ended up discarding the idea, but not before I had made some initial sketches. The family name began with a “G” and an “I” (the family members, if they’re reading, will now recognize themselves). Here was my sketch for those first two letters:

The “G” in the sketch above isn’t really a direct representation of any of the masks in the exhibit, but it grew out of studying the photo shown at the beginning of this post. The “I” is a direct sketch of one of the carved staffs exhibited. Even though I didn’t use the idea this time, I think it has potential for the future. I have more than a dozen photos from the exhibit as a starting point for source material, and I’m sure that a Google for “African masks” would yield many more. Reduced to line drawings, these designs start to echo strongly of the Celtic artwork of the Book of Kells and other classic works.  Here’s a quick poster design showing three more sketches, without trying to use them as letters:

The mask in the lower left has obvious potential as an “H” or perhaps an “X”, and the others could easily be used as a part of almost any letter with an open bowl, such as an “O” or a “Q.” The upper right mask might also be a part of an “R,” or perhaps a lower case “A.” Now I just need another twenty or so sketches, and I’ll have a complete alphabet… If you have links to other African mask sketches or photos, I’d appreciate hearing from you.

10 years of Digital – part 2

This is the second part of my series on my first 10 years in digital photography. The first part can be found here. I plan to make additional posts about once a month for the rest of this year, sharing a few images from each of the past 10 years.

In August of 2002, Anita and I made a trip to London with my parents, who were 79 and 80 years old at the time. My father, who had been physically robust all his life, was now severely impacted by Parkinson’s disease. He had been through a couple of years working with several doctors trying to get his medications properly adjusted, and had experienced periods of being so heavily sedated that he couldn’t stay awake at the dinner table, followed by times when he was having vivid delusions, seeing “bugs” everywhere. So we were thrilled to see that his doctor finally seemed to have gotten the balance of the drugs right, and Dad felt well enough that he agreed to go on this trip. As it turned out, it would be the last extended trip I was ever able to take with both of my parents; Dad underwent heart surgery 5 months later, and suffered a series of terrible complications leading up to his death in 2004.

This was mostly a family trip, without a lot of time dedicated to “serious” photography, but of course I carried the Canon G1 with me everywhere. While I have many photos to remind me of this bittersweet family time, I have only a few images I want to share here. The photo above was taken from the Millenium Bridge, a footbridge built across the Thames just down river from the Parliament building and St. Paul’s cathedral on one side and the Tate Modern museum and the London Eye (or, Millenium Wheel, as I think it was once called) on the other. I didn’t have a tripod, so I just pressed the camera against the railing of the bridge to make the shot. Unfortunately, that particular bridge has quite a bit of vibration – in fact, it came to be known as the Wobbly Bridge, and was closed for almost two years after its opening in 2000, as engineers modified the design to eliminate the worst of the shaking and swaying – so the shot is a little more fuzzy than I might have liked. But it’s my only decent night shot of London, and for me, at least, it’s an iconic memory, reminding me not only of the familiar landmarks of the London skyline, but also the nightfall of my father’s life.

We covered a lot of ground during this trip, and as a lettering and design buff, I found details everywhere that interested me. At the Tower of London, where we lost Dad for a frightening 30 minutes, I found a statue of Trajan, who was emperor of Rome during the time the Romans built their stone walls around Londinium. Trajan is known to calligraphers because of his famous column in Rome, commemorating his victories in the Dacian Wars. The base of the column is inscribed in letters that are still considered some of the finest examples of the ideal proportions of Roman capitals. I’ve never been to Rome to see the original column, but I was able to see a full-size plaster copy of all 35 meters of it in London in the Plaster Courts of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Here’s a close-up of the base inscription from that plaster copy:

At the British Museum, I saw the Rosetta Stone, and was also taken by many fine examples of Celtic art, which has fascinated me since I first learned uncial lettering 30 or more years ago. I thought this decorative buckle was a particularly beautiful example of classic knotwork:

We went all over London via the Underground, and every time we entered or emerged from a station, I saw something like this:

Most Londoners probably take those signs for granted, but the letters are actually historically unique. Although today’s signage is in Gill Sans Serif, it retains much of the look of the original typeface designed by Edward Johnston, who also designed the “bullseye” logo. Johnston is widely considered to be the father of modern calligraphy, in that his study and analysis of medieval manuscripts at the British Library led to a revival of interest in the art of hand lettering in the early 20th century. He taught at the Central School of Arts and Crafts and the Royal College of Art, and influenced a whole generation of lettering artists whose artistic descendants dominate the field of calligraphy even today. The original printing blocks for Johnston’s Underground type designs are on display in the London Transport Museum.

This trip was the last time I used my Canon G1 extensively. It continued to impress me with the quality of its images in good light as well as for close-up work, and it was not only my introduction to digital photography, but it was also responsible for reviving my interest in photography in general. Even today, its images hold up pretty well for web purposes. It left me wishing for more, though, and in December of 2002, I bought a Nikon D100 digital SLR as a gift to myself on my retirement from my engineering career. That camera was my main tool for the next five years, and I’ll have a lot more to say about it in the next few posts in this series.


Apache Wedding Blessing

I feel like I should be doing a “Happy New Year” post today, but I don’t have any material on hand for that at the moment. What I do have is a piece that I’ve been wanting to share for about a month. I was waiting, though, until after we had given a framed version to our son and daughter-in-law. We finally got to share a belated Christmas with them, and so now I’ll share it here.

Apache Wedding Blessing

This blessing was used at our son and daughter-in-law’s wedding seven years ago, and they had asked me to do a version of it “when I got around to it,” so we see once again the hazards of not giving me a deadline. The text is very popular, but is usually not attributed, and in the piece above I have also omitted an attribution for now. From my Internet research, I’ve learned that it probably is not an authentic Apache blessing, but may have been created around 1947 for the novel Blood Brother by the author Elliott Arnold. That novel was later made into a very popular movie, Broken Arrow, starring James Stewart. I understand that versions of the blessing may appear in both the novel and the movie, but at this point, I haven’t had the time to research that. I hope to chase it down in the next month or two, so that I can ask for copyright permission to use the text, if that turns out to be necessary. Both the novel and the movie have received praise for their treatment of Apache culture, so hopefully the blessing is at least in keeping with the spirit of its supposed source.

The artwork here, as in many pieces posted on this blog, is a Photoshop composite from photographs. I found the two beaded pieces on display in 2003 in the David T. Vernon collection of American Indian Arts, which is normally exhibited at the Colter Bay Visitor Center in Grand Teton National Park. I understand, though, that the entire collection is now undergoing conservation and restoration treatment, and may not return to public display until funds can be raised for a suitable new museum to be constructed. I had made a separate photo of each of the pieces, and overlaid one on the other in Photoshop. Prior to this piece, the photos have just been sitting in my files, unused, for 8 1/2 years – a good argument for the “don’t throw anything away” school of digital photography. The rest of the background is a scan of a piece of calfskin vellum.

As I often do when I combine photos and calligraphy, I turned the beadwork photos into more of a painted effect, this time by using Photoshop’s Dry Brush filter. Here’s a close-up of the result of that filtering:

Part of my reason for using the filter in this case was that the original photos had been taken in relatively dim light, with no flash or tripod, in the museum, and so they were not particularly sharp or contrasty. The Dry Brush filter exaggerates the contrast and color saturation, and converts somewhat blurry edges into sharper features. When I did the headline lettering for the text, I decided to continue the beadwork motif, and decorated the caps with dots of color sampled from the beadwork photos:

The style of the Italic calligraphy was deliberately left a little rough, as I felt that was more in keeping with the artwork, background, and the supposed Apache roots of the text than a more polished style would have been. I may play a little more with that in the future.

Here’s a photo of the piece after personalizing it for Adam and Tez and having it matted and framed:

Angelic Details

I thought I’d share some of the details behind the design of the 2011 Christmas card, as I know there are at least a few readers who care about such things, and I usually enjoy sharing nerdy details, myself.

As I mentioned in the previous post, I usually start my designs from the text, as for the majority of cases, the text contains much of the message, and I’m usually trying to support that message with the artwork. In this case, for example, the text brought in the idea of angels, and I then remembered that I did have a nice angel photo in my personal stock library. Here’s the angel I used for the 2011 card, as I found her hanging in St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague:

The first step was to extract the angel from her surroundings, as I wanted to use the angel alone, without the rest of the cathedral There are lots of ways to do this, but what I did was to duplicate the photo to a second layer, then use Photoshop’s Quick Select tool by clicking and dragging across the angel, and finally, I created a layer mask.  I then used the Refine Mask command to paint in (or out) those parts of the edges that were incorrectly selected. This extraction process probably took 15 or 20 minutes of work to get just what I wanted. After I was satisfied with my selection of the angel, I moved on to the problem of altering her appearance. The photo itself is pretty sharp and detailed, which is highly desirable from a photographic point of view. For my card designs, though, I’m often trying for more of a “painterly” effect, so I wanted change the photo to something that looked more like a drawing. I’ve talked about how to do that before, but for now, I’ll just say that I used Photoshop’s filters to do the job. Specifically, I used Filter>Sketch>Graphic Pen, which then gave me an angel that looked like this:

I wanted to set the angel against a night sky, partly because of the “angels’ footsteps passing in the night” phrase in my text, but also because I usually think of night when I think of Christmas. Christmas Eve services have always been a favorite part of the Christmas experience for me, and a night sky and a “star of Bethlehem” often find their way into my cards, as they did this year. I started by creating an inky blue background layer, and then laid my extracted angel on top of that. The colors in the angel sketch above were now wrong, so I started by inverting the colors to give light on dark instead of vice-versa, and then I added a color overlay to make the angel drawing more compatible with the blue of the background. I also wanted to take advantage of the fact that the angel is looking over her shoulder. I noticed that the strongest light in the cathedral in the original photo was coming from the upper right, which happens to be more or less the same direction she’s looking (a happy coincidence), so I decided that she would be looking towards a “heavenly light” coming from the upper right corner of the card. I created that light by adding a radial gradient fill above my background layer. As I further critiqued my work, I decided the plain blue background was too sterile and artificial-looking, so I decided to add some clouds (Filter>Render>Clouds), and I also added some random stars here and there with the Pencil tool and my Wacom tablet (you can use a mouse – it’s just not as easy to draw with). At this point, my background art was nearing completion, and I just needed to do a little adjusting of the blending of the various components to make everything fit together.

The final step was to add the calligraphy. I started with a couple of pencil sketches, just to give me a feeling for how the text would lay out in a couple of styles. Here’s a piece of my pencil drafts, just to give you an idea of how rough things were at this stage:

I originally imagined I might do the card text in a sort of modified bookhand (or “Foundational,” as Edward Johnston’s disciples called it). Here’s a detailed crop from the first draft of that idea:

In my first paste-up of the entire card, I just put the text into a rectangular block. I was totally unhappy with the way this looked on the card, though, and immediately began playing with other approaches, finally settling on having the text follow curves which worked in to the curves of the angel’s pose. I made my first stab at that idea by using Photoshop’s Warp tool to add curves to my rectangular text block. Of course, just warping a block of text doesn’t give you very nice-looking letters, but it did give me a feeling for what the layout would look like, and I decided curved lines of text would work if I re-did the calligraphy; this time, because of the curved lines, I thought Italic would work better. You can see the final calligraphy fairly well on the photo of the full card (see post here), but here’s a slightly larger version of the text alone:

As always, I can still see lots of details that could be worked further, but at this point, I was happy enough with the card to print it and send it, and I was up against my deadlines for addressing and mailing, so for this year, the card was done. For those who are familiar with Photoshop, here’s what the overall design structure looked like once everything was assembled:

Each of those layers has a slightly different Blending Option, to change the strength of the effect and how the layer looks against the surrounding layers. Some of the duplicate layers were only added after making test prints, and deciding that some part of the design was printing too light or too dark.

And here’s the final card, sitting on the dining room table on top of a pile of the addressed envelopes:


Smiles, Sunshine and Light

Almost all the Christmas cards finally got addressed and taken to the post office yesterday, so I’m ready to post our card online. I’ll share some of the background details of the design process later, but here’s the final result for this year:

Christmas, 2011

I’ve mentioned before that I’m always late in getting my annual Christmas card design done, and that I never get anything done without deadlines. One reason is that I’m always looking for just the right text to express what I’m feeling, or to go with other things that I want to share on the card. Because I was struggling with my feelings this year, I was having a hard time picking the text, until I found this little poem.

According to that highly reliable source, The Internet, these are “words on a church wall in Upwaltham, England,” though my attempts to track them down did not locate any Upwaltham source that acknowledges their existence there. But they still spoke to me, and as soon as I found them, I felt they were the words I needed this year. Anita put her finger on the reason as she wrote our Christmas newsletter to go with the card. She said that my mother had been a person who spread smiles, sunshine, and light all along her path in life, and I knew immediately that she was right.

So after finally finding a text last weekend, I felt ready to design the card, and it came together relatively quickly, at least relative to how such things usually go for me. The angel on the card (Mom loved angels) is from a photo I took at St. Vitus Cathedral, in Prague, during our visit there in 2009. She was a metal sculpture, hanging suspended in the air; unfortunately, I don’t know who the artist was. I’ll show the original photo in my follow-on post. I extracted her from her surroundings using various Photoshop tools, and turned her into more of a sketch appearance, which I often prefer when combining photography and calligraphy. I created the background night sky and “heavenly light” painting from scratch, and overlaid the photo and my scanned calligraphy, adjusting the blending of the layers to get the overall mood right, preserving the dark of the night sky while bringing out some of the detail of the misty clouds. I re-did the calligraphy a couple of times before I was satisfied with how the image and calligraphy worked together.

I still have a few more cards left to send to calligraphy colleagues. I have hundreds of “Internet friends” in calligraphy through Cyberscribes, as well as calligraphy friends I know much better through intensive workshops we’ve attended together. It’s not feasible to mail physical cards to all of them, of course, so I usually try to pick a dozen or so names not-quite-at-random to share a card by “real” mail. For the rest,sharing the card here and on the Cyberscribes graphics board will have to do. I hope  this greeting finds you all well, and that you, too, may find and spread smiles, sunshine, and light wherever your path may lead you in the coming year.

Please click on the image above, so that you can see the card closer to actual size.


When we made our trip up the Oregon coast about a year ago, the single thing that left the most enduring image in my mind was the “seastacks.” These rocky outcroppings, unlike anything I’ve seen on the Atlantic coast of the U. S., are ancient remnants of a coastline that no longer exists; all of it except for these strange shapes has been eroded away over thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of years. When we were staying overnight at Gold Beach, I got up very early and drove down to Meyers Creek Beach, in Pistol River State Park, to watch and photograph the seastacks in the early morning light. I was on the beach before first light, and as I walked along the wet sand dodging the incoming tide, the looming rocks were almost spooky, causing my imagination to work overtime.

Here’s one of the images from that shoot, in poster form:

Seeing that piece of shell in the foreground, I couldn’t resist giving it a little emphasis with the calligraphic flourish on the “g.” What lies beyond the rocks is left to your imagination.

Letters and Spirit

I’ve been in a production mode this week, as I’m going to a small local craft show at our church, and have been feeling that I didn’t have enough new things to show. I’m really terrible at guessing what will sell at these things, so I seem to wander in a lot of directions in my attempts to be “commercial.” The piece below probably isn’t going to be that successful for the current venue, but it’s a favorite quote for calligraphers, and I had never done it before, so once it came into my mind, I felt compelled to do it.

The letterforms of the main text should be familiar to you if you’re a follower of this blog, as they’re yet another variation of my loose modern caps, similar to those in my Beer Geek poster. I chose these forms because I feel they’re “mine” now, and different from most of the more formal treatments of this quote that I’ve seen. All the words were originally done in pencil, and then touched up on the Wacom tablet, after scanning them into Photoshop. The word “Spirit,” however, derives more from my pen and brush lettering than from the loose versal forms. The background started as a photograph, one of thousands I’ve taken over the years during various calligraphy workshops. It was turned into a sort of a sketch by a technique similar to that described in a previous post which you can see here. I then blended the photo with a scan of a very nice piece of calfskin vellum which has been sitting in my supply stores for over a year now, waiting for a project which justifies such an expensive material. I was glad I had it on hand, though, as I really love the look of the veins and the hair follicles for a piece so oriented towards calligraphy. And working in Photoshop like I was doing here, I was able to use it at no cost, as the vellum is still completely untouched. All of the letters have a small touch of shadow, to give a 3-D effect, but I deliberately gave a little more shadow to “Spirit,” to give it a sense of floating above the rest of the piece.

We’ll see whether it sells – if not, it won’t be the first time that something I have liked myself didn’t appeal to the public.


I originally created this piece about a year ago, but the quotation was set in type rather than hand calligraphy, and that never made me quite happy. Today I re-worked it with a calligraphic treatment, and I think I’m much happier with it now. This is one of those quotes that I saw somewhere, wrote down in my notebook, and never really questioned the attribution. I hope Mark Twain really said it; some Internet sources seem to cast doubt on that. I like it, anyway.

The photo was taken several years back when we were on a cruise around the British Isles  - I believe we were pulling out of Southampton harbor at the time. As usual, you can click on the image above to see a larger version.

Note for those sharp-eyed readers who may have seen the original version of this post: Yes, I did make a couple of changes. I decided that my two “D’s” in “Dream” and “Discover” were too different in shape, so I replaced one of them by a copy of the other. And after looking at the image awhile longer, I decided the word “Explore” was a little too compressed compared to the other two title words, so I did a small amount of manual kerning by sliding the letters around in Photoshop. Ah…all better now. (If you’d like to compare the two, the original can still be seen in the comments log at


I do a lot of calligraphic doodling while sitting in the den in front of the TV, with a lapboard and whatever tool is within arm’s reach. That tool often turns out to be my Pentel brush pen, as I really like the spring and point of that brush. These zebras popped onto my sketch pad recently, for no reason I can think of. Maybe there were some zebras on the TV screen at the time:

The technical name for this kind of design is “calligram” – a word or words written in the form of a picture, usually a picture related to the words themselves. Yet another item with no immediate application, in my case. Maybe someone out there has a cute Zebra poem?

Pseudo Kanji

I have been interested in many aspects of Asian culture, and in particular, Japanese culture, for a long time. During my career in engineering, I had a lot of business dealings with Japanese companies, and had the opportunity to travel to Japan several times. Over the years, I picked up an interest in the board game of Go, and tried to teach myself some of the language. To me, the hardest aspect of the language was the writing system. Japanese uses several different alphabets, including Kanji (a set of pictograms for words derived from Chinese), Hiragana (a phonetic alphabet used for words of purely Japanese origin), Katakana (a phonetic alphabet for words of foreign origin), and occasionally, Romaji (Western Roman characters). Writing and reading Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana are difficult because western eyes are not tuned to recognizing differences between characters, and because brush writing is a skill in itself. I do a lot of western brush calligraphy, and I do sometimes try writing certain common words in Kanji, but recently I was playing around with my brush, and decided just to create some marks that resembled Kanji, without concern for meaning. Here’s an example:

Here’s a second example, which I really did more as an exercise in creating a background texture than for the writing itself:

As far as I know, the above marks don’t actually say anything – they’re just interesting doodles. But when I do this kind of doodling, I feel like the Pogo character of Barnstable Bear, who could write, but couldn’t read, and had to have others to read it back to him before he knew what he had written. So if I have written something that offends you here, please let me know!