African Masks and Illuminated Letters – Addendum

Since the previous post, I’ve played around a bit with constructing various illuminated letters. As I indicated in the first sketch of the previous post, I originally was thinking of using these designs as stand-alone letters in an informal envelope design, and I still think that’s probably the way I’d most likely use them. But I can conceive also of using the masks and other African art designs to decorate an initial letter of a block of typeset text or classically lettered calligraphy. In this case, we might want to superimpose the art design on top of a simple, strong form, to avoid competition between the complex details of the artwork and the lines of the letter – maybe something like this:

Obviously, we could use other letterforms for the background capital – uncial, classical Roman, a modern Versal form, etc. – the form above is just an example.

Yesterday I got into sketching more of the African art designs based on photographs in my library – here’s the collection so far:

I’ve got a few more photos in my library yet to sketch, and then I need to find some more sources. A friend mentioned to me yesterday that she has a collection of African art objects in her home, so I’ll try to arrange to take a look at that in the near future.

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. ┬áHere’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.

The best camera

There’s a lot of less-than-valuable and less-than-accurate information on the Internet, but occasionally, some of the overused online quips contain real wisdom. On the photography forums that I follow, one of the most commonly repeated lines is “The best camera is the one you have with you.” As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been suffering from New Camera Acquisition Syndrome, but in the meantime, the camera I have with me is the Nikon D300, on which I usually have my 17-55mm Nikkor f/2.8 zoom lens mounted. This setup has been my most frequently-used camera and lens for about four and a half years now, and it has provided me with a lot of enjoyment, and here and there, a little revenue. But nothing I’ve gotten from this gear has meant as much to me as the photos I’ve shot since I became a grandfather last summer.

Our granddaughter, Anna, is now 9 months old, and was here for a visit last week, along with her parents and her Czech grandfather, so of course her American grandfather had the camera out constantly. Here’s one of my favorite shots from the visit:

I’ve never considered myself a “people” photographer, but Anna has been making me want to learn. She has a wonderfully expressive face, and changes each time we see her. She just started crawling recently, and now has to be watched every minute – which is a good excuse to take more photos, since we have to be watching her all the time anyway. And Anita and I now have iPhones full of baby pictures – the modern grandparents’ “brag book.”

Any camera I own someday in the future will have a hard time giving me the pleasure that I’ve already experienced by photographing her with the camera I have.

[Technical notes: Shot at f/6.3 and 55mm, ISO 200, with my 17-55 zoom and flash lighting. The flash was a single SB-800, mounted on the camera with a miniature "softbox" to diffuse the light, and aimed about 60 degrees upward, so that a portion of the light was reflected from the ceiling. I was having some troubles with my flash due to having inadvertently set the flash to the wrong mode, so the shot was underexposed by about one f-stop, and compensated in postprocessing in Lightroom 3 and Photoshop CS5.1. I also used Photoshop to darken and slightly blur the background, and to sharpen and enhance the brown in Anna's eyes, and finally, I removed a number of small scratches she had inflicted on herself with her fingernails as she slept]