Faux framing

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to take a three-day intensive workshop on working with vellum (calfskin), taught by noted Irish calligrapher Denis Brown. I haven’t gotten around yet to doing much with what I learned, but I did come home from the workshop with a little 5×8 miniature that I did during the class. It’s been sitting on the corner of my drawing board for three months, waiting for me to get around to doing something about framing it. Today I decided that, if I couldn’t get a physical frame done, I could at least use Photoshop to do a little faux-framing to help me decide what final treatment I want to use. Here’s the piece, as it would look float-framed in a shadowbox treatment:

To give a few more details about the piece itself, the material is “slunk” calfskin vellum, which is a skin taken from a stillborn calf. The quality of this particular skin and its preparation is extremely high, and the skin is quite translucent. To take advantage of the translucence, I mounted a piece of watercolor paper to the piece of plywood that the skin would be stretched on, and on that I painted a background of extra leaves for the “bush.” The skin was then stretched and glued on top of the background, so that the final piece has a little of a three-dimensional feel. The calligraphy and decoration were done in gouache.

More on lettering and calligraphy

To take the exploration of lettering and calligraphy a little further, here are a few examples I’ve been playing with today.

A few weeks ago, I participated in Scott Kelby’s Third Annual Worldwide Photo Walk, an event in which groups of 50 or fewer photographers get together at sites all around the world and take photos for a couple of hours. My local walk was held in Asbury Park, New Jersey (the town where Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bonjovi first made names for themselves as rock musicians). A few of my photos can be seen in my photostream here. Since that time, I’ve been thinking of making some kind of poster, T-shirt, or other graphic with one or more of the photos – but I need some lettering that says “Asbury Park.”

Here’s a sketch for a possible base design, just as it came off my drawing board:

This is a variation of a style of lettering known as “Sickel,” which has been recently discussed on cyberscribes. Note the pencil lines – the design is drawn based on geometric proportions, and then quickly inked in with a pen. After a little cleanup in photoshop, it comes out looking like this:

And if I want to clean it up further and make it easier to enlarge and distort the letters, I can import that drawing into Adobe Illustrator, and trace it with “bezier curves,” which will get rid of all the little bumps and rough spots in my hand drawing. I like this style of letters for this particular application, because 1) it has a “retro” feel that harkens back to the glory days of Asbury Park in the early 20th century, 2) the wide strokes give me lots of room for graphic effects, including using the letters as a mask that my photos will show through, and 3) it lends itself to manipulation and distortion. Here’s an example of that third point:

This Asbury Park letter design is an example of what I consider “lettering,” rather than “calligraphy.” It is drawn, rather than written, and will be extensively retouched and manipulated before I reach the final version. As a contrasting example of “calligraphy,” here’s a design based on something I discovered in my inspiration files last night:

This lettering was written with a brush, and I was deliberately playing with the brush characteristics, trying to see if by exaggerating the thicks and thins, and stacking the letters, I could get something that resembled an oriental script. In this case, I haven’t manipulated the original letters at all – I just layered them over a textile background in Photoshop, and added a “chop” in a typical orange-red. The text, in case you can’t read it, is from Micah 6:8: “And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Next, I’ll try to show an example of using the Asbury Park lettering with a photo.

Styles in development

People sometimes ask me “What style of calligraphy do you do?” but I never have an easy answer. I do whatever I’m currently hooked on, whatever I think the job may require, and whatever I really wish I could learn to do. Much of what I do is based on Italic and uncial, two of my earliest calligraphic loves, but a lot of my recent stuff has been heavily influenced by the brush. I work a lot on my Romans, but they’re never good enough to make me happy.

The easiest way for me to give examples is just to dig into my files of practice sheets and drafts. I do a lot of calligraphic doodling as I sit in my chair in the den, theoretically watching TV, and I accumulate huge piles of practice sheets and doodles. Most of them have no value at all, but when I get a stack an inch or so high, I usually go through them and find the 10 or 12 pages that might have a hint of something interesting on them. Those go into a box that’s used for an “inspiration file” when I’m looking for a new direction for a “real” piece. If you’re looking for finished work, this is not the place, but here’s a look at one of the piles:

Looking at that picture reminds me of “there must be a pony in here somewhere!” If you don’t recognize that punchline, try Googling “the pony joke.”

Lettering and calligraphy

I’m planning to talk about lettering, calligraphy, graphic design, and photography in this blog, so that begs the question “What’s the difference between lettering and calligraphy?” The distinction between the two isn’t always a bright line, but for most of my purposes, I usually say that calligraphy is written (by hand, of course), while “lettering” is a broader category including letters that are drawn and, in some cases, heavily retouched, either by hand or with the assistance of computer software such as Photoshop or Adobe Illustrator. “Calligraphy” means “beautiful writing,” according to its Greek origins. The notion of “beautiful” is of course open to debate, but to me, “writing” means that I make calligraphic letters with a sequence of strokes of a pen or a brush that allows me to construct each letter fairly quickly. But if I then scan that calligraphy, touch it up in Photoshop, and convert it to a vector graphic form so that I can enlarge it, distort it, and otherwise manipulate the letters, I’d say I’m getting into “lettering.”

Lettering may also just be letters drawn with a pencil, or letters drawn and then inked, or any number of other variations. Lettering may also get into font design, although that’s not currently one of my involvements.

Does any of this really matter? Only to the extent that it matters whether we understand each other. I’m not a purist about any of this. I have done a lot of studying of calligraphy and lettering and taken many workshops with some of the finest calligraphic and lettering artists in the world, but I don’t feel a strong need to put myself in a particular category. I just like creating designs that feature letters, and I usually try to make those letters unique and personal. Unless there’s a specific design reason for the letters to conform to a model, I don’t usually try to make my letters exactly like anyone else’s.

I’ll try to show more examples of personal lettering and calligraphy in some of the following posts.

Zen flow

After some private feedback from a fellow member of cyberscribes (see my blogroll for a link), I was prompted to play around with the idea of having some text in the water of the “Zen stones” piece. This required a little re-thinking about the layering and filtering of the image and text in Photoshop, but here’s the result of the first experiment:

There would be multiple challenges with this idea. First, there’s the danger of losing the character of the calligraphy if I distort it too much with the Photoshop “Ripple” filter. Then there’s a technical detail issue: the Ripple filter is 8-bits, whereas I try to do all my image processing in 16-bit mode until I’m ready to publish or post. For reduced-size web images like I’m doing here, it will probably never matter, but in a 12×18 or larger print, there may be some small impact on quality. And most importantly, there’s the design issue of dominance. My feeling in combining text with photos is usually that “less is more;” in other words, I probably don’t want text too many places in the photo, so if I decide to incorporate, say, a quotation in the water, I’d probably want to limit myself to only a few words among the stones. Photos and text always compete with each other for dominance of the viewer’s attention, so I need to decide what amount of text (and what placement) is right for the overall feel of the piece. More food for thought.

Hopefully, I’ll eventually post a completed product for the Zen Stones piece. For now, I’ll probably just respond to comments, if any, and go on to another topic in the next post.

Image seeking word

Sometimes I capture a photographic image that just seems to cry out for some words, but I don’t always know what words the image is seeking. Here’s an image I made at the reflecting pool in the courtyard of the North Carolina Museum of Art during a visit last April:

I loved the “Zen” feel of this photo, and have been thinking for several months now about how I could best use it with some text. One thought is to use some Photoshop trickery to paint or incise some words on the individual stones. With a little work with the Bevel and Emboss tools, it’s possible to make a pretty convincing fake. Here’s an example, just to give you an idea of what I’m talking about:

Maybe some of you might have ideas about a nice short quote or a set of words that would go well with this image. Please give me your comments!

By the way, if you’d like to make a quick virtual visit to the NCMoA, a set of my photos from my April visit is on my flickr stream here:


Word and image

Classical calligraphy is frequently combined with some form of image or illustration. While I do some illustration, drawing, and painting, my most frequent form of imagery is digital photography, and I love to find ways to combine my words and photographic images into unified designs. Here’s an example:

This is a T-shirt design, based on a photograph I made at the Gateway National Recreational Area on Sandy Hook, New Jersey (for those in the know, the specific location is Gunnison Beach, the infamous “nude beach” – no nudes present when I made the photo in April, though). The text at the bottom is hand calligraphy, and was originally written in black ink on white paper. I scanned it into my Mac Pro, brought it into Photoshop, and changed the text color to match colors sampled from the photo. Finally, I added some “sand” texture to the words “Sandy Hook,” and layered the whole design up in Photoshop.

This design was published in the Annual Review issue of Letter Arts Review in the spring of 2010.