Pencil Doodles

I’ve been reading a couple of books on art and drawing technique, and spending some time each day sketching on my lap board. Most of these sketches are really just doodles, and I’ve been concentrating on particular patterns and technique, rather than making any real effort at design. But I’ve been finding that interesting designs are emerging nevertheless, with no particular effort or conscious thought on my part. The background of the sketch below started with my copying the design of a piece of molding from a photo I had taken in the chapel at Les Invalides in Paris (site of Napoleon’s tomb). Then I began adding random other elements, with no intention of creating a unified piece. But when I looked at the page, I felt it suggested a sense of the past, and I thought of ┬áthe lyrics to “Yesterday” as a set of text. The lettering style is just something I had been playing with recently, and wasn’t chosen for any special reason.

This actually violates one of my usual practices, in that I try to avoid using copyrighted text – but since I have no plans to sell this piece, perhaps the Beatles lawyers won’t come after me. The original sketch was just done on white inkjet paper. I scanned a piece of banana fiber paper and then overlaid the sketch in Photoshop to give it a little more texture, and more of a finished appearance.

The books I’ve been reading, by the way, are Bert Dodson’s Keys to Drawing with Imagination, and Trudy Friend’s Artist’s Complete Problem Solver. ┬áBoth are full of examples and suggested exercises – good resources for a person like myself with relatively little formal art training.

Cards and envelopes

Anita is a dedicated card maker. She must make several hundred cards each year, most of them sent to friends and relatives, but occasionally made for sale or for support of some particular organization she’s involved in. Each of these cards is a fairly elaborate construction, perhaps involving rubber stamping, punched or die-cut elements, embossing, layering of papers and textures, and hand coloring and brayering, just to mention a few of the techniques she sometimes uses. After the card is ready, it usually comes to me for design of a matching or complementary envelope.

These envelopes are good opportunities for me to play with styles and colors and experiment with designs I might not do for my own projects. The envelopes, in contrast to Anita’s carefully worked out designs, are usually only about one step above a doodle. I typically grab a felt-tip brush marker (we have a set of colors that match most of her card stock colors and stamping inks), make some quick sketches on a piece of scrap paper, and then do the envelope. I may use colored pencils, ballpoint pens, and Rapidograph, Pigma, or Uniball pens for some final details and highlighting – whatever is handy at the time. Brush scripts are usually written directly with the marker, and other letter styles are usually drawn with a pencil and then painted in; I rarely go upstairs to my drawing board for my calligraphy pens, gouache, brushes, etc. for casual envelopes like these. Unless I make a major mistake, whatever comes out of the first attempt is what goes in the mail. But it’s fun, and I often like the overall effect. Here are a few recent examples of these collaborations:

Anita asks that I note that the first card above is based on a design by Tami White, the second is based on one by LeeAnn Greff, and the third inspired by a card by Becky Roberts.

Postcards from Asbury Park (part 2)

I’ll wrap up my discussion of the Sickel lettering design for Asbury Park with a couple of additional examples that show how the broad strokes of this lettering style give us an advantage for photographic effects.

The Old Casino

Here I’ve taken one of my photos of the roofline of the old Casino complex and turned it into a line drawing using the Photoshop “Find Edges” filter. I then used the same lettering as in the first postcard (see Postcards from Asbury Park – part 1) as a mask to let some of the color from the original color photo come through.

This one, obviously, is two separate photos. The background shell image is from my personal stock library, and the second was a beach scene made during the July 24 Photo Walk. I used a wavy version of the Asbury Park lettering to mask that second photo and layered it over a faded version of the shells.

I could as easily have used a font, rather than designing my own letters for these cards, of course. A font like Arial Black would also give me nice heavy strokes, but it wouldn’t be as distinctive – someone else could easily produce the same look. The combination of my own lettering with my photos gives the cards a unique look that hopefully would distinguish them from others on the rack.

I’ll have to decide now whether to actually do a commercial print run of any of these – it’s probably too late in the summer vacation season to do it for this year – if you have a favorite, please use the comment button or the contact form to let me know.

Postcards from Asbury Park (part one)

Continuing with the previous post on lettering (More on Lettering and Calligraphy), I promised to give some examples of how the draft versions of the Sickel lettering might be used with some of my photos from the Asbury Park photo walk. I decided I would develop a series of postcards, and see which I liked best. Here’s the first example:

The reflection effect was mostly based on an article by Corey Barker in the March 2010 issue of Photoshop User magazine. It involves adding a gradient to the lettering, then duplicating and flippling the duplicate layer to get the reflection, and masking and blending the “reflection” to allow it to blend into the water and disappear as the reflection gets further from the main title. I added the trick of distorting the reflection so that the reflection widens as it gets closer to the viewer.

Doing a self-critique here, I think the Sickel design doesn’t work as well as I’d like for this effect, as the descenders in the “y” and “p” cause the main part of the reflection to be too far from the main title. I might want to change the lettering to an all-caps style, or modify my Sickel design to eliminate these descenders if I were really going to use this design.

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.

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.

Comfort and hope

My wife and I are leaders of an adult church school class called Seekers, and this year we asked the class to think about the question “What resources do you turn to in times of trouble?” The class responded by writing about hymns, scriptures, favorite quotations, and personal recollections, and we decided to make these writings into a book that our class members could have as a keepsake.

Never having done a book-making project, we thought we’d probably want to avoid a binding method that required stitching, so we settled on an accordian-fold binding. No calligraphy here except for the cover, as the entire book ran to more than 30 pages, and we needed to make about 15 copies. But I was still pleased with the way it came out – here’s the result:

Comfort and hope books

I learned a couple of things here – first, I did enjoy the bookmaking process. And second, making 15 copies of a book is really time-consuming! For those who like details, the covers were made from chipboard, covered with Canson paper and the cover was then painted and lettered with white gouache. The closure ribbon was inserted between the chipboard and cover paper for the back cover, and threaded through slots cut into the edge of that cover. I’m sure there are other solutions to making a closure – this is just the one we arrived at without knowing what we were doing.

I think Comfort and Hope would be a good theme for a calligraphic piece. What gives you comfort and hope? If you don’t want to comment publicly, please feel free to send me a private e-mail using the Contact page. Let me know, too, if you’d give me permission to use some of your words.

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.