For the Love of Letterforms (Part 1)

It’s competition time again! You may recall that a long time ago in a blog post far, far away I wrote about entering a competition to perhaps get into an elite team of superheroes. Well, okay, it was about 23 weeks ago, and instead of superheroes they are letterers, typographers and calligraphers. The Ligature Collective held a contest for Instagram users to submit their best work of art based around the phrase “Ten Thousand Followers” to celebrate, well, you guessed it, getting up to the 10K mark on Instagram. Long story short, I entered, wasn’t one of the 3 winners, but got an honourable mention, along with 8 other lucky artists.

The End.

Or so we thought until now…

For the Love of Letterforms Simple

Suddenly, the Ligature Collective Strikes Back with their next competition, this time in celebration of getting 50 thousand followers! I know, that’s 40,000 followers in 24 weeks, which in case you’re wondering, is just about ten an hour, or about one every six minutes. Whew.

This time, the brief was a piece of lettering of the words “For the Love of Letterforms”. The rules allowed unlimited submissions per person, so I thought I may as well go ahead and do as many as I liked. My goal in doing so was to showcase the variety of styles that I’ve become capable of using over the years and come out with several pieces that differ from each other in feel and appearance as much as possible.

With the first, which you can see above, my intention was to design something that was visually very simple. There is almost no flourishing at all on this piece, and the shape of the composition is made simply through the arrangement of the words themselves.

Here’s the second piece I did:

For the Love of Letterforms Gold

This piece uses a combination of styles, and is reminiscent of the techniques used on old certificates and official documents which employ a combination of heavy blackletter text surrounded by much lighter flourishes and Copperplate accompaniment. The other quite obvious contrast between the pieces is that this one is in gold and white paint on a black background, whereas the other is classic black on white.

Both these pieces, I feel, were a success, and I achieved with them what I had set out to do. The next two, which I will talk about next week, are at great contrast with each other in terms of complexity, but both of which were very popular on Instagram and gathered much attention. Tune in next week to find out what happens! Not only will the next pieces be revealed, but I also will have found out if I got into one of the coveted two available spots on the Ligature Collective team. Fingers crossed!

We’re all gonna live for ever

We’re all gonna live forever!

We're all gonna live forever

Well, not really. That would be terrible, wouldn’t it? Aside from the personal boredom and increasing cynicism that would start to affect everyone, one of the most important ways in which society changes is with the refreshing of generations. People, as it turns out, don’t really change that much. Old ideas get pushed aside when the people who hold them disappear, not because those people stop holding certain views. What, then, might happen if we suddenly all start to live forever? Well, for one, this lettering piece will become true. For another, a drastic change in the birth:death ratio would mean that world population would quickly increase to the point that we would need to colonise other planets. And lastly, those with power and riches would find ways to keep them indefinitely. But hey, I think I’d trade that for my lettering piece becoming relevant, wouldn’t you?

This piece is a first for me, because it includes lowercase (or minuscule) Romans. But surely I’ve done that before, haven’t I? Well, yes, I have, and usually you would just call them typographic lowercase serif, but in this case, it’s not lettering modelled after a typeface, it’s the original, real-deal calligraphic forms, which the typefaces themselves were modelled after. The words “LIVE” and “forever” were both done with lettering, meaning that they were constructed through a numerous series of strokes (that is to say that they were drawn, not written), whereas the first three words are calligraphy. Calligraphy is an all-or-nothing kind of affair where you only get one shot at getting it right. It’s quick to produce, but when the letterforms are executed in a matter of seconds, any tiny mistake in hand motion affects everything.

The theme of this week is my attempts to combine lettering and calligraphy. Calligraphy is a skill that requires a lot of muscle memory in order to properly reproduce the correct letterforms every time, and so, unlike lettering, consistency is something that comes only after much, much practice. Here’s another piece where I have combine calligraphy and lettering:

Push Your Boundaries Gold

Here, the first three words, “Push Your Boundaries”, are lettering. They were outlined in pencil, inked (or in this case painted), and filled. Everything else, however, is calligraphy. The sans serif Romans were done with the same flexible pointed pen that was used for the Copperplate, which while was planned out in pencil initially, was executed in two or three minutes, using pressure and nib control to achieve the correct line weighting.

Less obviously in this piece is a mixture of different media. The piece is done in gold paint, but some of it includes some ink too. The subtle drop shadow on the words “Push Your”, and the radial lines below them, were made with a mixture of gold paint and black calligraphy ink. The ink was used sparingly, as black is very powerful, and the piece being gold-on-black in the first place meant that if it were too dark, it wouldn’t show up at all. The ink, however, gives it just enough darkening to fit well as background ornamentation that doesn’t steal focus from the letters themselves.

You

Oh look, it’s you. There you are, reading my blog post. This post is about you. Or at least, it’s about a piece that’s about you. Here it is!

You Main

I made this piece for you because I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately, and I wanted you to know just how much I appreciate you. Now, don’t get me wrong, this piece isn’t about just any old “you”. It could be mistaken for being about whoever reads it, but I just wanted to make sure that you know that it’s about you specifically, not all those other possible “you”s out there.

Well, I hope you appreciate all the time I took to make you this special and one of a kind bespoke gift! This is the first piece I’ve done on black paper. “But no!” I hear you cry. “I’ve seen other piece that are white on black on your portfolio page!” It’s true that there are such pieces, but they were, in fact, black on white that was then inverted digitally. This one, however, is true black paper! Hooray! And that gold you see? Well, that’s real gold! And when I say real gold, I do of course mean gold coloured paint.

I got this new paint a little while ago, and I’ve been excited to use it in a piece. Making this super special and unique gift for you was obviously the perfect choice! The body of the letters is done in straight up plain gold paint, whereas the drop shadow that runs around the letters and flourishes is a mixture of gold paint and Higgins Eternal black calligraphy ink. The whole piece was done with pointed pen calligraphy tools, namely an oblique pen holder and a dip nib. Here are a couple of different versions that I came up with before settling on the final design that you see above:

You Doodle

Here’s a black on white pen and ink version done with my usual Rotring Rapidographs. I was going to block the letters in simply with black ink, but just before doing so, I thought I would doodle in some little swirls to give them a bit of character, and I preferred the effect.

You Hatching

This is a previous incarnation of the final piece. I experimented with filling the letters with a delicate hatching, utilising the finest line that any of my tools are capable of: the upstroke from the pointed pen, the same stroke that forms the hairlines in Copperplate script. This was also before I added the darker drop shadow across the piece.

I also made a little collage of the various in-progress versions and different executions of this piece:

You Progress

As you can see, it includes the versions already shown above, and also some progress shots. The image on the top right is the first incarnation – the original sketch before which there was only blank paper. Not much changed then, you may notice, between the first sketch and the final version in terms of composition and letter forms. Sometimes when approaching a piece, you only have an idea of what the words to say and the feeling you want the piece to have; other times you get a strong mental image of the specifics of a piece before you set pencil to paper, and this was one of those times where most of the planning of the piece was done mentally before anything ever got sketched. The only thing that I didn’t have planned out before starting work was the set of flourishes across the top. I had originally wanted to try to put something asymmetrical yet balanced along the top, but after a page full of sketches, it seemed that the best solution really was something symmetrical, or the contrast with the symmetry along the bottom of the piece was distracting.

That’s it, folks, signing off for another week. Come back next time! It’s only decent of you to do so, especially after I made you such a nice present. And you didn’t even get me anything! The nerve, eh?

One Hundred Days

Do something for one hundred days!

Recently, I’ve been making an effort to focus on consistency in putting my work out there. If you come to this blog frequently, you may notice that I post one piece a week without fail, and have been doing so for over a year now. I decided to take this attitude a bit further, and post one piece a day, every day, on my Instagram account. So far it is going well, as you may have read in my last week’s blog post. Just under a week ago marked the one hundredth day of posting a picture a day, and I’m nearly through posting the backlog of pieces that I built up in making this blog. Complex pieces are the kinds of things that take days to execute, and often spend weeks in the concept and design stages, so it’s not possible to post one brand new large piece every day, so there may have to be a little more emphasis on glamour shots and progress pics from here on out, but I’m planning to keep up the consistency.

One Hundred Days

My initial goal was to keep at it for 100 days, partly as a challenge to myself, but also because habit forming is a powerful tool for everyone to use, perhaps most especially for creative types. People may often ask how they can keep up with the creation of a large amount of creative work, often feeling burnt out or failing on the motivation side of things. It is often said that motivation is a welcome visitor, a friend who stops by, but discipline should be your faithful companion who never leaves your side. The reason for that is because if you have discipline, you don’t need willpower to keep going. That is to say that if you have formed good habits, it’s easy to stick to them, and what better way to form a habit than to do something for a hundred days? (Interestingly, willpower is considered as a finite resource in the brain; using it up is something called Ego Depletion.)

For me, self promotion is not something that comes naturally, so my decision was to make it something to focus on. Posting my work on Instagram seemed scary, and I felt like I would rather stick to my nice, familiar blog format, but now that I’ve done it for 3 months, I have no intentions of stopping.

A little on the piece: it’s a mix of calligraphy and lettering all in one. The calligraphy was done in walnut ink, which gives the rich colour and variation in tone. Then I used my lettering tools to outline the calligraphic forms and add some ornamentation. Stylistically, Italic and Romans complement each other very well, so much so that in practically all typefaces, you will find italics used in conjunction WITH THEIR ROMAN COUNTERPARTS. Each is considered an essential element of typography and letter forms. The only difference here being that these are the root forms, the source from which the typography was inspired, though most might not know it, and even hearing the word “italic” would first think of the typographical meaning of slanting letters rather than realising that it was first the name of a script.

So, a little challenge for you: consider a habit that would benefit you, or that you would like to be able to have. Once you have decided, do it for one hundred days. You may find that it’s easier than you think, but one last thing: don’t tell anyone until you’ve finished!

Say Yes.

Here’s a little piece I’ve been working on lately. The phrase is “Say Yes”, which is something quite nice and simple. The words also lend themselves to a neat symmetry, being almost the same as each other when reversed. This leads to a mirroring of the S’s at the end and an uncommon formation of double Y’s in the centre.

Say Yes

The Roman Y is an interesting letter. If it were to have no stroke weight, it would be a symmetrical letter. However, due to the calligraphic roots of all letters, there is a difference between the thickness of the branches. The result is that the branches come off the stem at slightly different places, though here it’s slightly obscured by some of the ornamentation. Because of the asymmetry, the negative space between them is also a little asymmetrical.

The execution of a piece like this can be tricky. Most of the ink is simple to put down, especially blocking in the centres of the letters. The finesse comes when creating the 3D effect. The seeming shininess of the sides of the letters is created by many tiny pen strokes. I use Rotring Rapidographs to do my lettering pieces, and one advantage of these pens is that they always produce a line of constant width. This is a great asset when you want consistency across your piece: no matter how hard or lightly you press, or what angle you hold the pen at, you always have the same result. The trouble comes, then, when you want to make a line of inconstant width – a tapering line. To create the effect in this piece, the lines were created with a quick sweeping motion in lifting the pen from the paper so that the ink flowing from it thins as the tip of the pen pulls away from the surface. The problem with this is that to create a tapering form, the lines must be drawn with quite some speed, and the faster the movement of the pen, the harder it is to make each line conform with the curves of the letters, some sharp, some smooth.

Say Yes Detail

Above is a close-and-personal shot of the first letters.

The style of the letter forms in this piece was partly inspired by Tuscan typography, which people might associate with circuses, saloon bars and rodeos. Some of the easiest features to notice are the serifs almost reminiscent of a cowboy boot and the spur and eye ornaments midway up each letter. Along with the Tuscan influence, the piece is informed by my studies of traditional Roman Calligraphy, pointed pen flourishes and a little of my own personal lettering flair.

L’Albatros

L’Albatros, which is by Baudelaire. The poem describes how the crew of a ship sometimes would catch albatrosses as they followed the ship. Bringing them on board they would laugh at how the once majestic creature would become comical and ugly in walking. Baudelaire then goes on to liken poets to these birds, a rider or storms, laughing at the arrows of archers, yet once grounded, his giant wings prevent him from walking. I wonder what he meant by that. Perhaps he was implying that a poet is one to wander in the skies, metaphorically, and what allows this flight — in the case of the bird, its wings, and in the case of the poet, the mind — is what hinders them from a normal life on the ground. Either way, as you know, the medium is the message, so let’s do away with all this talk of meaning and talk about the media. I did some calligraphy of a poem!

L'Albatros - Baudelaire - Italic - 30-04-2015

It’s often tempting to do all the fancy things before the boring things. It would be wonderful to use some coloured inks, or gold leaf to spruce up a piece of poetry like this, but the most essential thing in mastering something is to have a good understanding of the basics. That’s why I always make sure to make time for this kind of study. The ink is a neutral walnut, a rich brown that doesn’t catch the eye too much. The layout is simple and understated.

L'Albatros - Baudelaire - Italic - 30-04-2015 Detail

To master a hand is the work of hundreds of hours. There isn’t a short cut to creating the perfect letter form every time: it’s down to training the brain and the muscles to be able to execute it perfectly. One can have a great understanding of what the ideal forms should look like, but in calligraphy, there is both art and craft. The art is the forms, and the craft is being able to create them.

Speaking of understanding forms, lettering differs from calligraphy in the way that it is more forgiving on the execution side of things, but still requires a grasp of the underlying structure that makes letters what they are. Recently, I’ve been having some success promoting my work on Instagram, and so I made this piece to thank the (then) 500 people who follow my account. It’s a mixture of both lettering and calligraphy, using form of Italic calligraphy for the text at the top, under which the other words are lettered.

Many Thanks 500 Followers

Enjoying the effect created by a combination of ink and graphite, I decided to also explore a little way into the realms of 3D lettering. Here’s a little preview of what I’ve been experimenting with:

LETTER 3D

I’m planning on using this technique in some pieces in the future, so if you enjoy it, you may see some more coming up soon.

Strong Enough To Be Yourself (A study of flourishes)

Flourishing is something that didn’t make it into my repertoire for quite a while. When we start something, we are often ignorant of the depth of it. The way we appreciate something deepens through understanding, and so it’s not surprising that when we don’t have a good understanding it can be hard to appreciate something on more than a superficial level. In terms of lettering, most start out with the desire to understand and create letter forms. Of course, that must be what lettering is all about, mustn’t it? I mean, it’s in the word. Soon, however, you come to realise that the letter forms only work if they are structured well, and so you start to learn about hierarchy and composition. Similarly, flourishing is something that I have been concentrating on lately as an area of study which can improve the pieces I make.

Strong Enough To Be Yourself

If you look back at older pieces, such as The Greatest Victory, which was a piece that I made when I first started to consider the composition of a lettering more, you might notice that the flourishes seem uncomfortable and don’t really know what to do with themselves, almost like teenagers who have grown too fast and haven’t relearned how to use their limbs. They’re there because they are necessary, to an extent, but don’t quite serve the purpose they were created for. Since then, I’ve learned a lot through my study and have applied some of it in this piece.

The piece started just as a sketch of the word “strong”, as I had wanted to try out an certain 3D effect on some letters. I thought of the full phrase and planned out a little more of the structure. From there, I decided to do a little exploration of the space between the words, so, loosening up my arm, I started designing the flourishes using larger gestures controlled by the shoulder muscles rather than the fingers. This advice of using shoulder muscles, often given to those learning calligraphy, can seem daunting to beginners, but when designing flourishes, it really needn’t be. Any detail work or corrections can easily be made later, as graphite is far more forgiving than ink.

Strong Enough Flourish Sketch Progress

One of the most key elements in flourishing is to pay close attention to the negative space. It’s important that no one area becomes too dense, nor too sparse. A roughly equal distribution is attractive, though some variation is pleasing too. Once I was happy with the design, I took from the sketchbook to the paper for the final piece. When it comes to a symmetrical piece like this, it’s convenient to flip the reference material (in this case, the original sketch shown above) so that there aren’t too many irregularities when comparing the two sides.

Strong Enough Pencil Detail

From then on, it’s the same story of inking that you have heard before: a soothing, quiet time spent with paper and ink. Becoming too tense or hurried never helps, as a calm hand creates fewer mistakes. Here’s a little shot of it transitioning between graphite and ink, temporary and permanent:

Strong Enough Inking Progress