Push Your Boundaries

A bit of a fun piece this week. Many lettering pieces have vague yet encouraging sayings as the content, which is understandably popular. It’s the kind of thing that people like to see in a lettering piece. “Be Bold”. “Keep Moving Forward”. “Adventure Is Out There”. It makes them feel good and is quickly digestible as far as media goes. This piece is a little tongue-in-cheek look at that trend, with the phrase “Push your boundaries. Or don’t. Whatever. I can’t tell you what to do.”

Push Your Boundaries

Typographically, this piece contains quite a high number of styles. Centrally, of course, are Romans. Eye catching, legible, functional, timeless, all the things we know Romans to be. Above the Romans is a flourished Copperplate style script. There is more Copperplate further down, but it’s a much more functional style that features short ascenders and descenders. It’s the kind of Copperplate that is best suited for text of low hierarchical standing: not intrusive, nor showy, but retains that distinct Copperplate flavour, providing a nice contrast with the text around it. Text in the final style, which is a monoline sans serif.

The section from “or don’t” onwards acts as a subtitle to the piece, and as such can be treated thematically more like a section to contrast with the main text. The main text is flourished, and where it’s not flourished, it’s serifed and grand. When pairing typefaces, a quick-and-dirty rule is that a serif and a sans serif of similar styles will do well together. Here, you can see that with the differences between the large Romans and the monoline sans serif (which are Romans too, Romans simply meaning what we often call capital letters nowadays.) In this way, it’s as if the Romans in the title are reflected in the sans serif of the subtitle, and the Copperplate in the title is tied, of course, to the Copperplate in the subtitle.

So why pair Copperplate with Copperplate? Why not throw in some Blackletter or some Italic or something? Risk of the piece becoming cluttered with too many styles aside, when it comes to pairing scripts it’s important to consider how they are made. In this piece we already have Romans, which are a broad edge creation. Copperplate, on the other hand, is made with a pointed pen. So we have a broad edge script and a pointed pen script in the title. Seeing as we already have the sans serif (which ultimately stems from the same source as the Romans – i.e. broad edge) in the subtitle, it would be a mistake to include another broad edge script. There would be nothing in the subtitle that reflected the Copperplate in the title. So to complement the Copperplate, we want another pointed pen script, and when it comes to pointed pen scripts, traditionally, the choice is rather sparse. Popularly, you can choose from Copperplate or Spencerian, and Spencerian is really better suited to longer texts, as it’s more of a business hand than a display hand. So we’re left with Copperplate and Copperplate. See how we got here? Fortunately for us, Copperplate lends itself quite well to having extravagant flourishes or to being toned down to sit meekly in its place between the sans serif, meaning it’s an ideal script to use to pair with itself.

We are all broken. That’s how the light gets in.

“We are all broken. That’s how the light gets in.” You’ll find this quote in various places attributed to Ernest Hemingway, but it’s more likely that it’s just a slightly modified version of a Leonard Cohen lyric from the song Anthem.

We Are All Broken Progress

With the composition of this piece, I wanted to take a little trip into the past and go for something almost completely reliant on the letters themselves, with practically no flourishing. It’s a poplar style for things like posters and T-shirts, and the last time I visited it was really quite some time ago. Since then, having learnt many things regarding letter forms, I wanted to see what the results would yield.

With my recent foray into coloured work, I decided that this piece would be an ideal place to explore further. The fact of the simplicity of the letter forms means that the colours have plenty of space to breathe, and become somewhat the “point” of the piece.

We Are All Broken

It’s almost impossible to look at your own work without a critical eye, so I already know a few things that I will improve upon next time. One of which being that I will change my process slightly. I’m currently using calligraphy tools, namely pointed pens in this case, to get the paint onto the paper, but when using larger quantities that requite multiple strokes, the harsh point of the metal nib catches the fibres in the paper, sometimes leading them to create a rough surface on the piece once it has dried. The advantage of the calligraphy nibs is the supreme accuracy they offer coupled with their versatility in line width. However, the solution to this problems, I suspect, is simply to get a variety of brushes, including some that are very small indeed, which can mimic the tiny strokes possible of a nib. There’s also some benefit in looking into papers that are better suited to the medium. I currently use Bristol paper, which works wonderfully for ink, but when it comes to the far greater liquid quantity of paints, it could be better to invest in some hot pressed watercolour paper, which is designed to take the paint well and has a very smooth surface like the Bristol paper.

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

Prepare Today for Success Tomorrow

A little while ago a client contacted me requesting a lettering piece. Surprisingly enough, I make more logos and digital pieces than physical lettering projects that get sent off in the mail. This client, however, wanted a custom lettering piece to give as a gift to someone special. The phrase was “Prepare Today for Success Tomorrow”. After many iterations, many design elements, hierarchy re-shuffles and composition tweaks, the piece was designed and inked as you can see below:

Prepare Today for Success Tomorrow

After that comes the part where you have to wrap it up tight and leave it in the hands of the postal service and international shipping companies, and hope that nothing terrible happens to your creation as it hurtles across the ocean. Thankfully enough (and predictably enough) the piece made it there just as it had left and everything was well.

Here’s a little close-up on the detail:

Prepare Today Detail

Though editing and digital manipulation were not part of the commission, I enjoyed working on the piece enough that once it was gone I couldn’t help but do a little more, so I took the piece into the realm of ones and zeros. Several weeks ago, I did some experimentation with using a photograph I had taken of some gold leaf to replace the colour and texture of the letters in a piece, and set it over a black background. The effect turned out well, so I used the same technique on this piece. I used the same gold colour, as it suited the piece’s luxurious style of flourishing.

Prepare Today For Gold Leaf on Black Background

I also experimented a little with adding a wooden texture. It gives a different feel to the piece than the gold does, and I can’t say that one suits it better than the other, just that they would serve different purposes.

Prepare Today For Wooden Texture

The Ligature Collective

A couple of weeks ago, I made a post about having recently joined Instagram, and a competition that was being held to draft a new member of something called the Ligature Collective. The competition was to make a piece to celebrate their success on Instagram, and the best submission would lead to the creator becoming a member of the team and have their work displayed to a large audience.

Well, I had sketched up a quick piece, which I posted a fortnight ago, but since then, I had much more time to dedicate to a better thought out piece.

Ligature Collective Ten Thousand Followers Blog Upload

My main goal with this piece was to create a visually interesting piece with lots of little details, but to have a very clear hierarchy, such that the piece was structurally simple. Seeing as the piece was going to be posted to Instagram, it had to work at a small size, and be easily identified. The words “Ligature” and “Followers” worked well as the emphasised words, seeing as they were not only easily legible on small Instagram thumbnails and conveyed the essence of the piece, but also tied the piece up at each end. The piece is symmetrical down through the middle (apart from the words themselves, of course,) and it also has a vague structural symmetry horizontally, too. The words “Ligature” and “Followers” are in the same style, and curve around the piece in the same way, while the smaller central words reflect each other’s style and layout too.

The piece ended up being quite small. I took several photographs of it just on the page on its own, but it always ended up seeming as though it was bigger than it really was. I decided to put some other items in the picture that I uploaded to give a sense of scale. The photograph seemed a little unbalanced with only the lettering piece and a single pen, however, so I scattered a few other objects around it to frame it. Some things, like the camera strap and the rotary lead pointer might not give a very good sense of the size of the piece, but the pens and lead holder should do. Incidentally, these were all things used to make the piece, aside from the keys, of course. But with the keys there, at least I get to show off my funky Rubik’s cube key ring.

After all is said and done (or just done, really; being a letterer is a pretty silent job) the results will be out tomorrow, on April the 7th. There were some truly excellent submissions among the hundreds submitted by other artists on Instagram, so I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they should win. Good luck to everyone else – I’m sure they’re waiting with bated breath for the announcement of the winner. If you’re curious to see the other submissions, click here, or search for “#Ligature10k” on Instagram!

The Medium is the Message is the Medium…

If one thing is equal to another, then the other thing must be equal to the first. Similarly, Euclid explained two things that equal the same thing must equal one another. So if the medium is the message, we can deduce that the message is the medium, and anything the medium is equal to is also equal to the message. What third thing would that be – the thing that both the message and medium are? Why, today’s piece, of course!

The Medium is the Message is..

This one plays a little game with the idea that if one thing is another, then the other is also the first. After all, if A=B, then B=A. Seems simple enough, right? But what is really the meaning behind this message? It seems to imply, as I said two weeks ago, that the message, as the creator saw it, should be disregarded and tossed aside in favour of the study of the medium itself. That implied that what the creator had to say was less important than the way they said it. In effect, it meant discarding one thing and replacing it with another. But if we take the phrase more literally as I did four weeks ago, it implies that the two things are the same.

In language, unlike in mathematics, you could easily say that there are cases where A=B but B≠A. For example, “The ink is the colour black,” but not “The colour black is the ink”. It’s a little contrived, but you could make the argument. I have much more fun, however, taking the word “is” to mean the same as an equals sign, which leads me to come up with pieces like this.

A fun compositional technique that calligraphers sometimes use is to write in a circle or spiral, especially if the subject matter fits thematically with the composition. Usually, however the piece has a break in it to indicate the start and end of the phrase. This piece is fun because due to the simplicity of the sentence structure it allows for the piece to join onto itself and have no defined endpoint. That being said, the eye of the reader naturally arrives on the upper left part of the piece, so the word “The” fills the position of the start of the sentence before the reader sees that it loops, having no end.

Here are the 3 pieces all next to each other:The Mediums are the Messages

With each of them, I’ve tried conveying a slightly different meaning, a slightly different take on the phrase, doing so by changing the layout to get the point across, and keeping the phrase the same (for the most part). So does that mean that the medium really is the message? I’m not convinced that that’s all there is to it, but it’s interesting to consider that layout, presentation, the medium and the way we communicate can sometimes lead to greater insight than what is actually being said. After all, how many articles or blogs (this one included) do you think there are where people skim lightly over the text, but what stays with them, or what they pay attention to is the images?