One of the most hated rules at the art school I attended was that first-year commercial art students had to hand letter all their assignments. It was thought that by doing this, students would gain a better appreciation for fonts. In actual practice all it seemed to do was make assignments take twice as long as they should have. This was the early 1980s, so granted the available technology (press-on letters!) wasn’t much better.
At the time I was really grateful that I had grown up around hand-lettering. My grandfather was a sign painter, and my father learned from him. I remember watching my father letter mailboxes as a child. One of the tricks he used was to draw out his letters on a sheet of butcher paper. He could adjust his spacing and his lines all he wanted, and when the drawing was done he would use a run a pounce wheel around the outlines. He would then lay his pounced pattern over whatever he was going to letter, and dust it with colored chalk. This would leave a dotted outline of his lettering that he could use as a guideline for painting.
To transfer the text to my background, I would use a variation on this idea. Even the smallest pounce wheel wasn’t going to work for such small letters, so I had to use a pin to manually punch the holes. My pattern (above) was a standard font (“Spiral Initials”) that I had edited in a vector program. Even with the edited version, I knew I was going to adjust the letters somewhat for my design, but I decided not to spend the time doing that on the computer when it was likely I’d be making a lot of adjustments in the clay anyway. If there is one truth to sculpting letters in clay, it’s that the process is not very precise!
All I really needed was a guideline for the general shape and spacing of the letters. Once I had that, I was pretty sure I could wing it with the clay. Here was what I had to work with after the pouncing. (I’ll explain that blue guideline under the text in a future post, since it’s going away for a little while.)
I waffled back and forth for a while, trying to decide if the letters would be cut into the background (making them dark) or raised up from it (making them lighter). Cutting letters in is a fair bit easier, but I thought the design worked better with them light so that meant cutting away the background. Here I’ve started on the “P I R”. I’ve placed the horse on to background for a moment so I can check the depth against the horse. Once the piece is cast in earthenware and colored with art glaze, the depth of any particular area translates into darkness of color. I don’t want to carve so deeply that the background is as dark as the outline around the horse.
In this picture, I am almost finished with the letters. To keep the edges of the letters crisp and the faces uniformly level, I freeze the clay and work while it is still cold. That’s why the piece looks wet. (The water works as a pretty good lubricant for the sculpting tools.) I can only work for a little while before the clay becomes too soft and I have to return it to the freezer.
That’s another good reason for working the background separate from the horse. From this point forward, I’ll be alternating my work between the two. When whichever I am working on thaws, I put it back and retrieve the other from the freezer.