Tag Archives | typography

Adding the text

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.

So tomorrow I’ll move on to the horse. Obviously he needs some work – not to mention a throatlatch – before I can be completely sure how he will fit in with the background.

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The layout

When I first began thinking about making bas relief Trading Cards, I started a number of horse busts scaled to work in that format. I thought if I had some basic head and neck poses and perspectives, it would help me visualize how each might work. Since I didn’t have much time if I wanted to have something for the holidays, I chose the one that was closest to done. The downside with that particular horse was that it was the most problematic in terms of design.

The profile of a horse’s head and neck set into a rectangle leaves three areas of dead space; the area in front of the face, the area over the neck and the area under the jaw. Because a horizontal trading card is a fair bit longer than it is tall, I posed the horse’s face as if he were stretching out to look at something ahead of him. That would fill as much of the card as possible and minimize the space along the top of the head and neck.

It did, however, leave quite a large area under the jaw. I might be able to artfully arrange the mane and forelock for other spaces, but something else would need to be done with the lower lefthand side. To me it seemed perfect for text, but then again I worked long enough in publications that it’s actually hard for me to design without text! The problem is that even if you have passible hand lettering skills (which I do), sculpting text is really, really hard.

I had done it before. A few years ago, I sculpted these lettered tiles to give as Christmas gifts. After three simple letters, I was ready to call it a day! I knew if I was going to use text, I was going to have to come up with a pretty short word.

I spent quite a while trying to think of some kind of holiday word that might work with a horse. I’ve been down this path before with my Christmas items. Of course most of my colleagues would find it completely natural to have horse-themed Christmas decorations. Our houses are already filled with horse things, so it would fit right in. The same would probably be true of my friends at the barn where I keep Sprinkles.

But the “holy grail” for me has been something that would work for the other half of my world – for family and friends who know me as a classroom volunteer, or a fellow parishoner, or scouting Den Leader. I spent a fair bit of time trying once again to think of some kind of wording and background that might make a horse relevant to the holidays. Maybe a stylized winter scene? Some snowflakes? No matter what I tried, it all seemed forced. I just couldn’t imagine that friends outside the equine community were going to do much more than look at their gift and think, “Oh, it’s a … horse.” (Again.)

I finally decided that it just wasn’t going to work, or at least not in the restrictive format of a Trading Card. I was trying to make one thing answer too many needs. While I longed to give my friends something made with my own hands, it would probably be kinder to all involved if I phoned Harry & David for everyone who wasn’t horse crazy, and focused on creating something that spoke to the people who really would appreciate a shiny horse trinket.

When I did, the word I needed for the bottom left corner came almost immediately. INSPIRE. That’s why we exchanged these gifts. At least, that’s why I so look forward to them each year. Seeing what other people do, and showing them what I do, is the greatest inspiration I know. And that is the traditional purpose of an Artist Trading Card. And hey, only seven letters and two of them “i”s!

From that point, the design came together really easily. I chose an Art Nouveau font in part because that school of design is a common thread for many of us who work in ceramics. (Art Nouveau, Celtic music and tea.) It also would give me a lot of options for bordering the design.

This was the initial layout done with layers of tracing paper. I often design this way because it lets me move things around in layers. If you look carefully, I have a layer that is the traced outline of the horse. The horse itself was not fully roughed in at this point; his throatlatch and shoulder were still missing. Setting him on top of the design was helpful, though, to see how he worked with the text and the border.

I should point out that at this point I know I’m going to be making changes. Drawing designs on paper has its limitations because lines have a very different weight than a sculpted border. I am pretty sure at this point that the borders I have drawn may actually be depth shifts. So the band at the bottom with the text probably won’t have a sculpted line on the bottom and on the top. It might instead be a raised band with the text inscribed in, while the box behind the horse’s face might be lower.

I’ve also left off any mane treatment. I know I’ll probably drop the swirled borders in the top left in favor of movement in the forelock, but for now it will work. Like a lot of the design, I’ll know better what I need once I get my hands in the clay. All that really matters at this stage is that I have some idea where I am going with the layout. Translating it to the clay is where I’ll resume with tomorrow’s post.

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