Typesetting is the first of seven technologies I’ve explored in Prior Art: analog media manipulation and vintage virtual reality.
“No matter how intellectual a pursuit it becomes, Design is most rewarding when you’re simply making it: setting the type, framing the shot, writing the code.”
Emilio Passi // epassi.co
The earliest words were written by hand: stamped in clay, etched with charcoal, drawn with ink. As scrolls developed into books, stories were collected through the painstaking and time consuming process of transcription. But this was a luxury, and only the wealthy could afford it.
Typesetting enables these stories to be composed by arranging pieces of type: physical stamps of letters and symbols that make up written language. This not only enables faster and cheaper reproduction of text, but also a consistent appearance. Instead of bearing the mark of the scribe, these printed materials now bear the distinctive look of a font (the design of those letters themselves). Print shops keep large wooden shelves with hundreds (or thousands) of pieces of type for a range of fonts and sizes.
Letterpress machines create the means of adding ink to a set of letters and transferring it to a piece of paper. The letter stamps are arranged into a tight block to preserve the format. This block is called a “lock up” because it is tightened by hand with a key to keep the pieces from moving around. Ink is spread onto one of the forward cylinders, and a piece of paper is aligned with the rst cylinder to begin. With a turn of a crank, the cylinders roll out to spread ink on the lock up, and roll the paper across it to create an inked impression.
The first system of movable type was invented in the 11th century by Bi Sheng in China. He shaped clay into pieces representing hundreds of Chinese glyphs which he baked into a ceramic material. This material, a fine porcelain, was sturdy enough for the rigors of printing.
There are a few ideas about why this origin of type is less well known. As a commoner, Bi Sheng’s history was not recorded. We only know of his invention through a book printed at the time. The sheer number of glyphs for the Chinese language also made the process of creating a font onerous. Centuries later, when Johannes Gutenberg introduced mechanical movable type to the Western world, he had a much smaller glyph set to reproduce – a boon for mass production.
Johannes Gutenberg combined a number of innovations for movable type, oil-based ink, and adjustable molds to enable mass production of printed material. Since the printed result would contain a reverse image of what was laid out, a skilled typesetter would need to be able to read the text backwards (or use a mirror) to lay it out properly.
Gutenberg saw great potential in this mass production for the creation of Bibles, and is best known for his high-quality Gutenberg Bible. He spoke of these advancements here: “Let us break the seal which seals up holy things and give wings to Truth in order that she may win every soul that comes into the world by her word no longer written at great expense by hands easily palsied, but multiplied like the wind by an untiring machine.”
My first solo show, Prior Art, is now up at Kaleid Gallery in downtown San José from now ’til November 25th. The theme of the show is “analog media manipulation and vintage virtual reality.” I’ll be posting the stories about the art in the show every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for the next few weeks. I’ve been working on this project (the theme, the art, the book) for most of the year and it’s great to see it all together. Thanks to everyone who made it out to the reception, and if you haven’t seen it yet definitely check it out while it’s all up together!
Here’s more details about the art in the seven themes of the show:
I found these nice sleeves printed in the style of the “carte de visite”, the collectible trading card craze of the mid-19th century. Slightly larger than modern trading cards, this style of card was used for portraits of friends, family, and celebrities.
It’s been a little while since I’ve done watercolor so I created a bunch of tiny portraits based on photos that would have been the right era for these styles (mid-1850s). Because it’s Halloween, and I wanted to loosen up a bit, I leaned a bit more towards caricatures and intentionally skewed them to look creepy.
It’s the first day of summer, an excellent time to debut more work in the Bathers series. There are now six! Here are all of them.
I found these little frames with comic-strip-like sections and thought it would work well with a three-part phrase. I immediately thought of Elvis Costello singing “what’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?” I thought about tattoos as a way to show these words, and a few small sketches later came up with this.
I didn’t use any photo references on this one so it’s a little more cartoony than my recent work. I wanted to use realistic-looking tattoo styles and locations, with each piece seen as tattoos are often seen: as the decorative pieces peeking out from clothes.
The arm tattoo I imagined as “Rest In Peace” with a calavera, a decorated skull just barely visible. The ankle tattoo: “Love Kills”, with the V as a dagger into a heart. The back tattoo I never fully figured out beyond “Understanding is the only way” but I imagined it has another few words there.
I used this to test out some new watercolor pencils and quickly realized I should have used thicker paper if I wanted to treat it like a true watercolor. After I added the ink outlines, I filled in more texture, color, and contrast with regular Prismacolor pencils instead.
I created a few new illustrations for the upcoming Psycho Donuts Evol | Love show & sale. It’s a love (or not) theme, and since I felt like drawing animals, I thought I’d focus on animals that can be a bit misunderstood but are lovely pets.
I’ve had a few rats as pets and they can be quite sweet. When I was drawing this I also thought of the Church Mice series from Graham Oakley, a children’s book series I always loved for its detailed crowd scenes of dozens of happy, confused, curious, afraid, and feuding mice in the middle of some conundrum (together with the sole cat willing to be around them).
I’ve never had a chameleon as a pet, but if I were to get a reptile again that would be my next choice. The color-changing is interesting, but the independently-moving eyes and the five-toes-fused-into-two are endlessly fascinating. They also don’t move very fast and seem to have a gentle disposition – something I can’t say for other attempts at reptile pets. Since they’re cold-blooded I gave this guy a little blue heart.
This is based on a photo from an exhibition at the World’s Fair in Paris in 1900. It was assembled by W.E.B. DuBois “with the goal of demonstrating the progress and commemorating the lives of African Americans at the turn of the century.” I found this while browsing the collection at the Library of Congress. Her expression and outfit really stood out to me. Unfortunately there’s no name attached to it, so I don’t know who she is. I named this so it could either be interpreted as her being in the exhibition, or attending the exhibition. Maybe she did both!
I have some lovely mid-toned paper made with coffee, which is an excellent base for two-toned charcoal drawings. I start with the light colors first so they’ll stay crisp and are less likely to get muddied by black charcoal smears. It’s easy to add black charcoal; it’s nearly impossible to add white charcoal after the fact.
This chunky wooden frame reminded me of the aesthetic of Bruegel’s earthy illustrations or Goya’s creatures. I felt a gargoyle would suit it, so I found this fellow for a start. I wanted to give it more of a body so after I drew the head I opted to draw its paws, clawed, to echo the fangs.
Once I started filling in more of the body, I thought it really needed something else to balance the picture. A bird! I found a reference photo with just the right expression: mostly clueless, but slightly wary. It was also a nice light touch against the darkness of the gargoyle.
I’ll leave it up to you as to which one is waiting and which one is watching.
I found a few frames with an art deco feel and decided to make a few illustrations to fit. The process on these was pretty simple: colored pencil outlines on watercolor paper, and the rest filled in with watercolors.
These reminded me of something you might find in a beach cottage, so I just went for the first thing that came to mind: turn-of-the-century bathers. I worked from the memory of Halloween costumes so the suits may not be entirely authentic. Cute though!