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.”
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.
A little creative reuse led to these spooky holiday decorations. Earlier this year, I bought a half-dozen frames that I intended to use for wall art. Often frames will come with both a wall hook and a fold-out arm so they can be used on the wall or standalone on a surface. These particular frames are mostly wire so the fold-out arm was plainly visible and looked wrong. I carefully wrenched them off of the back of the frames and the metal hinges holding them. I like to reuse materials whenever possible so I stared at these for a little while to figure out if I could do anything with them. I noticed the shape looked a bit like a stylized coffin, and they’re covered in black velvet. Perfect opportunity to try out velvet painting!
Since the coffin shape was a bit off-kilter, I thought the skeletons should be too. I decided they should all be striking poses a la Vogue. I used white acrylic paint on a very dry brush – any amount of water, including water leftover on a freshly-washed brush, kills the effect. To further spiff it up I added a sparkly silver border with washable Crayola sparkle glue. There was a small amount of black ribbon attached to the back (formerly to provide tension to the fold-up arm) that I folded back on itself and sewed into a small hanging loop. Styling!
This moody piece came together from many different sources. I found this gothic (or possibly medieval)-looking frame at a Goodwill attached to a beaten-up print from JCPenney. Around the same time, I was working on a UI design that needed sample content and had picked the phrase “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” to use. It occurred to me that both this Alice in Wonderland riddle and Poe’s poem “The Raven” reference the same themes: writing, ravens, and a touch of madness. I envisioned a frustrated writer toiling in the late hours by candlelight – a good fit for the heaviness of the frame.
While making the initial sketch, I decided it would be interesting if the writer was himself a raven and was using his own quills to attempt to write. I liked the idea of arranging the pose so this wasn’t obvious at first, but a closer look at the back of the head would look more like feathers than hair, and what could have been seen as the arm would actually be a beak.
I gathered up dozens of photo references for desks, candlelight, and ravens, but I knew it’d be tricky to get the perspective, pose, and lighting right without a proper mockup of the full scene. I briefly considered getting a 3D program to set up a scene and ultimately decided it would look too artificial. Instead, I built a scene out of a shoebox, a tiny flashlight, a 9″ posable model (the excellent A9 Ranger from Digital Double), a few odds and ends, and lots of paper and cardboard. After taking about 50 photos from every conceivable angle, I whittled it down a winner and enlisted my husband and frequent model Alan to mimic the pose for additional clothing/lighting reference.
The frame is pretty shallow so I tracked down a 24″ x 30″ canvas on panel for the painting. The beginning process was pretty similar to my other paintings. I’ve come to realize that after my tone layers & ultramarine blue, I often go to either greens, purples, or whites as the next few layers. These are usually the ones that start bringing individual areas much closer to a finished state. I also set the frame around the painting in the later stages to make sure the tonal range matched.
Like previous paintings, I’d restricted myself to using ultramarine blue for the dark areas initially; it, combined with burnt umber, can often make a rich and interesting dark color (to see this in action: every painting in the Statement series uses this blend except Statement III, which uses a carbon black for the helmet and jacket to make it stand out). Near the end the overall tones still looked a bit too soft, so I browsed through paintings of candlelit scenes for inspiration. This helped me shore up the candles, and this painting by Pehr Hilleström in particular made me decide to use carbon black to make the figure and feathers stand out.
The back of the painting is papered over with a copy of Edgar Allen Poe’s poem. I ended up leaving out references to “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” but will leave you with the solution I’d come up with and still prefer most: because they both have inky quills.
Here’s another piece in the same style as my Edith O’Gorman and the Language of Flowers illustration from last year. Like that one, she came from browsing the Library of Congress archives for interesting people. Again, in the spirit slightly odd vintage photo captions, she was described as “famous lawyer and bicycle rider.”
Belva Lockwood caught my eye because of her serious demeanor and more masculine clothing. She was one the first female lawyers to practice in the US, and the first to appear before the Supreme Court, overcoming “many social and personal restrictions relating to her gender.” She also was the first woman to appear as an official candidate (on printed ballots) as President of the United States, in 1884 and again in 1888 for the National Equal Rights Party. Had this photo been taken a little later, I’m guessing that would have been a more noteworthy description than “bicycle rider”.
For this interpretation using the language of flowers, I’ve adorned her background from bottom to top with the following:
Over the last year I’ve slowed down on new paintings in the Statement series in favor of other projects, but there was one more I hadn’t posted yet. This one is my photographer friend Jillian who took the reference shot for Statement I. During a different shoot for reference photos I noticed she was wearing a white shirt while I saw her reviewing photos. I asked to include her in this series, and here she is!
Since this was in her studio, there was a large white background on one side of the image. It had very subtle shadows and lighting which was interesting to pin down. It was so bright relative to the rest of the scene that I opted to put a warm tone on the rest: the crates on the floor, the stacked reflectors on the left, and the wall and floor. I kept the dark details in the blue-ish range to stay soft while still providing sufficient contrast from the warm background.
It’s always satisfying to find a few small high-contrast details to paint. The reflection on the camera screen was a fun piece to do as well as the embroidery on the shirt. Nicely balanced!
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.
I’ve been browsing the Library of Congress archives for interesting things to draw. This 19th century photo by Matthew Brady stood out to me because it was a woman (not too many in the set) with an interesting expression and an even more interesting description: “Edith O’Gorman. Escaped nun from Canada?”
She has a bit of infamy around her story. After serving in a nunnery in Canada, she published a book in 1913 called “The Trials and Persecutions of Miss Edith O’Gorman” detailing stories of terrible treatment. It looks like she spent the rest of her life traveling as a lecturer (adding to an anti-Catholic sentiment stirred up by the press at the time) and avoiding death threats. She appears to have changed her name a couple of times and embellished her Irish heritage a bit along the way. In my cursory research there’s quite the mix of true accounts vs sensationalism, but she clearly riled up people and made herself a prominent figure.
Rather than celebrate or demonize her, I opted to use a period-appropriate technique of representing what I imagine motivated her. The language of flowers was popular in the late 19th century/Victorian era as a discreet way to express feelings. I took a loose interpretation of this with the following:
I’ll definitely do more portraits in this style as I find interesting people in that era.
I got a commission recently from an unexpected source. A few months ago I started posting close-up details of my paintings & drawings on Instagram and Tumblr. I figured it would be an interesting opportunity to show off the details you’d see if you could see it in person. One such post was a detail of Statement VII (the doctor): specifically, a close-up view of his hands jotting down notes. This caught the eye of our friends Kevin and Allison as they both work in writing/journalism and they inquired about a commission. I offered to change up details if they liked (different colors? new photo shoot in the same pose with one of them?) but they opted for a painting from the original photo.
The detail I posted on Instagram is about 3″x3″, and the new painting I created is 12″x12″. When I checked the original photo, I realized I’d skewed it a bit more warm/orange on the original painting. I liked some of the purple tones so I shifted a little bit back towards that for this version of it. I also pulled the crop back slightly to show cuff details for both hands.
While I was working on it, my friend Jeremy saw it and pointed out that it had a distinctly different feel to it when viewed from different angles. I often adjust the angle on reference photos for new paintings, but it never occurred to me to try that for this one. I rotated it a bunch of ways and decided that there were two that I felt looked best, so when I completed it I added hardware to allow it to hang two different ways: the original orientation, or turned 45 degrees for a diamond shape. I’m not sure which I prefer: I figure that can be a choice made based on where it’s going and what they’re in the mood to see.
Enjoy your painting, Kevin & Allie!
This was a leisurely-to-finish painting based on an old photo that I later realized didn’t quite have enough detail in it. I originally started this back in February with the hope of completing it for submission into an art show. The show was canceled so I shelved this for a while in favor of other projects. I’d only gotten as far as the burnt umber layer, and it’s been lurking incomplete around my art table for a while. I decided it was high time to finish this one.
I initially started running into the lack of detail while working on the (too pale) skintones. I considered keeping it pretty blocky as I liked how the clothing looked, but it just didn’t look right against the rest of it. So, when in doubt: more dots. While mixing grays from scratch I ended up with some nice purple tones so I shifted the color scheme towards that. I used a bit of crimson to offset a few muddy tones, and right at the end, toned down some of the detail around Edna (on the left) to add a little more perspective.