Back in the days of long hot summers, cold wars and leg warmers, there was a girl who loved to spend her time drawing, painting and making things. She created theatre back drops and put on plays; cut out paper dolls, designing wardrobes for queens and nuns (for some reason…); made tiny illustrated books carefully sewn down the middle with white cotton. She pricked her fingers, splashed paints and drew and drew and drew, absorbed for hours at a time. She used her hands.
She grew up and became an illustrator. The job she had dreamed about when she was little. Painting and drawing and making things for a living. It was the best job in the world and she knew she was lucky, despite the sacrifices made and the poor wages earned.
Time dialled forward. Times changed. Painting and drawing was not what the markets demanded. Do what you do but use a computer. Do it fast. Keep it clean. Vectors and clones and infills and pixels. No longer that rusted tin palette of paints, each colour once perfectly wrapped in silver paper. No more the pleasure of opening that box of coloured pencils and making curls of vermillion or aqua fall floorwards as you sharpen them. Gone, the collecting and prizing of patterned paper from all the edges of the world, cutting them neatly to shape and nudging them perfectly into place on a picture.
The girl stuck her heels in the ground and her chin in the air and said she was having none of it. She continued to make work the slow way – even if that meant she couldn’t turn ’em out quick and stack ’em high. She didn’t need to conquer the world and no use pretending that she would do as good a job on a computer as she could do by hand. Her illustrations were made traditionally, drawn out and painted on paper with an expert eye and using the highest quality materials. She cared about the finish of each one and made sure they were made to last and were beautiful objects in their own right. And she took her time, creating images with individuality and soul that would be hard to replicate in other ways.
And so the story dials right round to now. Finally, I have the advance copies of my latest book ‘Hand Drawn Maps- a guide for creatives’ in my possession. Publishing on June 8th by Thames and Hudson in the U.K. (European and American publishers to be announced…) , it celebrates the art and history of maps and explains the process of drawing a multitude of maps by hand. Each illustration has been made using paint, pencil, ballpoint or ink – materials that can be afforded by everyone and that give pleasure in the playing with. If you manage to get hold of a copy, I hope, like me, you can lose yourself in creating something beautiful by hand. Take your time, add some heart and know that it will last till the time dials round once again.
Copies can be ordered from Amazon now.
It was through a discussion with friends of mine that I realised I’d be pretty useless in the event of an apocalypse. Illustrators are not at the top of the list when it comes to survivalist skills………Which is how I ended up on a traditional sign writing course. Definitely a useful skill. Definitely. The world is always gonna need signs.
OK perhaps I’m being slightly facetious. A beautifully painted sign in heritage colour enamel is not going to be at the top of your thoughts in a life and death situation and there are certainly other reasons to learn traditional sign writing. Put simply, it’s a beautiful and skilful trade and I wanted to learn how to do it. Signs have always fascinated me and there are few things other than a lovely typeface and an eloquent design created by hand that can make your heart sing more. I work with letters often and thought I could increase my skill set, especially after a friend of mine had been on the same course and I’d seen how much her lettering and chalk boards had started to fly.
Nick Garrett was our tutor at The London Signsmiths. A third generation sign writer, he was passionate about the craft, had a deep understanding of the cultural significance of signs and an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of typefaces. By simply adding a serif or elongating or curling or thickening a line, you could watch him unfold the history of letters from the Romans onwards.
We started drawing out sans serif letters. Nice and straight and clean. Concentrating on keeping parallel strokes even, understanding the correct angles for diagonals and playing with heights of cross lines. I found it deeply satisfying and meditative.
Paint skills followed. Practice working with the long sign writers’ brushes, a palette and the mahl stick which acts as a hand rest. This was far more challenging for me because I was unused to the brush and awkward hand angle. The way the paint was applied was also different – in its distribution within the brush and how it could be brushdragged to create pin sharp straight lines or brushtwisted to make sharp killer corners.
Oh those corners…. Totally necessary to master for the serifs of Roman lettering. Practice, practice, practice. Again and again until the mechanics come easy. How many years does it take till you truly master them?
Other forms of lettering were offered up. The fluidity of Script, the brashness but surprising complexity of Dom Casual, beloved of the retail sale, and the almost magical fades and shades found in the vintage bazaar and the fairground. Each form was explained and demonstrated and by the end of the week, could be practiced by students.
I wish I had worked on something larger for my last project – a challenge to create a traditional sign using multiple lettering styles in a pleasing design. I often use lettering in my personal work and I’m used to working small so I could have learnt more, I think, by stretching to some wider dimensions. But perhaps that will come with time and I’ve already got some MDF cut out waiting for me.
So how will the course affect my work as it is now? Every year, I send out a mail shot to publishers in hand lettered envelopes. For these and my maps, I have never aimed to create a perfect letter and appreciate the quirks and irregularities of something that looks hand made and has some personality.
I also used to regularly paint chalk boards for the Dukes at Komedia cinema in Brighton which was mainly briefed to be a hand rendered version of a film poster of some kind where the lettering was a straightforward copy of the original.
I think I now have a much better understanding of letter shapes, painting process and how to make space work well for me and it will truly be interesting to see, having completed the course, if my lettering changes and improves.
And should there be an apocalypse any time soon, I’m pretty sure the world will still need some (beautifully painted) signs. Definitely.