I have never carved an alphabet from A-Z. The pandemic and lockdown made me re-assess many things, including this omission. I have used this exercise to inform some short instructional videos for those starting out, and for those who have been following [also here] here’s the completed piece. It is far from ‘perfect’ but life is not about ‘perfection’ – it is about doing. [By the way, the slate was split from a single fragment, hence the mirror-like quality – look at base pattern.]
In this time of lockdown and social distancing, I’m pleased to present my Guide to Letter carving. What better way to spend some time than learn the basics of this practice? You can carve outside or indoors: because I live in Australia the climate is mild and I have a garden, so I choose to carve plein air. Do what you want – there are no rules! First, though, you need the right equipment – this short video will explain the initial step on your adventure and, possible, absorption into carving.
This is the start of an exercise in carving an alphabet in salvaged slate. You’ll notice that I’m carving the letters [c40mm] upside down – this is because the straight edge of the slate happens to be at the top of the letters as I sketched them. [There are two panels to the complete alphabet.] This makes it easier to hold the slate [which is fairly thin – about 10mm] firm on the ‘easel’ or banker, which I also made. If you would like details of how to make your own banker please let me know. Subscribe for further instalments. [Note also the ‘printer’s hat’ I’m wearing – this is an optional extra! Details on demand.]
How often do you draw an O? How often in this age of keyboards do you pick up a pen, pencil or brush and draw an O? How often do you give thought to the creation of an O? Here are some of mine. Now, these are not necessarily an O – yes it is a circle but an O is more than that. An O has style and grace, and is not a pure mathematical or geometrical ‘form’. Nevertheless…without more ado here is my [rather primitive] selection
Why this interest in O? It comes from having picked up Vasari’s Lives of the Artists [Penguin Classics, 1965 (reprinted 1976), trans. George Bull] who describes the artist Giotto picking up his brush when asked for a sample to give to the Pope. This is the relevant section – ‘The courtier told Giotto for a drawing which he could send to his holiness. At this Giotto, who was a very courteous man, took a sheet of paper and a brush dipped in red, closed his arm to his side, so as to make a sort of compass of it, and then with a twist of his hand drew such a perfect circle that it was a marvel to see. Then, with a smile, he said to the courtier: ‘There’s your drawing.’ As if he were being ridiculed, the courtier replied: “Is this the only drawing I’m to have?’ ‘It’s more than enough,’ answered Giotto.” [p.64.]
Well, the Pope saw the O and was mightily impressed and Giotto got the commission. Vasari continues: ‘And when the story became generally known, it gave rise to the saying which is still used to describe stupid people: ‘You are more simple that Giotto’s O.’ This is a splendid witticism, not only because of the circumstances which gave rise to it but also because of the pun it contains, the Tuscan word tondo meaning both a perfect circle and also a slow-witted simpleton.’ [p.65.]
As an encore, here is an O from the Rev. Catich’s The Art of the Serif:
Isn’t that so beautiful? How about we all take time out to draw some O’s?
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about NonHuman books, and particularly the version produced by a machine of Tschichold’s The New Typography (1928). After publishing this piece I realised that I did not have a copy of this book, much to my surprise; confusing it with Asymmetrical Typography, which I do. Rather than wait, I got onto ABE and within moments located a copy in Melbourne – the 1995 University of California reprint.
The text reads of its period, but given the current crisis we are in, has prescience. Take for example:
Unity of Life! So the arbitrary isolation of a part is no longer possible for us – every part belongs to and harmonises with the whole.
It’s also worth bearing in mind his view [the late 1920s, one hundred years ago] against the cult of the individual, which is what we have seen these past how many decades, in so many creative areas – think architecture, think novels, think music.
The creator disappears completely behind his work. People of today regard the arrogant thrusting forward of the man before his work as aesthetically embarrassing. Just as every human being is part of a greater whole, and is conscious of his connection with it, so his work should also be an expression of this general feeling of wholeness.
Lettering comes in many forms, none more important surely than street signage that direct people. And within street signage comes texts literally written on to the road to advise motorists of, well, in this case speed.
I do not doubt that the Australian Government has a code on street typography. Do they have one on legibility? Notice how this sign is being eroded by nature.
And see this earlier post as it looks as if the piece was given a paint job.
Street signage is all about readability, about ensuring the viewer/motorist understands the pictogram. When UK road signs were being redesigned in the 1960s by Calvert and Kinnier there was a clear imperative to ensure there was no ambiguity. However, some 50 plus years later in Australia I encounter these, minus hands and feet:
Footless and handless person seeks to cross
Sign seen in Brisbane car park
How much more satisfying is this, with both hands and feet – anatomically perfect!
Simon Griffin, writing in Fucking Apostrophes, [Icon Books, London, 2016] observes that ‘Geoffroy [sic] Tory is considered one of the people responsible for introducing it [the apostrophe] to the French language in the 15th century’ (p.16).
A disputable claim given that Tory’s Champ Fleury wasn’t published until 1529. Nevertheless, turning to that volume, Tory himself writes: ‘…if it should happen that one has occasion to write in Attic letters such verses, wherein the S should disappear, one may write them clearly & wittingly without putting the said letter S where it might be lost, and put an apostrophe over the place where the S should be. This apostrophe, being above the line at the end of a word, signifies that some vowel or an S has been dropped because of the metrical quantity of the vowel that follows it in the next syllable or word’ (trans. George B Ives, Dover edition, 1967, p.138).
Tory elaborates on the letter S itself, noting its Greek origin and that it makes ‘a hissingsound, of the same quality that red-hot iron makes when it is dipped in water’ (ibid, p.139). He goes on to note how a letter S (sigma in ancient Greek) represents silence ‘…for which reason the ancients often wrote it alone above the door of the place where they ate and drank with their good friends; in order to put it before their eyes that such words as they should speak at table must be spoken soberly & listened to in silence; which cannot be if there be excess in eating and drinking, which are things not meet for decency at table & for pleasant company’ (ibid, p.139).
Note: For an earlier piece on Tory go here and for more on Catich and The Origin of the Serif here