Snow is such an amazement

SnowWell, the forecasters promised snow, and they didn’t disappoint. A four inch blanket of the white stuff settled on my garden overnight.

So this morning, before it was even light, I was all wrapped-up in my winter woollies and outside in the freezing cold, clearing my path and driveway with my brand new, just-out-of-the-wrapper, snow shovel. The neighbours surely thought I was mad, shovelling away in the pitch-blackness. But I had paid good money for the shovel, and I was determined to put it through its paces before the snow thawed of its own accord.

Completely hidden under a thick layer of snow, my wife’s car resembled an igloo on wheels. Since she would soon be leaving for work, I morphed into dutiful husband mode and unburied it for her. After ten minutes of effort, breathless and bent double with exertion, I watched her slide effortlessly into the driver’s seat, and turn the ignition.

The original photo.

The original photo.

“Thanks for scraping my car,” she said, matter of fact, as if I had removed a slight dusting of frost from her windscreen. The words ‘hero,’ and ‘unsung,’ sprang to mind. As she reversed out of the drive, she waved goodbye. Still breathless I tried, but failed, to summon the energy to wave back.

By the time the sun eventually rose, my home was a snow-free zone and I rewarded myself by walking to a nearby country park, where I hoped to snap some winter scenes on my iPhone. I arrived at the park early enough to discover that many of the snow-covered paths around the loch remained free of footsteps. I was delighted, as I think there is something really satisfying about being the first to tread a path through virgin snow.

As I walked, I noticed a little snow-covered bridge up ahead, under a canopy of trees, and realised immediately that it was the perfect image to which I could add a calligraphic quotation (I’m a sad person… I know). From experience, I know that taking photographs as backgrounds for my calligraphy is different from normal photography, in that it’s essential to incorporate a blank space in the composition to contain the calligraphy that will be added later. I knew instantly that a small area of untrodden snow in front of the bridge would work perfectly.

I used an amazing app called Waterlogue, that is installed on both my iPhone and iPad, to create a watercolour painting from my bridge photo. I have tried many similar apps to get a watercolour effect on my photos, but Waterlogue is by far the best. The results are spectacular, and I can highly recommend the app if, like me, you love watercolours but can’t paint to save yourself.

With the "Waterlogue" effect applied.

With the “Waterlogue” effect applied.

I then did a quick Google search for an appropriate quotation about snow. I loved the following quotation, by Carol Rifka Brunt:

“… there’s just something beautiful about walking on snow that nobody else has walked on. It makes you believe you’re special, even though you know you’re not,” 

The sentiments are perfect but, unfortunately, it was too long to comfortably fit into the allocated space.

Instead, I chose, “The very fact of snow is such an amazement,” by Roger Ebert. Short and sweet!

As a change from my usual Italic, I experimented by lettering the quote in a pointed pen style (even though I didn’t use a pointed calligraphy nib to produce the lettering). I’ve been teaching myself a variation of this style, commonly referred to as “modern calligraphy,” and I really enjoy the informality of the script.

After lettering the quotation, I scanned it into Adobe Photoshop, and inserted it onto a layer on top of my ‘watercolour’ image. I then experimented with the size of the lettering, and tinkered with its position until I was happy with the composition. Finally, I sampled a darkish blue from the background and used it to colour the calligraphy. The finished artwork is featured at the top of this post.

All in all, it has been a perfect morning. Walking in beautiful scenery, photography, calligraphy, Photoshopping, blogging, and road-testing my brand new snow shovel.

This might just be as good as it gets!

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Calligraphy? Computers can do that!

My early inspiration by Tom Barnard

Calligraphy (that proved inspirational to me) by Tom Barnard

Back in 1986, calligraphy was no more than a hobby to me. But even though I wasn’t particularly proficient, I had a passion for the craft, and had already decided that I wanted to be a full-time calligrapher.

That year, I remember walking into an art store in Glasgow, and there, unexpectedly demonstrating calligraphy in the centre of the store, was Tom Barnard. I was familiar with Barnard, since I owned Making Calligraphy Work For You, an Osmiroid book that he co-wrote with Christopher Jarman. But I had never expected to meet him, or any other “real” calligrapher, in the flesh.

I took the opportunity to chat to him, and mentioned how much I wanted to pursue his choice of career. He put down his pen, looked at me sympathetically, and said (and I remember his words so vividly), “I can count on the fingers of one hand how many calligraphers make a full-time wage from calligraphy in the UK.”

I’m sure he wasn’t trying to demoralise me, or put me off following my dream. I think his intention was to simply advise me that such a career path wouldn’t be an easy one (on reflection, true). And that I would never find myself in a high income bracket (also, true).

Tom-Barnard-2

SSI address beautifully written for me by Tom Barnard

Possibly to soften the blow of his candidness, Barnard wrote down the address of the Society of Scribes and Illuminators for me, so that I could enquire about lay membership. He also gave me a signed A4 page of calligraphy that he created right in front of my eyes (which I still possess, and have featured above). I remember he used an Osmiroid pen, loaded with green ink, and I was mesmerised by his effortless letter-making and flourishing. Rather than dampen my enthusiasm, he inspired me with his expertise. And despite his honest advice, I was more determined than ever to be a professional calligrapher, like him.

But turning my dream into a reality proved difficult, since very few people appeared to need/want the services of a novice calligrapher in the mid-eighties. And throughout those fruitless early weeks and months I became disheartened, and was constantly reminded of Barnard’s candid advice.

There appeared to be a stock response from almost everyone I approached in my quest for commissions. “Computers can do that,” I was told, again and again. Folk appeared to be bemused because I was actually choosing to write text by hand, rather than type it on a keyboard. They simply didn’t get it, and so I fought calligraphy’s corner. Again and again. Yet, despite my protestations, and my efforts at enlightening the disbelievers, I failed to change this widespread ignorance towards calligraphy. Only a discerning minority appreciated that hand-lettering, when well-done, is so much more impressive than sterile computer fonts.

Even when, decades later, I began to use my Apple iMac to create digital calligraphy, the computer was only a tool in the process. The computer didn’t create the actual calligraphy… I did, with my own fingers, using pen and ink! So in terms of creating calligraphy, in my opinion, computers still couldn’t “do that.” And I was convinced that would always be the case.

Then, a few days ago, my son sent me a video. As I watched it, I couldn’t help but smile knowingly. After almost three decades of telling anyone who would listen that computers cannot do calligraphy, suddenly it appeared that they can.

The video features a computerised machine that holds an ordinary pen like a human, and mimics various styles of handwriting and calligraphy. The machine even varies the size and shapes of characters for added realism, as you can see in the video below…

 

Pretty impressive, eh?

But despite the fact that I now have to grudgingly accept that computers CAN do calligraphy, there are quite a few missing ingredients, such as passion, personality, individuality and a little (controlled) imperfection. Calligraphy is so much more than simple letter-making.

Maybe if, someday, I hear that a computer has put down its pen to give honest advice to a keen young incipient scribe, I’ll step aside to make way for this brand new breed of calligraphers.

But, somehow, I think that day is a long way off.

Find out more about the computerised calligraphy-creating machines at Sploid.

Fairies, flowers, and procrastination.

Garden quoteThis morning, although I should have been working, I took time off to create something calligraphic and colourful for my own enjoyment. I thought it would be nice to celebrate the arrival of Spring with some flowers, so I did just that, and I’ve featured the resultant artwork above (or see it on Flickr).

I decided to use a particularly floral scene that I remembered snapping with my iPhone last July (yes, I agree that makes the theme more Summer than Spring, but we calligraphers own an artistic licence that allows us to take liberties such as switching seasons around on a whim).

The photo features a cottage and garden that reside in the grounds of Culzean Castle, which enjoys a dramatic clifftop setting on the rugged Ayrshire coast of Scotland. Standing on the battlements, you are rewarded with stunning views across the Firth of Clyde to the islands of Arran and Ailsa Craig, and to the Mull of Kintyre. If you ever find yourself in the west of Scotland, Culzean Castle is definitely worth a visit.

On the day of our visit, the flowers were in full bloom… I remember being in awe of the incredible carpet of colour leading up to the cottage… and when I returned home and downloaded the photo from my iPhone to my Mac, I was amazed that the phone’s camera had captured the scene so well.

The original photo.

The original photo.

Although I had snapped the scene on a cloudless, sunny day, the sky in the photo had turned white through being over exposed (see original photo on left). So the first thing I did was replace the sky using Adobe Photoshop. This was a simple process by which I removed the white sky using the Magic Eraser Tool, then placed a photo of a more interesting sky in a new layer behind the original photograph.

Using PhotoTools, a free Photoshop plug-in, I added a subtle Impressionist filter to the entire photo to soften the flowers and to give the photo a slight painterly feel. I then used PhotoFrame, another free plug-in, to add a distressed border. (Both free plug-ins are available for Mac only).

All I had to do then was add the focal point, in the form of some appropriate hand-lettering, so I googled “flower quotes,” to enable me to find something relevant to write. Usually I spend ages looking for the perfect quote, but this time I was happy with one of the first I found, by Douglas Adams. The quote’s reference to fairies gave it a whimsical feel that I felt suited the style and subject of the photograph.

After writing the quote in black ink, I scanned the lettering into Photoshop and inserted it, line by line, into new layers above the garden photo. Then I resized, recoloured, and positioned it until I was happy with the layout. I tried colouring the lettering every hue under the sun, but only white stood out enough to make the words legible against the backdrop of multi-coloured flowers. I added a very subtle drop shadow behind the white calligraphy to help it stand out even more.

And that has been my morning’s “work.” I do feel guilty, since I ignored a pile of invitations next to my drawing board, all waiting to be inscribed, in order to create this post. But sometimes it’s nice to create something for the fun of it, rather than with a view to writing an invoice.

And now it’s midday, and time for lunch. Then, perhaps, I’ll attend to the invitations.

Procrastination.

After calligraphy, it’s my favourite pastime.

Autumn is the hardest season

Autumn is the hardest seasonEvery Autumn, I make a point of going out and about with my camera, getting snap-happy with the golden, terracotta and burnt umber foliage that graces my local park. The resultant photographs provide a background for a hand-lettered seasonal quote that becomes my traditional Autumn post.

This year, for some unknown reason, Autumn snuck up on me. Disappointingly, by the time I visited the park most of the trees had already shed their leaves, so it was back to the drawing board and Plan B.

After much consideration, I decided to create a simple greetings card design.

I layered a diamond shape in Photoshop with an assortment of autumn-coloured leaves (the shape started out square, but I quickly discovered that revolving it by 45 degrees made it more interesting). I wrote out the quotation using black ink and coloured it using Photoshop’s colour-picker tool, which allowed me to sample various colours from the leaves image. The common colour scheme tied the lettering and the image together. Conveniently, the completed composition fitted perfectly into a square, which I surrounded with a narrow border, the colour of which I also sampled from the leaves image.

The resultant artwork, shown above, was not as satisfying to create as the artwork in my previous Autumn posts (here, here and here), but a departure from tree-themed artwork was probably long overdue anyway. All I need now is a square envelope, and a postage stamp, and a friend who would appreciate receiving an Autumn-themed greetings card.

In the meantime, so that I don’t miss out again next year, I’ll set my phone to notify me of the start of Autumn 2014.

It’ll be here before I know it.

Halloween… I’m having so much fun, it’s scary!

A Man Goes Riding By

Who needs kids around them in order to have fun at Halloween?

Certainly not me. Despite my two children being grown up and no longer needing to be entertained in spooky fashion, I still like to make an effort… just for me!

I’ve already bought my pumpkin, which sits proud on the kitchen worktop, waiting to be carved. The story goes that we Scots make our lanterns out of turnips. Hah! Don’t you believe it. Have you ever tried to scoop the brick-hard centre out of a turnip? No, nor have I. So I’ll stick to carving a hollow pumpkin, with the added bonus of snacking on the roasted seeds afterwards.

With only a week to go, I decided to get myself into a Halloween mood by creating a piece of calligraphic artwork (see image above or on Flickr) to celebrate the imminent arrival of “All Hallows’ Eve.”

Some of the original lettering that I incorporated into the artwork.

This is some of my original lettering which I split into separate short lines within Photoshop.

Rather than go down the typical haunted house and witches on broomsticks route, I wanted the artwork to be more moody than spooky. That’s why I used the poem, Windy Nights, by Robert Louis Stevenson. It’s not strictly a Halloween-type poem, so doesn’t mention ghouls and ghosts and things that go bump in the night, but I felt the words would lend themselves to a dark and atmospheric treatment.

As with most of my artwork, I created the background in Adobe Photoshop by stacking a number of variously textured layers. The moon started off as a simple small white circle to which I applied a blur filter and a very large outer glow. I used Photoshop’s lasso tool to cut the horse and rider out of a colour photograph, then darkened it to create a silhouette. I wrote all the calligraphic lettering using black ink. After scanning the lettering into Photoshop, I split, coloured, resized and repositioned it until I was happy with the overall composition.

I didn’t use the second verse of Stevenson’s poem, so for anyone who is interested, here is the poem in its entirety…

WINDY NIGHTS
By Robert Louis Stevenson

Whenever the moon and stars are set,
Whenever the wind is high,
All night long in the dark and wet,
A man goes riding by.
Late in the night when the fires are out,
Why does he gallop and gallop about?

Whenever the trees are crying aloud,
And ships are tossed at sea,
By, on the highway, low and loud,
By at the gallop goes he.
By at the gallop he goes, and then
By he comes back at the gallop again.

**********

Whatever you decide to do on Halloween, I hope you have fun.

Me? I’ll be carving my pumpkin, dookin’ for apples (another old Scottish tradition), then settling down in front of the telly with lots of candy to watch Garfield’s Halloween Adventure.

I might even do all of the above while dressed as Batman.

As I said, who needs kids around them to have fun at Halloween?

IF YOU HAVE SOMETHING TO ADD, PLEASE SHARE IN THE COMMENTS BELOW.

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