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!


Autumn… a second spring

Autumn again, and time for me to celebrate the season’s spectacular beauty with a wee bit of photography and calligraphy. I can’t believe that a year has passed since I last did this. It’s actually my third autumn post (view my first and second), so it’s already beginning to feel like a tradition. To be honest, the only reason I feature autumn in a post every year is because it’s my favourite season, and my blog gives me an excuse to wallow awhile in its magic. I do appreciate the other seasons’ merits, but the sights and smells of autumn, to me, are the most evocative.

A few days ago I pulled on my walking boots and began my search for an autumnal scene with potential… one that I could photograph and feature in my still-to-be-written autumn post… but I couldn’t find what I was looking for. I wanted atmosphere and colour and composition, but the scene also had to include an inviting empty space into which I could slip an autumn-related quote. The difficulty lay in trying to envisage such a final image, complete with quote, while walking in circles around various trees and mounds of fallen leaves, assessing their potential… a pastime that drew curious glances from a steady stream of dog-walkers.

On top is the original unprocessed photograph, complete with bench and lamp-post. Below shows the photograph after being horizontally flipped, and shows the cropped area that I used (note the absent bench and lamp-post). Click image to increase size.

Fortunately, when I eventually did discover a scene that I thought might work, I was carrying my mobile phone (a Sony Ericsson Xperia which has an absolutely amazing camera) so I was able to capture the scene without attracting too much attention. I intentionally snapped a bigger area than I would need (see top image on left), so that I could experiment with the composition. The resolution on my phone’s camera is so good that I was able crop the image at a later stage without losing too much definition.

As you can see, the original unprocessed photo definitely wouldn’t win any photography awards, but I saw potential in the golden-leaved tree and its carpet of fallen leaves, and I was able to manipulate the image quite easily on my iMac to suit my requirements.

First, I tweaked the basic image’s Levels and Curves in Photoshop, then I cloned out the bench and the lamp post behind the tree. Using PhotoTools, a Photoshop plug-in, I gave the image an instant HDR effect. I then placed two different textured layers above the image and set one to ‘overlay,’ and one to ‘hard light.’ Utilising the Rule of Thirds, I cropped the image’s dimensions to zoom in on the tree, then added the distressed border. Finally, I flipped the image horizontally, simply because I felt the quote would look best on the left side of the tree.

All that was left to do was find the perfect quote to write and insert into the image, but that task proved as difficult as finding the perfect photo. After reading dozens and dozens of autumn-related quotes, I eventually drew up a short list of four worthy contenders. I chose, “Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower,” because I thought those sentiments best complimented the image.The other contenders, which I’ll hold onto till next autumn, were…

 “Autumn is the hardest season. The leaves are all falling, and they’re falling like they’re falling in love with the ground.” (Andrea Gibson)

 “Autumn… the year’s last, loveliest smile.” (William Cullen Bryant)

 “Love the trees until their leaves fall off, then encourage them to try again next year.” (Chad Sugg)

With those three quotations already in the bag, all I have to do next October is search for another appropriate scene to photograph. But even if the perfect scene proves as elusive as this year’s, I can think of few better ways to spend autumn afternoons than wandering through my local park, camera in hand. Particularly when ‘every leaf is a flower.’

Amazing the difference a few days makes!


Today, I became aware of the fleetingness of Autumn’s beauty when I walked past the tree featured in the above post. Unbelievably, during the few days since I photographed the tree with its abundance of golden leaves, it has become stripped of its splendour, and its branches are now almost bare as shown on the left. Since it was more by luck than by design that I stumbled upon the tree in all its glory, I feel fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time. Hopefully, I’ll be just as fortunate in my hunt for the perfect autumn scene next year!

X marks the Scot

Ever since I discovered the poem, Scotland Our Mither, by Charles Murray, I’ve had an urge to create a piece of calligraphic artwork based on it. Only fellow calligraphers will comprehend such an urge. We calligraphers discover words that strike a chord… and we are suddenly fetching our pens and putting them to paper. It happens to me all the time. It’s not enough just to read the words. I have to become involved with them, to immerse myself in them… I’m compelled to be creative.

But, as I said, it’s a calligrapher-thing. My “normal” friends just don’t get it.

Scotland Our Mither is written very much from the perspective of an expatriate Scot. So, although I am Scottish through and through, I have no idea why the poem’s sentiments affect me so much, since I’ve never spent more than a fortnight outside Scotland at any one time. I certainly can’t identify with the thoughts of an expatriate. And I’m reluctant to admit that, despite being a Scot, I don’t understand much of the language, which is written in Old Scots.

Yet the poem somehow got under my skin, and so I started writing. The resultant artwork is shown above, (or larger on Flickr).

The poet, Charles Murray (1864-1941), was born and raised in Alford in north-east Scotland, but he emigrated to South Africa. The poem, Scotland Our Mither, features in his second book of poetry, Hamewith.

A previous post featured a quotation that I was similarly compelled to write. Maybe I should consult a doctor about my “affliction”!

And so that I know I’m not alone, if any other calligraphers suffer from a similar “affliction,” I’d love you to leave a comment.


The Poem (thanks to…

Scotland Our Mither

Scotland our Mither – this from your sons abroad,
Leavin’ tracks on virgin veld that never kent a road,
Trekkin’ on wi’ weary feet, an’ faces turned fae hame,
But lovin’ aye the auld wife across the seas the same.

Scotland our Mither – we left your beildy bents
To hunt wi’ hairy Esau, while Jacob kept the tents.
We’ve pree’d the pangs o’ hunger, mair sorrow seen than mirth,
But never niffer’d, auld wife, our rightfu’ pride o’ birth.

Scotland our Mither – we sow, we plant, we till,
But plagues that passed o’er Egypt light here an’ work their will.
They’ve harried barn an’ basket till ruin claims us sure;
We’d better kept the auld craft an’ herdit on the muir.

Scotland our Mither – we weary whiles an’ tire;
When Bad Luck helps to outspan, Regret biggs up the fire;
But still the hope uphaulds us, tho’ bitter now the blast,
That we’ll win to the auld hame across the seas at last.

Scotland our Mither – we’ve bairns you’ve never seen –
Wee things that turn them northward when they kneel down at e’en;
They plead in childish whispers the Lord on high will be
A comfort to the auld wife – their granny o’er the sea.

Scotland our Mither – since first we left your side,
From Quilimane to Cape Town we’ve wandered far an’ wide;
Yet aye from mining camp an’ town, from koppie an’ karoo,
Your sons richt kindly, auld wife, send hame their love to you.

Meaning of unusual words:
kent = knew
aye = always
beildy bents = sheltered hilly ground
pree’d = tasted
niffer’d = bartered
bairns = children


For the technically-minded…

After hand-lettering the entire poem in black ink (in Italic with reduced x-height), I scanned the lettering and imported it into Photoshop, where I digitally coloured it white and created a centred layout by organising the verses into two columns (one left, and one right justified). I centered the title above, and the poet’s name below the verses. That was simple enough, but the background took more time to consider and create.

My original hand-lettering of the two final verses of the poem, before scanning.

I knew I wanted the background to be the Scottish national flag (Saltire), but the difficulty was in unifying it with the lettering in the foreground. I eventually settled for stacking a few textured layers (with various blending modes and opacity) on top of a blue rectangular background (the official blue, chosen by the Scottish Parliament, is Pantone 300). Then I placed a white x-shaped cross above these layers to complete the flag, and used a white-to-transparent radial gradient to subtly remove the centre of the cross so that the poem’s white lettering would show on the blue background. A few additional minor tweaks completed the effect.

Harmony in Autumn

I can’t believe that a year has passed since my last Autumn post… where does the time go? So with only a few weeks left in November, I thought I’d better get cracking with a new piece of autumnal calligraphy, before winter sets in and I miss the boat!

Even though my main passion in life is for calligraphy, I love photography, and I get kind of snap-happy in Autumn. There is so much colour to capture at this time of the year. And I love to marry my two interests by using my photographs as backgrounds for my hand-lettering. I enjoy searching for that certain scene that will eventually lend itself to an appropriate quotation. I can’t think of a more satisfying way to create original artwork.

A professional photographer once shared a tip with me. He told me, “when you’re out walking, looking for subjects to photograph, every once in a while stop and look behind you. If you don’t, you never know what amazing shot you might miss.”

So, on a recent walk through Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Park, I followed his advice. I stopped on the path, turned around, and couldn’t believe my eyes. There was Glasgow University Tower rising high above me, perfectly framed between the bare branches of surrounding trees. It couldn’t have been better positioned if I had asked it to pose for me. There were golden leaves everywhere, and the darkening sky just added to the mood. So I raised my camera, took the shot, and hoped for the best.

I later imported the snap into Photomatix, (HDR software) where I tweaked the controls to emphasise the autumn golds, and to make the sky heavier and more moody.

I then imported the snap into Photoshop, where I placed textured layers above it and altered their blending modes to “hue” and “soft light” to create a monotone effect, with emphasis on complementary shades of gold and brown.

The bottom third of the photograph was almost entirely free of foliage, making it the perfect place to position my hand-lettered autumn-related quotation. I used the colour-picker to sample the colour of some leaves on the right, and transferred the colour to the focal point, “harmony in autumn.” I coloured the remaining text in a more neutral shade, just to provide some much-needed relief to the vivid autumn colours that dominate the photograph.

See the finished piece at the head of this post.

I used a similar technique to manipulate the photograph featured above, that I took of Glasgow University while standing on a bridge over the River Kelvin. The only difference being that I applied a horizontal gradient effect to “watch the leaves turn,” in an effort to simulate the changing colour of leaves in autumn.

These images were a lot of fun to create, both calligraphically and photographically (and, of course, photoshopically), and I’m really pleased with how they turned out.

So, coming soon is my traditional “Winter” post. I must remember to stop and look behind me in the hope of discovering further serendipitous photo-opportunities… weather permitting!

Calligraphy with watercolour painting

My daughter, Lorraine, spent some time working in the Italian Dolomites a number of years ago. An accomplished artist, she created many watercolours of the scenery and plant-life surrounding the towns of Pedraces and Arraba. Speaking as someone who can’t paint to save himself, I’m delighted to have access to this source of original artwork that can act as backgrounds – and as inspiration – for my calligraphic compositions.

In the example above, I found an appropriate mountain-related quotation online at Brainy Quote, and wrote it in Italics using black ink. I then scanned the lettering and imported it into Adobe Photoshop, where I split it into four separate lines. I placed each line on its own transparent layer above the painted layer and moved them into position. I sampled the off-white border colour and applied an identical colour to the top two lines of lettering, which allowed the focal point “the mountain ahead” to merge seamlessly into the border along the bottom edge of the painting. I added a horizontal gradient to the third line of lettering to echo the brown-to-green colouring of the painted foreground directly above.

The result is a combined family effort that I’m really proud of, and I look forward to applying my hand-lettering to more of Lorraine’s fantastic watercolours in the future.

For those interested in the geographical detail, the painting features Marmolada, a mountain in northeastern Italy, and the highest mountain of the Dolomites (a section of the Alps).

A magical event

Last September I posted a piece of calligraphy that I created to celebrate Autumn. At the time I wrote, “now that I’ve covered Autumn, I feel committed to creating a further three pieces of artwork to complete the seasonal set. Watch out for Winter, Spring and Summer appearing sometime within the next 12 months.”

Famous last words!

The original photograph, before being cropped and texturised. Note the metal fence on the left side, that I removed using the clone tool in Photoshop.

I did take photographs during the heavy snowfall in November, with a view to using them as a background for my calligraphy, but somehow never got around to creating the “Winter” piece that I promised. Now that the crocus and daffodils are making their presence known, I have made a rather belated effort to get back on track. Especially since I have to start thinking about a “Spring” piece soon.

I took the original photograph of a row of trees in a local park, just after a particularly heavy snowfall, and imported it into Adobe Photoshop. I wrote out the quotation in Italics (using black ink), then scanned it, and incorporated it into the artwork. I coloured the lettering white and applied a subtle drop-shadow to it. I overlaid the photograph with a number of different textures that I tinkered with in layer blending mode. A few of the textures that I used are available from Kim Klassen Cafe, an excellent website to visit if, like me, you enjoy texturising your photographs.

Now I’m hoping that some inspiration for my “Spring” piece will come my way. Hopefully it won’t take till August to arrive.

EDIT, 9th March… woke up to find an unexpected dusting of snow outside this morning, so maybe I’m not so late with this post after all!

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