Over the past few years, I’ve spent a lot of time accumulating images in a digital archive so that I can reference them when I work on designs of my own. Occasionally, I find myself staring at a historical specimen that seems like it could have been something I’d done myself. Whether it’s the sentiment, the execution, or something about the style or tastes of the artist, I try to listen to those moments of inspiration and my hand naturally gravitates to the pen.
Reproducing a historical specimen
I first came across this sample in an issue of The Business Educator, and the idea of using the phrases ‘the best’ and ‘good enough’ really stood out to me as being something worth thinking about. The irony in the comparison had me thinking: That’s exactly how I feel about my interest in Engrosser’s Script.
I printed the page off and put a tack in it on the board near my writing desk. After a few minutes of staring it down, I realized that I was settling for a print, but I had the skill within me to create an inspiring piece of artwork that would serve the same purpose (to inspire me) but also allow me flex my creative muscle and look for ways to improve the original. A bold thought, but coming from the right place, I believed.
Beginning the project
I set aside everything on the table and dove into my flat file in search of a piece of paper appropriate for the size and effect I was imagining. I needed some kind of watercolor paper, as the original obviously has some kind of fluid medium present around the initial capital (also sometimes referred to as a ‘start word’). My hand fell naturally to a small cutaway of Strathmore Cold Press, and I knew that I was in the right mind. A few cuts later and I was back at the desk laying out what would be my recreation of Ms. Henderson’s piece. I felt inspired and motivated, though I hadn’t the most solidified idea of how I was going to improve (or even live up to) the original. I was reminded of Picasso’s words: “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”
After a few minutes, I had decided on my line-height and spacing and dedicated myself to the task of evaluating what it was about the original that had my eye keenly interested. The rather open spacing between words in the original seemed to be the first aspect I would alter in my design. I sketched a rough skeleton of the letters along my two lines, trying to preserve the way the second line would end slightly before the first on the right side and the period would fill the bottom right corner.
The second visual characteristic was the way that the various serifs and spurs were handled. My tastes wouldn’t grant me the leniency of leaving the letters as ‘thorny’ as Ms. Henderson, so I opted for a few stylistic changes that I thought would allow the focus of the piece to be more on the message and my intentions for the ‘start word’.
As I worked with the broad pen and ink, I reduced the sharpness of the tops of the ascenders, (hoping to modernize them a bit) and experimented with a bit more definition in the hairlined strokes of the S’s and G’s, adding small ball terminals to each. The effect seemed pleasing, and I sat back to consider my work. The ink had wasted a bit in places, so some light ‘edge work’ with a pointed pen allowed me to clean up the design. I was pleased, overall, with my progress.
As I set out to execute the initial O, I took another look and Ms. Henderson’s. The thing that stood out most to me was the fact that the round edges of her design seemed to contradict the distinct uprights of the smaller letters. I wanted to fix that.
At the time I was on a heavy dose of early Zanerian publishings, so I immediately gravitated towards an alphabet from The New Zanerian Alphabets (1895) called the ‘Split and Twisted Alphabet‘. Pairing the stylings on that page with the ‘ribbon’ influences from the page prior, I lightly sketched out the various folds and shapes of the pink ribbon and then set to work with my W&N 111 Round 0000 brush, outlining the delicate shapes in a pale pink.
After a few passes, I began to coax some depth from the paper and had the general effect that I was going for. Watercolor is so fascinating. It is amazing what can be accomplished with one color…but with two? With two you can do almost anything.
Some primary blue mixed in with the pink I had used left me with a slight purple. Excellent for creating depth and shadow if placed in the correct way. A few final touches with a pointed nib to add some hairline designs around the outside of the start word and I sat back from the table, criticising my work.
A bit of reflection
Did I improve that which Ms. Henderson had done nearly a hundred years prior? I don’t think so. I changed it, certainly. Perhaps I brought it forward for another century so that the sentiment which gave fuel to her fingers might inspire another young penman in the year 2100. Or maybe I simply gained an hour of experimentation, connected to a stranger through a shared interest and intent.
Not every project needs to fulfil its purpose to be a success. Not every technically successful artwork fulfills its purpose. Sometimes, taking a moment to appreciate the efforts of those who came before us is the way that we keep them alive. I hope Ms. Henderson wouldn’t mind too much. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, after all.