Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Beach Stones

There's an old saying in business: "Speed, quality and price, pick any two." This generally applies to lettercarving, as long as you never choose speed. There's almost no getting around the fact that it's a time-consuming process. But as the holidays approached, a few jobs put that thinking to the test. The first was for a pet memorial, commissioned by a friend as a gift for his neighbors who lost two beloved cats. A week before I got the call I paid a visit to my favorite beach outside Newport and found a beautiful cobble shaped like a curling stone without the handle. I had no intended purpose for it but believed it would be a welcome option for some future project. And now it was at hand. My friend had given me the names of the pets and on the morning he was due at the shop to inspect the stone, I sketched a layout for it, anticipating his approval.

This was on a Monday afternoon. Coming down from Maine en route to Connecticut, he said that he would be back in the area on Wednesday morning and wondered if it would be ready in time. I assured him, without I confess utter conviction, that it would be. And so I got to work. When working with beach stones you're never quite sure how it's going to go. You have to take what the ocean gives you. To my considerable relief, this stone had been waiting impatiently quite a long time indeed to hold a memorial inscription. It was like carving into an ancient lemon poppyseed muffin, a little crumbly around the edges but a stone of infinite depth. Though outwardly simple and a little cartoonish, I was pleased with the letter forms I came up with for this project, having had little experience in the designing of lower case letters, stuck as I have been in a rut of Roman capitals. Before I transferred the layout I was aware of the natural declivity in the top right part of the stone, a sign of weakness and a potentially difficult area to carve given how changes in the stone's topography can warp the letter shapes. But before it could be viewed as a problem, the solution presented itself: extend the leg of the L so that the inscription bypasses the weak spot entirely.

And thus, out of necessity, virtue. Another aesthetic solution arrived in the reconciliation of the two Ys. Here I decided to combine them and draw out the termination to evoke the flick of a cat's tail.

This is the sort of fun a letterer can have which is mostly off-limits to the typographer. And these are exactly the sort of challenges I looked forward to as I attempted to bring my static graphic design sensibility to a more supple format. Soon I hit my stride and wrapped up the carving by Tuesday afternoon. I was glad to have the extra few hours Wednesday morning to obsess over some minor details, but in the end it never felt like a rush job. Designed, carved, picked up and, most excitingly, paid for in two days flat.

It was good training for my next project, a small stone for the garden of a friend's mother, to be given as a Christmas present. This time it was only four letters, her initials, MFVR. On the same trip to Newport I searched for a stone specifically with this commission in mind, and ended up finding a suitable shape in a type of stone I had carved before with great success. My design orders were "capitals with a touch of whimsy" so as to avoid anything funereal in aspect. I sketched for a while without the aid of inspiration and later received an email from my friend with a critical bit of info: though his mother's first name begins with M, she actually goes by Francis, thereby raising the F to primary importance. Then it all came together.

It was playful and snug and filled the stone. The letters were sketched with a carpenter's pencil, so they have similar weight distributions to pen-drawn letters, but with brush-like embellishments. Though I did not consult any specific letterer for inspiration, these letters strike me as having an English bent. The work of Will Carter and Michael Harvey are never far from my mind, so perhaps when I heard "whimsy" I thought "Harvey". At any rate, they were a hell of a lot of fun and my friend was on board with it, so off I went.

Interesting that I faced a similar issue with regard to a declivity in the stone. Whereas with the pet memorial I carved around it, here I chose to carve through it, the bowl of the R removing any trace of the weak spot. The urgency of this project was driven more by my friend's holiday travel schedule than the amount of work to be done, but I still managed to design, carve and deliver the job in the span of two days.

Finally, a Christmas present for my fiance. All in an afternoon's work.

1 comment:

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