We have all lived with letters and words around us since we came into the world and had the ability to look around. We learn to group letters into words and structure words in to sentences and so we learn to read. Lettering and wording follows certain rules which allow the words to be communicated clearly and without ambiguity. As there are 26 letters in the English alphabet, capitals, an array of punctuations and 17576 possible letter combinations in lower case alone, and given that every letter is a different form and volume it makes these rules difficult to quantify. It is this that draws me to letters….
We know what looks right and we know what looks wrong without knowing what the “rules” are. We are so used to seeing words and letters it doesn’t take much of a discrepancy in the structure of the letter or word for us to notice and to find it fails aesthetically, if we can get it right with a pleasing form then words can look beautiful, to be able to give letters a further dimension allowing them light and shade is what excites me. Lettercutting for me started from the necessity of carving numbers into racing dinghies and developed from there.
Two very different fonts. A fine simple italic on a new boats transom, this picture shows how shade defines the lettering, there is no coating in the lettering here just shadow. The picture on the right is of a curved sign that resides above my work shop a much more curvy and therefore time-consuming font to carve.
I love the simple shadow that carved wood gives, sometimes however it might be necessary to lighten the lettering either by a light paint or gold leaf. This is another transom with the lettering gold leafed. The letters here are a curvy font, you can see that with curves, light and shadow blend with a taper whereas with the straight cut capital lettering the shadow is either on or off, both look nice, just different.
Keeping regular form can be aesthetically beautiful in its own right, I find some of the Arabic scripts particularly fascinating with their neat repetition especially when seen as a large block of writing, where the individual letters collectively become part of a larger aesthetic. Allowing playful creative freedom in lettering design can work really well in situations where the weight of conventional lettering would be too great. By weight I mean the solemnity. The Brown Oak panel above is for a bookshelf, if I were to carve lettering conventionally it might look correct in a church but not in a piece in which I try to evoke a feeling of wonder – in the inquisitive sense. Some of the tricks of sharing stems in vertical strokes is an old practice of letter carvers to save time, money and/or room. The use of sharing stems and varying the letters to fit inside each other (and the fact that it is written backwards) is what lightens this piece in my mind and makes it fantastical. The interesting part is how does that align with the unwritten rules that I have been talking about? I think the answer is that it still does follow them, much in the same way a good piece of graffiti does. I guess what I am saying is that you can warp the “rules”within the bounds of relativity.
The carved pebble has lettering which is all related but not rigidly constant, it is also relative to the form of the pebble. This was carved with the theory that if you start with the first letter and end with the last letter than you can fill in the middle in any order and the word will still be legible to most people. This was a gift to my daughter Penelope.
Again I hope that these words help to show at least some of the thought that at least one craftsman puts into his work. The carving is carried out by hand with various shapes of chisels allowing all aspects of the letters to be controlled, angle of cut, depth width, serifs all leaving a crisp bottom line which gives the crispness of shadow. It’s not so hard really, except perhaps for 8’s and S’s and maybe 3’s………..