Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Signwriting with David Kynsaston.

My weekend was spent at Waste Studios in Nottingham undertaking my first formal learning in ages. In recent years I’ve done segwaying, zipwiring, 4x4 driving; further back there was glassmaking, bee house making and even mask and fancy box-making, but those were nothing compared to this!

We’d had a busy eighteen months which saw us painting a big mural in Baltimore at a moment’s notice, a future ghost sign on a local recently-restored pub and its interior, and a 15m wall mural, all completed on a heady mixture of gun-ho, improvisation, projection and the experience we already had. Somehow, we got those jobs done to the client’s total satisfaction and looking really nice.

But with several more outdoor/wall/sign writing engagements coming up for the Inkymole Outdoor Division this year, I’d begun to feel keenly the lack of expertise in certain areas - there must be ways and means of doing more elegantly what we’d done, and better and more appropriate materials. I’d kept an eye out for a signwriting course since the start of the year, and when this one came along, grabbed it.

I’d forgotten what it’s like to be a beginner at something (I’ll get to experience this again when we go drifting next week!) and three important lessons came home with me from the weekend.

Day One was Roman type.

First, realising the crucial difference between a ‘script’ or a ‘hand’ - the style of lettering that a sign-writer created by hand is not the same thing as a typeface or a font - was the first big learning curve. The Roman and Copperplate letter-forms I was pencilling out with tutor David Kynaston’s home-made angle tool are ancient characters which, although subject to certain rules and weights, are slightly different every time depending on who’s drawn them, at what size and on what substrate. In other words - aim for hand-drawn perfection, not mechanical accuracy. I was soon auto-correcting myslf every time I reached for the word ‘typeface’.

Learning Curve no. 2 was the amount of maths involved in creating a single letter, a collection of which when spaced correctly (not kerned - spaced!) create a word. Often, the most I’ll pencil out for some type is a base line, maybe a top and centre line perhaps, but the consistent angled lines generated by measuring points were a new and slow procedure.

After two hours of drawing out letters using only a pencil, ruler and David’s special tool, and still not getting them quite right, I couldn’t help but think about how much type I’d have created in the same amount of time using my ink pens on paper. Nope - this is a very different way of working, but incredibly satisfying. There’s no ‘winging it’. I usually only get to the labour intensive part of my lettering when I’m settled down with my pen and ink, but this was a reversal - measuring out took ages, but the letters themselves, when we were finally allowed some paint and a brush, emerged fairly quickly, a wobbly and uncertain stroke at a time.

(In fact, remembering to refer to it as paint not ink, and to use it as such, was another piece of learning!)

Watching Dave create his own letters freehand was an encapsulation of his 27 years of experience, and a reminder of what it is like to be on the other side of the many hours of teaching I’ve done: Lesson Number 3. When I sweep a pen over a sheet of paper with apparent casual ease, it’s easy to forget that the person watching who’s never done it before might well be feeling they could never achieve that - just as I did when I watched Dave’s Massive Signwriting Hands pull beautiful Copperplate sweeps from thin air. I gulped back awe and intimidation with my half-aware sip of tea, and narrowed my eyes in determination.

So when the chance came to pick a complete word to render on our own at the end of Day 1, I chose:

Day Two was Copperplate.

Dave’s casual sketch of an a, for me to copy, using his points system:

My row of practise ns:

Copperplate I thought I’d be more comfortable with, but I still found there was a great deal of muscle memory in the right hand that wanted to sweep and add pressure where it wasn’t supposed to be for this script. The key to an excellent Copperplate is to get your strokes absolutely consistent - fat ups, thin downs, and vice versa, and the thins are REALLY thin.

Today, un-learning seemed to be the key - ink pens need pressure, sign-writing brushes don’t, and working vertically changes everything.
For some reason, capital letters were easier for me than the lower-case; here are Dave’s examples, and the chart to follow:

Everyone there was already a signwriter with some serious skill level knocking about, like this fella’s finished piece:

Again in the afternoon, aware I was missing a 3-year-old Coleman family member’s birthday party, I decided to make my final piece this. At this point, the concentration levels were at their highest!

And the final. The P stems are terribly wonky, but there are bits of it I was really pleased with - it took ages! As you can see I risked the disapproval of Dave The Tutor by adding in some customary (and quite unnecessary) Molesweeps:

Finally I took home the set of proper signwriting brushes, made by Dave himself in his special home-made box, which he personalised with an easy swish of the pink paint. Well we do have actual proper signwriting to do very soon, and we need the proper gear, right?

At the end of the weekend I was knackered, partly because I was standing up pretty much the whole time, but mainly because I was reminded of the fact that although the brain occupies only 2% of the body’s total mass, it uses up 20% of its energy. So, there was nothing for it but to sit down in the Oldest Pub In England with a half of dark porter and some crisps, under its roof carved from the inside of the rockface.

I’ll definitely take the opportunity for another course if I can, as one was clearly only the very micro-beginning, and I need to, shall we say…brush up! Thanks Dave for an excellent two days at just the right pace, in a sunny studio.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015


We all do it, and we can stop berating ourselves for it, because according to this article in Stylist magazine, it’s actually good for us and helps us - bizarrely - crack on with our stuff, albeit not in the way we might have originally expected. I am so familiar with the desk-polishing, shelf-tidying, pen-organising school of easing into a job!

Art directed by Natasha Tomalin, this was one of those jobs where I caught myself laughing at the silliness of drawing for hours with every blue pen I’ve got, very fast, to a mad deadline. There are times when I can’t believe I’m being paid for what I’m doing - as a friend (now my agent) once put it, ‘we do colouring in for a living, how brilliant is that?’

She’s right, it’s brilliant, and this scribble bonanza - more controlled and careful than it actually looks - turned out well. I was glad, since the only other illustrated covers Stylist have ever done included two by Quentin Blake and David ‘Shriggles’ Shrigley. So, no pressure there then. It actually took several back-and-forths to get exactly the right feel, but I think it turned out proper doodletastic.


We’ve made our solid easter eggs twice before (you may even have eaten one) but our versions for 2015 are fabulously evolved beasts!
The eggs are a labour of love that, quite frankly, we make because we can, and because we should, and because the world has been crying out for a solid - like, actual SOLID Easter egg - since Easter Eggs were invented. Easter usually comes right in the middle of an annual busy period, so there is always a late night or two as packaging is designed and photographs are taken…samples eaten...eggs collected…but somehow we do it, for the love of sinking one’s teeth into a bed of praline or gnawing on three inches of chocolate into the night.

Hand-made for us this year by Leicester chocolatier Pete at Cocoa Amore, whose shop sits right in the middle of the current Richard III activity in Leicester, Solid Egg 2015 has a girthy 70% cocoa shell filled with either solid chocolate or incredible soft praline. Now coming as one solid egg (rather than two halves), we’ve made these in Solid Chocolate, Praline, Salted Chocolate or Ginger (the latter types in limited supply). Every egg comes wrapped in a chocolate-brown signed screen print of cocoa-loving artwork by me, printed in Factory Road, just a few doors down. Which is fully washable and can be used for any purpose after the egg is long gone!

This year we’ve made 20 available as a super special edition snuggled in a hand-woven nest by international willow artist Tom Hare. If you’ve been to any of the RHS gardens, or specifically Kew Gardens, or latterly to Bishopsgate, the Bellagio in Las Vegas or to Macau...you might have seen his work. He too was in the middle of a super-busy period when we commissioned these nests from him, so we’re grateful to have them - each one will be different from the last.

As usual the eggs are 100% vegan, gluten and dairy-free, with the emphasis on flavour and quality. Oh, and size. And…weight - over 500g per egg.

Watch one being cut, and listen for the chocolate crack! Good tempering!

And you can buy one here:

Check the photographs for proof of the existence of this magnificent celebration of bunnies, greed and re-birth!

This is the Solid Egg with praline filling.

Stuart prepping the artwork.

Egg, print and nest. Cocoa Amore, Inkymole and Tom Hare.

Only 100 made, all hand signed.

It's so dense, it virtually has it's own gravitational pull.

Stacked up and ready for signing.

The Family Project.

The Family Project is a joint venture between the Guardian Newspaper and publishers Faber + Faber, inviting the owners of the book to explore their own family’s unique quirks, traits, habits, memories and history by talking and remembering, and recording them in this fat, two-colour journal.

Written by author and journalist John-Paul Flintoff and wife Harriet Green, page after page offers opportunities for observation, laughter and note-making; there are graphs and boxes to draw in, questions to consider and things to draw - or, if drawing’s not your thing, attach clippings, memories and precious things, all in the name of creating a snapshot journal record of your own family, as it stands in time right now.

I illustrated all 200+ pages of this lovely book (over 50 A3 sheets of illustrations) in nib pen and ink, and enjoyed doing them - it was great to relax back into the wobbly, unrefined style I worked in for years and years earlier, but haven’t had the chance to flex much lately. The goat was a challenge (I can’t draw animals or men) and the pathetic-sounding note I wrote on it was meant only for the art director’s eyeballs, intended for deletion on printing. I drew on personal experience for the deathly below-freezing caravan too, since the memory of one which tried to claim all our lives a few years ago has stayed with me!

You can buy it here:

Friday, March 20, 2015

It’s A Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World.

I was interviewed recently by Visualmente, the creative section of a newspaper in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Unless you speak Spanish you won’t get much out of the screen grab of the article below, so here is the interview in full. Though I think there have been one or two little elaborations for the sake of translation, as the article was read out to me by Hugo Weinberg, my French CIA agent, it sounds like it was printed pretty much word for word!

I think you can probably work out which of the questions is the one which raised my eyebrows and piqued my interest…
I like answering interview questions if they’re considered and the interviewer has done their homework, which I think this guy definitely had.

1. How would you define your style? It is an illustrator or specialist lettering?
Both, But when I tell people what I do, I’m ‘an illustrator’.

2. The world of typographic illustration is revealed as a man's world. How is it for you to work in that world?
Is it? A man’s world? It absolutely isn’t! I must admit, I laughed a bit at this question. I’m surprised you don’t know Marion Deuchars, Marian Bantjes, Paula Scher, Ruth Rowland…there are many more.
I compete with other illustrators, not other men or women - I can’t speak for others but I’ve personally found illustration to be a largely genderless industry. Happily!

3. You have worked on many magazine covers. How was work for Playboy? Can you explain the title "The College Issue”?
Playboy are not traditionally known for their use of illustration - inside maybe, for some of the articles - but there hadn’t been an illustrated cover for 25 years when they called me to make this one. It was a risk for the relatively new Art Director, and he took a chance on it - I did feel the responsibility of it, this famous and VERY long-standing magazine - and I do also know that Hugh Hefner had to approve the cover in person, as he does all issues.

So I know that Hugh himself approved my work!

We did not know until the last moment which of the 9 photographs was going to be chosen for the cover, so I had to create artwork that would work with any of those photographs. That was tricky. Those photographs included some close-ups and tight crops, so the art had to flexible. I managed to do it and the turn-round was very quick - a few days only.

The brief was simply to imagine I was a female college freshman doodling notes around the subjects of the magazine’s features, but not to make it too ‘pretty’ - the girl was pretty enough! It had to have movement and life without putting off its male buyers - I think it worked - and I have never been asked for so many samples of my work by friends, ha ha!

4. You have also worked in advertising. What differences are there for you to work for a client and a magazine?
Advertising has big budgets, so there is a lot of pressure. By the time you have been commissioned, a lot of processes have taken place - meetings, sketches, planning, media-buying, budgeting - to arrive at that point. Therefore you can’t mess it up.

It also has longer deadlines than Editorial work, which is very, very quick - often as fast as a day or afternoon. And a much lower budget, meaning that an Art Director can take a chance on an illustrator or style knowing that illustration won’t be in the public domain for long.

I find I can experiment a little with Editorial, and be a little bit more conceptual, whereas in advertising, my work is usually very heavily directed.

5. How do you usually work? Makes sketches before working?
I always draw in pencil first, then ink it in. All my work is created with ink (which can be nibs, fountain pens, brushes, biros, felt-tips, gel pens or Japanese calligraphy pens and others) on paper. It is of course then scanned to be sent all over the world!

6. We would like you to tell us the choices of different typefaces drawn from the cover of "Sight & Sound”?
Aha; those aren’t typefaces; they’re all drawn by hand on paper around the figures or characters shown on the cover, specially for each issue! Some were made with a pen, some with brushes, depending on the atmosphere we needed to create. I would make perhaps three or four times the quantity of type that was needed, then would experiment with different combinations. I really enjoyed working for Sight and Sound, which is the magazine of the BFI - the British Film Institute.

You can see the online version of the newspaper here:
And their Facebook page:

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Six And A Half Deadly Sins

Last year I started work on a new series of books in the US, the new covers for the Colin Cotterill collection of strange, wonderful and macabre stories about a 70-year-old coroner called Dr Siri Palboun, set in Laos. And yes - having read a couple, they are as strange as they sound!

Nailing down the look of a series always takes quite a bit of work, and this one was particularly tricky given the subject matter and the precedent of the author's popularity. It was also the hardcover - I've since designed the rest of the paperback covers.

The finished cover is below, and rather than talk my way through this one (my usual method!), watch the cover evolve from early zombie-filled ideas into a typographic/ink-sloshy solution! This one doesn't 'look like me'...know what I mean? I do like a surprise result.

Six And A Half Deadly Sins is out on May 19th this year in the US, and is to be followed by 8 more books in paperback, with titles like 'The Woman Who Wouldn't Die'! Excellent.

 Close-up of the repeat pattern intended for the endpapers - not used in the end:


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