Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Copper Mine.

We received this monster stash today from the Strange Famous HQ: all of the things that have been printed for Sage’s tour (halfway through, UK leg commencing October) and copies of the long-awaited album itself. It came in three boxes over three days and each one was scalpelled open with a child-like grin of excitement.

I’m particularly impressed by the sensitivity with which the delicate lines of the illustrations have reproduced on the tiny CD version, and the impact of the SAGE FRANCIS writ large over the t shirts. Careful printing has meant that even on the meaty hoodies, the detail of the little house and things like the riveted album title haven’t suffered - these things mean a lot when you’ve grafted on the minutiae of a thing.

Turn your eyeballs too to the copper and verdigris-coloured vinyl, which changes with each side (no two will be the same). The blue cassette tape is a triumph (one’s gone in our tape-only automobile) and the sparkling, presumably accidental show-through of a little silver on the CD itself makes for real glittery impact. And who DOESN’T wish for a pile of golden round stickers? All brought together in the experienced hands of Irena Mihalinec, Strange Famous’ in-house designer, who brought coherence and consistency to a wide range of difficult-to-design-for objects!

Sage is, to coin an oft-abused phrase, at the 'top of his game’ - lazy shorthand really for someone who’s spent long enough in a business to know how to give value and earn the love - and this is an artillery of connected, considered pieces which demonstrate that: the core product itself, with the extravagant coloured vinyl that ALL buyers deserve, the supporting items for tour sales, the give-aways and the add-ons. All must work together coherently, and the fewest amount of compromises should be made on quality when people are spending their hard-earned, whether after the gig or making a solitary album investment. Watch, and learn!

I’m looking forward to the UK tour, when I get to see all the audio jump to life on stage. Gulp.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Breathe Into The Back.

In September I’ll have been practising yoga for seven years, ever since the day I started to think that weights alone weren’t the only thing I should be doing as I moved towards my 40s. I grew up with a yoga-practising Mum, so was familiar with some of the moves, which Mum would do to unwind and get time for herself at six in the morning. The sound of the yoga teacher Lynn's voice on the cassette tape was always soothing, even though I didn’t very often join in (there were also Richard Hittleman books lying around). My mate had tried a class with a bloke up at my my old school, which was a disaster because he was rude and impatient, and didn't like being asked questions, but unlike my gymnastics classes, I didn’t, this time, let one bad teacher put me off the whole practice for life (after all I could have been bouncing along bars and cartwheeling over a mat instead of drawing!)

No - this time, after going through the Yellow Pages and the Phone Book, my sister pointed out that the obvious thing to do was look online - which, weirdly, I’d been reluctant to do, for reasons I can’t remember now. But she was right, because within seconds I’d found Anna Ashby - teacher at Triyoga in London, an ex-ballerina with almost two decades of yoga practice, and…look! She also teaches in Hinckley!

London and Hinckley. I couldn’t believe my luck! There was something in me that was saying I needed a professional - someone who LIVED the practice, and didn’t just teach it in the evenings after their day job doing something else. This felt very important to me, as I felt driven to learn with the best, or not at all. Treating it as seriously as something I’d be learning for work…or like starting a new degree. A light snobbery perhaps, but this was the first time I’d embarked on any sort of serious learning since leaving college, and automatically applied the same criteria. Anna was to become my yoga college!

That was September 2007, and I’ve been going ever since. Many Thursday activities have been missed because Thursday Is Yoga Day, and many a vicious grump has taken hold whenever I’ve had to miss a class to meet a deadline. But Anna and her classes have been a continuous feature of my life since that first session, at my old school in Hinckley, when me and Anna’s husband Michael - who later built my new website and became involved in assorted Factoryroad/Inkymole creative projects too - stood discussing the colour palette of the newly-painted mural on the school hall’s wall. Christmas presents became yoga props and birthday present requests were for yoga clothes. Everyone who comes to work with us is told to ‘lie over the brick’ at least once, to ease their aching backs. The mat is permanently set up in the top room (albeit walked over by the odd contractor who doesn’t realise what it is - meaning it has to be washed of course).

It’s Anna’s caramel Texan-infused voice, with her micro-corrections and references to the minutiae of the asanas, that I hear when I do yoga at home. It’s her fault I wang one leg randomly up the nearest wall during a conversation, ‘just to give it a stretch’. It’s because of Anna all of our interns have been forced to lie over a brick to straighten their backs out. It’s Anna’s influence that made me do a headstand on the top of Blackpool tower, and in the fields in Stratford, and on the balcony in the gym after a workout; and it’s down to her that I can now, finally, do shoulder stands without thinking my neck is going to snap and getting a migraine the following day.

It’s also down too her that, last weekend in the back of the Suzuki Carry, I finally managed a complete crow pose for more than one second!

Anna is warm, funny, beautiful and extremely professional, as you can see in this video where she introduces us to her practice:

Yoga’s still here despite a three-year obsession with running, a period of resenting ALL exercise and a flirtation with kettle bells. I almost started the teacher training, thinking seriously that I could line it up as a second career or something to do when and if the illustration came to an end, or if I brought it to an end - but ironically, I got too busy, and was reminded by my nearest and dearest that I already had too many commitments. Maybe I’ll go back to that one day?

Anna and her yoga were there during the darkest few weeks of my life, helping to keep me from exploding while the yoga went on unconsciously in a dazed and running-on-auto state. In fact, only three days after the worst day of my entire life so far, when it was all I could do to operate my limbs and remember to keep breathing, she and I went to Cambridge to film her Interactive Yoga DVD - a full day’s poses repeated seven or eight times for the camera, one warm May day - including demonstrating how not to do a few of the poses! The concentration and massive physical effort took me miles and miles away from what else was going on in my life (yoga does that). The memory of a Buddhist camerawoman, a yoga teacher and a vegan trying to swat from the Buddha shrine the bluebottle which had been landing on our Corpse Pose faces for the last twenty minutes will never leave me, and was a moment of massive light and humour in a very murky week.

You can see the results of the filming here, me with considerably less hair than I have now:

Last week I learned that Anna is retiring from her Hinckley classes to focus on her work in London. Although she lives locally, her weeks are split clean in two with half at Triyoga and half at home; and finally, her commitments have become such that she’s had to make some time for herself. I completely understand this decision from a professional perspective, and I applaud her decision. But inside, there’s a little tear-stained spot on the yoga mat and a worried student furrowing her brow over what comes next. I can choose another teacher of course, and part of me is excited about being forced to make a change and adapt. But they’ll never be Anna, and anyone who’s done yoga for a long time with one person will understand where I’m coming from.

We’ve resolved to practise together at her house, sometimes mine, to keep the continuity going, and I’m hoping to travel to London to be in one of her classes at the weekends now and again, when finances and schedule allow! And she lives only ten minutes down the road, so it’s not the end of the world. But it is the end of an era, and I’m feeling a bit bereft; however in the true spirit of yoga, it’s off to the last class tonight for tea and home-made cakes following practise, and then bravely onward, as Anna and I together with all of her other Hinckley studies reach into the next chapter. *And Breathe.*

Thank you Anna!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Varying Dialects of Nib.

I always like wrapping my lettering around a different language! Parcel from Brazil this morning and it wasn’t football-shaped. Always useful to see how your lettering shapes up to the task of wrapping itself around a different language.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014


‘You know that really excellent thing that Illustrator does? Yeah, that. Take that out’.

Like many artists who create lettering, I’ve used Adobe’s Trace facility for many years to turn scanned ink on paper into vector art. This might be because the client needs it to be enlarged on a huge scale, or because they’re dropping the lettering over a photo, it’s being animated, or appearing on an iPhone screen, or because they don’t know what to do with any other file type (I’ve had all these reasons and more over the years). For whatever reason, I have to vectorise things a lot - an increasing amount, in fact, as my work’s being used for more and more moving and interactive things.

I started out a long time ago with Streamline, which as you might remember was a standalone application which became incorporated into Illustrator as Live Trace. For users this was a 'god-send', as it meant having one package to do the lot with no exporting. And it worked beautifully. Arriving with a ‘Lettering' preset built in which could create highly sensitive vector art from the finest and curliest of lines, preserving every ebb and flow of the ink and remaining faithful to one’s careful nib moves, the preset could also be adapted to create different looks depending on your desired final outcome. If you wanted a more plastic look, with your bumps and tidemarks smoothed off, you could do it. In addition, the ‘Black & White Logo’ preset was brilliant at doing exactly what it said - turning your hand-drawn black ink creation into something which looked exactly like the polished shiny logo on the side of a sleek new van, or screened onto a posh store’s window.

Here it is. Hello old friend!

But if you didn’t want that slightly plastic look, Live Trace would work with you to get you what you wanted:

See look - the beautiful ‘Lettering’ preset! (and the Comic Art one, an absolute must for many Trace users as I later discovered):

We worked like that for years, Live Trace and I, and I relied on our quiet, mutually respectful partnership until one day an upgrade presented me, in CS5, with something called Image Trace, hailed as a Great New Thing.

Without going into the entire history of my struggles, I’ve spent unquantifiable hours - usually night-time ones with saucer eyes and gritted teeth - trying to get Image Trace to create the same outcome as my CS3’s Live Trace (come on, keep up). For a start, the ‘Lettering' preset has been removed - and although the panel presents you with a generous set of sliding tools with which you can determine the sensitivity of otherwise of the tracing, no combination on earth appears to achieve it.

Here’s the default tracing setting in Illustrator CC, and you can see that just like Live Trace you theoretically have control over just about everything - how straightened your curved lines become, how many pixels is too few to bother with, whether you apply a stroke or not, whether to factor in the white background, and how ‘fat’ the line is; whether your resultant paths are stacked on top or next to each other:

I saved all my test presets on my desktop until they reached about 23 in number, none of which worked very well, at which point I began to think something wasn’t right.

To demonstrate my troubles, since we are discussing pictures and I’m doing a lot of talking, here’s a section of a piece drawn in ink and taken through some Image Tracings.
Here’s a scan of a bit of the original:

As you can see, a variety of fat and skinny lines are present, as is the usual style for this particular client (for whom I’ve done over 50 illustrations now).

Here is the same section run through the Default Image Trace setting, no tweaks:

- which looks like this. Helpfully (I think) it tells you how many points and anchors you’ll end up with if you choose this combination of settings, at the bottom:

See how I’m losing that heading, the edges of the clock and those weird spiked letters on the wedding invite?
And the way everything looks a bit…lumpen?

Well, for the next Trace, I’ve ramped up the amount of pixels the Tracing takes into account, asked it to create Strokes as well as Fills (in the interests of demonstrating the differences), and clicked off ‘Snap Curves to Lies’,* so that it faithfully sticks to what I’VE decided should be curvy, thank you very much:

*typo, but I left it in as it seems apt. And I was mardy.

And here is the blobsome outcome. Ugly eh?

Now I’ve switched off the ‘Strokes’ - just fills, please:


If I take those settings back down, to reduce line weight and not have them run one into the other like so many black-clad Sumo wrestlers, this is what happens:

Yeay! Cause THAT worked!

I began to think that maybe Image Trace didn’t have enough information to go on, so began scanning at 600dpi…then 1200dpi…then enlarging the ‘Placed’ file massively with the Scale tool to, y’know, make sure Image Trace could ‘see’ what it was vectorising really clearly.

I even came across someone advising on the Adobe forum (an actual Adobian) who claimed you had to REDUCE the resolution, not increase it, and anti-alias the original image. She also suggested that images with a little blur around the lines worked best, because ‘Live Trace is better at guessing’ where it needed to place a path (I wasn’t sure about that). So I tried both of those things, one at a time, and certainly although reducing the original image from 1200 to 600 to 300dpi SEEMED to improve the accuracy of the trace a little, it didn’t make enough of a difference.

So, by now I've written myself a little manual of Trace Rules to follow, so it couldn’t go wrong. But just when I thought I’d got a nice result, I’d apply those settings to another piece, and the result would be…weird, at best, horrid and unusable at worst. And the manual went in the Trash.

Here are some of my more successful settings, saved as Presets - if you to test any out I’ll screen grab the settings for you. They represent not a 'perfect result', but ‘the best I can mange’ for different styles of work - which isn’t really what you want to be sending to a client who’s used to receiving perfectly-vectorised, clear work which, above all else, LOOKS LIKE my work, not some terrible rounded-off vac-formed version with rounded-off edges and bits missing.

As you can see, even Graham had a crack at a preset:

Obviously, I could post the many more screen shots of the potentially hundreds of outcomes over the last eighteen months or so, but I’m not sure your eyes could cope. (And some might work for you - you never know. Just make sure you test them on the widest variety of line work that you can before committing.)

Breaking point came when the lack of a satisfactory Trace for a piece I’d drawn up in plenty of time made it late arriving with the client by a frustrating 24 hours. I’d begun to put out Facebook calls by this time, to see if anyone else had noticed or solved the problem, but it seemed no-one had (to be frank, I think people run away and pretend they can’t hear me when I gasp out any technical pleas.)

I just kept thinking…’y’know Mole, you can be impatient; I know it’s been months, but keep persevering! You’ll crack it. You just haven’t APPLIED YOURSELF’.

But I started reading around a bit more, and lo, stories began to emerge of frustrated pre-Image Trace users complaining about the new version. Caricaturists, graphic novel artists, comic artists, designers, illustrators and animators were all recording exactly the same thing as me. ‘I AM NOT ALONE!’ I wept, as I read Adobe’s attempts to help on assorted forum threads leading to hands-thrown-in-the-air users sidling resignedly back in the direction of their copies of CS3.

Then I had another idea. There ARE apps out there that can do this! I thought. Yep - for about $280. There are a handful in the App Store too (you’ll need to use a variety of search terms - vector, trace, line art and so on) - but none yet proven and none with reviews positive enough to convince me. I even downloaded one, which on arrival looked for all the world like a 1999 PC thing with a perma-stressing histogram, and just froze when I asked anything of it. *couldn’t open CLEAN MY MAC fast enough*

So this is how it went down in the end.

This morning, with yet another job hovering on the border between ‘yep, right on deadline but still OK” and ‘JESUS WOMAN WHERE IS IT???’ I did this.

- Installed my boxed copy of AICS3 on our server (‘cos there’s no CD drive in the iMac).

- Dragged installed AICS3 to iMac.

- Adobe's self-sabotaging anti-piracy nonsense kicked in and froze the app.

- Phoned Adobe to ask if I could have a download link for my legacy illustrator version SINCE I OWN IT and would like to put it straight on my iMac.
After ten painful minutes of repeatedly spelling my email address and name the doing-his-best-to-be-helpful bloke sends me a link to a download page - that’s offline till about 6pm that night (it’s lunchtime and my piece is late).

- Went back to AICS3 version on the server, THAT version’s now panicking as ‘it knows it’s been moved’ so had to put in serial number in again and re-register.

- Dumped my PSD file (my drawing) onto the server and opened AICS3, pressed ‘Live Trace’ on the ‘Lettering’ preset, hit Expand, Select all white + Delete, and BAM, in seconds it’s DONE.

- Dragged finished beautiful vector back onto iMac and sent to the VERY patient client who, fortunately, is all too aware of the vector hassles since her company’s just installed CC versions for the first time.

- Resolved to write this blog.

To prove I’m not a whinging madwoman rocking back and forth in my office chair doing the software equivalent of Miss Haversham, compare the difference.
1) is vectorised with CC's Image Trace after hours of messing with settings,
2) is CS3’s Live Trace ‘Lettering' preset done in one click,
3) Is the completed original.

For the foreseeable future, that’s how I’m going to do it.

This blog has amusingly drawn the same conclusion as me - which is, if you’re tracing drawings and sketches in CS5 and above and want the same result as pre-CS5 tracings, ‘it can’t be done’.

If anybody should happen to read this from Adobe, I’m all ears as to the exact settings I need to use to achieve the result shown here. Please! Thanks.
‘Cause it genuinely seems that a set of small but deadly weapons were changed in the name of progress, leaving thousands of users scratching their heads, questioning their perseverance and wondering where they put their copies of CS3.

Royal Mile Whiskies.

A couple of years ago I started designing a new identity for Royal Mile Whiskies, owned by the hard-grafting and multitasking Keir Sword of Edinburgh. Shown around his magnificent shop for the first time, we arrived as ‘people who didn’t like whisky’ (each having had our own off-putting experiences with it in our youth) and left as calm and enlightened whisky drinkers. Having given Keir our likes, dislikes and ambitions for whisky, he’d pondered the shelves of his hundreds of types, and pulled out just a handful he suspected we’d like - and in every case, he was right.

Not only does he have a beautiful amply-stocked shop with more whiskies than I’ve ever seen in my life, those whiskies present four walls of positively bejewelled labels, and glittering glass bottles and elegant shapes. Did you know they make whisky in Japan? And France?

Keir also owns Drinkmonger and another Royal Mile Whiskies shop, and we satisfactorily created this blend of classic shapes and movement with quite a hands-on, organic look. All done by hand and to Keir’s tight and responsive feedback, the logo evolved through these stages to become the final:

My favourite was actually the ribbony one without any obvious drink references - but if I had a quid for every time the client’s gone for the opposite…well, I wouldn’t need to design whisky logos any more!
In the end, he liked the movement of this one and the small details, and I did too actually. It was drawn in one take on an A2 sheet and scanned (you can see the raw scan above) - then within a few months it was time to start thinking about applying that to his labels.

Keir’s got a distillery as well, called the Dormant Distillery - here’s a logo I had a stab at, even though he didn’t actually ask for one! -

which was about to bottle and release 8 different whiskies. The labels were a tough call - having had my eyes draped over some of the most beautiful and detailed labels I’d ever seen, I think I actually crumbled into defeat for a few weeks while I waited for the Brave to hit me. In the end it did - by going back to Keir’s brief and think about what suited the shop - but for a while there, I didn’t think it was ever going to be possible to create something as good!

*Ah, note to students…it’s not about it being ‘as good’ - even though that’s what happened as I channeled my 20-year-old self’s nervousness! It’s only ever about making what the client wants - and then making it a bit better than that. Official statement over!*

Here are some of the  messy designs for the first few labels I did. I chucked ink about a lot, thinking about the invisible chemical processes that were taking place in the whisky, and trying to imagine being a molecule inside that, being hurled and tossed about:

We removed the somewhat presumptuous logo and returned, partly due to the small stature of the label itself and the need for legibility, to a clean background:

And still groaning under the weight of too much type, they were further simplified to look like this:

which eventually became this!

Each bottle is very limited in quantity and has its own number, and each of the 8 whiskies also has its own description written in a different coloured ink, over a digitally-printed label on a classic ivory textured paper:

Plus a copper foil for the enclosing swirls:

I’m drinking some now, and this one, a Bunnahbhain, is so warm and gentle I can hardly believe it’s the ‘same drink’ I tried and tried again in my teens - but that’ll teach me to think ‘Bell’s = whisky', right?

Next on the agenda is the shop front, letterheads and aprons - and a trip back up there to get it all into action! Can’t wait to be honest.


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