Versal Calligraphy For Nursery

When my client, Jennifer, came to me with the idea of this piece for her nephew’s bedroom, I already had these versal calligraphy letters floating around in my head. The alphabet is called Lombardic and lends itself to wonderful illustration and ornamentation. These letters are entirely drawn, line by line. Some letters are based on the shape of a circle, but there are many possibilities for letter variations. The piece that inspired me was from Julien Chazal’s book titled Calligraphy: A Complete Guide. It featured Lombardic capitals in varying heights and colors. A lot of the work I’ve been doing has been on the formal side lately and this was a great opportunity to do something casual and fun.

First Sketches

Let Him Sleep 1st Sketch
The first sketch I made for this project was in bright green and blue colored pencil. I used versal calligraphy and slightly varied the letter sizes. My vision was watercolor washed mountains at the left of the composition and a forest of pine trees at the foot of the mountains. The forest would stretch out sporadically beneath the lettering. I wanted the moon in the sky at the top right and a sky full of stars in an inky blue watercolor. I mixed paint for the sample colors — then Jennifer sent me a photo of the baby’s room.
The nursery’s theme is “ocean” and the walls are a beautiful blue-teal. There is actually some netting above the baby’s crib with seashells and dark wooden letters spell out the baby’s name. I knew from the photo that my color palette and the walls of that room were going to clash. I started mixing again and came up with a darker blue with a cool reddish brown for contrast.

Designing the Letters

Outlined letters with star details
Thanks to my loving and supportive neighbors, Kim and Jason, I have large pieces of drafting vellum to use for the lettering. I put graph paper under the vellum for straight reference lines as I worked. I wanted the letters to appear drawn but still have a rhythm and integrity to them. Some lettering artists are so skilled that their haphazard letters appear orderly as well: I am getting there! I used large stars instead of punctuation to break up the passage to continue the night time theme through the text. The stats still allowed the viewer to pause appropriately while reading. I accentuated the letters with stars and dots. Sometimes I feel that my letters turn out a bit flat, so those accents were an effort to add light and detail to them. I also, characteristically, ran out of room on my sheet for the last two lines of the phrase! I had to tape tracing paper to the edge of the vellum for the last few letters of each word! (Shown below) Classic.
Final sketch for transfer for “Mountains” piece

Transferring the Versal Calligraphy

I used a light table to transfer the letters from my draft to a large sheet of watercolor paper. I use a glass table and set a lamp on the floor to shine upward toward the work I’m transferring. I traced the lettering draft with a felt tip pen and taped it to the light table. I cut my watercolor paper to size and taped it on top of the design. I used an L-shaped ruler to make sure the lines of text were perpendicular to the left edge of the page. Next, I lightly traced the letters onto the paper and filled them in with watercolor. I worked quickly with the watercolor, leaving small gaps here and there, to make the letters more interesting. Part of the appeal of watercolor is that the white of the paper reflects back to the viewer. If there’s too much pigment, then light can’t shine through and the painting becomes dull. I filled in spots here and there if they looked too sloppy. After that, I traced each letter with a sepia Micron pen.

Watercolor work in progress of “Mountains”.

Background Artwork

Shining Crescent Moon
I love the look of woodblock cuts and tried to emulate their linework here. I hung a moon in the sky and outlined the mountains. I knew I needed an ocean in there somewhere and that I wanted to make more large stars in the sky. I had so much fun drawing the fluffy clouds and the lines around the celestial bodies in the sky. The waves I left simple, adding a little ship making its way through a windstorm, its flag flying brightly.

Ship, Wind, and Waves
I intended to fill in the mountains heavily with the Micron but by now the pen was starting to dry out on me. So I stuck with the woodblock theme and pretended that the lines were just grooves for texture and worked with it that way.

Work in progress of mountains in “Mountains”.
I painted the sky, fading the blue around the stars to make them seem like they were shining. I also added curved lines around each star to accentuate their radiance in the sky.

Detail of moon portion of “Mountains”.
I spritzed the painting with clean water and left it under a heavy drawing board to flatten it out overnight. When I looked at it the next day, I realized that the lines of the versal calligraphy needed to be much heavier to compete with the heavy lines of the artwork. This refers to the concept of visual hierarchy. Heavier lines on the artwork emphasized its importance. I added weight to the outlines of the letters to make them more prominent. Lastly, I signed the piece and sprayed it with a protective seal. I had Wilson Graham take photos of it so that I can have prints made.
Jennifer took the piece up to Seattle with her and they framed it today, just in time for little Finnegan’s first birthday and from what I understand, the family loved it!