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Letters ... fill 'em up!

Most students are familiar with decorative letters that are often used to introduce new chapters in a book of mark the beginning of a children's story. The history of such typographical devices parallels the production of the first printed books.

Large illuminated letters became popular with the advent of hand-written manuscripts and official documents. Often, the introductory pages of local bibles or books of hours would be elegantly decorated with wonderful letter forms. Many times gold leaf was used to give these letters extraordinary visual appeal.

The tradition persisted when the book-manufacturing process was mechanized--first by Gutenberg in Germany and then quickly throughout the civilized world. Elaborate large ornate letters would be individually engraved from wood blocks by skilled craftsmen and used to introduce books of the Bible or chapters. These would be separate from main body of text that would have been set by hand in lead type. A space would be left to fit the decorative letter into the case for printing.

Between the 16th and 19th centuries, such typographical exploration was limited. Today, however, with the proliferation of typographical editing programs in software packages such as Adobe Illustrator[R], Photoshop[R] and even desktop publishing programs like QuarkX-Press[TM], typographic exploration is possible for anyone interested in creating new letterforms and not relegated to select craftsmen as had been the case in previous centuries.

For this exercise, students were shown how to create a large letterform using only Quark. Students were assigned a letter of the alphabet and were instructed how to create a simple text box in Quark. They were then shown how to select a font as well as change its point size, so that they would arrive at a letter large enough lo fill an 8 1/2" x 11" sheets of bond paper. Their letter was highlighted and the outline feature was activated in the Quark's style palette. Students then were instructed to print copies of their outlined letter on the art department's laser printer.

The class was then asked to "illuminate" its letters by filling them with drawings of objects that, when spelled, started with their assigned letter. For instance, the letter "A" would be filled with drawings of airplanes, apples, aardvarks and antelopes. Students were encouraged to use a variety of media. Pantone[R] Tria markers work very nicely with laser printed copies as do Prismacolor[R] pencils.

Since the letters were printed on regular bond paper, wet media was used with caution. Teachers should be aware that if they are using ink-jet copies, they are water soluble, and the black outline of the letter concerned will easily migrate and mix with other colors.

The result was an eclectic mix of letters. Students were told that there was not a right or wrong way to proceed--and that they should pursue their own individual drawing styles for this project.

This is a simple exercise that can be assigned and will give students a creative introduction to headline typography. The same exercise can be done using a variety of other software packages or can be adapted for use with free form larger typography projects.

Irv Osterer is Department Head-Fine Arts, Library and Technology at Merivale High School in Nepean, Ontario, Canada.
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Author:Osterer, Irv
Publication:Arts & Activities
Article Type:Letter to the Editor
Date:May 1, 2005
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