There are No Strings on Me

When Avengers: Age of Ultron first came out on Blu-ray, my broth­er came over to watch the film at my house. While watch­ing, I sud­den­ly had an idea for a let­ter­ing project: I want­ed to draw the phrase Ultron seems obsessed with through­out the movie (which is, of course, from Pinoc­chio): “There are no strings on me.”

My thought was to use lots of swash­es and embell­ish­ments, then final­ly ink it with my flex nib dip pen. I end­ed up vec­tor­ing the piece, but was unsat­is­fied with the first final­iza­tion. I sat on it for sev­er­al months, then decid­ed to rework it after read­ing Jes­si­ca His­che’s fan­tas­tic book, In Progress. The final result is some­thing I can say I’m quite proud of.

Concept and Sketches

I like to push myself to try new things and grow as an artist. Up until this point in my art­work, most of my cal­lig­ra­phy and let­ter­ing tend­ed to be pret­ty sim­ple and straight­for­ward. That’s part of why an intri­cate detailed design appealed to me.

This par­tic­u­lar phrase nat­u­ral­ly lends itself to orna­men­ta­tion, both in the shapes of the let­ters and in the words. Inter­lock­ing and inter­weav­ing let­ter strokes imply “strings” tying them­selves togeth­er, which adds a nice irony to the art­work. The irony of the con­cept delight­ed me, so I pur­sue it.

Photo of the phrase "there are no strings on me" sketched lightly on a dot-grid paper. The lighting makes the paper look yellowed. The sketch is rough and messy with lots of swashes and ornamentation.

Typ­i­cal grid paper (the kind math­e­mati­cians often use) feels too struc­tured for sketch­ing. The lines act as a phys­i­cal bar­ri­er to my cre­ativ­i­ty. But total­ly blank paper often isn’t quite struc­tured enough for my typo­graph­ic or cal­li­graph­ic lay­outs. So I like to use a dot grid instead, for the loose struc­ture it pro­vides with­out the harsh con­straints.

Photo of the phrase "there are no strings on me" calligraphed in black ink with a flex nib pen on dot grid paper.

After my ini­tial sketch, I traced the lines using black India ink with a flex-nib quill. The ink­ing is quite messy, with incon­sis­tent stress (the angle of the strokes) and stroke widths. This is part of why I lean more towards let­ter­ing than I do cal­lig­ra­phy: my hands are shaky and weak, and I’m impa­tient in my work. I know that I can achieve the kind of per­fec­tion I want dig­i­tal­ly. So my ana­log work is often rushed and less pol­ished than it oth­er­wise might be.

First Drafts

Once I was fin­ished ink­ing the piece, I took it into Pho­to­shop to clean up.

Usu­al­ly at this stage, I’ll iso­late the cal­lig­ra­phy or let­ter­ing from the back­ground and start using the Liquify tool to move strokes around clos­er to where they ought to go. With some­thing as detailed as this, I’ll also move around swash­es and lay­out options to see how dif­fer­ent treat­ments might work before I move on to vec­tor­ing.

I start­ed play­ing with back­ground designs quite ear­ly on. This wasn’t a great idea — it meant that my focus was no longer on clean­ing up and strength­en­ing the focal point of the art­work.

Once I was rel­a­tive­ly hap­py with how the lay­out looked in Pho­to­shop, I took the design into Illus­tra­tor to begin vec­tor­ing it. The han­dles of each anchor point are at 90° angles to one anoth­er to help tight­ly con­trol the curves of the let­ters.

I tried an approach where I set guides at an angle through­out my art­board to help me keep a more con­sis­tent angle for my let­ters, but I was dis­pleased with the result. Some­thing felt off to me, and I couldn’t quite put my fin­ger on what. I sat with it for a lit­tle bit, then decid­ed that per­haps mak­ing the let­ter stroke thick­er and adding a 3D ele­ment with the drop shad­ow to the let­ters would help it feel more “fin­ished.” Even this didn’t make it feel much bet­ter to me, but I didn’t know how to fix it or what to even fix. I decid­ed that was the final design, despite my mis­giv­ings.

Reworking: Second Drafts

Sev­er­al very event­ful months went by. I received Jes­si­ca Hische’s In Progress from my par­ents as a Christ­mas gift and devoured it over the course of a week. Short­ly there­after, I broke up with my now ex-hus­band and found myself with an abun­dance of trau­ma to process as well as time on my hands. Art­work is always very ther­a­peu­tic to me, and I was brim­ming with con­fi­dence and ideas after read­ing Hische’s book. So, I decid­ed it was time to tack­le this design again.

There were a few things about the design that I was final­ly able to rec­og­nize:

  1. The angu­lar shapes of the let­ters dis­tract­ed from the actu­al mes­sage of the piece. Not only that, but my swash­es were far more round­ed than my let­ters, which was incred­i­bly incon­sis­tent and dis­tract­ing.
  2. My pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive space were severe­ly imbal­anced, par­tic­u­lar­ly in my swash­es.
  3. The stroke and drop shad­ow made the design crowd­ed and busy, fur­ther dis­tract­ing from the mes­sage of the words.

Armed with this knowl­edge, I was able to take the exist­ing vec­tor art and make adjust­ments accord­ing­ly.

Image of the cursive-based calligraphic phrase, "there are no strings on me." The counters of the letters are much more rounded than previous versions, and the swashes have begun to shift shape and placement. The image is animated, fading back and forth from the simple linework to demonstrating where all the anchor points and handles are placed.

The first step I took was to remove the stroke and drop shad­ow so I could work with the mono­line art­work instead.

Next, I focused on round­ing out the coun­ters of my let­ters. (Coun­ters are the often-enclosed neg­a­tive space of a let­ter.) This adjust­ment alone real­ly opened up the design and made it feel more approach­able and leg­i­ble.

Once I was hap­py with the shape of the let­ters, I was able to start reshap­ing and adjust­ing the place­ment of the swash­es. I was care­ful to main­tain the anchor and han­dle place­ment, as demon­strat­ed in the ani­mat­ed .gif above.

Monoline cursive-based calligraphy of the phrase, "there are no strings on me." The letters are rounded with interlocking swashes and ornaments.

I find it real­ly impor­tant to take breaks from my work as I can, to allow myself to come back to my projects with fresh eyes. After a cou­ple days away from the design, I was able to come back to it and adjust the inter­lock­ing orna­ments and swash­es to bet­ter bal­ance the space of the piece.

Final Touches

Cursive-based calligraphy of the phrase "there are no strings on me," drawn monoline with a white rope texture that weaves behind and in front of different letters and swashes. The ends of the rope are frayed. The background of the image is black, as are the details of the rope.

The art­work itself at last felt strong enough to stand on its own. So I start­ed think­ing about final touch­es I could add to real­ly make it stand out. I’d recent­ly acquired this excel­lent set of Adobe Illus­tra­tor rope brush­es from The Artifex Forge as part of this Illus­tra­tor Brush­es Mega-Bun­dle.

First, I applied the brush I want­ed to use. It was very clean, which both­ered me slight­ly (I want­ed it to have a grit­ti­er feel). Then I noticed that some of the inter­sec­tions where the rope curved didn’t quite feel right. So once I was hap­py with the rope width, I took the design back into Pho­to­shop to final­ize the fine details.

I worked on new lay­ers on top of the art­work so I didn’t destroy any of the image infor­ma­tion. I used the Brush tool to add fur­ther depth and the Clone Stamp to cor­rect where some of the rope brush didn’t quite work out around curves. Then I used both tools to cre­ate and edit where the rope inter­wove with oth­er ele­ments, as well. Last­ly, I used a clip­ping mask to add a grunge tex­ture specif­i­cal­ly to the rope to help dis­tin­guish it from the clean black back­ground.

Close-up detail of interwoven strands of rope from the piece "There are No Strings on Me."

Next Steps?

I’d love to get this print­ed on a smooth black vel­lum paper with white metal­lic embossed ink and offer a lim­it­ed run for sale. Inter­est in the piece isn’t high enough to war­rant such a thing quite yet, but it’s cer­tain­ly some­thing I’d like to have done even just for my own per­son­al col­lec­tion. If I were to move for­ward with such a thing, I’d like­ly have them print­ed at a large poster size, like 24″ x 36″, to real­ly high­light the detail.

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