There are No Strings on Me


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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