AND ANSWERED BY DAVID LANCE GOINES
1. What would you think of an anthology of contemporary poster artists in the US.?
An anthology of contemporary poster artists in the United States would be a good idea. How far would you want to go back? You have to give at least a nod to early poster artists who strongly influenced the styles of the 1960s, particularly Toulouse Lautrec, whose October 1891 Moulon Rouge triggered the poster craze of the 1890s and showed the public that posters had artistic merit. You would also have to show some of the work of Alphose Mucha, who was directly influential on 1960s poster designers.
The psychedelic poster artists of the late '60s and early '70s would have to be given a fair amount of play, beginning with the most important poster event of the '60s, a show of Jugendstil posters at the University of California Art Museum, organized and curated by Herschel Chipp. Unfortunately, I can't quite remember the exact date; it was in 1965 or 1966, but the information would not be too hard to come by. This exhibition was seen by all of the people in San Francisco who were doing posters for the rock 'n' roll events of the time, and the very next posters were all but direct imitations of those of the Jugendstil, particularly reflecting the lettering of Ferdinand Andrei (President of the Vienna Secession 1905), and Leopold Forstner of the Wiener Werkstätte, which you will recall as letters all made to fit into a square, or some other shape, and almost illegible. [See the Photoshop file "Das Plakat January 1921"]
This period of American poster design is well documented in a book The Great Poster Trip, Art Eureka published by Coyne & Blanchard, Inc. in 1968. Most of these posters were printed by the San Francisco printer Tea Lautrec Litho, owned by Levon Mosgofian. I printed some of them at the Berkeley Free Press, but I don't have copies of anything. Some of the poster producers were: Berkeley Buonaparte, The Print Mint, The Family Dog, The Food, and Bill Graham. Important designers of that time were: Stanley Mouse and Kelly, of Mouse Studios, Wes Wilson, Victor Moscoso, David Singer, Rick Griffin and Bob Fried. Some of these artists and others whose names I can't recall were represented by the gallery, The Poster (now Thackrey & Robertson). Sean Thackrey or Sally Robertson could give you lots of important information. We should not forget Peter Max, who was quite a figure at the time, although a little tiresome in retrospect.
The Art of Rock, by Paul D. Grushkin, published by Abbeville Press in 1987 is an exhaustive catalog of rock posters of the 1960s and 1970s. In addition, it provides a comprehensive history of the art and artists of the era.
I guess that I am a representative of the second wave. Indeed, many of the poster designers of the late 60s are not making posters any longer. I know that some of them are dead. Times were tough then.
More than anything else, the psychedelic poster era, brief as it was, created an audience for posters that had not existed since the turn of the century. The psychedelic and rock poster was not an art reproduction of a poster about a far away event, as was the then-ubiquitous Spanish bullfight poster. They were real advertisements for real events of immediate interest. The posters had a commemorative value as well as being something neat to put on the wall.
The general acceptance and enthusiasm that greeted the poster designers of the late 60s and early 70s can be attributed to the Fillmore and Avalon posters that preceded them.
Posters have waxed and waned in popularity since they entered the advertising scene during the last quarter of the 19th century. There have been three real poster crazes: the first around the turn of the century, the second in the late 1920s and the third in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In each case, the poster provided an important social and economic function, and reflected the ideals and interests of a large, important economic bloc. The bloc in the late 1960s was, of course, the baby boomers. Their posters were cheap-an important consideration-and commemorated things in which they themselves were interested, as opposed to the things from which they were alienated-TV, newspapers, advertising in general-and over which they had little control and which in any event were more or less in the enemy camp. As this group aged and prospered, it got some degree of control over the alien mediums and took them to its breast (as Pogo said, "We have found the enemy and he is us). To the same degree, the group no longer was compelled to work "on the cheap," and abandoned the theretofore necessarily inexpensive solution. The high water mark of poster popularity was probably in the late 1970s, and since then this particular poster craze has dwindled. Perhaps a fourth resurgence of mass interest will accompany the rise of a fourth wave of young people asserting themselves against their stodgy, wealthy elders. In this case, I would look for it around the year 2025 or so: enough time for the leading edge of the baby boomers (such as myself) to start dying off in earnest, and for the tailing edge (those who are now in their late twenties and early thirties) to be losing their grip on wealth and fashion, among other things.
2. To some extent posters carry the stigma of being commercial art as opposed to fine art. Would you care to comment on this?
Well, the first thing that comes to mind is the major difference between who the fine artist must please, and who the commercial artist must please. Most people work today so that they can work tomorrow, and their work is very important to them and defines them almost completely. We have two kinds of workers here whose work is superficially similar, and whom the general public keeps confusing with one another, to the detriment of both. The fine artist must please only himself and one other person, that is, the buyer of the already completed work of art. All that he needs is a place to display the finished work, which has been done on speculation, as it were, waiting for the one sympathetic soul out of the four billion some odd who populate this terraqueous globe.
The commercial artist has more restrictions put on him, and must please himself, the client and the Great God Public, or he's out of business. The work is commissioned in advance, and, before production, must be approved by the non-artist for (often) completely non-artistic reasons. The actual production of the piece is almost never done by the designer, but by whatever medium is most suited to the needs of the client. In some areas, the artist exerts considerable control, subject, of course to the limitations imposed by the client and some appropriate budget. Finally, the work is seen by the public, who are the real target (unlike the audience of the fine artist, which is usually the purchaser of the work of art), but the work itself is usually only a vehicle for yet another work, namely the product or service advertised. Although the commercial artist's work may come to be accepted as a thing of interest in its own right, its initial purpose is subservient to something else.
A poster, unlike a painting, is not, and is not meant to be, a work easily distinguished by its "manner"-a unique specimen conceived to satisfy the demanding tastes of a simple more or less enlightened art lover. It is meant to be a mass-produced object existing in thousands of copies-like a fountain pen or automobile. Like them, it is designed to answer certain strictly material needs. It must have a commercial function...Designing a poster means solving a technical and commercial problem which has nothing to do with the artist's own unique sensitivity. It means communicating with the masses in a language that can be instantly understood by the common man-a language comparable to that of the medieval illustrators, the Greek potters, the fresco artists of Egypt. It means telling the crowd a story. A.M. Cassandre, quoted in A.M. Cassandre, by Henri Mouron, Rizzoli, New York, 1985
Although it is not necessarily or always true, there is often a considerable difference in the amounts of money being talked about in the work of the fine artist vis-a-vis that of the commercial artist. Although a single photograph by a well-known artistic photographer may (very rarely) go for four or five figures, this is nothing compared to what it costs to produce a photograph of a bottle of gin for the back cover of a national magazine. Furthermore, the cost of producing the gin ad pales to insignificance when compared to the costs of running it in the magazine. Although "Moonrise over Hernandez, New Mexico" is a photograph that stimulates the imaginations of thousands of photographers, it begins as a work done on speculation in hopes of finding a buyer, and ends on the wall of that buyer, with no other intended function. Generally speaking, the commercial artist has a whole lot of other people's money, hopes, dreams and aspirations riding on his efforts, and can under no circumstances produce any self- indulgent "art for art's sake," or he will quickly find himself out in the street, where he can do all the fine art he wants.
Last, there is no indication of actual talent and skill when a person calls himself a "fine artist." I myself shun the word like the plague. I call myself a "printer," a "graphic designer," or a "graphic artist." If you call yourself an artist, who's to say if you are one or not? It's a word nearly without meaning. If I call myself a plumber, or an electrician, or a printer, it can be determined with absolute certainty in about two minutes whether I am what I say I am or not, and to what extent I am what I say I am can be determined with some precision. There are actual skills that take years to acquire, and there's no trickery or "eye of the beholder" stuff about it. That I am a journeyman printer is not a matter of opinion, nor is it subject to fashion or whim. The same is true of my status as graphic artist. A commercial artist is in the class of skilled laborer (although most designers and commercial artists no doubt think of themselves as white collar workers, and wear neckties), and makes a living selling a real skill. If he is just beginning, he gets humble jobs commensurate with his limited abilities. Someone like Milton Glaser is very highly skilled, and the measure of that is in the effectiveness, rapidity, cleverness and economy with which he executes a client's task. Fine art is not like this. Success or worth is not an index of technical competence. There is some other matter, some connection with the Zeitgeist, which determines the popularity or insignificance of a fine artist. Skilled laborers are not "discovered" years after their deaths; they receive the rewards of their efforts right here on earth. Critics do not interfere with us (very much), and we make no particular effort to court them. This is changing a bit, but the skilled part of it will inevitably remain because, unlike the world of fine art, in the world of commercial art, we are talking about real money.
3. To what extent do your posters represent your own views and concerns?
Well, of course they do. How could they but represent everything I am? I suppose what this question means is, "To what extent do you use your posters as a forum for your own views and opinions, and as a persuader of others to share, act upon or emulate them?"
I am just about as non-political as you can get, in that I hate, fear and mistrust all political groups and politicians as evil, dangerous and dishonest, having no power to do good, and great power to do harm. This is an opinion I had for no reason, just pure instinct, when I was young, and which I now have for very good reasons and a wealth of experience. I did my second poster, "Qui Tacet Consentit" in 1969. This represents the last gasp of my overt political persona, and not a very strident gasp, at that. My 46th poster, for my friend Harry Weininger, is in a manner of speaking, an advertisement for his attempt at the elective office of Berkeley City Council. He was not elected, and a glance at the poster may reveal a reason why. This is it for posters that could be called political. I suppose that the near absence of such posters must constitute a rather strong statement in itself, times being what they are.
I will not do any work for any organization which is overtly of a political nature. Furthermore, I will not work through an intermediary (such as an interior decorator or advertising agency), and will deal with a client only on a one-to-one basis. I work for clients whose products or services I have reason to think are honest, giving value for value. If I feel that I cannot whole-heartedly sympathize with the client's product or service, then I don't work for him. I prefer to work for local clients, as I feel that I will do a better job for someone who looks at the world the same way I do, and for an audience of people who are somewhat the same as me and the client. I will probably work increasingly for far away clients, but will continue to apply these standards as best I can.
I have two clients, Chez Panisse and The Pacific Film Archive, for whom I have done fifteen and twenty-five posters, respectively, which could possibly provide an insight to what I have in the way of views and concerns. From each of these clients, I have had an open commission, and did whatever I wanted to do whenever I wanted to do it. This completely-free hand must necessarily show, in the selection of images and subjects, what ideas I have and wish to express without the necessity of any clear expression of the client's wishes. This analysis, however, I will leave to whomsoever desires to do it, and will not try to make any such thing myself. To do so would generate reflexivity problems.
4. Your posters are designed to be sold for private use, often framed and hung in homes and offices. Do you have any interest in doing outdoor posters, transit posters (subway & busses) or billboards? Comments?
I think in a vertical format, and would have trouble with the shape of a billboard. I wouldn't mind giving it a try, but would feel compelled to make clear to the client that, although I have a good theoretical understanding of what a billboard should do, it's a little like having a good theoretical grasp of sex.
I have done one transit poster, for BART, but it necessitated dealing with an advertising agency (which shall remain nameless, the laws of libel being what they are). Since it's unlikely that I could deal with a transit poster commission without dealing with an advertising agency, I am unlikely to do that sort of work again.
Outdoor posters are usually quite large, and as I could not print the poster myself (unless the client wanted to go to a lot of needless expense) I probably wouldn't do it. At any rate, since no one has asked for such a poster in the last twenty years, it's a safe bet that it won't happen, so I won't worry about it.
5. Some posters are issued as unlimited editions, while others are signed and numbered. What is your own practice, and the determining factors in your choice?
All things, despite what the Franklin Mint would lead you to believe, are of necessity limited. There always comes a point when you have to stop doing one thing and go on to the next. I print the number of posters requested by the client, plus a comfortable margin for disaster, plus about five hundred for my own use. After the first printing, the thrill is gone, and I rarely reprint. Of the posters printed, I sign three hundred twenty-six; three hundred numbered 1- 300, and twenty-six lettered A-Z as artist's proofs. The numbered ones go to the Thackrey & Robertson Gallery, and the lettered ones are for my own purposes. I also sign three sets of progressives, which are the posters with the colors on them in sequence of printing. One set of these goes to the client, and the rest go to Thackrey & Robertson.
6. What printing methods and papers do you use, and why? What is your role in the printing?
I am by trade a journeyman printer, and do all the production on my posters myself.
The original sketch is usually very tiny, about the size of a large postage stamp. By working small, I am unable to overload the design with unnecessary detail; too much detail turns to mud at a distance, and this technique forces simplicity. Furthermore, working small is also working fast, and this diminishes the temptation to like a design simply because the investment in drawing it was so large. The opposite is also true, many little drawings can be made in a short time, and so one is slower to reach the, "the hell with it, this is good enough," stage. Last, working small allows decisions about figure, ground and proportion to be made without excessive eye or head motion.
The original artwork is almost always about one-fourth the size of the finished poster. It is a black key-line on white Strathmore Artist's Drawing, two ply. Key-line art looks like a page from a coloring book. It only shows where everything goes, and is not much to look at by itself. I Xerox the key-line drawing, and color the copy with watercolors or gouache to work out the color scheme and also to give me something to show the client. Sometimes I have used block prints as key-line art, and I will then photographically enlarge a print made from the block.
The color separations are photo-mechanical, using the key-line art as a starting point. "Photo-mechanical" means that part of the process is photographic, and part of the process is done by hand with brushes and opaque, lithographer's tape and masks. The art is photographically enlarged to full size, and any other parts, such as lettering, are also photographed and assembled together into one manageable unit. The separate pieces of film are taped onto a large piece of orange paper called a mask. This process of assembly and masking is called stripping. The stripped film and mask together are called a flat. When the parts have all been assembled, the whole thing is contact printed onto a fresh sheet of film. Naturally, this sheet of film will become the opposite of a negative, and it is called a positive. This positive will be the base for all the color separations. All the areas of the key-line that correspond to the area designated for a given color are then painted in solid with a red material called opaque. This thick, water based paint is applied with a brush, and blocks all light from going through in that particular area. The painted positive is contact printed onto a fresh sheet of film, and the result is a negative that has a clear area exactly corresponding to the area to be printed in a given color. This negative is stripped onto a fresh masking sheet, and the unwanted areas are either painted out with opaque or hidden by the orange paper of the mask. The negative is then contact printed onto a photo-sensitive aluminum plate from which the actual printing will be done. This process is repeated for each color required by the design. Since the printing is by solid-color lithography, as opposed to four-color process, a given poster may run as high as twenty-two colors, although ten to twelve is more common. Some run as few as one to five colors, but my evil genius rarely allows such simplicity.
When all the plates are done, I go to press. The press is an ATF Solna Chief 24, serial #824, manufactured in 1954 and completely paid for. I use ink manufactured by the Thomas Printing Ink Company. This ink has more pigment in it than would be suitable if I were printing dots. I mix all the colors myself, according to a relatively simple scheme of complementary tertiary pastels. I do not use the PMS or any similar color system.
I print the colors one at a time, beginning with a light one. This plate will also include the whole key line for registration of the succeeding colors. Registration marks outside the image area are fine for registering a few colors, but when a sheet goes through the press many times it sometimes changes its shape and then registration marks become useless. It is easier to register by eye to an internal key line. The key line will be covered up by the last, dark colors that are printed. If the coverage of a color is large, then I can only print one color a day. If the coverage is small, then I can print as many as three, or sometimes even four colors, but that's pushing it. The ink dries enough to handle within about 12 hours.
I print on Mohawk Superfine 80# Cover, white and soft white, depending on what seems right for the specific job. I have used other sheets in the past, such as Strathmore, but the Mohawk is the best uncoated sheet I have ever run. There just aren't many sheets that run well and can take the punishment of being put through an offset press so many times. Good paper does just what it's supposed to, leaving the pressman free to make decisions about the nature of the image. Bad paper can make life pure hell. Automatic machinery requires a high order of uniformity and predictability from a sheet, so I have no use for handmade or moldmade papers.
I don't have a press capable of doing gold foil stamping, and so that part is done by Marier Engraving in San Francisco.
After the printing is all done, I trim the posters if they need it, sort them to catch any bad ones that may have escaped scrutiny during printing, and wrap them for delivery.
7. Do you work from photographs?
Before 1984 I rarely used photographs for anything, except as an aide mémoire, or to capture things that I couldn't sit and draw for some reason. I didn't own a camera, and generally felt that working from photographs was a bad idea. A drawing done from a photograph has numerous defects, or at least real differences from a drawing done directly from nature. First, the camera has only one eye, so there is no introduction of parallax, which is so important in determining how far away something is or if it is moving and how fast. An important part of drawing is translating a three (or four) dimensional image, of which the eyes and brain can perceive more than ought to be put on paper, into a flat, unmoving two-dimensional image that does not reveal new aspects as the viewer's perspective changes. Additionally, since the camera lens does not have a brain behind it, there is perceived distortion depending on the lens used, and the distance the lens is held from the subject. In drawing, a translation is made without regard to how close or far away the viewer is from the subject. The good artist makes it look right. Merely because I am very close to the model, does not mean that I draw her with an enormous nose. The camera must, if it is a wide angle lens held close to the model's face, make her look like Jimmy Durante. A long lens flattens the face, bringing the tip of the nose and the ears into the same plane, and usually only one part of the face, often the eyes, will actually be in focus. This kind of distortion is common in the portrait work seen in fashion magazines. When I look at a photograph, the conventional distortions which I have learned to accept as adequate reflections of reality don't bother me. A photograph is a photograph, and I don't expect it to be something else. If a drawing is made from a photograph, it may unintentionally and unknowingly reflect these and similar distortions, which are (to me) objectionable signs of amateurish work. You can often tell that a drawing has been made from a photograph. It just doesn't look right, and careful analysis will reveal distortions of perspective peculiar to camera lenses, or more subtly, a strained or unnatural pose which a live model would not likely hold for more than a moment.
In using the photographic picture as a reference, there is a natural tendency to continue to copy elements that would be better drawn from life. In drawing, innumerable slight shifts of perspective and emphasis are a normal part of the work. The artist's job is to interpret four-dimensional reality from his own point of view, and that is what a camera will always interfere with. The photographic image will seduce the artist into following it unthinkingly, because its incontrovertible realness will continually make a strong case for itself.
Unless the photograph has genuinely been used as no more than an aide mémoire, the combination of departures and adherances will often result in a drawing that is an annoying pastiche of messy perspective and incongruous line.
In addition, a camera lens of reasonably good quality will capture detail which, in drawing, would be ignored. A camera captures not only excessive detail, but everything, without regard to any aesthetic consideration. If it's in front of the lens, it gets in the picture. An artist drawing from a photograph is often tempted to include such unimportant or interfering details, which a person who was simply drawing would automatically leave out. In drawing a beautiful old historic building, I would make it look right, without considering so much what it really looked like. Thus, I would most likely delete the telephone lines and passing autos, for example. From a photograph, it is much harder to decide what should go in and what should be left out. Last, a person who habitually works from photographs can be giving way to a certain laziness, which should never be allowed to become a part of any artist's habits.
Recently, however, I have become very interested in photography per se, and have discovered that to think of photographs is to think in a completely different way from thinking of drawings. This stimulating discovery has exerted a considerable effect on my work and, although I don't know that working directly from photographs will be something I will do often, the completely new way of seeing, that photography has created for me, will doubtless continue to exert its effect.
I have also made a concerted effort to become better at drawing and, together with some friends, draw a live model once a week for three hours. Needless to say, photography is strictly forbidden, and if I want to photograph a live model (and can't turn up any amateur talent) the expense can become considerable. Drawing is much cheaper, but you do have to be halfway good at it to get the results you want. Thus far, I have used photography to capture a fleeting moment, or a subject that I might not return to, but most often I photograph things that I would never really be tempted to draw or which exceed my drawing abilities. Drawing and photography seem unrelated, in a way, and I feel that now I need both the "pencil of nature" and my own.1
8. How are your posters marketed?
The client, having gotten what he ordered, disposes of the posters as he sees fit. As things that are given away free are little valued, some modest charge is usually made to those who want the poster. Often, the client is able to recoup the costs of his poster by this means.
Sometimes the client will sell a small number of the posters to various dealers and framing shops, which in turn merchandise the poster to wider geographical areas. Most of the posters, however, are sold by the client from his own location, thereby increasing their value as advertising as, in order to get the poster, people must find out where the client is, go there, look around, and generally do all the things that ads are supposed to get people to do.
The signed posters, which except for the signature, are identical in all respects to the posters that go to the client, go to my exclusive representative, Thackrey & Robertson Gallery. They, in turn, distribute the posters to various galleries about the United States, and also retail the posters directly from their own gallery. They have represented me since 1972, and this relationship is beginning to look permanent.
In response to evidence of piracy, I licensed Portal Publications, in Corte Madera, California, to reproduce, by four-color process, a certain number of posters that they felt had a broad market appeal. These facsimiles were sold in every inexpensive poster outlet in this land and overseas. (This business relationship ended in 1987.)
I do not sell either the originals or the facsimiles myself, as it is more trouble than it is worth.
9. Tell something about your education and other influences upon your work as a poster artist. How did you start doing posters?
Aside from that level of education required by law, lacking which, one's parents will be tossed into the slammer, I have but one year of Longer Education, wrested from the complaining body of the University of California at Berkeley. Due to a serious difference of opinion concerning the validity of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, I was given an opportunity to seek gainful employment somewhat sooner than I had intended, and was taken on as an apprentice printing pressman in early 1965 at the Berkeley Free Press, where I printed damned near every piece of inflammatory trash for damned near every radical cause for damned near seven years. At the end of that time, I was tired of radical causes, being tossed in the clink, and eating cold beans out of the can. The Berkeley Free Press metamorphosed into the butterfly of Saint Hieronymus Press, and began printing books, wedding announcements and posters. Posters became the main draw, and replaced the other kinds of design work. I learned to do by doing, and crammed in whatever education I could along the way. So far the lack of formal education has not proved an impediment. Indeed, I can't think of how one would go about learning a trade and going to college at the same time. The two seem, to some extent, mutually exclusive.
The study of calligraphy is my first source of influence. My mother received a Bachelor's in Fine Art from the University of Oregon, and a Master's from the University of Wisconsin. Much of what I apply as basic rules comes directly from her, and it is certainly the case that her skills and interests in calligraphy and lettering were of great importance in my early graphic arts career. My father is a civil engineer, and there is no question but that he also had a strong influence on my ideas of good design. The beauty of a dam or bridge is a result of the skill and logic with which it is designed and built. My book A Constructed Roman Alphabet represents, I think, a perfect synthesis of parental influences.
In my early teens I began studying from the Speedball Lettering Book. While at the university, I found a used copy of the Dover reprint Three Masters of Italian Calligraphy. This gave me the stimulation I needed to begin serious application in calligraphy. Taking to heart the advice "the best way to learn is to teach," I began teaching friends and also giving classes through the University of California Extension. To help with teaching, I wrote and published two instructional manuals, An Introduction to the Elements of Calligraphy, and A Basic Formal Hand.
A second major influence was a study of 5th to 9th century Irish art. An interest in stonework and jewelry came through an initial interest in manuscript illumination.
Fine art influence is Giotto, Botticelli, Dürer and Vermeer, of the old masters. Of the moderns, Magritte and De Chirico are strongest, though a certain amount of influence comes from the whole cubist and surrealist era.
Graphic art influence began with The Bookhouse Books, edited by Olive Beauprèe Miller and first published in the mid 1920s. They were my favorite books I was little, and I am fairly sure that I learned to read from them. They were lavishly, beautifully illustrated, and colored mainly in black, orange and blue. I am sure that this had a definite influence on my early tastes in color.
Art Nouveau was an influence in the late 60s, particularly the Scottish nouveau as typified by the linearity of Charles Renèe Mackintosh. I was even more strongly influenced by the Jugendstil, and much of my use of form and color mass derives immediately from it, amounting in many cases to the closest emulation. Of poster artists, the Beggarstaffs (Pride and Nicholson), Ludwig Hohlwein, Hans Rudi Erdt, Julius Klinger and A.M. Cassandre are the main influences. The Japanese woodcut artists Hokusai and Hiroshige have also had a considerable impact on my work. I could also reasonably include the films of Fritz Lang, and the music of J. S. Bach.
Most important of all, of course, is the means by which the posters are produced. The constraints of solid color lithography and my own skills dictate, to a great degree, the appearance of the posters. The keyline, so important in Japanese woodblock prints, is central to my posters for the same reason: I need to be able to tell where colors should go on the finished work.
11. What provoked you to write your book A Constructed Roman Alphabet?
Purely as a matter of fun, in 1967 I copied some of the letters of Albrecht Dürer from a Dover facsimile, Of the Just Shaping of Letters. It was clear that what Dürer had intended was not an exhaustive geometric analysis, but a useful, easy to copy outline of good letter forms for an unskilled person, such as a student, sign painter or carver. I became increasingly interested in making a geometric alphabet that did three things: first, it should not deform the letters to make them fit some arbitrary or mystical geometric standard; second, the letters should be constructed entirely with compass and straight edge, without the necessity of filling in things here and there by hand; and third, that there accompany the diagram a clear, precise written formula which could stand alone and be used to construct any letter without referring to the picture.
Fun led to obsession, as it so often will, and I must admit that I devoted an unreasonable amount of time (and the time of others) to this project. In 1968 and 1969 I spent nearly one year in London, with a bit of traveling through the rest of England and some small time in France. Much of that time was devoted to the pursuit of this bizarre subject. I studied what material I could find, and constructed and wrote the first draft. I was vaguely dissatisfied with the appearance of the letters, and seemed unable to design an attractive page layout. The project then lay fallow for some years. My interest was revived in the late 70s by David Godine's promise that it would, if completed, find a publisher. Thus I began the task anew, taking as a model the Trajan inscription in Rome. The letters and characters not represented on the inscription were made to conform to the model set by those that were. The manuscript was finished early in the 1980s and A Constructed Roman Alphabet was published by David R. Godine, Boston, in 1982. It received the American book award in 1983. Like many a critical success, its sales have proved disappointing.
12. Where do posters fit into your long-term artistic goals?
I will continue doing posters as long as a market for my work continues, which I fervently hope will be a long time. I am interested in three-dimensional design and industrial design, and have done a few projects in that direction. I am also interested, from time to time, in teaching, and do a bit of that every year. I enjoy writing, and now that I finally have a good word processing program (New Word), I am writing quite a bit. I might even depart from technical writing into fiction, but don't hold your breath. It's possible that one of these will become more important, or that some new and unsuspected thing will arise, rendering all my speculations foolish.
13. Would you care to make any general comments, such as your own view of the attractions and disadvantages, or pitfalls, of being a poster artist?
Being a poster designer exclusively is a bit of putting all your eggs into one basket. I can concentrate intensely on the task of designing and printing posters, and get really good at it, but this high profile, single crop has the hazard of becoming fashionable, and of course, unfashionable. Also, as I do all my own production as well as design, and refuse to make my tasks easier by dealing with advertising agencies and other such middlemen, I have a severely limited production, which is just about enough to keep me one jump ahead of the sheriff. I always mean to do more, or charge more, or something, but I never seem to get much more done this year than the last, no matter how I try.
From what I can tell, there seems to be a fathomless demand for design work of all kinds, and a great demand for posters. Why this should be, I cannot say.
14. What, for you, is the hardest part of producing a poster?
The most difficult part of poster design for me is simply coming up with an idea. Once I have that, I'm on rails. A poster takes me, all told, about two hundred hours, a good half of which is invisible thinking. I know that if I just beat my head against the wall long enough, that an idea will infallibly result, but there is always the nameless terror that maybe this time the Muse is not merely hitch-hiking through Georgia, but has been kidnapped, murdered and tumbled into a ditch. Or maybe she's mad at me.
1 The Pencil of Nature was the title of William Henry Fox Talbot's subscription book of photographs, published by Longman, Brown, Green & Co., London, 1844.
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