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How I made the letter T print

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Have you ever wondered how a master gilder crafts ornate lettering for signs or printed designs (e.g. tattoo art?) It requires a combination of specialist skills and carefully sourced suppliers, and this post takes you through the entire process I followed to create my limited edition letter T prints…

The concept: why I wanted to print a letter ‘T’

Many people, over the years, have asked me if I do prints. With social media, people are now able to reach out easier, and it’s better for artists, typographers and designers to get their names out there where they can. So I had the idea of doing a print for the first time – I’m 55 now so to actually produce my first ever print in this way is pretty amazing.

A lot of tattooists and typographers follow me, so I wanted to do something pretty complex to appeal to them. Or anybody else who needs a letter T on the wall: Terry? Typewriter? I’ve thought about reaching out to Tom Hanks. If I could get one across to him…

I started off with my mechanical pencil, detailing the letter

Getting started: initial drawings

As I was starting to design and draw the letter T, I recalled a chap in London who owns a pub on the Thames called the Trafalgar Tavern. He had often asked me about my work, so I contacted him and said, ‘I’m drawing a letter T for a print run aimed at tattooists, but it would be really cool for your pub as well. I wondered if you wanted me to make you a glass sign.’

He agreed, so I started work on a beautiful, reverse painted, gilded glass sign. I did the letter T by hand, with gold leaf and acid etching; lots of old-fashioned reverse glass techniques were involved in making this glass sign.

Detailed shot of the effects used in the design

Bringing the design to life

While I was making the glass sign, I thought, ‘OK, I can switch between these processes.’ For example, making the glass gave me the stipple effect – called mica stippling – which is the etching on the letter itself. Once gilded, it gives you this beautiful texture and reflection.

So I made the glass first, and from there I made the more detailed drawing that you see as the final print. Before that, I drew some thumbnail sketches and created a few variations of the letter T as I brought it to life.

So that’s how the design developed, going back and forth between the glass sign and sketching. I remember looking over my shoulder at it and thinking, ‘Right, I’ll get that detail in, and I’ll redraw this part,’ etc.

I incorporated some scroll work because tattooists love this type of typography. At the centre of the T itself, you will also see a piece of glass, like a cut glass crystal, that I’ve glued to the back to show off the detail.

The plate used for the press to create the embossed effect

Connections: finding the right print suppliers

Once the drawing itself was completed, I thought to myself, ‘Who’s going to create a nice print from this?’ I searched around the country, but people were coming back with samples which weren’t that good. They were just scanning them straight off a flatbed scanner. I needed something a little bit more: a nice tight scan, printed correctly on the right paper.

I eventually found a company – a one man band actually – on the other side of Exeter, right in the countryside. He was an old school printer, typography guy called Mike. He invited me to a house in Exeter where I met his friend a really nice guy who reminded me of Doc Brown from Back to the Future. It was like stepping back in time working with these two craftsman. I stayed at his house for about two hours, and the pair showed me exactly how they were setting the scan up.

The scan, which took half an hour, was made with a high resolution Scanback attached to a five by four inch Sinar camera with Rodenstock process lenses. The paper was Fotospeed Smooth Cotton 300 grammes. The print itself was produced on a Canon ImagePROGRAF PRO-4100 printer with an exceptional museum-quality, lightfast finish.

John Melvill and Mike Whitfield in John’s amazing scanning workshop in Exeter, Devon

Blind debossing: a beautiful technique

I had designed the letter T to incorporate a blind debossed finish, a beautiful technique they used back in the early 1900s. To create this, the print was taken to a company in Ipswich. At the turn of the century, they used these massive presses called Heidelbergs. We were going to use this to start with, but they decided to use another more modern industrial machine instead. The vector process is made first, and then they create something that can be routed onto an aluminium sheet, which is the plate you see in the picture. They use a male and female from the vector image; it’s quite an interesting technique. I believe the paper was slightly dampened to deepen the impression. They really did struggle at times, but they did a fantastic job, especially considering they’re pressing a large 530mm plate into some paper. Once the light reflects off it (e.g., if it’s on a poster with a light above it), it will really pop out.

The final finish of the blind deboss

The flourish: adding the finishing touches

The print was almost complete, but I thought that the empty areas around the edge of the letter needed to be filled with some sort of embossing. I chose something from the period of the 1900s that they used on cigar labels. These were done beautifully: often with a foil gild. Once you’ve got an emboss, where the foil protrudes through the paper, it really shines.

Obviously, there was no gilding on this piece, but I still wanted to have this impression in the paper, so that when you shine a light on it, it casts a light shadow across that embossing and really shows it up.

The process took about a year, with trying to find the right people for the printing and debossing. I spent a good six months on the pencil drawing, and it was a beautiful thing to make. It was a joy to create this beautiful artwork, especially as it was my first ever print. I’m really pleased with the whole process.

I will probably work on some wording next, but I just wanted to get a capital letter out there to inspiring people, and to illustrate my process and drawing skills.

I have now released the print as a limited edition run of 250 beautiful, blind debossed, Giclée pencil-drawn prints.

A finished framed print, one of a limited edition run of 250 ever to be created

Watch me in action…

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