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An interesting detour into 17th century lettering

March 23rd, 2009 by Noam Berg

Having completed my digitization of Van Dijck as represented in the Atlas, I’ve devoted some time to a side project. My good friend Melody is working for the Getty Research Institute, digitizing rare books so that they can be made available online. A recent example she posted was Kunstrichtige Schreibart, a book on the art of writing published in 1601. The woodcut illustrations show several alphabets, slowly becoming more and more ornate. By the end of the book, each letter takes up a whole page.

th011 th021

th031 th041

th051 th061

th07 th08

The original files are available for download, so I grabbed them and opened them up, to see how the auto-tracing in Fontlab would handle some of the more intricate letters. Unsurprisingly, it choked on the really large ones. Smaller letters worked better, but since the outlines are so rough and the original prints rather salty, the resulting traces are full of redundant nodes and “pock marks” in the main stems. Some letters come out totally fragmented, so heavy was the erosion of their forms in the original manuscript. I tried a few other tricks, such as Adobe CS auto-tracing (using Photoshop’s magic wand, then converting to paths). I got a better result, but very hard to tweak. I wanted something that I could easily smooth out into “rationalized” shapes. I decided to try tracing some of the mid-level caps manually, following the shapes as the artist might have drawn them, slowly building up the forms. I have some letters completed, and they’re rough, but satisfying:



This is a very different kind of revival. There is none of the economy and restraint of a text face in these versals. There’s barely a complete character set: no punctuation, no numerals, no lowercase…these sets don’t even have U and J in them! What they do have is an audacious level of ornamentation. Looking at the final pages, my mind boggles simply tring to imagine how these letter were conceived and constructed. I may eventually try tackling those behemoths, but for now it’s enough work doing letters that fit 15 on a page. If nothing else, tracing these shapes and building up these amazing capitals swash by swash is educational. It gives you a keener insight into their structure. You begin to understand the system used for ornamentation, the internal logic. If I wanted a really clean version of these caps I’d probably have to redraw them fro scratch. Doing these tracings first makes that seem less daunting. If I tried it cold, I’d probably go nuts.

Melody is thinking of starting a blog, detailing some of the more interesting stuff she comes across in this collection. I really hope she gets that going. Looking through, it’s overwhelming how much stuff is in there! It would be good to have some highlights recommended.

Posted in Design, Typography

2 Responses

  1. Ben

    any chance of getting these fonts or vectors?

  2. Noam Berg

    Hi Ben,

    Yes…but don’t hold your breath. I’ve been chipping away at some of the simpler characters for a while now. Whenever I have some downtime at work I devote some of it to the project. Which means, of course, that there won’t be anything to show anytime soon. The link in this post will take you to where the original scans are available at full resolution. If you’re feeling industrious, have a go at them. It’s great practice for drawing curves! I’m not even touching the full-page ones yet. That’ll be something to work up to. If I ever do get those in vector format, I’ll probably charge for ’em. What I’m working on now comes from these sizes and will most likely be free.

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About the Mad Scientist Running this Show

Noam Berg is a graduate Student in the Design and Technology MFA program at Parsons School for Design in New York City. He is also the (debatably) creative force behind Exfish Studio. Noam is obsessed with old vacuum tubes, type design, computers, guitars and comic books. Noam likes Thai sweet chili sauce, hats, suits & ties, Wacom tablets, Japanese green tea (with the toasted rice), nerdy science girls, many varieties of music, SLR cameras, AnarchoJudaism, lithography and pocket watches. Noam's not a big fan of cell phones, the cool kids, ugly and over-used fonts (you know who you are!) and talking about himself in the third person. Seriously, this is really weird. I'm gonna stop doing it now.