Thursday, January 25, 2007

Footprints in the Sand

Knowing that my day never feels complete without a morsel or two of dark chocolate, John bought me “Bittersweet: recipes and tales from a life in chocolate” (Artisan 2003) by Alice Medrich for Christmas. In this chocolate lovers’ cookbook, Alice describes the use of cocoa nibs. “Cocoa nibs? A new type of confection for calligraphers?” I wondered.

They are in fact the broken shards of roasted and shattered cocoa beans. Intrigued, John sourced some Valrhona Venezualan cocoa nibs from Sabato ( in Auckland and took them away with us on holiday together with the ice cream machine. My favourite New Zealand chocolatiers, Whittaker’s, evidently don’t sell their Ghanaian cocoa nibs as they all go into the chocolate! They also have a very interesting history to their package lettering told to me by their designer of 25 years, Marilyn Ching. Marilyn has told me that in the early 1980's she suggested as a base for development, some lettering that appeared in an old photograph, of a Whittaker's delivery truck, circa 1936. Similar lettering had also been used to embellish a Chocolate tin. With these as reference Marilyn developed "by hand" the present day logo. You might like to view their website

On their own the nibs have a nutty quality to their taste and texture that you don’t get with cocoa. My said darling husband had us testing a range of chocolate gelato and sorbet using infused cocoa nibs and some with crunchy cocoa nibs added in the final stages- all delicious!

So here is an original recipe for chocolate nibby sorbet, by and for the calligrapher.

Sometimes you just can't predict where or when your work will turn up. I received a beautiful Sabato catalogue just before Christmas and discovered my lettering on the cover photo via some Rachel Carley plates which use lettering I designed for her a number of years ago.

A second incident before Christmas was driving towards the Auckland Harbour Bridge and seeing my “Love someone?” lettering on an enormous Australian Consolidated Press billboard.

They were running a promotion for their 2007 magazine subscriptions and one of my clients had reused some work done for them earlier in 2006 for something else. I thought it looked very elegant as a whole design and it’s so great to be reminded how supportive my clients have been. I have a half finished Christmas card design with raised and burnished gold on vellum in a drawer- I promise you it will go out this Christmas!

Speaking of project management, John has acquired the title of Project Manager in recognition of his role in facilitating my work. John is the first contact for many of my online inquiries in particular and enables me to do what I do best.

New Year's Eve at the Copthorne Resort Omapere looking across Hokianga Harbour

Opononi in New Zealand’s Far North provided a wonderful place to take a break away from it all. Opononi is probably most famous for "Opo" the dolphin who made friends with children swimming in the harbour in the 1950's, allowing them to ride on his back. Opo is remembered with this sculpture and even has a headstone just across from the beach.

Opo and the boy sculpture, Opononi

Some of my highlights include- an 8am low tide collecting pipis with water gently lapping around my ankles; the changing colours of the sand dunes; your first sight of the dunes as you come over the hills from Kaikohe; the open friendliness and frank honesty of the locals (Ngapuhi country), young and old; picking wild blackberries from the side of the road for homemade blackberry and apple tart; the quiet timelessness of the Stone Store, demonstrating calligraphy sitting by the window looking out to the river, and knowing some of the history of this place; the wide expanses of the Hokianga harbour, from all its vantage points luminous, sparkling and unencumbered by too many people; Webster’s Restaurant in Opononi; the Boatshed Café at Rawene; locals riding from place to place on horseback…

An article , with a very flattering title appeared in one of the Bay of Islands' newspapers before my third demonstration.

I demonstrated at the Stone Store in Kerikeri for three Saturday mornings while I was on holiday.

Getting started on my first morning at Bishop Selwyn's old desk, quite an object and showing signs of its purpose built design for writing with a pointed pen

The Stone Store is New Zealand’s oldest stone building built in 1836. It functions today both as a historic building that people can visit, as well as retaining its function as a store selling supplies. These include nibs, nib holders and ink.

A framed set of Manuscript company nibs from Birmingham UK

I demonstrated copperplate writing with steel nibs and italic with quills- copperplate was the style in use in the earliest colonial times at the Stone Store and adjoining Mission Station.

People seem somewhat stunned by writing that would have seemed commonplace by educated people at the time. It seems we as a generation have lost pride in our writing skills. I don’t think that it is simply an issue of pervasive shorthand symbols or Vista flicks, rather finding a place in our culture for anybody who so chooses to be able to write a good, legibly beautiful letter for example. It should be a skill and pleasure for everyone, don’t you think? I found today that a budget Parker (not disposable) fountain pen only costs $NZ29.95 from Whitcoulls stationers anywhere in New Zealand. And there are many other contemporary applications of handwriting that people enjoy if they are able to be done well, like an elegant restaurant specials board that changes daily. I had heaps of fun writing out children’s names on bookmarks using sharpened ice block sticks and food colouring at the Stone Store. It almost feels like a magic trick making their names appear in rainbow colours. Try telling them that type is better than that! I am very grateful to the manager, Liz Bigwood from the New Zealand Historic Places Trust for the opportunity and the fine Far Northern hospitality.

I love good creamy textured coloured pencils. I have two jars exploding with brilliant shiny painted and lacquered wood pencils, their sharped multi-coloured leads all bristling with potential and ready for action. For 15 years or so I have tried to ensure all the products I use are archival and lightfast. This seems to be the one drawback of coloured pencils- they are as a rule not particularly lightfast as you will see by my lightfastness test samples.

Caran D'Ache

Faber Castell Polychromos

Lyra Rembrandt & Derwent Signature



One side of each of these paper strips has been left in a brightly lit window for approximately one year and then compared with the original sample kept in my filing cabinet. Prismacolor from the USA come in an amazing range of colours and are soft, creamy and very easy to use. Some colours are very lightfast while others are not. Faber Castel Polychromos are a little harder but still easy to use, but they don’t fare very well for lightfastness. I tested two Lyra Rembrandt Aquarells from Germany because my daughters are so fond of their Color-Giant range. They keep a sharp edge and are easy to use, but have low lightfastness in the two difficult colours I tested. Caran D’Ache Supracolor II Soft from Switzerland are really lovely to use in very brilliant colours. They were reasonably lightfast in some of the colours, but were not lightfast in the pink range I tested. Derwent Signature from England I found to be a little hard and gritty to use and were not completely 100% lightfast in the three difficult colours I tested. I am retesting these with different paper at the moment as my choice of paper also altered colour with the light quite a lot. I have just recently tried the new Derwent Coloursoft range, which is indeed true to its name and are very easy to use. I haven’t had time to test their lightfastness yet; results due in about a year’s time! I take a conservative approach to the Coloursoft pencils at this point however as the Signature range has been represented to me as Derwent's premium coloured pencils.

My quest to find lightfast pencils in my favourite pinky magentas, oranges and purples has failed despite all of the wonderful pencils from around the globe. I even enquired of Schminke, my favourite watercolour manufacturers, if they had ever considered making coloured pencils, but they have no current interest in it. Their lightfastness ratings use the same blue wool standard as some other manufacturers however their ratings I find to be consistently reliable and the others simply are not, according to my methods.

Just today I have discovered that Caran D’Ache have a premium range of pencil leads called “Museum” which appear to have very good lightfast ratings. Their only drawback is that you have to purchase expensive lead holders to use them. One suggestion that I highly recommend, even stress, is to frame coloured pencil pieces using special UV protective glass. This is approximately twice as expensive as standard glass, but is almost the only ethical approach to coloured pencil pieces for framing. Studio fixative is said to have only temporary UV properties- I am currently testing exactly what this means.

The key to using coloured pencils is to keep them extremely sharp. I remember a workshop I attended when I first started learning calligraphy in which we had to create an almost geometric type of design using the counters from inside letters and between letters. One woman created a beautifully coloured and extremely sharp edged design using coloured pencils. I asked her how she got such clean edges using coloured pencils. She showed me her pencil sharpener in her left palm which continually resharpened her pencils while she worked. I prefer to sharpen pencils with a Stanley knife.

Speaking of knives, I love my new quill knife, designed by Stan Knight and Denis Ruud, but as I have learnt from cutting quills and paddle pop sticks with it at the Stone Store demonstrations, it too needs to be kept very sharp.

A different sort of cutting edge entered my studio at Christmas. I now have a Wacom Cintiq 21UX graphics tablet running on a MacPro with the Mac Tiger operating system for the moment. It has the “wow” factor allowing me to write directly onto the screen. I can alter the angle of the screen from flat through 90 degrees to vertical. The most relevant books on the subject of graphics tablets, calligraphy and photoshop are helpful bearing in mind that software updates can render the books of conceptual value only as the menus have changed. I love the Mac operating system, the whole interaction is a real “wow”. And it looks great too. I can highly recommend it.

Footprints in the Sand

I was commissioned to do this piece by an old American friend and very able calligraphy student of mine in December. Thanks a million Morgan. Happy New Year everyone.


Jae Leslie said...

Regarding colored pencils, thanks for showing all these tests. The amount of pigment loss in some of these is quite striking. I've just sorted out my colored pencils (by color), rather an eclectic assortment including lots of kids brands, and now that I've made color tests I suppose I should follow your example and do a card for the window to test lightfastness too. My color samples are all inside a drawing notebook rather than a file cabinet, though. Using them inside books would not present the lightfastness problems that work to be hung on the wall does.

Elizabeth Love said...

Happy New Year Alison. I have enjoyed looking through your posts. I especially like your painted colour of art in themselves.
Have a great year up there.

Lanai said...

Good words.

whetstone said...

I am wondering if you remember where you got your Stan Knight quill knife... I have been looking for one, and have no idea where to start. Thanks so much!

Alison Furminger said...

The Stan Knight quill knife seems to be no longer available, although Paper Ink Arts still have an image of it on their website. John Neal Bookseller has another quill knife available. Another option is to search for antique quill knives. George Yanagita is famous for the quill knives he makes, but I am not sure how you contact him. A good quill knife makes a world of difference to being able to cut a quill easily. Paul Antonio uses a scalpel to cut quills. I think a scalpel would be a better option than a bad quill knife.

whetstone said...

Ooh, I totally asked the right person. It looks like the one at John Neal Bookseller is the right size and shape (I know that some knives are CALLED quill knives but don't have that curvature on the reverse of the blade...). Do you know of anyone who uses one?

And I found a Japanese website that talks about George Yanagita and says he's in Minnesota, so if his knives are as good as you say they are I guess I have a bit of a lead on where to look for him.

Thanks so much!