So You Want Custom Ketubah Art? Why This Ketubah Artist Recommends Against It

by Ariela

 Ariela completes Terri's  ketubah , August 2011

Ariela completes Terri's ketubah, August 2011

We're in Wedding Season, which means that lately I have been fielding lots of requests for custom ketubah work. Some of those inquiries ares for custom text calligraphy to go with pre-existing art, or to go with art from a family friend. Most requests, however, are for original art with a hand-calligraphed text, which is what we're discussing today.

On my first call with prospective clients, the question at the top of my list is always "Why do you want a custom ketubah?" I don't ask because I'm looking to judge their reasons, I ask because the answer tends to tell me a lot about what my experience will be working with them.

If the answer is anything other than "We have a very specific vision for our ketubah art," the next thing I tend to do is to try to persuade them to find a pre-existing print and get that instead. Gone are the days when there were only a very few, cookie-cutter designs and one text available. You can find ketubah art in almost any genre and most artists can accommodate a custom text, too. In most cases, there is simply no need for a custom job.

But Ariela, you say, why would you try to turn away a potentially lucrative commission?

The answer is that planning a wedding is a miserable experience that is long, and expensive, with scrillions of tiny details that must be attended to individually. And commissioning custom art is a process that is long, and expensive, with scrillions of tiny details that must be attended to individually. Trying to complete the two projects simultaneously isn't something to do on a lark; you have to really want it to make it worth it. Even if you do want it, it's still no cakewalk. My spouse and I ditched art completely and we still had hours of arguments about the text.

The Wedding Industrial Complex means that working with overwhelmed, stressed clients is part and parcel of the wedding gig. But a wedding vendor can make it easier on their own self and on the clients by helping them to cut out unnecessarily complicated steps. But to do that, you have to figure out what is necessary. Which is why I ask "Why do you want a custom ketubah?"

If it's important to you, let's talk. I love to create things that are truly special to people. But if it's not, perhaps it is time to let go of expectations (your own, or others'), and put your time, attention, and money, on things that will make a bigger difference to you.

Wishing you a stress-free wedding season, as much as it is possible.

The Making of "Penric's Demon" Illuminated First Page: Symbolism

by Ariela

This is the third in a series of three blog posts on the making of the "Penric's Demon" Illuminated First Page art print. Read the earlier posts: Part 1: Artistic Framework | Part 2: Drafting

This is the post where I reveal how obsessive I am about putting things on the page as deliberately as I can. I come by it honestly: I was raised in a tradition that extracts meaning from the smallest nuances of text and the habit of looking for significance everywhere is ingrained. I also suspect that it is an innate instinct of the way my brain is wired.

Rectangles in a Quintarian World

 All papers in Battlestar Galactica are octagonal

All papers in Battlestar Galactica are octagonal

Something I didn't address in the blog post on artistic framework was actually a negative decision: I didn't mess with the page shape. It took barely a moment's decision to realize I couldn't go full-on Battlestar Galactica and change the shape of the page; their decision to go for octagonal pages made for striking worldbuilding artifacts on screen, but always strained my suspension of disbelief because it would make the production of books much harder. Rectangular pages make sense from a production standpoint because they can be halved easily, whether by folding them (and then sewing them into booklets) or by cutting, and it yields another rectangle, though not necessarily one with the same proportions as the original.

As much as I found the octagonal pages of BSG unbelievable, pentagonal pages would be much, much worse. There is no way to halve a pentagon and yield another pentagon, at least not within any Euclidean geometry of which I am aware. In order to produce a page that could be folded in half to yield two pentagonal leaves in a book, you'd need to start with a regular nonagon without rotational symmetry like this:

 Two regular pentagons that share one side, producing one regular nonagon that has bilateral symmetry along the x and y axes but not rotational symmetry

No way was any culture, no matter how devoted to Quintarian theology, making books like this. Aside from the ridiculous amount of labor it would require to cut the pages, contemplating either a pentagonal text or a fitting rectangular text within a pentagon makes my head hurt. No, thank you. I suppose they could have an irregular pentagonal page, with two shorter sides on the top, but then you run into the theological problem of which two gods get represented by the shorter sides? And it would still require extra labor to make. Better not to go there at all.

I did experiment with changing the shape surrounding the illuminated initial from a rectangle to a pentagon. If you were looking closely at the process shots I put in the post on the drafting process, you can see my efforts in that direction. In the end, I decided not to for three reasons: a pentagon would make the T harder to read, not easier; I didn't want to deal with the question of how to position each of the gods relative to one another; and if Trinitarian Christians can deal with a four-sided illuminated initial in our world, so could Quintarians in theirs.

Historiated Initial

Another thing that changed from my draft to the final was the big initial at the start of the text.

 Initial T on the completed draft with the two thumbs in the bowl of the T

Initial T on the completed draft with the two thumbs in the bowl of the T

 Initial T on the final art with Ruchia clutching a hand to her heart in pain.

Initial T on the final art with Ruchia clutching a hand to her heart in pain.

I spent the entire time I was working on the draft noodling around with what to do with the T. After I abandoned the idea of putting it in a pentagon, I still wasn't sure about how I was going to decorate it. I thought I might just illustrate it with more viney bits, but that seemed to me like a sad waste of an opportunity to jam more symbolism in. I experimented with putting the device of the Bastard's order, the two hands, one thumb up one thumb down, in the bowl of the T, but it didn't feel cohesive to me. I hadn't come up with anything better by the time I finished the draft.

In the end, I chucked symbolic abstracts and decided to depict something concrete, if a part of the story that occurs off the page: Ruchia's heart attack. This meant that suddenly I was doing an historiated initial.

Quick definition of terms: initial letters with designs but without any gold or silver are 'illustrated initials;' initial letters with gold or silver leaf are 'illuminated initials;' and initials that incorporate a picture are 'historiated initials.' The first two definitions also apply to manuscripts, so a manuscript with pictures but no gold or silver is not technically an illuminated manuscript, it's an illustrated manuscript. An historiated initial is also illuminated if it has gold or silver applied.

 An illustrated initial T - no picture, no gold or silver Dictys Cretensis , De bello Trojano libri sex, 14th cent., BNF; fol. 28v

An illustrated initial T - no picture, no gold or silver
Dictys Cretensis , De bello Trojano libri sex, 14th cent., BNF; fol. 28v

 An illuminated inital T - symbols but no picture, note gold leaf Facta et dicta memorabilia, 1500s, Pal. lat. 902 fol. 48v

An illuminated inital T - symbols but no picture, note gold leaf
Facta et dicta memorabilia, 1500s, Pal. lat. 902 fol. 48v

 An historiated initial T with a picture of a scribe working; no gold, so not illuminated Omne Bonum, c. 1350, BL Royal 6 E VII fol. 514r

An historiated initial T with a picture of a scribe working; no gold, so not illuminated
Omne Bonum, c. 1350, BL Royal 6 E VII fol. 514r

Now, back to the historiated initial at hand.

I drew Ruchia still mounted on her horse, clutching her chest in distress at the moment of her heart attack. Per the text, she is not wearing her whites, but rather "robes of no particular colors." I gave her a headcloth, as most women in the manuscript illustrations I looked through were so dressed. Pen sees her hair when she is lying down, yes, but presumably her veil slips off when she lies down at the roadside. Desdemona is also here, depicted as a slight, glowy purple outline all around Ruchia.

Ruchia's skin is grayish, due to her illness, but underneath that I decided to give her skin much darker than that of canton-bred Penric and Gans. Why? Because she isn't specified to be pale and I am sick of the fantasy world default being all white all the time. All illustration is interpretation.

The Crow of the Bastard

Speaking of white, the place where I took even more artistic license, in that I fabricated it completely instead of working from an element of the text, is the white crow in the right margin. I wanted to place an avatar of the Bastard there to symbolize the fate toward which Penric is riding. I decided on a crow for three reasons: I wanted an animal that was sacred to the Bastard; I needed a sacred animal that could fly, so that it could be placed naturally in the sky; and the crow is a nod back to The Curse of Chalion, the book that started the universe.

Carrion crows, the breed of crow that lives in Western Europe, are all black. This is fine in text, where there is room for nuance, but the Bastard's color is white. Using a black animal to represent the White God without  illustrating something in the text explicitly won't work without the backing of an extensive and recognizable iconography. Also, given the difference between medieval illustrations of crows and actual crows, I didn't trust that the meaning would come across. I debated with myself, probably far longer than the topic merited, whether to put a hooded crow here instead.

 Hooded crow in Berlin, Germany; Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Hooded crow in Berlin, Germany; Photo from Wikimedia Commons

 Carrion crow in Dorset, England; Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Carrion crow in Dorset, England; Photo from Wikimedia Commons

On the one hand, hooded crows, which have grey bodies and black heads and wings, are not found in Switzerland in our world. On the other hand, the world of the Five Gods is most definitely not our world, and who says that there wouldn't be hooded crows in the Jurald cantons?

 Crow with mostly white feathers, smattering of black and silver, hovers in the right margin

Crow with mostly white feathers, smattering of black and silver, hovers in the right margin

In the end, though, I decided that this would be a leukistic carrion crow, because leukistic creatures would surely be an extra sign of the Bastard. (I haven't been able to find anything suggesting that carrion crows in our world are prone to leukism, but hey, it's a holy animal of the Bastard.)

I'd initially put the crow in the top right corner, but I moved it lower to connect it more firmly to Penric and Gans. Pen and Gans are riding from left to right, the same direction as the text, because the reader will perceive that as "moving forward," while anything facing against the text will seem to be "moving backward." The crow, being entirely in the right margin, seems almost to be leading them, as the Bastard is leading them down the road to Pen's destined meeting with Ruchia and Desdemona.

So there you have it. For those who are interested, I have collected most of the images I referenced directly in a Pinterest Board, though I looked at lots more that I didn't pin.

Finally, a big, big thank you to Lois McMaster Bujold, both for writing such inspiring work and for giving her permission for this project to happen.

We're Off to WisCon 42!

by Terri and Ariela

It's Memorial Day this weekend, which means that we're off to WisCon!

 WisCon 42 Logo

WisCon 42 Logo

Per usual, art will be in the art show. It will be a small subset of what we have on the website, but there will be lots of everything we bring, including an early opportunity to buy the June product release (it's a new sticker with completely new art).

The art show will open on Friday evening with a reception from 6:00 to 7:30 PM and we will both be there. Look for the ladies wearing green and purple and chances are you've found us!

Also, for the first time ever, we'll be on a panel together! Two, in fact!

Ariela's Panel Schedule

Friday, 1:00 PM:  The Care And Feeding Of Artists
Room: Conference 5
Follow on Social Media: #CareFeedingArtists
Are you a creative? Are you partnered to an artist? Do you manage an artist professionally? Come and talk about management strategies, how to keep yourself and/or your artist from burning out, and learning how to Outsource Things You Are Bad At.
(Ariela will moderate this panel.)

Saturday, 9:00 PM:  The Best Laid Plans Of Mice: Immigration, Persecution, The 1%, And Found Family As Told By The Mousekewitzes
Room: University B
Follow on Social Media: #Mousekewitzes
Most of us remember Feivel Mousekewitz, a Russian Jewish mouse who emigrated to the United States in 1885 with his family, all fleeing religious & political persecution, They heard wondrous stories of life here, only to find America has its own problems. In our current political climate, many issues are relevant again: immigration, treatment of workers, distribution of wealth, police brutality, xenophobia. These films do a great job of tackling tough but important issues for a young audience, a task that children's films in the last decade have ignored. At the same time, Yasha's relief that "In America, you can say anything" sails over the heads of young viewers. These films also portray Judaism as a religion and a culture, without tokenization.

Sunday, 1:00 PM:  Uncommodifying Culture
Room: Conference 5
Follow on Social Media: #Uncommodify
So much culture is owned by corporations that it's difficult/impossible to imagine successful authors, filmmakers, musicians, animators, or others who aren't paid via a contract with a major publisher, studio, or production company. Is there an alternative to that? Do cultural "properties" (lol) have to be old in order to truly be shared? If I spend the afternoon thinking about Mickey Mouse, does Disney own the inside of my head?

Monday, 8:30 AM:  You Are (Probably) Not As Progressive As You Think You Are
Room: Assembly
Follow on Social Media: #NotProgressive
Socially progressive movements are increasing in popularity. So much so that it's become harder to discern who is in the fight for real, and who is just going through the motions, checking off more and more proverbial boxes in order to appear to be a good person. During this panel, we will talk about how to spot and address those people who fall into the latter category, as well as our own respective socio/political/economic stances and how they've evolved. Because no one is perfect.

Terri's Panel Schedule

Friday, 1:00 PM:  The Care And Feeding Of Artists
Room: Conference 5
Follow on Social Media: #CareFeedingArtists
Are you a creative? Are you partnered to an artist? Do you manage an artist professionally? Come and talk about management strategies, how to keep yourself and/or your artist from burning out, and learning how to Outsource Things You Are Bad At.
(Terri suggested this panel.)

Saturday, 9:00 PM:  The Best Laid Plans Of Mice: Immigration, Persecution, The 1%, And Found Family As Told By The Mousekewitzes
Room: University B
Follow on Social Media: #Mousekewitzes
Most of us remember Feivel Mousekewitz, a Russian Jewish mouse who emigrated to the United States in 1885 with his family, all fleeing religious & political persecution, They heard wondrous stories of life here, only to find America has its own problems. In our current political climate, many issues are relevant again: immigration, treatment of workers, distribution of wealth, police brutality, xenophobia. These films do a great job of tackling tough but important issues for a young audience, a task that children's films in the last decade have ignored. At the same time, Yasha's relief that "In America, you can say anything" sails over the heads of young viewers. These films also portray Judaism as a religion and a culture, without tokenization.

Sunday, 2:30 PM: SyFy's Leading Women - An Exploration Of Women Protagonists In SyFy's Current Lineup
Room: Conference 5
Follow on Social Media: #SyFyLeadingWomen
The programming on the SyFy Channel has had its ups and downs, but today it is giving us something missing from the offerings of many other channels: a diverse array of women as protagonists. From Killjoy's Dutch to the title characters in Wynonna Earp and Van Helsing, SyFy programs let us see these women as fully-realized characters, and not just the secondary story to the leading man. This is a panel to discuss what SyFy is doing right with its leading women, as well as where it still has room for improvement.

Monday, 8:30 AM: Comic Books On Screen
Room: Conference 4
Follow on Social Media: #ComicsOnScreen
Marvel and DC are currently battling it out on both the big and small screens for dominance with multiple movies coming out yearly, as well as new shows on various networks and streaming sites. There are also multiple shows on SyFy based on comics, as well as The Walking Dead and Comic Book Men series on AMC; Riverdale, which is based loosely on the Archie comics characters; and Amazon Prime has picked up a revival of The Tick. Let's dig in and discuss these tv and movie adaptations. Are we getting enough representation? Which shows and films are doing better, and which worse?

We will also be attending the Dessert Salon and the GOH speeches.

We hope to see you there!

The Making of "Penric's Demon" Illuminated First Page: Drafting the Page

by Ariela

This is the second in a series of three blog posts on the making of the Penric's Demon Illuminated First Page art print. Read the first part here.

While I have done plenty of text and illumination work before, this was my first time trying to for the style of a page from a medieval codex. When creating ketubot and other similar commissions, I tend to paint the images first and then calligraph the text in the space I left for it. But for this project I decided to follow the order of operations used to make medieval manuscripts: text first, then images.

Of course, unlike medieval copyists and illustrators, I got to work in pencil on a first draft before moving to create the final piece. (Paper culture is kind of awesome. So is the ability to proofread before you work in ink.)

While the two manuscripts I used as my models featured 40 and 36 lines per column respectively, I was making this as a display piece, not an actual book page, so I decided on just 25 lines per column, or five times five, for a nice, theologically significant number in the 5GU.

The next question was which alphabet to write in? As mentioned in the previous post, I decided on a Blackletter hand to capitalize on the association with Olde Stuff, but there are lots of different alphabets within that family. Unfortunately, the very feature that made Blackletter such a desirable hand for medieval scribes - its compact consistency - made it difficult for me to use here. The consistency means that it is very hard to fudge around if you need to stretch or contract letter width or spacing to equalize lines with different numbers of characters. I quickly settled on a Fraktur variant because it was looser than most of the other versions and would be more forgiving if I had to stretch it a bit to justify the text.

Speaking of justifying the text, that wasn't always nearly so much of a thing as it is now. Unsurprisingly, when you write everything out by hand, in ink, no draft, it's hard. Neither of my two primary inspiration documents use it, though BL Royal MS 20 D I at least made an effort.

 Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César, c. 1325-1350 CE BL Royal MS 20 D i fol 2r The lines are at least similar widths.

Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César, c. 1325-1350 CE
BL Royal MS 20 D i fol 2r
The lines are at least similar widths.

So what did a medieval copyist do when they started a word and realized too late that it wouldn't all fit on the line? They moved to the next line. Some just finished on the next line, paying no attention to the line break in the middle of the word. Some would start the word again from the beginning on the next line (this was the most common practice in Hebrew manuscripts).

In the opposite case, where a copyist realized ahead of time that a word wouldn't fit on the line, sometimes they filled the extra space in with designs. Sometimes they just left the whitespace alone.

Unfortunately, letting the lines vary widely in width, continuing words from line to line, or re-starting words on the next line are none of them arrangements that will really fly in a world that has become accustomed to the magic of computer-based text layout. Despite the comparative flexibility of Fraktur, it doesn't stretch enough to allow for perfect justification. Neither of my primary inspiration manuscripts filled in dead space with squiggles. I decided that, if I could fit three letters of a word on the first line, I would use a hyphen and break the word, as I could expect modern audiences to at least recognize and understand that convention.

 Early stage draft of "Penric's Demon" Illuminated First Page, photographed in terrible light on a cell phone.

Early stage draft of "Penric's Demon" Illuminated First Page, photographed in terrible light on a cell phone.

While laying out the text, I realized that my initial plan of illustrating the bottom of the page with an image of Penric kneeling by the stricken Ruchia would not work. The text on this page doesn't get that far, and while illustrations don't always correspond exactly to the text of the page, that was just a bit too far removed to work conceptually. So I changed the plan and decided to portray Penric following Gans as they ride out from Jurald Court to Pen's betrothal ceremony.

Thus followed much research into horses in medieval manuscripts. Oh, the horses.

 Apocalypse glosée, c. 1240-1250 CE, BnF Français 403 fol. 8v 

Apocalypse glosée, c. 1240-1250 CE, BnF Français 403 fol. 8v 

 MS Ludwig XII fol. 47v

MS Ludwig XII fol. 47v

I know that horse breeds common to Europe at this time had more arched necks than the horses I am accustomed to now, but looking at those pictures made me want to scream at the riders to ease up on their reigns.

Others, though, just made me want to scream.

 Sigenot, c. 1470 CE, Cod. Pal. germ. 67 fol. 15r

Sigenot, c. 1470 CE, Cod. Pal. germ. 67 fol. 15r

 Lutrell Psalter, c. 1325-1340 CE, BL Add MS 42130, fol. 163r

Lutrell Psalter, c. 1325-1340 CE, BL Add MS 42130, fol. 163r

 L'estoire del Saint Graal, c. 1316 CE, BL Add 10292 fol. 213r

L'estoire del Saint Graal, c. 1316 CE, BL Add 10292 fol. 213r

I finally chose these two as my main models for Penric and Gans' horses, though I dialed back the decorations on the tack, as Jurald is an impoverished lordly house. I also did a bit of smoothing of the silhouettes to make them prettier to the modern eye.

 Apocalypse, c. 1260 CE, BL Add MS 35166 fol. 8r

Apocalypse, c. 1260 CE, BL Add MS 35166 fol. 8r

 Codex Manesse 73 r Zurich, c 1300-1340 CE

Codex Manesse 73 r Zurich, c 1300-1340 CE

I modeled Gans after the rider in the first picture, removing the scales to allow his hand to gesture back towards Pen to tell him to "pick up the pace." Penric was more difficult. He's supposed to be wearing a suit with matching jacket and trousers, but none of the manuscripts I was already looking at depicted anyone in a doublet. The ones I did eventually find were much later, which wasn't a problem with historical accuracy, which is a meaningless concept for a fictional world, but the style clashed with my primary models and consistency does matter in worldbuilding. In the end I just kind of winged it.

With Penric and Gans departing toward Pen's betrothal (or so they think), they needed somewhere from whence to depart. Jurald Court is wooden structure, rather modest compared to Castle Martenden. "Large, sprawling, fortified farmhouse" it might be, but in visual shorthand, that meant that I needed to make it rather simple. Unfortunately for me, my reference manuscripts weren't big into simple structures in their illustrations.

 Royal MS 20 D I fol. 6r

Royal MS 20 D I fol. 6r

 Royal MS 20 D I fol. 35r

Royal MS 20 D I fol. 35r

 Royal MS 20 D I fol. 16v

Royal MS 20 D I fol. 16v

 Royal MS 20 D I fol. 22r

Royal MS 20 D I fol. 22r

Eventually I found a picture of an old, simple tower in a wall and used it as a vague inspiration. I also elected not to use the blues and purples in my reference manuscript, assuming it would become a "Tiffany Problem." ("Tiffany Problem" is a term coined by Jo Walton, referring to the tension between perception of history and historical record. Tiffany was a woman's name in medieval times, a variant of Theophania, but if you name a character in a medieval setting Tiffany people will say it's unrealistic.)

Here are two process pictures of the draft version, which was done on drawing paper with a 2B pencil. 

 Photo of the mostly complete draft.

Photo of the mostly complete draft.

 Finished draft.

Finished draft.

Once the major pieces were all in place on the draft and worked out to a reasonable degree, it was time to move on to the final piece.

 Penciling in the text first.

Penciling in the text first.

 Full pencil in place.

Full pencil in place.

 Starting to ink the text.

Starting to ink the text.

 Embellishing the initial letters of the paragraph breaks.

Embellishing the initial letters of the paragraph breaks.

 Underlayers of the historiated initial. I covered the rest of the paper with waxed paper to protect it.

Underlayers of the historiated initial. I covered the rest of the paper with waxed paper to protect it.

 Painting in the vines.

Painting in the vines.

And then it was done!

We're off next week for Shavuot and then Terri and I are off to WisCon, so in two weeks I will explain some of the symbolism behind my artistic choices.

The Making of "Penric's Demon" Illuminated First Page: Artistic Framework

by Ariela

This is the first in a series of three blog posts on the making of the Penric's Demon Illuminated First Page art print.

In making an illuminated manuscript from a fantasy world, there were a lot of decisions to make about the aesthetic underpinnings before I could even get started on the art and the calligraphy. This post will go through some of the major factors I had I consider before setting pencil to paper.

Choosing References

I am <understatement> fond of research </understatement>. So, when tackling any illumination project, I like to ground it by drawing on specific historical examples. But I needed some search criteria, particularly Where and When to look for examples.

Penric's Demon is set in the Weald, which Lois McMaster Bujold has said was inspired by Germany. But it is specifically set in the cantons.  A little bit of googling around found the town of Jura in the Swiss Cantons in our world, and I decided to take that as a rough real-world analog.

Time is easier. The Curse of Chalion is a fantasy re-telling of the marriage of Isabella and Ferdinand, which happened in 1469. "Penric's Demon" takes place about 100 years prior to The Curse of Chalion, which meant that I was now looking for a manuscript from 1350 or so.

So now I had my time and place search criteria for reference materials. But I also had one more criterion: for reasons I cannot adequately explain, I was already envisioning this page with two columns of text.

It turns out I didn't find any manuscripts from Switzerland near the French border in that time period that grabbed me, but that was okay - it's a fantasy world, not historical fiction. I settled on Harley MS 4482 and Royal MS 20 D I as my primary models.

 Harley MS 4482 f. 76

Harley MS 4482 f. 76

 Royal MS 20 D I f. 11

Royal MS 20 D I f. 11

These weren't the only manuscripts I looked at by a long shot. I consulted many others for reference to individual elements on the page, but these were the ones I used to set up the basic layout of the page and to set the tone for the overall aesthetic.

Adaptational Difficulties

One of the tricky things about this project was that it wasn't just an attempt at figuring out what a manuscript from the Weald would look like and executing it. The finished product needed to be something that modern viewers would immediately identify as a medieval illuminated manuscript. Which is to say, it needed to look less like an actual historical manuscript than like what most viewers think an historical manuscript looks like.

For example, neither of my primary manuscript models are written in a Gothic alphabet. But the stereotype of old manuscripts is that they are in Gothic. So I wrote it in a Gothic alphabet, albeit one that is a bit looser than the standard (I'll go into why I chose that one a bit more in the next post).

It also needed to be attractive to modern viewers. Aesthetic standards have evolved considerably since the medieval period. For example, mermaids are a popular genre in fantasy art and seem to generally sell well with that audience. But compare these two illustrations of mermaids, one by contemporary artist Meredith Dillon, the other two from Bodleian Douce MS 134.  

 "Blue Mermaid" art print by Meredith Dillman. You can buy it at  MeredithDillman.com . Used with permission.

"Blue Mermaid" art print by Meredith Dillman. You can buy it at MeredithDillman.com. Used with permission.

Mermaids from Bodleian MS Douce 134, c. 1450-70 C.E.

Despite the titillation (all pun intended) of the historical mermaids being topless, which do you think will play better at a convention art show? Aside from not being terribly pretty, it takes a moment to even read the two historical mermaids as mermaids rather than as women who are being swallowed by fish up to their waists.

I knew I would need to strike a happy medium between evoking the historical references strongly and conforming to modern visual vocabulary.

Symbolism

Many of the standards of medieval European illustration and imagery resulted from Christian iconography and biblical allusion. In trying to reproduce recognizable elements from that genre, I needed to make sure that I didn't accidentally include anything that wouldn't make sense in the World of the Five Gods from a worldbuilding standpoint.

A Trinity Knot, for example, is frequently used as a representation of Christian theology, but it would not be an appropriate to use it as a theologically significant icon in a World of the Five Gods manuscript.

Is this the Daughter of Spring appearing at the spring of Limnos? Or the Assumption of the Virgin Mary?
Holford Hours MS M.732 fol. 56v

I also needed to make sure that I didn't accidentally cross any cultural wires. A woman in a blue veil with a halo in a manuscript in the World of the Five Gods would clearly be the Daughter of Spring. But before a real world viewer could identify the Daughter so portrayed, they would first have to unplug that image from their mental slot labeled "Virgin Mary Iconography" and stop to think about the context. (Doesn't everybody have mental slots for medieval imagery?)

Next Monday I will walk through the process of actually drafting the page. Stay tuned!

New Product: "Penric's Demon" Illuminated First Page Art Print

We are thrilled to announce our first licensed product:

Penric's Demon Illuminated First Page

"Penric's Demon" Illuminated First Page - Art Print by Geek Calligraphy, Licensed by Lois McMaster Bujold

Lois McMaster Bujold has been one of Ariela's favorite authors since a friend introduced her to the Vorkosigan Saga in 2010. When she began considering the possibility of illuminating published works, she thought it was a long shot to ask permission to play with Lois' latest works (which just so happen to feature a scribe as their main character, eeeee!), but figured it was worth asking. To her utter joy, Lois said yes!

Thus Ariela has calligraphed, illustrated, and illuminated the opening passage of the novella "Penric's Demon."

The layout of the page is inspired by two manuscripts in the British Library collection: Harley MS 4482 and Royal MS 20 D I. The text is written in the Fraktur alphabet, which is part of the Gothic Script family (Ye Olde English font).

The illumination at the bottom of the page shows Penric and Gans leaving Jurald Court on their way, so they think, to Penric's betrothal ceremony. A crow in the right margin hints at the path that actually lies in store.

Next Monday we will publish the first of three blog posts on the research and artistic choices that went into making an illuminated manuscript from the World of the Five Gods.

This is a limited edition run of just 100 art prints. Each print is matted on a white, archival-safe mat and comes ready to hang or to put in an 11”x14” frame. Ships flat.  $55 each.

Business Growing Pains

by Ariela

Geek Calligraphy has been around for a little over two years now. We've been putting out a blog post every week for most of that time, spent the first six months putting out a product every other week, and the remaining 19 months putting out one product per month.

Put simply, this schedule is kinda burning us out.

When we were just starting up this was a good schedule for us - we had a backlog of ideas as well as new inspirations, and we had a serious drive to put ourselves out there as much as we can. But it was a startup model, not a sustainable one. We're firmly against the whole Overwork-As-Corporate-Culture model, so we are trying to figure out a new schedule that will work for us. (Terri has Spoken Firmly with me about not rushing this next product release, which, you guys, I am just so excited about, but it's worth taking the time to get right and I am going to stop babbling now. Ahem.)

This has been complicated by Terri's schedule being eaten by snow days keeping Monster out of school, the rest of her time being taken up dealing with IRS *ahem* tomfoolery with our new EIN since we incorporated, and Ariela's day job suddenly requiring a bunch of unanticipated overtime. Life happens. We had hoped to come out with a "Here's our new schedule!" announcement, but for now, we'll be blogging as time allows and re-running some of our past favorites other weeks. The next product release will come when it comes.

Thanks for bearing with us while we get this figured out.

 Test pattern with "Please Stand By" written over it.

Test pattern with "Please Stand By" written over it.

The 90th Oscars - Why Dunkirk is Awful

 Image shows the Oscar statuette with the Oscars logo superimposed over it on a brown background. I remain amused that everyone has given up trying to call this The Academy Awards.

Image shows the Oscar statuette with the Oscars logo superimposed over it on a brown background. I remain amused that everyone has given up trying to call this The Academy Awards.

by Terri

Did you see Dunkirk? I didn't. I don't know anyone that did. But the voters at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences seem to have and really liked it.

I'm not generally one for Oscar predictions. The movies I like tend to get nominated solely in what I think of as the "technical" categories - Visual Effects, Sound Design & Mixing, Costumes, Makeup Design, Set Design, etc. You rarely see genre films nominated in the "important" categories - Best Director, the various awards for acting, Best Picture. So there's not a whole lot of fun in going "well, which genre film is going to be deemed worthy of which technical award?" I mostly watch for the host, the pretty dresses and the occasional acceptance speech that blows you out of the water

This year I honestly did not know who was nominated in half the categories. I knew that Get Out* was actually nominated for several of the Big Awards, and so was The Shape of Water. So good on the Academy for nominating an excellent and groundbreaking horror film (and the weird fish love story movie). On the other hand, it's become clear that though the Academy has spearheaded some diversity initiatives in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite, the old guard still holds significant sway. 

The two films that exemplify the hold of that old guard are Dunkirk and Darkest Hour. Both of these films are classic Oscar Bait. They're both World War II films centering entirely on White British People. Because Darkest Hour featured Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, that made it a shoo-in for at least one of the Big Awards it was nominated for. But poor Dunkirk only had Kenneth Branagh (and wasn't nominated for any of the acting awards, only Best Picture and Best Director). Since it wasn't going to win either of those awards, the Academy felt honor bound to elevate it beyond all sense. 

This mediocre WWII film won nearly EVERY technical award it was nominated for. Normally this wouldn't bother me so much. I like it when genre films win the categories they're slotted into, but no one cares who wins these Oscars. Except that Dunkirk won Sound Editing and Sound Mixing. The Last Jedi was nominated in both of these categories, and rightly so. If nothing else, the 6 seconds of silence when Holdo rams the Raddus through the entire First Order fleet (most notably the flagship) at lightspeed deserve both awards all on its own. And instead of awarding creativity and unique choices, the Academy tossed both of these awards to Dunkirk as a bone. What, me, bitter?

After that, learning that members of the Academy didn't even bother to watch Get Out surprised me not at all. It seems like every time we take a step forward, we have to take three backwards. At least Jordan Peele was acknowledged for his excellent original screenplay, and nominated for his direction and excellent film. Daniel Kaluuya's nomination for his performance in Get Out bodes well for the rest of his career. Logan's nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay gives me hope for Black Panther getting some nods outside the usual genre categories. And while I'll never see it, the fact that The Shape of Water was able to take Best Picture may mean that we're seeing some of those barriers break down.**

On a completely different note, the Best Original Song category was so crowded with excellence that it was hard for me to figure out which song actually deserved a win. I simultaneously wanted Mary J Blige to win because she was never going to get Best Supporting Actress and I wanted Remember Me from Coco to win because it was beautiful and poignant and made me want to see the movie. If you're going to pick a song from a sanitized and whitewashed fiction of PT Barnum's life then you can hardly do better than the ensemble unapologetic freak flag anthem of This Is Me,*** and Common and Andra Day in Stand Up for Something bringing out activists ranging from Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood to Alice Brown Otter of Standing Rock to Bana Alabed (an 8 year old author and Syrian refugee) was incredible. Even the mostly forgettable song from Call Me By Your Name was made wonderful by being introduced by Daniela Vega, an openly trans* actress of color. 

So once again, the Oscars were gratifying and disappointing. But there's hope that we're moving forward.

 

 

*This is just the one review actually written by a POC in the top ten Google results. There are more, fabulous reviews out there and you should find them and read them. 

**Though not enough - Patty Jenkins was profoundly robbed for not being nominated for her stellar direction of Wonder Woman.

***Totally worth not getting singing and dancing Hugh Jackman at the Oscars, in my opinion.

Why Hebrew and English on the Same Page Always Looks Terrible

by Ariela

One of the persistent woes of anyone who works in a field that requires putting corresponding Hebrew and English text together in the same field is that they just don't play nicely together. Today we are going to unpack why this is.

They Are Different Lengths

English is a wordy language. You need a lot of words to say what other languages say in comparatively few. While this can make for some beautiful reading experiences in the hands of a skilled wordsmith, it makes it harder to make it take up equivalent space with a translation. Hebrew is on the other end of the spectrum, being a fairly terse and compact language. When you translate between an unusually wordy language and an unusually terse one, the one passage will invariably be longer than the other, even though they say the same things.

Let's take an utterly banal example:

 'The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog' in English (Calibri) and Hebrew (Arial).

'The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog' in English (Calibri) and Hebrew (Arial).

This is the same short, ridiculous sentence in English and Hebrew. In English it is 9 words comprised of 44 characters, 8 of which are spaces. In Hebrew it is 7 words comprised of 35 characters, 6 of which are spaces. You can also see that the Hebrew line is shorter. It doesn't make a lot of difference here, but over the course of multiple sentences and paragraphs it adds up considerably.

They Are Different Heights; or, English Has Capital Letters

Now we're moving into the visual aspects of the alphabets themselves. 

A sentence or paragraph in most English fonts will have capital letters and lower case letters. It may have some letters that dip below the bottom line, and it may have some lower case letters that nonetheless have a top part that sticks up. Here are the terms for these different heights:

 Inspired by the x-height diagram on Wikipedia.

Inspired by the x-height diagram on Wikipedia.

Note that the top of line-height is a little taller than the ascender and the bottom a little lower than the descender.

Now let's take a look at Hebrew when it is put in an analogous set of lines.

HebrewTypographyHeight.png

Since Hebrew has no capital letters, it is missing the cap-height line, and its vav-height line is significantly higher than the x-height.

While the proportion of the distances between various lines will vary from font to font (this is part of why font that are the same size will have different sized letters), Hebrew will appear heavier than any English font that has capital and lowercase letters.

Let's put those two words, with their attendant lines, side by side. For the sake of argument, we are going to assume that the line-heights are the same here. (If you want to know more about why that assumption is usually wrong, take a look at the Wikipedia article on leading.)

First, this is what they look like when the line-heights are matched up.

HebrewEnglishTypographyComparison1.png

Notice how the Hebrew baseline is lower than that of the English, yet the median is higher.

Now let's try it with the baselines lined up.

HebrewEnglishTypographyComparison2.png

Now the baselines are lined up, so it is easier to see exactly how much taller the Hebrew letters are than the X-height. But the line-heights no longer start and end at the same point. Again, the exact mis-matches will vary depending on what fonts you use, but there will be mismatches nonetheless.

It is also easy to see, with these two lined up next to one another, how much heavier the wide part of the lines on the Hebrew are than in the English. Which brings us to our next problem point.

They Have Diametrically Opposed Contrast

Contrast is the font term for how the thick and thin of a letter is distributed. The standard contrast for Latin alphabets is for the vertical lines (strokes) to be as heavy or heavier than the horizontal ones.

 Times New Roman font. Note the thicker vertical lines and the thinner horizontal ones.

Times New Roman font. Note the thicker vertical lines and the thinner horizontal ones.

 Elephant font. This font has extreme contrast.

Elephant font. This font has extreme contrast.

Reverse contrast is the term for fonts where the opposite of the standard weight distribution is used, and they tend to draw attention to themselves. While this can be great for signage, tends to make for a rotten reading experience for an entire paragraph or longer.

 Wyoming Spaghetti Plain font. It's a reverse contrast Latin alphabet font. Would you like to read a book set in this typeface? If a website put all their body text in it, would you take it seriously?

Wyoming Spaghetti Plain font. It's a reverse contrast Latin alphabet font. Would you like to read a book set in this typeface? If a website put all their body text in it, would you take it seriously?

Hebrew, on the other hand, usually has heavier strokes on the horizontal than on the vertical. The contrast can vary a little or a lot, but that's the standard for the Hebrew square script (as opposed to Paleo-Hebrew, which was derived from the Phoenician alphabet and isn't used anymore).  

 Vilna font. Compare the contrast here to that of Times New Roman or Elephant.

Vilna font. Compare the contrast here to that of Times New Roman or Elephant.

This is part of why those English fonts that are supposed to look like Hebrew look so appallingly bad. Only part, mind you. It's generally a silly idea.

 Kanisah font. I understand why people were curious enough to make one of these, but I don't know why we continue to use it. Can't we declare this experiment failed already?

Kanisah font. I understand why people were curious enough to make one of these, but I don't know why we continue to use it. Can't we declare this experiment failed already?

Moreover, Hebrew tends toward a higher contrast than English. Times New Roman is a very standard degree of contrast in English and Vilna is only slightly on the heavier side for Hebrew. The contrast level in Vilna is much closer to that of Elephant, which is considered rather extreme and stylized for English.

When you stick Hebrew and English on the same page, the weight of the lines in their alphabets are at right angles with one another. As your eye moves between the two, your brain needs to keep reversing its expectations of contrast in order to recognize the letters. Even if you don't notice it consciously, it contributes to the weirdness.

Paragraph-level issues: Perceived Whitespace and Text Direction

Between different levels of contrast and different heights of their core letters, when you view a paragraph of English next to a paragraph of Hebrew, even were the baselines and lineheights to match up perfectly, they will give a different sense of blackspace vs. whitespace.

Here are the first five verses of Leviticus, in Hebrew and English, both in 12 pt font.

 Hebrew in Keren, English in Times New Roman. Notice the disparity in length despite being the same text. Also notice how, despite both being 12 pt font, the lines are not level with one another.

Hebrew in Keren, English in Times New Roman. Notice the disparity in length despite being the same text. Also notice how, despite both being 12 pt font, the lines are not level with one another.

If we apply a blur to these texts, it The difference in visual weight distribution becomes more apparent.

First 5 verses of Leviticus blurred.png

Despite being the same size, nominally, the Hebrew appears darker and appears to have more space between the lines.

These two texts are also arranged in the more common Hebrew-on-the-right-English-on-the-left layout. This means that when trying to read the texts, they seem to be on a collision course toward one another.

HebrewEnglishSideBySide.png

Recently, some publishers, Koren most notably, have been experimenting with lining texts up the other way. This results in the texts appearing to run away from one another.

HebrewEnglishSideBySide2.png

In other words, when you have Hebrew and English texts side by side, there are going to be problems no matter how you arrange them.

The Letters Are Made of Different Shapes

This doesn't cause as much differentiation between the two as you might think. In my opinion (and this is my blog), it causes less visual friction than the difference in contrast. But it's still there.

The Latin alphabet is composed almost entirely of vertical lines and rounded strokes. The angles, where it has them, tend to be acute and sharp.

 English letters made of circles and straight lines. Calibri font.

English letters made of circles and straight lines. Calibri font.

 English letters with angles. Calibri font. Notice how acute the angles are?

English letters with angles. Calibri font. Notice how acute the angles are?

Hebrew, on the other hand, is made up almost entirely of horizontal and vertical lines, and where it has angles they tend to be around 90 degrees and rounded (or sometimes turned into mini t-junctions).

 The same letters in Davka and Vilna fonts

The same letters in Davka and Vilna fonts

The difference in shapes between Hebrew and English fonts will always make them somewhat distracting when in close proximity to one another.

Bonus: Hebrew and English Serifs Are Not the Same

Serifs, according to the most widely accepted theory, started as the flicks a pen or brush makes at the end of a stroke, then became stylized as carvers, first of stone, then woodblock, worked with them, and finally cast metal movable type, each approximated and altered them to suit the specs of their own medium.

Not all Latin alphabet fonts have serifs. These body paragraphs are written in a sans-serif font (Asap). Our headers, however, are in a serif typeface (Libre Baskerville). As with most Latin serif typefaces, they have serifs at the terminus of most straight strokes. Hebrew, on the other hand, has almost nothing that could be called a serif. Letters that have a horizontal bar on their upper sides usually have a slight upward flick on the left, but the bottom of the letter is usually correspondingly rounded, meaning it is not a true serif.

 Davka David font. Notice the upward flicks on the left side of the upper horizontal bars.

Davka David font. Notice the upward flicks on the left side of the upper horizontal bars.

 Vilna font. This font also has little flicks on diagonals, but they don't look like Latin alphabet serifs.

Vilna font. This font also has little flicks on diagonals, but they don't look like Latin alphabet serifs.

 Text from the Sim Shalom prayer book. This font is one of the few that attempts a slab serif on the upper left of horizontal strokes. It is widely considered ugly and unpleasant.

Text from the Sim Shalom prayer book. This font is one of the few that attempts a slab serif on the upper left of horizontal strokes. It is widely considered ugly and unpleasant.

Eric Gill, who was one of the best early modern Latin alphabet font designers (if a rather terrible human being), made a Hebrew font as well. He put serifs on it. This is it.

 Gill Hebrew. Note the serifs. Now go bleach your brain.

Gill Hebrew. Note the serifs. Now go bleach your brain.

I have shown this font to five Hebrew readers before publication of this blog post, and the responses have all been some variation of "AAAAGHHHHHH! My eyes! Kill it with fire!" (I hear he made an Arabic font as well that Arabic readers said was basically illegible and thus never put into production. If it was anything like this, we're glad the world was spared.)

Extra Bonus: Hebrew Uses Expansion, English Doesn't (mostly)

This is a super picky difference, but as a calligrapher, it's one that changes your entire experience of writing.

There are two ways to produce thick and thin lines when writing: translation and expansion. Translation refers to how you move your pen through space, how the angle of the nib changes in relation to the horizontal.

This video of Seb Lester drawing famous logos by hand shows how to make thicker and thinner lines by translation. Lester uses a pen with a poster nib, which has zero flexibility.

Expansion is when the thickness of the line changes based on how hard you press. Let's go back to Vilna font in Hebrew again and look at some of the downward strokes:

Hebrew Downstrokes.png

Those are trying to reproduce widening of the stroke toward the bottom produced by increases in pressure on the pen nib.

English serif fonts don't have anything like that. English sans-serif fonts definitely don't have anything like that. The fonts that do retain this kind of thick/thin are the ones based on pointed pen hands, like Copperplate, or brush fonts.

 Edwardian Script ITC font.

Edwardian Script ITC font.

All the thick lines there are stand-ins for pressing more heavily on those strokes.

Unfortunately, this kind of font is also ill-suited to be paired with Hebrew fonts. It's based on writing done with a pointed pen, while Hebrew tends to imitate broad pen hands, even though both use expansion. English pointed pen hands tend to be sharply angled, while Hebrew ones tend to be quite upright. Pointed pen fonts are cursive, which is to say that they join letters together, but ligatured Hebrew fonts are basically unknown. There are exceptions to all of these rules, but none of those exceptions pair much better (and some of them are hideous by themselves).

What can we do about it?

Unfortunately, there's no way to solve these problems. The best we can do is to try to mitigate them.

If you have a choice of fonts, which is not always possible if you are working with an institution where fonts are dictated by branding guidelines determined without thinking about this problem, try to choose mono-line fonts for both Hebrew and English so that the problems of opposing contrast are eliminated.

If you are creating fonts from scratch, try to create ones that have baselines, ascender heights, and descender heights that all line up.

If you are working on a very small amount of text, like a logo, put the English in either all caps or all lower case and use the same weight of line for both fonts.

Try putting one above the other, or otherwise creating visual space between them, to de-emphasize the difference in text length and text-direction.

If you have to put them next to each other, justify your paragraphs.

And, when all of this doesn't work perfectly and it still looks weird, remember that it is not a personal failure.