There Are No Strings On Me: From Sketch to Vector

Final design for "There are no strings on me." The monoline strokes of the letters and swashes are now white woven rope on a black background. Grit and shadows have been added to create depth and emphasize how the strokes weave through one another.

When Avengers: Age of Ultron first came out on Blu-ray, my brother came over to watch the film with me. While watching, I was struck with a lettering idea. I wanted to draw the phrase Ultron seems obsessed with throughout the movie (which is, of course, from Pinocchio):

There are no strings on me.

Ultron (or Pinocchio, take your pick)

I initially planned to use lots of swashes and embellishments, then finally ink it with my flex nib dip pen. I ended up vectoring the piece, but was unsatisfied with the first finalization. Several months passed as I sat on the piece and life happened. Then I decided to rework it after reading Jessica Hische’s In Progress. The final result is something I can say I’m quite proud of.

Concept and Sketches

Up until this point in my artwork, most of my calligraphy and lettering tended to be pretty simple and straightforward. An intricate detailed design appealed to me.

This particular phrase naturally lends itself to ornamentation, both in the shapes of the letters and in the words. Interlocking and interweaving letter strokes imply “strings” tying themselves together, which adds a nice irony to the artwork. The irony of the concept delighted me, so I pursued it.

Typical grid paper (the kind mathematicians often use) feels too structured for sketching. The lines act as a physical barrier to my creativity. But totally blank paper often isn’t quite structured enough for my typographic or calligraphic layouts. So I like to use a dot grid instead, for the loose structure it provides without the harsh constraints.

After my initial sketch, I traced the lines using black India ink with a flex-nib quill. The inking is quite messy, with inconsistent stress (the angle of the strokes) and stroke widths. This is part of why I lean more towards lettering than I do calligraphy. My hands are shaky and weak, and I’m impatient in my work. I know that I can achieve the kind of perfection I want digitally. So my analog work is often rushed and less polished than it otherwise might be. But when moving from sketch to vector, it doesn’t pose much of a problem.

First Drafts

Once I was finished inking the piece, I took it into Photoshop to clean up.

Usually at this stage, I’ll isolate the calligraphy or lettering from the background to make it easier to work with. Then I use the Liquify tool to move strokes around. With something as detailed as this, I’ll also move swashes and create various layout options. That saves me time, letting me see how different treatments work before I move on to vectoring.

I started playing with background designs quite early on. This wasn’t a great idea. My focus was no longer exclusively on cleaning up and strengthening the structure of the lettering.

I took the design into Illustrator to begin vectoring it once I was relatively happy with how the layout looked. The handles of each anchor point are at 90° angles to help tightly control the curves of the letters.

I tried setting guides at an angle throughout my artboard to help me keep a more consistent angle. It was less helpful than I’d hoped. Something felt off to me, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on what. I sat with it for a little bit, then decided that perhaps adding details would help it feel more “finished.” I thickened the letter stroke and added a drop shadow to the letters. Those additions didn’t make it feel much better to me. I just didn’t know how to fix it or even what needed to be fixed. Despite my misgivings, I declared the design complete.

Reworking: Second Drafts

Several very eventful months went by. I received Jessica Hische’s In Progress as a Christmas gift and devoured it over the course of a week. Shortly thereafter, I went through a nasty breakup. Artwork is always very therapeutic to me, and I was brimming with confidence and ideas after reading Hische’s book. So, I decided it was time to tackle this design again.

There were a few things about the design that I finally has words for and thus was able to recognize:

  1. The angular shapes of the letters distracted from the actual message of the piece. Not only that, but my swashes were far more rounded than my letters, which was incredibly inconsistent and distracting.
  2. My positive and negative space were severely imbalanced, particularly in my swashes.
  3. The stroke and drop shadow made the design crowded and busy, further distracting from the message of the words.

Armed with this knowledge, I was able to take the existing vector art and make adjustments accordingly.

I removed the stroke and drop shadow straightaway so I could work with the monoline artwork instead. Removing the lipstick from the pig, as it were.

Next, I focused on rounding out the counters of my letters. (Counters are the often-enclosed negative space of a letter.) This adjustment alone really opened up the design and made it feel more approachable and legible.

Once I was happy with the shape of the letters, I was able to start reshaping and adjusting the placement of the swashes. I was careful to maintain the anchor and handle placement, as demonstrated in the animated .gifs here.

I find it really important to take breaks from my work as I can. That allows me to come back to my projects with fresh eyes. After a couple days’ break, I came back and could see what final steps were needed. All I needed to do was adjust the interlocking ornaments and swashes to better balance the space of the piece.

Final Touches

The artwork itself at last felt strong enough to stand on its own. So I started thinking about final touches I could add to really make it stand out. I’d recently acquired this excellent set of Adobe Illustrator rope brushes from The Artifex Forge as part of this Illustrator Brushes Mega-Bundle.

First, I applied the brush I wanted to use. The texture was very clean, which bothered me slightly. I wanted it to have a grittier feel. Then I noticed that some of the intersections where the rope curved didn’t quite feel right. So once I was happy with the rope width, I took the design back into Photoshop to finalize the details.

I worked on new layers on top of the artwork so I didn’t destroy any of the image information. I used the Brush tool to add further depth to overlapping rope. Then the Clone Stamp tool corrected where some of the rope brush didn’t quite work out around curves. I continued to use both tools to create and edit where the rope interwove with other elements, as well. Lastly, I used a clipping mask to add a grunge texture to add that edge Ultron brings to the saying.

The entire process — from sketch to vector — took me on an unexpected ride. I learned a lot, which has helped me in my work ever since.

Next Steps?

I would love to get this printed on smooth black vellum with white metallic ink and offer a limited run. There’s not enough interest to warrant such a thing quite yet, but I’d love a copy just for me, too. If I move forward in the future, I’ll order them in large poster sizes to really highlight the detail.

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