Where did the letterpress print, Curiosities, come from?
I’ve often read about early-Renaissance scholars collecting rare and unusual specimens in their “cabinets of curiosities.” One day (mid-July 2022), the notion of drawing my own cabinet came to me. I could fill a space with all my favorite oddities from my sketchbooks. Sounded like it might be fun.
Initially I drew this little 4"x6" doodle (above) to capture the idea before it drifted away. The basic elements of the final design are there. A vertical cabinet with small compartments filled with lots of exotic specimens. A close look will show that many of the specimens in this sketch made it to the final design.
On the back of that same sheet, I sketched (above) some ideas about stuff that might appear on the shelves—worms, bugs, bones, briefs, balloon animals, desserts, a bear-shaped honey dispenser, etc. This sketches were confirmation that anything goes. No need for scientific or historical accuracy. I could put in anything that tickled my fancy. Yes, this project could be fun.
Next, I sketched a preliminary cabinet (above) with the thought that I could draw some oddities right into those spaces. Soon, it was clear that the cabinet was too complex. I eliminated much of the fancy details so they would not compete with the specimens.
At first, I thought I'd find specimens in my existing sketchbooks and just bring them straight into the composition. But it was soon clear that I'd have to draw new entities from scratch. Many of the old specimens in my sketchbooks were the wrong scale—too big or too small. For example, The drawings of the potatoes above show a lovely potato I already had in my sketchbook (left). But the stippling if too fine, too detailed for the size the potato would be in the print. So, I redrew it (potato on the right) with stippling that is much more coarse.
I needed some specimens to look like they are sitting on the shelf. So I redrew several characters from my sketchbooks to take a seated position (above). I especially liked the flat vertical side of the octopus as though she is smooshed up against the side of her pigeonhole.
It’s coming together. The sketch above had lots of interesting pieces, but too much confusion and conflict. Many of the specimens turned out to be place holders that I had to reposition, eliminate, or replace.
Like the things in a traditional cabinet of curiosities, some of my specimens ought to be freaky weirdoes with an unexpected part. So, the potato got a Groucho mask and mister shrimp got a Nancy-like face. If you look, you will find other examples of “weirdification.”
I did a lot of experimenting with the tones in the back of the pigeonholes to try different values and textures. In the end, it was clear that a second color was needed to separate the specimens from their background. I went with a dark teal at first and kept lightening it until it was clearly subordinate to the specimens.
Near the end, a few areas of the cabinet seemed a little dull, so I had an opportunity to create some small specimens that could be added for interest (above). Just get something down and save the evaluation step for later. I call this “auditioning” and it is a wonderful assignment.
As a near final step, I added a white stroke to some of the characters to separate them from the background or from other characters sitting behind them. You can see examples of this in both the monkey and octopus tentacles above.
Framed copy of a press proof looks good. Unlike a real cabinet of curiosities, it seldom requires any dusting.
Take away? Making something almost never goes in a straight line. There are always surprises. Some of the surprises are irksome, but some are delightful. If one can give up trying to have total mastery and just enjoy both kinds of surprises, work can usually be fun.
Don—Pittsburgh, January 15, 2023
PS: If you like these origin stories, there are several more in these blog archives.