Alphabet Road Trip | the blog of Iskra Design

Category: Book Covers

A Day in the Studio: I Still Like to Use French Curves


I still like inking with real tools in real time, the kind of tools that will cause you to make completely analog mistakes. Like carefully washing your french curve and missing a waterdrop and then laying it on your paper across, ummmm, water-based ink????? Here is a piece in progress, showing the unvarnished truth of a work in progress. Perfect curves don't happen fast. They are the result of slow meticulous refinement. They may be vectorized at the final stage for flexibility in sizing, but I like to consider each swell and taper with tools that reflect the difficulty of art imitating life. This concept started out as a brush study, but I wanted to take it to another level and see how it would look when refined with my favorite "hand vector" tools. This will get somewhere close to final in another five or ten hours.

While working on a project like this I need white noise or news to keep me focused. Yesterday it was the KUOW pledge drive, interrupted amazingly enough by a lovely news report about The Cursive Club. Sylvia Hughes, identified in an appropriately (?) retro way as "a New Jersey grandmother" noticed that her grandson wasn't learning to write cursive. And she did something about it. Now the club is one of the most popular ones in the school, with sixty eight-yearolds discovering the meditative happiness of paying attention to how your hand moves and how it makes letters and words — without a keyboard.

[Sylvia Hughes] asked Principal Lillian Whitaker why cursive handwriting wasn't part of the curriculum. "It's not that we don't want to. It's just that with all the state mandates, we don't have time," Whitaker says.

Mike Yaple of the New Jersey School Boards Association says the state adopted the Common Core State Standards Initiative to provide consistent learning requirements for students across the nation. Common Core has been adopted by nearly every state and the District of Columbia, and the standards don't require cursive.

"Even New Jersey's state standards have said students are expected to write legibly in manuscript or cursive, but there really never was a mandate for cursive to be taught in all schools," Yaple says.

Students are now required to take nine subjects in preparation for a state-issued standardized test this spring. He says many people support teaching cursive handwriting to improve eye-hand coordination and teach students how to understand documents in cursive.

"But when push comes to shove, some parents might want their child to have an edge when it comes to other subjects like technology or speaking a second language," Yaple says. "And that's when you see the push toward fewer hours for cursive."

Hughes says it made the students happy. "When I come to the school now for different programs they have, they come up to me and say, 'Hi, Miss Hughes.' I mean, it really does my heart well," Hughes says.

Alexandra Solomon, 9, says the feeling is mutual. "Ms. Hughes is kind of like my hero, sort of, because without her I wouldn't be able to write cursive and I wouldn't be able to read cursive," Solomon says.

Many of my handwriting projects require writing based on historical styles like the cursive scripts of the original US Constitution or Declaration of Independence. I am imagining a world in which the next generation cannot read even one of this country's founding documents, and needs them reprinted in….Arial. More at a later on sustainable culture and the "green fuel" of slow time.

Title calligraphy of "Our Secret Constitution" by Iskra Design

Two New Book Covers with Handlettered Titles from Iskra Design


Pen calligraphy with a historical feeling for book cover, "The Housemaid's Daughter," title design by Iskra. This style is between typography and handwriting. The brief called for clear legibility with some quirks of imperfection.

 Contemporary handwritten script lettering for book cover, "Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend," title design by Iskra. Both books out soon from St. Martins.See my complete book cover portfolio at Iskra Design.

Calligraphy for Reproduction: Font Influences and the Spirit of the Pen


When I was just beginning my career in letterforms I had the great good fortune to study with Bettye Lou Bennett at Haystack, Cannon Beach. She was a teacher of uncommon rigor and caring, and she continually inspired me to reach beyond what I thought were my limits. During a slideshow of contemporary calligraphy she made a comment that has never left my mind. After a long beat in which we regarded an example of calligraphy on the screen she said only, "This piece could have benefitted from some judicial retouching."

Ouf, I thought, scalding! What exactly is judicial retouching? And how can I avoid ever being held up as a similar example? At that point I was simply learning how to hold an edged pen, dip it in ink, and make a simple perfect italic letter in the tradition of Lloyd Reynolds and the long lineage of Arrighi. I had not yet moved into lettering design for reproduction. I knew nothing about typography, and operated on the assumption, common then, that "pure" calligraphy could only be made in one fell swoop and that if you fussed with it afterwards the Lords of the Pen would come down from that clear crystal inkwell in which they lived and smite you.

I went on to realize that lettering for reproduction must inevitably be a dialogue between the aesthetics of fonts and the airy and sometimes reckless dance of the pen. Recently, in organizing archives for a book jackets portfolio, I came across this project for Pocket Books, which illustrates beautifully the path from pure calligraphy to work for reproduction — and calligraphy's connection to typography.

To write the name of Audrey Hepburn is a dream assignment. The title needed to express elegance, divadom, perfection, beauty, and reflect some history of her era by referencing the typefaces of her time. Here is the initial page exploring her name with various brushes and pens:

Calligraphic sketches in pointed brush and edged pen

We went to final art on the second one and the publisher then decided to use only her last name.

Audrey Helpburn Calligraphy Rough
This is an unretouched scan of edged pen calligraphy on Crane's Crest.

The calligraphy shows that lovely lyrical "ribbon" that happens when a true edged pen turns in space–but the work would never survive reduction at small size in a catalog, or read from a distance. And if you look closely you see the roughness of the paper. It can be hair-raising to go into a piece like this, that is "pure" and walk that balance between calligraphic beauty and typographic strength. This was done long before bezier curves and Photoshop, and I used French Curves, a three ott rapidograph and photostat paper to ink this final version:

Formal typographic calligraphy

I would have loved to keep the original H, but it was decreed by marketing that it was "hard to read"– three words that may be the least favorite in the English language to a calligrapher's ears. This was before the proliferation of script fonts, and my primary reference was the dreaded "Park Avenue," along with the more respectable "Coronet," "Ariston," "Amazone," and "Bernhard Cursive" from my much-loved and dog-eared Ryder Display book.

Audrey, wherever you are, I hope you like this. It was lovely to be you, and to wear your earrings for a day.

Breathing Calligraphy: Book Cover Project

I was contacted awhile ago to do the cover book jacket lettering for a book called "Breath." The book at last check was in limbo, the author undecided between the hundreds of versions of this word he had commissioned from calligraphers around the world. This is a word that has been done many times, perhaps not as many times as "free" or "sale" but nonetheless it is quite a challenge to do something new. I thought a lot about the breath as something circular and flowing, and tested many ways of letting the letters do this, as though breathing themselves.

These versions are done with a pointed brush, with little or no retouching. The last one in the sequence was at one point the front runner, shown here with a proposed treatment indicating a gold foil and emboss. We also considered blind emboss on white, but it would have been difficult to market in an airport book store competing with Danielle Steele or Scott Turow from the distance of the boarding gate…..




Breath calligraphy © Iskra Johnson

Lettering Design for Book Covers: Contemporary Fiction

Here are samples of different ways contemporary script calligraphy can be integrated into book cover design. Most of these books are ongoing series, in which the hand lettered book title becomes part of the brand.

                                  Book Jacket Lettering Brush Calligraphy

Casual, fun brush lettering integrated into the illustration


Monoline pen handwriting for Sophie Kinsella's "Shopaholic" series

Brush Script Calligraphy Cat in an Orange Twist 

Brush calligraphy that flows with the curves of the illustration          

                                     Casual Script Lettering Book Jacket

Script as illustration, a visual pun


Script Lettering Used With Font Book Title

Contemporary brush script designed to play off of a font


A long title treated as a text shape for Laurel House

Elegant Hand Lettering For BookCovers

Elegant contemporary pen calligraphy in two different styles