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f Twenty-six Letters — for Our Art f

tion or enhancing the aesthetic qualities
The Twenty-six Letters of our work, with legibility in mind. Thus,
a balance has to be achieved between
in Science Illustration readability and aesthetics the same way
that in science illustration we pursue the
— Diana Marques balance between scientific accuracy and
An immediate and understandable
thought would be: “Why give so much

S cience illustrators work with im-

ages and not with words. The
visual communication of science
often involves translating text into a
more immediate and appealing way to
element, they have a presence that influ-
ences the global piece but they also make
their own statement. Acting as a coherent
and unified part of the whole piece, letters
can create texture, rhythm and contrast
consideration to letterforms if, with a
click of the mouse, I can have an endless
list of fonts generated instantaneously
for me?” Well, it is a good question. But
communicate or, at least, to produce in a page but they also communicate to those of us who have tried to use the
images that will go together with text graphically through their shapes. usual fonts just as they come with the
usual software, frustration might have
and help to convey the written message. We can certainly appreciate Norm been the result. It is like incorporating a
Nevertheless, we use letters, words and Frisch’s knowledge of good letterform “one-size-fits-all” or “all-purpose” font in
text quite frequently, with the purpose of and the time he spent carefully building our very own original art.
identification (as in writing the common the letters of the GNSI logo (Fig.1). Norm
and Latin name of a species), or in com- mentioned how he tried to balance the Usually such and such font would be per-
plex diagrams, in sketchbooks and book weight of the stroke with the negative fect except for… and that is where some
covers, or, even just signing our artwork, awareness of letterforms and how to
area around each letter and then to bal-
since that also implies combining letters combine them with our artwork grants us
ance the letter spacing across all letters.
with the illustrations. an educated perspective. Whether we’re
But his major concern was readability
using a pencil, a pen nib or a computer
Letterforms are often neglected. We fo- versus decoration of the letters, especial-
mouse, letters can be modified or created
cus so much on the images that when it ly the intertwining of letters G and S.
from scratch to better serve us.
comes to the words, they seem to take Norm’s concern resonates with the words
second place. But how many times has a A step towards the understanding of good
of a contemporary calligrapher, Julian
poorly designed signature at the corner letterforms comes from knowing their
Waters, who says, “Calligraphy does not
of the page distracted your eyes from a origins and how they evolved to their
necessarily have to be beautiful in order
beautiful piece? And how often have you current appearance.
to be of quality. A better test is whether it
wished that the artist hadn’t written that
Latin name in colossal letters or even not
written anything at all?
Letterforms are undeniably one more
is expressively appropriate and whether
it communicates well.”
Notice how the statement refers to cal-
ligraphy, as it is traditionally thought of as
B efore there was an alphabet there
were systems of symbols. Common
sense suggests that many written
symbols originated from pictures that
represented everyday life: one drawing
element; in fact, not a simple one. As an the art of beautiful handwriting. But lets representing a cow, another a tree, etc.
give it a broader
sense: whether we In theory, one would need thousands
are talking about of signs to communicate, in a rather
calligraphy, letter- impractical way, probably even beyond
ing or typography human capacity. Besides, at what point in
(whose boundar- a scale of generalization and association
ies can get quite of ideas does the meaning of a symbol
blurred), when we fail? A standing male stick figure could
narrow it down, mean anything from one individual to
we are essentially the totality of men; it could also sym-
talking about let- bolize stand, wait, alone, lonely or even
terforms that can men’s rest room! (Fig. 2) And then, there
eventually be part are the cultural difficulties: the cow is as-
of our artwork. And, sociated with milk and meat in the west
in science illustra- but in India has a hump, is holy to Hindus
tion we won’t likely and may not be slaughtered.
make use of letters Even though some people like to imagine
as an art form in that “hieroglyphs” are striking back—be-
itself but always side highways, at airports, on maps, in
Fig.1 What would the GNSI logo look like if it hadn’t been designed with some ground
with the purpose of weather forecasts, on clothes labels, on
knowledge in good letterform? aiding communica- computer screens…— and that an entire


f Twenty-six Letters f
the language. So, how does one go from illustrator point of view it is fascinating
using hundreds of signs (as is still the to realize that most of the letterforms
case in Chinese and Japanese cultures) to we use today actually started out as or-
mastering only a handful of them? ganic shapes; but the simplification and
The Egyptian hieroglyphs began to shed abstraction of form through time left us
some of its images, resulting in the first with nothing but geometrical skeletons,
Fig. 2 Where does the meaning of a symbol fail? These are attempt at an alphabet, known as proto- simple combinations of line directions
several representations of the human figure throughout Sinaitic, which eventually developed and lengths. Therefore, building letters
time and for any of these symbols one can wonder: is it is like attaching muscles to bones: we
just one individual being represented or the totality of
in Phoenician hands, becoming the
first alphabet in history. Quite recently have a formal basic shape that we use
men? Is it man standing, waiting, alone? Is it the men’s
rest room?! Source: Robinson, A. The story of writing. archeologists found the oldest known as a starting point and can change as
Thames & Hudson, 1995 inscribed stone bearing the 22 symbols we please, knowing however that the
of the Hebrew alphabet, still in the tran- further away we go from it, the more
written language independent of any sition stage from its Phoenician roots1, difficult it will be to read the shape as
spoken languages of the world could be proving once more how Hebrew (as well the corresponding letter. Our alphabet
invented, the truth is: writing and reading as Arabic and other scripts of Central is in fact no more than a code and there
are intimately bound to speech. And that Asia) evolved from the early alphabet. is a limit to how far we can change the
is why the radical idea that a pictographic elements of the code before they are no
The other evolutionary line of the Phoe-
symbol could be used for its phonetic value longer understood by others.
nician alphabet led to Greek and its
was essential to the development of full descendents (Latin and all the Western Probably the letters that are truest to
writing. For example, in English, the picture alphabets). There was naturally some their skeleton are the Roman capitals, the
of an eye could stand for the pronoun I, and distortion from the Phoenician alphabet hand script used in Roman inscriptions
the picture of rain for the word reign. Simi- into the Greek, especially because the let- 2000 years ago, and which we still use to-
larly, a picture of a bee and a leaf together ter names would not have rolled naturally day. The Romans adapted and modified
might represent the word belief. off the Greek tongue. So aleph, the first the Greek alphabet to create their own,
It is now accepted that writing began letter of the Phoenician alphabet—mean- spread their culture and language along
as a method of recording the payment ing ox, representing strength and energy, with their empire, and even in countries
of taxes! Farmers living on the banks of hence being put in front of all other let- where Latin didn’t replace the native
the Nile had to give up a share of their ters to become the inaugural letter—was languages, the Roman alphabet was
crops as payment for the water needed turned into alpha by the Greeks. Beth, adopted. The proliferation of European
to fill their irrigation ditches. A picture meaning house, became beta. Gimmel, colonies later in history resulted in the
of a basket for measuring grain together meaning either camel or throwing stick, broad use of the Roman alphabet, with
with strokes indicating the number of turned into gamma. Daleth, meaning the exception of a few cultures.
measures paid would be scratched in the door or women’s breast, turned into The story and meaning behind this hand-
farmer’s house walls, serving as record delta. And so on. ful of letters that we take for granted
of payment and receipt. The change of the name was accompa- every day, every time the pen touches
Egyptians, and before them Sumerians nied by the change of the shape of the the paper and the finger the keyboard,
and their cuneiform writing, are credited letters (Fig.3). From a biologist/science are the evidence that the alphabet is the
for creating the first functional phonetic
systems of writing. These were organized
systems, involving the use of hundreds
of symbols, capable of clearly recording
what the writer was thinking and feeling.
It was no longer a single thought being
transmitted but speech and language
being expressed. Although it meant that
one now needed to know the language
of the person who had written it in order
to understand it, at least the sign was ca-
pable of capturing whatever the spoken
language conveyed.
But notice that their writing didn’t use an Fig. 3 Evolution of some letterforms from their Egyptian origins to their current shape. Find the complete table
alphabet. In fact, an alphabet consists of a online at (hard copies can be requested at +351213855697 [in
Portugal] or through GNSI by contacting the newsletter editor, Barbara Gleason.) Adapted from: Robinson, A. The
limited number of signs, usually between story of writing. Thames & Hudson, 1995; Davies, W.V. Egyptian hieroglyphs. The British Museum Press, 1987 and
20 and 30, expressing the basic sounds of Ouaknin, M. Mysteries of the alphabet. Abbeville Press Publishers, 1999.
GNSI Phone/Fax: (301) 309-1514 E-mail: Web site:


f Twenty-six Letters f
fruits and small animals, combining them are less than detailed). But we all know
with the preexisting calligraphy in the that this is far from being the only way
book. Without ever meeting each other, to communicate science visually.
both men mastered their trade and the Looking at the work of some present-day
result is a visual debate arguing the supe- artists who have used letterforms in their
riority of one art form over another. illustrations and analyzing the effect, pro-
In the production of manuscripts it was vides some idea of how that link can be
quite normal for the writing and illu- established and allows us to determine
mination to be carried out by different if it is something we want to pursue in
people and for the writing to precede our work. At least it educates our eyes in
the illuminations. Up until this point, the case the need to include words becomes
structure thus created favored the written important to our images.
words, which remained the focal point, Marie Angel has had a long career as a
and the illuminations were most often calligrapher and illustrator. In her book
developed in a border around the text Painting for Calligraphers, she writes, “If
and had to accommodate themselves to letterforms are to be incorporated as part
the writing. But what Hoefnagel set out of the design, I always arrange these first;
to do was demystify the text by placing I think of them as a strong framework
his imagery directly on the surface bear- on which to build up my composition.
ing the text, claiming equality and even The letters are most often only sketched
sometimes invading the central space of in skeleton form and are not painted at
Fig.4 – Mira calligraphiae monumenta is probably one of the writing with his images. first, but usually left until last so that the
the best examples of the combination of traditional hand
scripts and illuminations. Source: Nature Illuminated. The But Hoefnagel’s accomplishment was color of the letters may exactly comple-
J. Paul Getty Museum, 1997 somehow lost with the passage of time. ment or contrast with the design.” In An
Even when Mira Calligraphiae Monumenta animated alphabet, (Fig.5) she prefers Ro-
most important system of symbols ever man capitals, the script regarded as most
devised by Man. was produced, printed books had almost
true to its letter skeletons, since most of
replaced manuscripts—Gutenberg in
The graphic dimension of these symbols the letterforms are being covered with
Germany had made his movable type re-
had its first peak during Middle Ages the illustration and a good and readable
semble handwriting as much as possible,
and Renaissance. The exploration of underlying structure has to be assured.
retaining the manuscript look, but saving
letterforms and their combination with Dugald Stermer is a graphic artist who
illustration is translated in centuries of the time and costs that printing allowed.
And even though the earlier books still very often includes letterforms in his il-
hand-produced books requiring signifi-
cant human and material resources. The maintained the hand drawn initials in
scribe had to plan for the illumination color, eventually that was lost, too, and
that followed the writing of the text; images evolved into woodcuts, later into
artists were paid on a scale that rated engravings, living on separate plates.
the sizes of initials, the intricacy of their Over the course of the 20th century,
details, and the scope of the illumina- designers woke up to the idea that
tions, and these grew in stages, from they were no longer restricted to hand
simple sketches through fully executed lettering or available fonts and could
drawings to final infilling of colors and develop or create their own, sometimes
precious metals. without any real understanding of good
Mira Calligraphiae Monumenta, or the letterform, and then software that could
Model Book of Calligraphy, is one of the modify and create lettering like Fontog-
best examples of the relation between rapher™ came onto the market. These
science illustration and letterforms from changes, along with digital printing, com-
the European Renaissance (Fig.4). Com- bined to turn books into what they look
missioned to do the book in 1561, the like today, with almost no restrictions
calligrapher Georg Bocskay displayed regarding image and text placement and
his own writing skill and created a work interaction.
of great visual splendor that included a So, where does science illustration fit
vast selection of historic and contem- into all of this? We certainly don’t expect
porary scripts. More than 15 years after to see modified fonts or handwriting in
Bocskay’s death, the illuminator Joris scientific journals (although even in these
Hoefnagel was called to illustrate the there are sometimes critical choices that
calligrapher’s work and with incredible have to made concerning legends and Fig.5 – T is for tarsier. Source: Angel, M. An animated
scientific accuracy he depicted flowers, captions, when publisher’s guidelines alphabet. David R. Godine Publishers, 1996


f Twenty-six Letters f

Fig.6 – Dugald Stermer very often includes letterforms in his illustration work. Source: Fig.7 – The work of Trudy Nicholson translates how the presence of letterforms has
(left) Stermer, D. Vanishing creatures, a series of portraits. Jain Publishers Co., 1980 influence over the visual message and how letterforms can communicate graphically
and (right) Stermer, D. Vanishing flora, endangered plants around the world. Harry & through their shapes.
Abrams, 1995 (with insets of some enlarged words)
lustration work. His images of zoological has influence over the visual message Diana Marques completed a biology degree and
and botanical subjects contain written that is being sent but also letterforms several drawing and science illustration cer-
information regarding the common and communicate graphically through their tificate programs in Portugal before graduating
Latin name of the species and, in the shapes. And that could not be clearer in from the Science Illustration Program in Santa
artist’s earlier work, also some numerical the work of Trudy Nicholson (Fig.7). The Cruz, CA, in 2004. She did practical training at
two pieces included here transmit differ- the Queensland Museum in Brisbane (Australia)
data such as the animal’s weight or wing and at the American Museum of Natural History
span are present (Fig.6). The evolution ent feelings through the differences in the in New York and is currently doing free-lance
of Dugald’s style is noticeable when one composition, poems and letterforms: on work in Portugal and in the US. Contact: www.
compares his books published 15 years the one hand we learn about the silent;
apart: the page that was completely cov- mockingbird (Fig.6, right) reading words
written in foundational script, a very This article is a modified and expanded
ered with subject and background and
regular, round and solid script—in this version of a presentation developed for
where large letters overlapped the image, the 2005 GNSI Conference in Bar Harbor,
later became a primarily white page with very soothing piece the chosen script is in
Maine. Its presentation format is available
a spot subject and satellite small letter- accordance with the overall character and
forms related to the image by proximity allows a very immediate legibility. On the
GNSI.htm and the list of books consulted
and wrapping. Even though still informa- other hand, together with the June beetle at
tive, the writing was clearly relegated to (Fig.6, left) we find a very particular style GNSI-books.htm (Hard copies of the book
of italic script being used, very flourished list can be requested at +351213855697
second place and adopted a much more
and dynamic, mimicking the twists of the or through the GNSI newsletter editor,
decorative purpose. This is also evident in
vegetation on the background—a very Barbara Gleason.)
the letterforms themselves: they become
lively composition is created forcing our Thank you: Paul Antonio; Frank Ippolito;
more flourished, include more acute
eyes to move quickly though the piece, but Jenny Keller; Marie Metz; Janine Mitchell;
angles, and the letter spacing is taken to
at the expense of legibility. Even Trudy’s Trudy Nicholson; Anna Pinto; Pedro & Sónia
extremes, despite Roman capitals and Salgado; Dugald Stermer; Alice Tangerini;
signature was modified to better suit the
italics being always the scripts of choice. nature of each piece and it is the care put Julian Waters. A special thank you to Norm
Thus, we see Dugald’s work approach- into this kind of detail that contributes to Frisch for his dedication over many years to
ing the use of letters as embellishing el- the newsletter, for the invitation to write this
a successful illustration. article and for his invaluable help with the
ements, more than functional elements.
It is our responsibility (and aspiration) to contents.
Which style is visually more pleasing or bet-
communicate science in the most accu- 1 For more information read A Is for An-
ter serves its purpose, is an individual opin-
rate and appealing way we can achieve. cient—Describing an Alphabet Found Near
ion but the mental process that takes place Letterforms can in some cases make Jerusalem by John Noble Wilford in the in-
is a step toward the study of letterforms and
an important contribution if knowingly ternational section of the New York Times of
how they can be included in images. used—we just need to balance the way it November 9, 2005 (available online at www.
As said before, the presence of letterforms looks with the way it is interpreted.
GNSI Phone/Fax: (301) 309-1514 E-mail: Web site: