Hand Done Typography
#ARTWISEUP
MARCH 1, 2018 

There exists a special combination of talents when a poster artist has command over both their illustrative powers and their knowledge of typography. Typography in and of itself is an elusive creature, silently working to communicate ideas through language and holding together structural integrity in a composition, whilst maintaining a vital role as supporting actor alongside the pictorial star of the show. When an artist chooses to assemble their design with handwriting or even handmade type, it is a powerful opportunity for them to fully orchestrate the entirety of the atmosphere, not unlike a great film director. Handmade type is often charming, awkward and full of quirks, but really only when compared up against what we normally expect to see from a designed font— a naive and unbiased look can reveal great sophistication, and an unparalleled measure of expressive mastery.

Divan Japonais – Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, offset lithograph

The godfather of hand lettering is perhaps none other than Toulouse-Lautrec, so confident in his abilities at painting and design that it left room for him to work completely relaxed, something that can be seen in his free yet decisive line quality. His typography contributes to the potent and sultry aura that he concocts, seamlessly incorporated into his virtuosic designs. In one of his most famous images, Divan Japonais, it feels almost as if you are drawn into the space yourself.

Self Portrait – Andy Warhol, 1986 offset lithograph

Andy Warhol makes an electric image with arguably more friction than usual— his hand-drawn eclectic letterforms both softening and honing the immediacy characteristic of his imagery. In this original 1986 poster Self Portrait for his exhibition at the Williams College Museum of Art, both the pared-down color scheme and the type’s juxtaposition with photography serve to communicate his spirit directly and with unfettered torque.

Musee Nationale D'Art Moderne – Pierre Bonnard, 1955 Mourlot stone lithograph
Pierre Bonnard’s paintings were sensitive, colorful and emotional. When these qualities meet with the flat, stylized medium of poster design, the result is nothing short of enlightening. In this 1955 Studio Mourlot print Musee Nationale D'Art Moderne, the cool grey color tone and total absence of form depth create an almost cartoon-like simplicity, heightened by the presence of typography— yet which is then tempered by Bonnard’s adept sensitivities, inspired composition and arrangement of letters. The piece is simultaneously humorous and elegant, and inexplicably magnetic.
New York Philharmonic 150th Anniversary – Robert Rauschenberg, 1992 offset lithograph
Another artist who made almost exclusive use of handwriting in his poster art is Rauschenberg, fitting words in amongst his motley crew of imagery with characteristic reckless abandon. Ink blotching and sharpie scribbling posed dynamic tools, complementing his energetic style and channelling a distillation of his unique expression. In this poster for the New York Philharmonic 150th Anniversary he is fearless in his decisions, allowing words to change color, direction and size with little worry— this freedom being perhaps the compelling force for which he is most loved.
Maison de la Pensee Francaise – Henri Matisse, 1959 Mourlot stone lithograph
And Matisse, infamous for his paper cut forms, is unvaryingly eloquent regardless of whether with figures or portraits, flora and fauna, abstract shapes or even typography. His piece Maison de la Pensee Francaise is inspired and succinct, mysterious and lively, a 1959 Mourlot-printed stone lithograph. The fact that he can create such a strong image with so few elements is a true testament to his formidable artistry.

What all great hand typographers have in common is an ability to create an enchanting balance with a seemingly disparate structure, leading to the creation of some of design art’s most persuasive and mesmerizing imagery.
Charley – Unknown Artist, 1968 SIGNED silkscreen
Paix Disarmement-Peace –                                           Spoleto Festival – Ben Shahn,
Pablo Picasso, 1960 Mourlot stone lithograph                                     1965 offset lithograph