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As a designer, I feel it's always a good idea to take on new and challenging projects when the opportunities present themselves. The way you solve problems and adapt to different situations is a big part of what defines you as a designer. For example, when I was approached by Ace Hotel in NYC to do a series of murals that would cover multiple walls of some of their hotel rooms, I jumped at the chance... even though at the time I had no earthly idea how I was going to do it. I figured out a way though and now I use some of the techniques I developed for this project in other design projects, especially when I need to create hand made or illustrated typography.
I always start with pencil and paper. Whether it's making sketches or making notes, starting with some paper and a pencil is a great way to start every project. I came up with the idea to use song lyrics about New York for a couple of the pieces.
There was a typeface in an old type specimen book from the 60's that caught my eye, so used it as a road map. When drawing a lot of type by hand, I find it helpful to lay out the composition in illustrator and sketch from there. When drawing 3D type specifically, you may not want to worry too much about making it exactly perfect. I like to draw in the moment and let the forms come out as they will. The forms are always more interesting that way in my opinion.
I trace over my sketch to make the lines clean, then scan the tracing and adjust the levels in Photoshop to make sure the contrast is good so that I can get a nice clean live trace in Illustrator.
Live Trace and Live Paint
I open the adjusted scan in Illustrator and do a Live Trace so that I can color it easily. When you do the Live Trace, Illustrator will turn your scan into a black and white vector image.
After expanding the trace to turn it into a vector graphic, I usually take the Magic Wand Tool and select the white areas and delete them. Then I use the Live Paint Tool to quickly fill in the spaces of my line art. I don't use any black when I am doing the Live Paint because I usually take the black outline out when I am done with the Magic Wand Tool. It's the fastest way to get it all at once.
If you want to color your type this way, make sure all your lines connect at the corners. If you have gaps in the enclosed spaces, you won't be able to fill with color and you'll have to go in and close those gaps in Illustrator, which can take some time. I always make sure my lines connect when I do the drawing.
Tip: Another option is to use Select > Same > Stroke Color in Illustrator, which adds more flexibility with selections. There are other selections options there you can work with as well.
After I finish coloring the type, I take the Magic Wand Tool again and select the black outline and either delete it or move it over to the side. Sometimes I keep it there. It just depends on the effect you want.
For these Ace paintings, I only used two or three colors for each painting, since I knew I would be painting in a sort of "paint by number" way, and didn't want to make it too complicated with shading, etc. I approached it almost like a silk screen project, thinking of it in terms of flat minimal color.
Preparing the Canvas
The main challenge was finding the space to create the enormous paintings. I live in NYC and my apartment is the size of a shoe box so there was no way I was working on them there. I used the small photo studio in the back of the advertising agency office space where I work, and that worked out pretty well. The only down side was I had to cram all the work into a couple of weekends. But that was my only option. Like I said, part of the fun sometimes is figuring that logistical stuff out. And even though it took a long time, it was really really fun.
I used large sheets of very course canvas that were sewn together to create two 6'x8' canvases and one 8'x8' canvas. They were free hanging canvases, not stretched onto frames. The coarseness of the canvas and the lack of a stretcher made painting extremely time consuming but it made the paintings much richer. Someone in the hotel room standing very close to the canvas will be able to tell that the paintings were a labor of love. That was what I and the folks at Ace were after.
I used a standard projector hooked up to my laptop to project the colored artwork onto the canvas and I traced the shapes with a pencil.
I numbered each area just like a paint by number painting so that I wouldn't get confused as to which area needed what color.
I painted the canvases with a wash of color. I didn't want to gesso the canvases because I wanted the coarse texture to really come through and I needed to see my pencil outlines. I wanted my pencil outline to be under the painting so that it would be faint and not show through the finished painting. I put about two or three tablespoons of acrylic paint in a large cup and slowly mixed with water until the cup was about 3/4 full of paint water. I took a large flat brush and covered the canvases in the wash.
After the wash dried, I could still see the pencil outlines so I mixed a large amount of acrylic paint and painted in the shapes one color at a time. I printed out a small version of the colored vector art as reference.
I had to be very careful with the edges and make sure the paint filled in all of the gaps of the course canvas. It was extremely time consuming. I made this video in the middle of painting the last painting. You can get an idea of what the painting process was like from this video.
Each painting took about 15 hours to complete, but it was worth it in the end.
The folks at Ace were really happy and I learned some good techniques because of it. I still use the technique of creating 3D type by drawing it by hand and then taking it into Illustrator to color it. The only difference is that it usually ends up as digital illustrations, and I'll just take the colored art back into Photoshop in separate pieces and put some texture on it to make it look a little more finished. Here are a few examples.
So go make some cool type and have fun!