An Ink-Stained Memory
The cover of my copy of the 17th edition of Speedball Text Book by Ross F. George, published by the C. Howard Hunt Pen Company in 1956, has my last name scrawled in the big yellow letter “S” in the title — proof of ownership by a much younger me. The 6″ x 9″ booklet cover is dog-eared by use and abuse over time and, at the bottom of the subtitle text, there is what appears to be spilled India ink on the words “Poster Design for Pen and Brush.” (Click images once or twice for larger views.)
In 1956 I was 19 years old and serving the second year of a three-year enlistment in the U. S. Army. I doubt that I owned the booklet then, but once I left the military — in 1957 — I became a serious art student with the help of the Korean G. I. Bill. Despite having been an avid doodler and tracer of comic book panels and Sunday newspaper comic strips as a kid, I had had few formal art classes in elementary school. Instead of going to high school I attended two years of “commercial art” training in a city vocational school, to which I was sent after failing the eighth grade. In those days “problem” students — very much me at the time — were given the option of repeating the failed grade, learning a trade or — in a case like mine, because of some problems with the law — going to reform school. For me, the study of art of any kind was very seductive, so it was an easy choice. Later, though, I would discover that what I had signed on for was really a sort of “bait and switch” scheme. (More on that later.)
“Tools for Lettering,” on page 1 of the “Speedball” text, provides a clue as to when I may have acquired the booklet. If you look closely at the “Style C” pen point section you’ll see my faded rubber stamp running vertically up the page — another ownership tag. My address at the time, 3811 Mayberry Avenue, was where my new wife and I lived in the early 1960s. During those years I became something of a “speedball” myself, over-committed in life and in art, trying to make up for lost time and a truncated education. (I had completed high school by scoring well on the General Educational Development test while in the service.) In the span of only a few years I became the father of two sons, was working full time as a clerk for the Social Security Administration and also doing part-time seasonal work in the mail order department of Montgomery Ward (stocking shelves in the toy section). I was also attending evening art classes at the Maryland Institute of Art. And, as if that wasn’t enough, during the same period I signed up for a course in “Editorial and Commercial Cartooning” offered by a correspondence school. It was around this time that I began to collect a modest library of “how-to” art books, with which I planned to master the mysteries of what I hoped would somehow become a career. My simple and — as it turned out — unrealistic, dream was to quickly make big bucks as some sort of artist, in the same way many of my male relatives had become master carpenters and managed to support their families. From the very beginning I figured that art was something I could do, perhaps the only thing I was suited for, and at which I just might be able to make a living.
The Speedball booklet impressed me because of the mix of visuals and beautifully hand-lettered copy. One example of the practical quality of the illustrated craft tips is on page 2, where “Three Points of Contact” of the pen or brush hand in the proper lettering position is demonstrated with a photograph (brush) and in a line drawing (pen). Until I owned the booklet I didn’t know from “Roman,” “Gothic,” and “Text” lettering styles (see page 3). Or that Roman letters could best be made using “C” or “D” Speedball pen points, etc. And that in all lettering, to quote the copy, “Time and effort will be minimized by using the size and style of pen or brush which will form the different letters of any given alphabet without subsequent remodeling of the strokes.”
Now back to what I termed the “bait and switch” of vocational school. The four semesters of half-days I had spent there consisted of the endless practice of basic “show-card” brush strokes (the other half-day devoted to “social studies” and other “academic” subjects). Show cards are those hand-lettered broadsides you still see in the windows of small neighborhood grocery stores, announcing the current sale price of milk and eggs. They were training me to become a sign painter! We students used water-based black or red poster paint and practiced the simple letter segments using old newspapers turned on their sides so that the print columns became uniform guidelines. The exercise was much like the illustration of basic pen strokes shown on page 6 of the Speedball Text Book.
Meanwhile, on page 20 of the booklet, illustrations of pen points were shown stroking Roman letters. Simple, all you had to do to master the basic letter forms was to allow your eyes to follow the direction of the tiny numbered arrows. (There were even microscopic arrows showing where you should “twirl” the point to make a curved section.) As good as those illustrations were, and despite my hours of practice, I never became much good with a speedball pen or red sable lettering brush. I quickly realized that I’d have to develop other skills if I hoped to make a living at a drawing table. It seemed that because of my bipolar-like low boredom threshold and short attention span, and my rush of ambition, I simply didn’t have the patience to practice lettering. Anyway, I was more attracted to what the Speedball booklet taught me about the arty “moods” letter styles convey (see page 36); layout theory (pages 80 to 82); and how something as simple as line direction could convey important information to a viewer (page 83). The beauty part was I came to understand that many of these lettering “rules” also applied to drawing cartoons, a subject that holds my interest to this day.
The beautiful line drawing on page 92 of the booklet, “Early Morning in the Snow,” done with a “C-6” pen point by Charles Stoner, is an example of the aesthetic versatility of at least some of the Speedball products. For many years my personal preference was the “B-6,” with which I did balloon lettering and my rather crude cartoons. The stick figure examples shown on page 94 are close to my drawing style at the time, and they cleverly demonstrate the human body when in a balanced position. The booklet text explains: “Notice also that the supporting foot is directly under the center of gravity.” Other pictures demo the off-balance body, showing a figure actively attempting a broad jump. On other pages in the booklet I learned about the use of basic shapes (circles, triangles, rectangles, squares, etc.) with which to begin designing layouts and drawings, along with strategic placement of blacks to direct the viewer’s eye movement left to right, top to bottom through the panels and the pages. Again, these tips have great value for executing all levels and kinds of art, “commercial” and “fine,” not just the lettering on posters and show cards.
Overall, what did I take from my study of the Speedball booklet and similar texts so many years ago — I mean beyond the useful tips and exercises? Well, most importantly I think, I came to reluctantly accept the idea that given my late start in the graphics game I would likely never be able to do any of it at the “master” level. What I did get from “Speedball” and other similar texts, though, was enough new knowledge about the craft and business of lettering and cartooning with which to earn a modest living, something for which I’ve been very grateful. So here I am after all these years, still hard at it, still learning new things every day. And still laughing at myself and my false starts and outright failures. Still trying, despite the odds, to become really good at something.
Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.
To mark this first year anniversary of DoodleMeister.com (initial post published May 7, 2008), I wanted to post something to which fellow cartoonists’ and other commercial-type ink-slingers of a certain age might relate. And lo, the other day I happened upon my well-thumbed copy of Speedball Textbook. Perfect.