We first saw Nathan’s work when it started circulating around design blogs late last year. His use of colour, typography with a hint of graffiti and golden era Rap quotes were right up our street. After some broken promises we finally got Nathan to talk us through the process of putting his Typo-RAP-hy pieces together.
How did you come up with the initial idea for your Typog-RAP-hy pieces?
I realised that every time I was working on illustration jobs, I was listening to Hip Hop. No matter what job I was working on, Hip Hop was a constant factor. I could be absolutely engrossed in my illustration work, but would always have time to stop what I was doing and shout out the legendary punchlines and quotes. I have always heard other creatives saying you should produce work based on the things you like and what inspires you, so it seemed like a logical decision to use Hip Hop as a foundation for a body of work.
That said, the main reason I started the Typog-RAP-hy series was as a way to showcase a variety of my different letterform techniques as a hand drawn typographer. I’ve been sketching and painting letters for around 12 years of my life as a graffiti writer, but had never seriously brought them into my illustration until this body of work. I was always into wild style graffiti and making my letters barely legible, but I always respected the writers who could make letters legible to everyone and still have style. This series was a way to play with that idea and see how much style I could put into the letters while still keeping them legible to the viewer. Which is one of the main aims of graffiti in my opinion, especially if you don’t want to hear “what does it say” every time you paint!
How did you decide what rap tunes you would use quotes from? Was there a certain era of rap you were going for?
With the early Typog-RAP-hy illustrations it was just my personal favourite lines and it just so happened that during that period I was listening to a lot of “Golden Age” Hip Hop. I was listening to a lot of “classic” Hip Hop joints that contained those odd lines that everyone knows. The lines that even people who don’t listen to Hip Hop know! I was also very conscious of making the Typog-RAP-hy work appealing to a larger audience. I didn’t want to isolate people from my work by only using quotes which die hard Hip Hop heads know. This also led me to think about certain lines which are relevant in everyday life, even if you don’t know the music. The strongest example is the “It Was All A Dream” piece, which my auntie bought a print of and I’m pretty definite she doesn’t bump Biggie!
Nathans Typog-RAP-hy iPhone case and iPad/Laptop skins are available in our store.
More recently I’ve been working on an MF DOOM series, because I drew a lot of inspiration from his music and how he constructs both his verses and his beats. I’m currently working on a master plan with that body of work, it’s called ‘Operation Doomsday’ and I’m pretty excited about that one. All will be revealed soon!
I’m also looking at bringing it a little more local and doing a UK Hip Hop series. I’ve been listening to UK Hip Hop for a long time now and it was the soundtrack to my creative career for the past decade. A few of those UK Hip Hop artists are responsible for some of the decisions I made and for certain aspects of my work ethic, so it only seems right to give something back to the scene.
What tools are you using for the initial sketches?
I will start with something way more important, which is not a tool, but my “fuel”. I think the only other constant in my illustration, aside from Hip Hop is the fact that I will always be drinking numerous cups of tea and always have a packet of chocky HobNobs to hand! Now for the process…
I start off by digging through a load of source material, which includes my sketchbooks, photos and print. This is where I find the fonts, letterforms or type styles which I want to bring into a piece. I see it in the same light as how a Hip Hop producer digs through crates of records and uses samples to compose a beat. Of course the original source material is always abstracted during the drawing process until it is pretty much unrecognisable, in the same way a sample from a DJ Premier beat is.
Once I have an idea of the style of each individual word, I start to look at composition and this is where the ruler comes in. With typography you have to make sure you measure spacing and I usually work to the millimeter, creating a grid for the text to then be drawn on. I have a graphic design background, so I have a little OCD when it comes to grids and layout theories.
I do the first sketch using a mechanical pencil (I have no idea why people still use ones you need to sharpen…) and finish the entire piece in this way. This allows a little room for error if I then decide I want to extend the kicker of an R here, or add more curvature to a B there, when it comes to the inking.
The inking itself is done using a solid black fine-liner (Uni Pin Fine Line 0.2 for the main outline and then 0.1 for smaller details if you wanna geek out about pens). I have recently moved on to using Pigma Micron fine liners and also using more variation in the thickness of the lines I use. Once the illustration has been fully inked I then erase all the old pencil lines underneath, leaving just the ink outline.
I think this Big Daddy Kane line from Aint No Half Steppin sums up my process pretty well:
“Brain cells are lit,
Ideas start to hit,
Next the formation of words that fit,
At the table I sit,
Making it legit,
And when my pen hits the paper… Ahhh shit!”
You use a different style for each word, do you have an idea of what you styles you are gonna use or do you just build from one word to the next?
Well I often try and fill the individual words with the same feeling as I imagine they suggest. It seems like an obvious thing to me and has always been done in typography. So for example, if you see the word “flow” in my work, that type style will not have straight edges and will be built with flow as the word itself suggests. I guess it’s just about trying to give the word as much of its own personality and character as possible.
The key element to the work for me is the overall composition. Each word is in its own style, but for me it is even more important how the individual words interact with each other and the space around them. I always make sure that I will not have similar styles too close to each other in a composition. If two similar words are sat alongside each other, I will try to create them in two different styles so they sit together with more contrast.
There is also then the factor of pulling all the words together into one entity. So that the words don’t appear to be just floating away from one another and doing their own thing. I remember reading somewhere about how typography is less about what you do with the letters themselves and more about the space between them. My main method for pulling the individual components together is the use of patterns and shapes. As an illustrator there is a bank of patterns in my mind that I use at my disposal and I have personal favourites. However, I always try to make them relevant to the piece.
Are you scanning the sketches into photoshop for the colouring?
“Never reveal the secret of the Wu Tang”
How do you decide on what colours you’re using?
The problem with me, is that I don’t have a favourite colour! I could literally spend weeks on choosing colour variations (and sometimes do when I have that luxury!) It’s that classic creative process situation where it gets to the point where I have to accept something is finished or it will go on forever.
There is a method in the madness, but to describe it would probably make no sense to anyone else. The simplest aspect of it is to keep the colours balanced on different areas of the full composition. So if I dropped a little bit of red in one corner of a design, I would need to drop it in the opposite corner too. I think this idea of balancing an image really comes from the idea of balancing your letters in graffiti for me.
It may sound silly when you look at my work and the amount of colour going on, but I actually do try my best to limit my colour palette!
How long does it it take you from beginning to end to complete one of the pieces?
As a disclaimer before I answer this…
When I say “1 day” I actually mean a full day. I mean hitting the desk first thing in the morning and then drawing until my eyes are closing.
First Outline Sketch: This usually takes a day or two, including the decision making on type style I will use.
Inking Outline: This is a little quicker than the sketch process because I just have to outline the existing lines, so around a day.
Erasing Sketch, scanning and starting colouring: This takes around a day too, depending on how much I get caught up in colouring.
Colour Session: I usually set an entire day aside for this. The reason I set another day aside for colouring is just because I like to sit with the design for a while and spar with colour. Like I said, I could do this forever.
Finalising Artwork: This is usually just a few hours, making sure the design is ready for whatever format it will be applied to.
After I fully finish a piece I usually have a reward of some kind. I remember a story about one of the great writers who would smoke a single cigarette only after he had finished a book. I always liked that notion of a creative reward so I guess it stuck with me. I don’t smoke, so it’s usually a Havana Especiale with apple juice and a slice of lime or a glass of Rioja for me.