Design and Use of Decorative Initials Fonts

Decorative initials fonts. What they are, how to use them.

The Art and Design of Alphons Mucha

A look at the work of the preeminent Art Nouveau master.

Colorizing 19th Century Lithographs

A look at special techniques for bringing antique prints to life in color.

Featured Fonts

Information on the Six fonts that come with this issue.

Links & References

Where to go for the best in type and design.

Fonts & Graphics in this Issue

What all this great stuff is.

New Releases

Introduction to the new ARType collection.

Subscription Information

Make sure you get every issue of Scriptorium Magazine.


Decorative Initials font consists of characters which combine basic letter forms with artistic embellishment, often in the form of floral or geometric patterns used as a background or intertwined with the letter. Decorative Initials have their origins in medieval manuscript decoration where complex and colorful characters were used to make a manuscript page more attractive. Most Decorative Initials fonts have their origins in the adaptation of this medieval concept to early typography, limiting them to complex two-color patterns, though in some cases these might be decorated after printing. Decorative Initials fonts are sometimes referred to as 'Drop Caps' because they are 'dropped' into a page of text.

ecause Decorative Initials characters are far more complex than the characters in a regular font, they present design problems and may present some difficulties for the end-user as well. This is particularly true when dealing with True Type fonts because of the limitations built into that format. All of the difficulties of designing Decorative Initials originate in their complexity. Characters in digital fonts are made up of points and vectors. A truly detailed initial may require hundreds of points, and in some cases even thousands. With an original font this can be controlled to some degree by making the characters less complex, but if you are adapting a font from a historical source (like many of the Scriptorium Decorative Initials fonts), the original source material may be too complex to simplify significantly. With all types of fonts complexity and large numbers of points means that the font will require more memory. This may create problems on both Macintosh and PC computers which do not have sufficient memory or where programs are not assigned sufficient memory to render the fonts on the screen. Similar problems may occur with printers which lack the memory to download these complex characters. And in most cases the more complex characters you use in a document the more problems you will run into. Usually font memory problems will be manifested by characters not printing or appearing on the screen in larger sizes. These problems are worse with TrueType fonts, because operating systems set an absolute limit on the complexity which a character can have. This limit may make it impossible to use some fonts at all.

here are only a few ways to deal with the problems of complexity in Decorative Initials. If you want to use them you have to be prepared to use them sparingly and put up with some frustration. If you want to design or adapt them you have to accept limitations on what you can achieve, or be willing to do a lot of extra work to make perfect curves and minimize points in order to produce characters with the look you want at acceptable complexity. There are some tricks which may help. For the designer one trick is to split a Decorative Initials font into two fonts, each with half the characters. This keeps the total memory usage of the font down to a better level. With a few of our fonts (Campobello, Golgotha, Maidens) this proved to be the only way to make the fonts workable. A good trick for the frustrated user is to use a powerful art program like Photoshop to turn the individual characters you want to use into TIFF or JPEG files for insertion into desktop publishing documents, thereby bypassing the complexity of the actual font. In addition, as a general design guideline it is better not to overuse decorative initials. They were originally intended to be used once per page, and if you are using them more often than just to start each paragraph they will start to make your pages look over done.

lthough Decorative Initials fonts are limited - like all fonts - to two colors, there are some creative things you can do with them to make them more like the medieval initials from which they originate. Most of these suggestions assume that you have some sort of color printer available to you or are preparing your document for viewing on a color computer screen. The simplest option, and one which will work in almost any word processing program, is to do the decorative initials in a different color from the main text. The combination of a strong red initial with standard black text is quite striking and frequently used in religious pamphlets and event programs. A more advanced technique is to place the characters you need in a pain program like Photoshop and then color individual elements of the character appropriately, as demonstrated by the initials accompanying this article. The disadvantage of this technique is that you have to place the initials as art rather than as text, but many word processing programs and desktop publishing programs handle this fairly well. And as you can see it works quite well in HTML. Be creative with Decorative Initials, but don't go overboard with color. These characters are already visually complex and if you make them too colorful they may become distracting or confusing so that the reader just filters them out.

f you choose not to use an actual decorative initials font, you can still create decorative initials of your own if you have some good art to work with by superimposing type on an art background. Small illustrations with dark colors of relatively uniform intensity work best as backgrounds, and you should pick a relatively bold font with clear, heavy strokes to superimpose. The art you choose should be not be so detailed that it loses all meaning in a small size, and be sure the color of the type contrast strongly with all the colors in the background. Take care to make sure that none of the key figures in the art background are obscured by the type. To use this technique and keep it simple for guaranteed success you can use a simple square filled with a nice texture as your background. Another option is to use artwork to fill a character on a contrasting background - a technique favored by many Art Nouveau designers. These methods can produce some impressive results if you have the right source materials to work with.

ecorative Initials can be challenging and frustrating to work with, but they are one of the best ways to add an antique look to your documents. Use them sparingly and creatively and don't be profligate with them. If you use them well they may add just the touch of antiquity and style you're looking for.

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Alphons Mucha was born in Bohemia in 1860 and moved to Paris in 1890 where he became the star of the poster-art movement under the patronage of the Sarah Bernhardt. After World War I he returned to Czechoslovakia and founded a slavic arts and crafts movement which combined elements of art nouveau with classic national themes. In addition to commercial art, jewelry design, interior decoration, sculpture and stage design, Mucha is probably best known for his exceptional posters, which include unusual calligraphic lettering which provides excellent source material for unique typefaces. Mucha's style is virtually synonymous with French Art Nouveau and he is one of the most imitated artists and designers of all time. Mucha's work was so widely immitated by artists like Maxfield Parrish, Leon Bakst and artists of the German Jugenstil movement that it is sometimes hard to tell where his work ends and the imitations begin. His style became so ubiquitous that by the 1930s it had become a cliche against which post-war modernist artists of the 1950s aggressively rebelled. Despite this, his legacy continues today and he is still imitated. In fact, I was recently in a Czech import shop recently and it was full of jewelry and crystal derived Mucha's designs and ideas.

The body of Mucha poster designs offers what may be the richest source for original Art Nouveau calligraphy in the world. For a font designer it is a literal treasure trove of interesting and visually arresting design ideas. Mucha did hundreds of different poster designs and advertisements and although there are certain standards to his lettering, he virtually reinvented his lettering style for every poster, producing dozens of distinctly identifiable styles.

Mucha's style is easily identified and easily differentiated from other Art Nouveau lettering. Unlike most lettering, almost all of Mucha's styles have the unusual characteristic that their vertical alignment is established by the position of the tops of the characters, rather than the bottom which is the standard alignment for most lettering or the center which is common among art and decorative styles. In addition, Mucha's characters are almost always tapered, with the top of each character substantially wider and heavier than the bottom, though this tapering is occasionally reversed. Mucha letting is also characterized by a tendancy for characters to have very flat, broad lines, almost like hats, on the tops of the characters. These elements make it easy to identify Mucha lettering and provide a basis for imitating or expanding on his style.

Surprisingly there are very few adaptations of Mucha lettering to any form of type or font, so we have been working to correct this grievous oversight. To date we have produced four Mucha-based fonts, Slava, Moravia, Bernhardt and Abaddon. Making a Mucha font usually requires a fair amount of adaptation and creativity, because since each poster has a different lettering style there is usually only a small sampling of characters to work from.

Moravia is our most recent font. It is derived from letting on a poster for a 1911 performance of the Moravian Teachers Choir (shown at left). The lettering and art on this poster fit in with the later phase of Mucha's career, derived from the style he developed for his Slavic Epic series of panel illustrations under the patronage of Josephine Crane. In designing Moravia we had an excellent set of very ornate characters to work from. They are extremely bold and have many of the characteristics common to Mucha lettering, such as tapered letter shapes and flat tops. Only a few characters had to be extrapolated from the source material, and the result is a typeface which is very true to Mucha's style. The 'M' which is shaped like a ancient Greek helmet is particularly characteristic of Mucha's lettering, as are the 'A' with a raised left leg and incomplete crossbar and the decorative top bar on the 'H'. Variations on these letter forms are found in a number of Mucha posters from the period around the first World War.

Slava is another typeface based on Mucha's later lettering, from a poster for the 1926 Sokol Festival in Prague, combined with some elements from one of the posters for an exhibition of his Slavic Epic series. It has many of the common Mucha lettering themes, plus some unusual elements which are characteristic of this very late period, such as the double lines on the 'A' and 'E'. Slava does not have as much of a traditional Art Nouveau look as Moravia or Bernhardt, but it is still clearly a Mucha style.

Bernhardt is based on a sample of Mucha's earlier lettering from the start of his career in Paris. The source for Bernhardt was a poster for Sarah Bernhardt's production of Hamlet in 1899. During this period Mucha made an effort to express the theme of the play he was advertising in his lettering, so for Hamlet we get a narrow, nervous looking style, while the lettering for Gismonda has a medieval look, the lettering for The Samaritan has a Middle Eastern look and Medea features a Greek style. We plan to do fonts based on these early Mucha styles as well in the near future.

Of all of our Mucha fonts by far the most popular (and our first) has been Abaddon. It was originally inspired by a sample of Mucha-imitation lettering designed by Will Stout which inspired us to seek the original Mucha source of his design. It is probably the least true to the Mucha original from which it was derived because it was developed from a very small and somewhat distorted sample from a poster for a 1902 Carriage Exhibition in Philadelphia, and modified to have some of the characteristics of the Stout lettering. This lettering was done during a period in which he did a lot of work for American patrons, which ultimately resulted in a temporary move to New York city and a teaching position at the New York School of Art. Abaddon has many of the standard Mucha characteristics, but was made somewhat more severe and exaggerated to create a more 'horrific' look, which is why it has been used as the title font for various horror novels and at least one horror movie. It actually doesn't look much like the source which inspired it, because elements from other Mucha designs were incorporated to achieve a sort of generic Mucha effect.

Given the great influence which Mucha has had on artists and designers in the past century it is surprising that there are so few typefaces available based on his lettering. It is possible that he has been overlooked because his style is so unusual and his designs are relatively specialized. Since there seems to be a real interest in unusual typefaces now that so many people have computers we plan to produce more Mucha fonts in the future.

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This is a bit of a departure from our usual focus, but we stumbled on this technique and we do want to cover various unusual aspects of digital graphic arts in the magazine, so we're going to share it with you.

One of our big projects in 1995 was the development and graphic design of the card game Quest for the Grail (Stone Ring Games, 1996). This was a project uniquely suited to our knowledge and abilities because the publishers wanted a game with a genuinely antique look, including using a lot of 19th century art. Ultimately we selected all of the art and used nothing but Scriptorium fonts and textures to produce a product with a rich and unusual look very appropriate to the literary and artistic traditions of Arthurian legend.

While working on Quest for the Grail we found it quite frustrating that we had all these great 19th century lithographs of Gustav Dore's illustrations for Tennyson's Idylls of the King in our library, but because they were in black and white we couldn't use them in an all-color publication, despite the quality of the art and the appropriateness of the themes.

One day I was playing around with a Dore illustration in Adobe Photoshop and discovered that with a little work and the application of the right filters and patterns I could introduce color to the picture, preserve all the details and produce a very impressive result.

A traditional lithograph is made to be printed in black and white without modern halftone screening, using patterns of lines to create textures and the appearance of shades of gray when viewed from a distance. As the detail to the left shows there are not actually any gradations in shade, just fine lines. Victorian publishers would commission artists to paint full-color illustrations and they would then have a lithographer convert the color painting to a lithograph, preserving the shading and details, but essentially creating an entirely new image based on the original. In some cases the lithographer's signature will appear on the final print along with that of the original artist. Other artists like Gustav Dore and William Hogarth worked specifically for publication and did their own conversion from painting or sketches to lithograph. In many cases Dore actually painted in india ink on the wood block which would become the engraving from which the image would be printed. This is one of the reasons why his work is so highly prized, because he did an exceptional job of conveying the complexity and depth of shading of his images in a very limiting format.

The high level of detail in Dore's work and that of the best illustrators of the period is what makes colorization practical, because it makes it allows you to tint already existing textures rather than having to actually add color from scratch. As you can see from the example to thw right, when reduced to a small size the details in a Dore engraving start to merge together and blur. While this tends to gray out details and make the image indistinct, it can be used advantageously in the colorization process so that the lines of the lithograph vanish and are replaced by smooth, solid color.

To colorize an image you need a good, comprehensive paint program, such as Adobe Photoshop or ColorIt. It is particularly important that the program you use has the ability to select irregularly shaped areas and fill them with patterns and colors, as well as some pixel-manipulation ability for blurring and sharpening images. You also need to start with a fairly large original. Most of the Dore pieces collected in the Dore Gallery series in the 1890s are excellent, as are prints from the Illustrated London News of that period, which published many excellent lithographs on historical and contemporary topics. Basically you need an original which is about four-times the area of the final piece you want to produce. If you are colorizing something for use in print this is a pretty severe limitation, because of the high resolution (300dpi minimum) you will need to be able to output. If you are colorizing for online use you have much more flexibility, and should be able to colorize an image and keep it more or less the same size as the original at 72dpi resolution. In order to be able to colorize anything you want, you need to have a scanner, but even without a scanner you can use lithographs which are already digitized like the many Dore pieces in the Scriptorium Image Library.

Colorization may be difficult when working with an unmodified image of a lithograph, because the image will be very rough with high contrasts which may make it hard to differentiate objects. This can be dealt with by blurring the image slightly, either using a blurring or pixelating filter. You should not blur too much. Limit yourself to no more than 3 pixels of offset or mosaic tiling. Blurring is similar to reducing the resolution of the image, so you want to be careful. You can achieve the same result by actually reducing the size of the image while maintaining the same resolution or reducing the resolution while maintaining the same size. If you use this technique do not reduce size or resolution by more than 50%. In Photoshop my preference is to use a 2 pixel mosaic filter. Although these changes make the image less sharp, because of the way the lithograph is broken down into lines it will actually seem to become much clearer on your screen. If these techniques do not result in an apparent sharpening then the image you are working with may not be well suited to this colorization technique.

The best way to introduce color is through the use of color textures. You should choose several textures which are appropriate to the major areas of the image which you are going to color. For most images you will probably only need a few textures. For example, with the Dore image shown above I used a foliage texture (to right), a grass texture and a wood texture (see below). In general the textures you use should have relatively small areas of color and the variations from one area to another should not be too intense. For smaller areas (faces, clothing, rocks, etc.), you can do a reasonable job with simple colors, but the result will be less impressive. The use of textures is an important element of the process, because the combination of the light and dark patterns of the texture with the patterns in the image produce an effect of depth and enhance details.

After you select a texture and define it or add it to your clipboard, use the lasso tool to select the area of the image that you want to color. You then merge the texture into the already existing image using a tinting or coloring feature. In Photoshop this would be a color fill. In other programs you may not have this feature and should experiment to see what works best. You want to use whatever fill or merge function works by altering the color of the dark part of the image. You don't want to completely replace the original black with the colors from the texture. I find that a color fill of 20 to 60 percent is usually plenty. Even if you don't have a coloring or tinting function a lightening fill at a low percentage will probably work adequately. If you examine the final image shown below you will see the results produced when the foliage texture shown above was merged into the forest backdrop and the hackberry wood texture was merged into the trunk and limbs of the tree. Most of the other colors were produced by merging in appropriate basic colors at around 30 to 50 percent. If you do a lot of colorization you may want to assemble a pallette of frequently used colors and even a pallette of favorite textures.

As you progress you repeat the coloring process for each major area of the image. If you miss small areas or have a little overlap don't worry too much, because if you are working with a detailed image small glitches in color will probably get lost in the overall effect. As you work, keep in mind that the image should always remain dominant. If you find that an area looks more like your texture than the image that was there to start with, reduce the percentage of the texture that you are merging in. The one exception to this is large blank areas, such as undifferentiated areas of sky. It is often a good technique to fill these with a dominant sky texture so that the blankness of the sky will not stand out in contrast to the color of the rest of the image. Once you have finished adding color the vital finishing step is to reduce the resolution or size of the image, either by pixilation or by actually shrinking the image. This is the same process described above for clarifying the image, but if you did it before you started colorizing you will have less latitude at the end of the process. If you have already reduced an image by 50% and you then pixilate it with a 2 or 3 pixel mosaic you will pass the threshold where the effect adds clarity and will start to actually blur the image. You may also want to run a sharpening filter like Photoshop's unsharp mask at this point to bring things back into sharper focus, or you might want to adjust the contrast a bit to accentuate differences in color. At this point, with any luck you will have gone from something like the original image above to a sharp color version as shown to the right.

There are a few things to be wary of in the colorization process. The most obvious is adding too much color or too much variety so that the image becomes a riot of conflicting textures and colors. You have to go along with what the artist put in there originally and change your technique if you are getting a jarring or muddy result. Some lithographs can be extraordinarily complex. If there are lots of figures and small details you may be overwhelmed by the process. An image of mounted royal hussars on parade from the London Illustrated News comes to mind. Trying to apply a cloth texture to dozens of uniforms, add variety to the crowd in the background, give a leather texture to belts and bandoliers, put silver on sabres and add a wood texture to lances and rifle-stocks is just too much detail to take on unless you are very dedicated or have way too much time on your hands. This colorization technique works best with landscapes with limited numbers of distinct figures in them. The process is actually one of adding color but minimizing detail to some extent, to produce a pleasing overall result.

I'm not sure who will find this colorization process most useful, but there are some excellent resources out there for this kind of print and if you have an interest in 19th century illustration or a project which might be enhanced by antique art in color, you can produce some very nice results if you have access to a good library of images, either online or in physical form.

Here are some good sources for usable illustrations. Note that some of these 19th century magazines are hard to find today, but good libraries ought to have them.

The Illustrated London News - Each issue in the 1880s and 1890s featured extensive illustrations of contemporary events and of serialized historical fiction.

Phra the Phoenician - This Donning reprint of one of the earliest fantasy novels includes all of the original plates by H. M. Paget from the London Illustrated News. The colorized version of one of these Paget illustrations is shown to right.

She - There are several reprints of this classic H. Ridder Haggard novel, including one from Donning, which include the original plates. Also look for other Haggard novels, almost all of which were serialized in the Illustrated London News with art by R. Caton Woodville and others.

The Strand - This magazine was mostly fiction and each issue includes an excellent selection of plates, though some may be small and harder to work with. Much of Arthur Conan Doyle's fiction was serialized with illustrations in The Strand.

Frank Leslie's Magazine - Another fiction magazine of the late Victorian period with a focus on outdoor life and adventure.

Munchner Jugend - A German Art Nouveau youth magazine. Many of the illustrations are quite fantastical and include great artists like Arnold Bocklin and Robert Engels. While some are poorly suited to this technique, the quality of the artwork is generally exceptional.

The Dore Gallery - This series of hardbound folios from Moxon and Sons was published in the late 1800s and includes most of Dore's major illustrations. The original volumes are expensive and fairly hard to find, but there is a 1974 reprint from Arco Publishing which may be easier to find and less costly.

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This month we're providing two new shareware fonts for subscribers which are not available anywhere else, plus the demo shareware versions of our fonts of the month for February and March.

Initials is a special font composed so that you can try out the variety possible with decorative initials. It includes a full set of 26 characters, drawn from more than a dozen different decorative initials sets.

Moravia is our newest font based on the lettering of Alphons Mucha. It has not been released as shareware through any other online source, nor is it on any of our samplers. You can only get it by purchasing this issue of Scriptorium Magazine, either singly or as the start of a subscription.

True Golden is a new text font based on the original Golden type design developed by William Morris for Kelmscott Press. Keep an eye on next issue for an article on William Morris and the Arts & Crafts Movement..

Folkard is based on the fanciful hand-lettering of English illustrator Charles Folkard, developed from samples in the chapter headings for the Swedish fairy story book Jolly Calle.

Slava is another Alphons Mucha font based on lettering for a poster he did for the Sokol festival in 1926. It is one of the latest examples of his 'slavic' style calligraphy.

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The first place we have to refer you to is our own web page. It's updated every week with new information on our ongoing projects, new shareware releases and excellent contests and special promotions. It's the winner of dozens of design awards and one place you just have to bookmark.

Scriptorium Online - http://members.aol.com/ragnagokgc/scriptorium

If you would like some Dore images to play around with, someone at St. Edwards University here in Austin has put most of the plates from Milton's Paradise Lost online, and while we'd rather have you order them from us, it's a great resource you shouldn't miss out on. There is another site with illustrations for Dante's works which is also worth checking out. While none of these illustrations is of the high resolution of our Dore packages, most of them are large grayscales and should be good enough to experiement with

Paradise Lost Images - http://www.stedwards.edu/hum/klawitter/doreindex.htm

Dante Images - http://diablo.cpi.com/cpihtml/homepages/debrest/art/dore.html

The Delaware Library has some interesting information on books by Alphons Mucha and other illustrators. In particular, they have a copy of Mucha's Documents Decoratifs which was originally developed for use by his students at the New York School of Art. The National Museum in Prague at one time had an extensive Mucha website, but apparently the URL is no longer valid. For some reason Mucha is enormously popular in Japan and there are a number of Japanese sites, several of which appear to be selling original Mucha prints and related items, but they're very hard to negotiate, being written in Japanese. However, the Jazaido Gallery site is well put together and available in both languages. Yaneff Gallery in Canada has a nice site and they also have a large selection of Mucha posters for view and for sale.

Delaware Library - http://www.lib.udel.edu/ud/spec/exhibits/treasures/arts/mucha.html

Jazaido Gallery - http://www.mucha-museum.co.jp/index_e.html

Yaneff Gallery - http://www.yaneff.com/rp.ssi

If you are looking for old books or issues of old magazines, you might stop by Moe's Books. They have a really extraordinary selection of out of print illustrated books and their stock is always changing.

Moe's Books - http://www.moesbooks.com/

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All of the fonts and graphics you find used in this issue are included here for your use. However, the fonts are usable demo versions of items which can be ordered in more complete form from our catalog or through our online ordering system on our website.

The background texture on this page is the new Vellum texture from our Paper & Fabric Textures II (STC5002-$25) collection. The textures used to colorize the Dore and Paget images are from our first series of textures. The Hackberry texture is on Wood Grain Textures 1 (STC3001-$25). The Foliage texture is from Artistic Foliage Textures (STC8002-$25). Each of our texture collections includes 8 textures in high-resolution 300dpi format for a final size of 3in x 3in, suitable for use in printed publications.

Shareware demo versions of Folkard, Slava, Moravia, True Golden and several new bonus fonts, are included with this special issue. Look in the Mac or PC fonts directory depending on your type of computer.

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There are two big new developments here at Ragnarok Press. The first is the release of our new ARType line of special collections of art and fonts based on the work of specific artists. The second is the debut of our online ordering and delivery system.

The idea behind the ARType collection is to provide packages of fonts and art based on the work of particular artists for sale through museum shops, bookstores and (of course) online. We currently have five collections, including William Morris, Alphons Mucha, Howard Pyle, Arthur Rackham and a special Celtic collection. Each one has its own web page with lots of art and samples. To see them out click below:

Through an arrangement with Digital River online distributors you can now order just about any of our products online and take delivery of them online through an automated FTP process. It's the coolest and most efficient way we've seen to do business on the net. Check out our ordering site by clicking below:

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If you like what you found in this issue of Scriptorium Magazine you can get every issue delivered directly to you for a very reasonable price. Subscriptions are $60 for 6 issues delivered on disk through the mail. If you take delivery online (as a file attachment in email) a 6 issue subscription is only $50. If you want to subscribe for 12 issues the price is only $100 through the mails and only $80 through email. Single copies are $12 delivered online or through the mail. To subscribe, use our online ordering system or send payment to: Ragnarok, POB 140333, Austin, TX 78714. Don't forget to specify your computer type (Mac or PC).

For additional information just email us at graball@infinity.ccsi.com

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