SIMON SAYS DRAW THIS
Travis Simon is a young man who like to draw…letters. He spends hours doing what no computer can do, making intricate drawings—pictures, really—of letters that curl and slant and sometimes, even, Escher-like, do the impossible. Oh, and they take hours, days, sometimes even weeks to do. He also likes to draw TVs, blenders, alarm clocks, toaster ovens—pretty much anything that has knobs or buttons or dials on it.
It was Simon’s teacher Paul Shaw at New York’s School of Visual Arts (SVA) who, he says, first opened his eyes to typography and calligraphy when Simon was in his sophomore year. In class Shaw would draw letters on the board with a piece of chalk. “They were the most immaculate, beautiful pieces of typography I’d ever seen,” says Simon, “and it was done in two seconds’ thought. I’d never seen anyone do that. It just grew out of his hand. I’ve seen it on paper, and I’d seen it in books, I’ve seen it on computers, but I’ve never watched someone just do that. It blew my mind. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I want to do that, how do you do that? I want to be able to go up to a chalkboard and draw.’” Shaw encouraged him and gave him a bunch of practice sheets. “They were, like, angled and gridded learning sheets,” he explains. He also gave him a list of books, but when Simon realized they were out of his price range, he went online and found some PDF tutorial books and what he calls “old-school sign references,” which did just as well. “I’d sit in my dorm room and do page after page of a’s and e’s and o’s and every letter, over and over,” he says.
Simon, who’s 28, grew up in rural Somerville, New Jersey, about 50 miles west of Manhattan. His father’s a carpenter and mechanic—”he taught me a lot of my mechanical skills”—and before moving to New York in 2002 to attend SVA, Simon went to a specialized vocational high school, followed by two years at Somerset County Technical Institute, where he studied commercial art and graphic design. “I have a lot of respect for the backgrounds that go into trades,” he says. It was strict learning right through high school and the institute: “We did Photoshop 1, 2, 3, 4; Drawing 1, 2, 3, 4, every semester, and it left me with great confidence in my hand.”
In contrast, Simon says, SVA was, like, “’Here’s your homework. Go home and do it.’ There was no one who was going to teach you shit there,” he adds. “If you didn’t know what you were doing you were screwed, basically.” In that respect, the underpinning Simon got from trade school was invaluable, though the downside was a jaded feeling that SVA might be a waste of money, since no one was actually showing him how to do anything. It took leaving to realize what he had gotten out of college. “I’ve basically paid 90 grand to meet a bunch of really awesome people, which I’m totally okay with,” he says (though thanks partly to careful and farsighted parents, he actually left SVA with only about $12,000 owing).
If the work isn’t fun, you shouldn’t be doing it
Simon has supported himself since college, doing freelance typography and illustration. “A few larger-scale graphic design and book projects keep me afloat throughout the year as well,” he says, but in the past he’s also been able to fall back on woodworking projects, using the skills that began with his dad. Another family member was a significant influence, too. “My grandmother, who was a painter, taught me to paint and draw when I was growing up,” he says. “One of her rules—though she didn’t have very many—was ‘Never be a photo realist—it’s not worth anyone’s time, because you could just take a picture.’ She also used to say, ‘If work’s not fun, you shouldn’t be doing it.’” Simon took that to heart.
Staying away from the computer
Most of the people who taught Simon at trade school were working professionals in their forties or fifties; there weren’t many young people in the design professions in his part of rural New Jersey. “I’m grateful to those old-school teachers,” he says. “They had a whole wealth of knowledge to pass on, an actual skill.”
Those hard-won skills are evident in Simon’s calligraphic work; by now he’s familiar with the limitations of his hand and the computer, respectively, so he can switch from one to the other when it’s needed. Still, he tries to stay away from the computer as much as possible. “I feel it’s cheating myself, cheating my brain,” he says. “And it kills a lot of times, as much as it saves me time. It’s a pain.” He tries to see the computer as just another tool. “It’s a lot easier now that Adobe has brought out version 5 of its Creative Suite—it has this expandable tool,” he continues. “I work in Illustrator [part of the Suite], and it can take eight hours or more to outline something.” Working with the digital pen and board of a Wacom tablet has increased the time he spends on the computer, but even with that, the hand-to-screen ratio doesn’t really work for him, although, he says, “I’ve used some promo stuff which was bigger and amazing.”
An example of what can become frustrating with work on the computer, especially in calligraphy, is, Simon says, when he’s working on a line that splits into two. “Now, all of a sudden, I have to take that stroke and overlap it perfectly onto another stroke-line, in order to get a last node to be dead on and set just at the right angle so there isn’t a hiccup in the line. The tediousness that comes out of that is, like, mind-bending.” He can’t imagine spending that much time in front of a computer when he knows that to draw it by hand would take two seconds. “There is some leniency in Illustrator—they have a little round-out tool where you can rub it over the line—but there’s nothing that can help you connect two points and split it and make it perfect.”
This particular problem turned out to be very relevant to the work he did on a poster for an art show that consisted of a hand-lettered Walt Whitman quote about New York; it was also printed on a T-shirt.
And henceforth I will go celebrate anything I see or am,
and sing and laugh and deny nothing.
From Walt Whitman, All Is Truth
“The words appealed to me specifically,” says Simon. “They really summed up the New York attitude and spoke to me about how I felt when I first came to New York. You go out, you can do whatever you want, you can sing, laugh, deny nothing and no one’s ever going to say anything about it.” He agonized over how to start work on the poster, doing literally hundreds of sketches in eight days: “I bounced around for a while at the beginning, trying to work out how to do it while also trying not to get pigeon-holed into one idea too soon. Once I had the idea to do a show-type poster, that made me think about the center alignment and how I would make that work evenly. Then everything was fine.” Travis used layer upon layer of tracing paper to allow him to continuously adjust the spacing and letter-forms on the way to the finished design.
In the final drawing, the letters are angled isometrically—they are drawn to represent three dimensions but in two only (in other words, they don’t get smaller as they recede). Many of them have a generally strong vertical emphasis besides having straight verticals as part of their shape—mostly in the ascenders and descenders (the parts of letters that stick up and down, like the tails on a y or a d). The swashes and flourishes spring from the vertical letters: some end in curves that curl over and change direction to form fluffy clouds of line; these are sometimes pierced by other curves that dive in and out of them like swallows, and in other places the clouds are skewered by the verticals. Other curling lines grow swellings at the tips (what Simon calls “tails,” “spoons,” “scallops” or “droplets”), which are colored in green, as are a few “leaves” emanating from the stems or vertical letters. “Whenever I split something, or there is a secondary curl, it usually comes about to fill some awkward negative space to try and help balance out the drawing. They just come from me scurrying around the page to try to make everything as even to my eye as possible.”
That sense of balance, so that the eye finds a smooth reading or journey through a sentence, is not something that can be easily taught; it comes from practice—as well as having a good eye to begin with, enabling the artist to read both the letters and the negative space as well. “Sometimes, when I’m doing the script of a single word, say, I won’t be so apt to throw a lot of flourishes on it or make it super jazzed-up,” says Simon. This particular project, though, was fun, he says, and the words spoke to him. “it was a celebration kind of thing. Where the lines poke through the clouds it was fun seeing which other letters I could connect them to.”
A pen-to-paper guy
While the curves in the Whitman poster are all hand-done, Simon, who was pressed for time, scanned in the finished pencil drawing with bits pulled from every layer, since he feared it might take him two weeks to ink everything in by hand. Simon explains a lot of his work in terms of how long it takes: some drawings might be done in 30 minutes, others require months. “Inking-in is a whole new nightmare; it’s one of the more painful things for me to experience,” Simon says. “I never really draw in pencil except when I’m doing type or calligraphy work, I’m a pen to paper kind of guy.” He doesn’t find it hard to picture an idea in his head, so, he says, “I like to just go with it,” which is why many of his illustrations tend to have a hand-drawn feel and immediacy. While he doesn’t like to plan too heavily in his illustrations, with letterforms it’s a different story, as the spacing is so key. Here, pencil is a smooth, forgiving tool to draw with: “It’ll just flow like nothing else I’ve ever found. I use electric pencils; they’re cheap and have a consistent point, so I never have to sharpen them. I don’t know why they call them electric, because they aren’t. That’s just what the label on the package says.”
Pens are Simon’s thing. “I’m not too fussy about pencils, really, but I am very fussy about my pens and my ink,” he muses. “I like jet-black Indian ink. I’ve bought plenty of bottles of cheap ink but they’re usually a bit timid. I like Speedballs, but they cost about $6 or $7 each, and I like FW ink.” Tools are an endless quest. Simon used to draw with Rapidographs, famously temperamental drawing pens, but they were just too much to maintain, he admits: “Besides, I’m bad about cleaning things and taking care of stuff.”
Incidentally, Simon says his handwriting is only okay. “I’d say my normal handwriting has dipped off somewhat,” he admits. “I’m not that solid writing script consistently when I have to write a note to somebody.” He adds a swash to his signature when he writes his name—“it’s a little hook at the end of my n when I write a check, but it looks rather scribbly. And sometimes there’s this cool double s kind of £ symbol thing that happens in the middle (between the s of Travis and the S of Simon), but it is very rarely comes out the way I love it to.”
When you’ve talked to Simon for a while, it’s impossible not to mention his arms: they’re the work of tattoo artist John Reardon. It was chance that led Simon to Reardon’s Greenpoint, Brooklyn, shop: he needed a bad tattoo made good and Reardon is famous for his cover-up work. “When I saw his book at his shop, it was filled with the most gorgeous, amazing things I’d ever seen. Things I could only have imagined you could do with type; it was like what my teacher Paul Shaw would do, times ten. It was exploded with flourishes, beauty—glistening, tiny elements. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I want one of those on my arm.’ It’s artwork to me. I don’t care how much they cost.” They worked out a bartering system where Simon printed posters for Reardon and got tattoos in return. The first one he got says Friends and family in wonderfully elaborate script; then Reardon did a little CZ in memory of Simon’s painter grandmother, a little JM for his grandfather, and another that says I’m never bored. Reardon did all the lettering, first drawn with a marker, then inked in. “He’s very quick, especially with his lettering. It’s impeccable,” says Simon. “What really got me is the way he does all his flourishes.” The calligraphy is reserved for his right arm; on the left are pictures. The original cover-up, on his right calf, features a fight between a giant squid and a whale.
Reardon told Simon that it’s better when a tattoo artist inks his own designs, because it means he’s invested in the image, which was something Simon could relate to. “Going over someone else’s bad tattoos must be the hardest thing,” he points out, “and although people are always asking me to design a tattoo for them, I just won’t do it—you’re going to get the best out of a guy if he inks his own drawings.”
Drawing the undrawable
One of Simon’s strengths is that he’s never ended up locked into a particular style. Another poster job, for Le Chat Noir, a video production company that needed a flier advertising a combined concert and party that included the premiere for a movie, Were Wolf, could hardly have had a more different final result from the Whitman project. But again, Simon did it all by hand using his layer method, then scanning in the layers to combine into one, which enabled him to do the coloring electronically. “If it was a finished drawing, not intended to be printed, I wouldn’t have done it that way,” he says. “But another reason I chose that method is that it meant I didn’t have to buy all those ink colors.”
A more recent project, designing a logo for a feminist photography magazine (the magazine’s on hold at the moment), involved creating a monogram by taking the planes of each letter and rotating them on a central axis. “It was a real challenge to make it work,” Simon admits. “It hurt my brain to even think about it. To begin with, I thought it had to be so simple: three letters, three planes, three rotations—so how come it didn’t work? I figured it out eventually, but it always came down to the V looking a little weird. It was like trying to draw something that isn’t drawable by connecting lines that could never really connect—in much the same way that M.C. Escher made his famous drawings of impossible situations.” In the final version, Simon points out that if you could take the V out of the drawing, you’d see that it is in fact lying down flat; it’s his eye that has made it look right and fill the space nicely, despite the fact that it’s impossible or “wrong” in a physical-world sense.
A happy accident
Simon’s drawing Appliances began as a happy accident: his SVA printing class had required students to bring something in to print, so the night before, in a burst of panic, Simon did a quick sketch of every appliance in his apartment. The key to the whole thing, says Simon, was that “for some reason I decided to make them all the same size.” That turned out to be a great idea. In class the next day he printed the drawings as one big silkscreen. “Everyone wanted a copy of it, so I did quite a few,” and then a friend encouraged him to keep drawing appliances. “When I started looking at them I was astonished at the amount of work that goes into all those boxes we have sitting around our apartments.”
After he added the extra drawings and reprinted the poster for a charity, it sold for around $600. Encouraged by this, he reformatted the drawings once more and put the picture up on his website. “One day I happened to looked at my Google analytics and saw that the poster had been reposted to various blogs, hundreds of times. Then a Japanese company that makes T-shirts from independent artists’ work, Graniph, found me online through one of the blogs. They’ve now printed it on T-shirts, which have been doing really well. Through them, I’ve expanded my exposure into the whole of Asia, and I’ve been approached by all these companies in Hong Kong, Australia and other places,” says Simon. “I guess people love little, tiny drawings.” He says he hates to admit it, but he thinks part of the poster’s appeal is a sort of nostalgia. “it’s hip Williamsburg, in a way. I guess I brought some personality to each appliance and got people to look at boring things in a new way too.” Which is a pretty good result.—LUCY SISMAN