Making the Practice Print

When I started working for Delicious Design League last August, I was super intimidated. I’d come from a string of more traditional design jobs where I was the lone illustrator, trying to weasel a little bit of lettering or drawing into any project that came my way. But at Delicious, these things could take center stage — and these guys were the real deal. Their work filled nearly every Pinterest search, and filled me with immense impostor syndrome.

Early on, my boss, Billy Baumann came to me with a concept, something he’d wanted to work on but hadn’t had the time to execute. “What if we made a bunch of pencil shavings spell out “Practice?” A print for designers, for those who’d whittled their pencils down to stubs, and kept on going.

The Process of Practice

In between projects, I toyed around with making custom Illustrator brushes, attempted to create the thing out of real shavings (a messy and short-lived adventure), and tried drawing it freehand, too; it didn’t amount to much. Eventually I realized I had to think of the shavings as something more dimensional and angled, almost like the letters that come from a broad-nibbed calligraphy pen. Seb Lester uses these to great effect (drool at this one, that one, or really any of them), and while I’m generally not the most gifted at doing things by hand, I sure can fake that shit on computers.

I started by setting up guides for my lettering: baselines and x-heights to keep everything the same height, and angled guides to make sure they slanted consistently. This was my first digital sketch:

I’m obsessive about setting up guides. And about working in hot pink.

I copied the lettering, shifted it up and over, and it looked like it could work. Of course, there are some spacing problems and small tweaks to attend to, but the angled brush look was there. I wound up using this as a quick way to draw letters in several other pieces, like in this screencast Instagram video. It’s not perfect for every style or use, but it’s a quick way to approximate a high contrast, flat brush or broad-nibbed effect.

Next, I took these letters and redrew them a bit to better fill the space of an 18x24 sheet of paper. A couple of swashes here, a little mess of shaving there, and I threw in the pencil and sharpener.

Just like before, I copied all the lettering and shifted it up and over to mimic something wide and flat.

Using these as a guide, I redrew everything on a new layer, creating solid shapes that would become my pencil shavings. I tried to keep things just a bit angled and slightly inconsistent, so it wouldn’t go too prim and orderly. They’re discarded pencil shavings, after all!

We’ve got pencil shavings! Or fettuccine noodles! Either way I’m excited!

Now for the tedious part: the hexagonal pencil we all grew up with makes shavings with little dips in them — so I went in and carved out half-circles along the sides, along with cracks from where the shavings had fractured as they were turning out of the sharpener.

A newfound love of mechanical pencils was born.

Sharpening pencils also leaves a tidy ring of paint along the edge of each shaving, so I added a bright goldenrod stroke to each wavy line (shown here on multiply to better illustrate how they looked. I messed around with the stroke widths and profiles in Illustrators’ stroke panel (make sure you toggle on show options) to get the right amount of overhang in each, and then clipped them into the shape of the shaving below.

Some of the outer points get kinda gross and chunky, but they’ll get clipped into masks.

All we needed now was some shading to give it some dimension. This is by far the coolest trick I’ve learned at Delicious: textured .tiff’s. Just about all of the juicy dithers and gritty textures we use at the studio are made this way. Here’s a great, quick run-down of how they’re made and used. In short, when you save a .tiff in bitmap mode and bring it into Illustrator, you can color it and use it, often within clipping masks, to add texture. What is black in the bitmap will appear as the color you choose (in this case grey), and what’s white will be transparent. This poster relies heavily on a simple dithered gradient tiff, which I used to indicate the bends in the pencil, as well as give a little depth when the pieces overlap. I laid them all on top of the letters, and as with the orange color, locked them into a clipping mask.

Once that was said and done, I just added a big flood of graphite grey for everything to sit on, drew up a simple little “Makes Perfect” to put on the eraser, and went about creating color separations for print.

The final product!

Let’s print!

Separating colors for screen printing is a tedious but important process — and there are about a million people on the internet more qualified to explain it than me. Here’s a helpful rundown if you’re curious. In short, you create a separate file for each individual color that’s printing. In this case, there were five, which we printed onto transparencies:

Five-color separations as a handy gif.

Maybe the best part of working at Delicious (apart from the proximity to good ramen) is having access to our in-house print shop. These guys are the best — they’re obsessive and detail oriented in a way that makes me terrified to play them in Clue. Mike and Matt coated up some screens with a light-sensitive emulsion, burned them with the transparencies, and carefully washed them out. While the screens dried, they mixed inks to pencil perfection, set up the auto-press, Tatianna.

With one color down, they mixed the perfect #2 pencil yellow.

And with the same attention to detail and relentless dedication to hair metal, Matt & Mike printed the perfect eraser pink, a transparent shading grey, and finally, the final black layer to lock everything in.

Just like that, the print‘s done, from pixel to press! If you’d like, you can grab a print for yourself here (your walls will thank you), and check out more of Delicious Design League’s work here. And if you’re looking for top-notch print work, let the printshop team work their magic for you.