Carving with Light and Shadow: An Interview with Stone Carver Matthew Johnson

Mar 5, 2016 · 11 min read

It’s not often when digital type is outputted into stone. TypeThursday sat down with stone carver Matthew Johnson. We talked about his process and what he is thinking about when stone carving letters. It was a fantastic conversation.

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TypeThursday: Matthew, thank you so much for being with me today.

Matthew Johnson: Yeah, thank you.

TT: I found out about you from your work producing type on stone. That makes you a really interesting character in the world of type design. It’s very often we’ll make type for digital output or a printing environment. But carving into stone is something else!

I would like to get started with just finding more out about yourself. How did you get started with stone carving? Why does it interest you so much?

Matthew’s Introduction to Stone Carving

MJ: Stone carving started out as a summer job for me just I was finishing up college with a philosophy major. I immediately felt an affinity for the work. As I saw my friends and I were graduating, I thought, “Well, I’m just going to pursue this and see where it takes me.”

So I started a formal apprenticeship after I had graduated from college. Stone carving apprenticeships used to be very formal, but now it’s more abstract as the industry is kind of — Well, there’s not a lot of us anymore. But regardless, the apprenticeship lasted probably about three or four years, and then I stayed at the shop for another four years. Eventually I started my own company, Bartlett Stone Carving, in 2004, and have been working out of Austin, Texas ever since then.

TT: You went from a philosophy major, a very cerebral, language-based in an abstract way discipline to this very physical process. What was that transition about that? I assume there’s something about that that really resonates with you.

The thing that I liked immediately about stone carving is the amount of time that it gives me to think — It’s an extremely labor-intensive and time-intensive process.

A Focus on Process and Flow

MJ: The thing that I liked immediately about stone carving, and continue to like, is the amount of time that it gives me to think — It’s an extremely labor-intensive and time-intensive process.

TT: Gee whiz, just like a certain other discipline I know about pretty well.

MJ: Yeah right! It gives you this time. it slows you down. The rest of the world is just going so quickly, it seems, that to have something that gives me the time to think and to just process my life as I continue through is just extremely rewarding. I call them “deep dives.” when I go into a project. I’ll start at 8:00 in the morning and I’ll come up — it’s almost like coming up for air — I’ll look up and it’s 2:00 in the afternoon and I realize I’ve forgotten to eat lunch.

I imagine it is a lot like type design. The tiny nuances that 99% of the people might not be able to consciously describe but they can recognize on a subconscious level that resonates with them.

You don’t have that every day, but having that even just once a week or twice a week is just…well, you can’t beat it. There’s nothing like it. To be so engrossed in a single carving of a word or something more ornamental. Working just within a tiny little area but for hours and hours is just, it’s fantastic. And I imagine it is a lot like type design because of the tiny nuances that 99% of the people who see my carving might not be able to consciously describe what’s going on but they can recognize those nuances on a subconscious level that resonates with them.

TT: The way you’re describing this, it’s so 1-to-1. The idea of that flow and that deep serious focus for prolonged periods of time. It’s a very common thing. I’ve experienced it as a type designer myself. And I’m sure a lot of other practitioners will recognize that. Just that sense of the world’s going by so fast, but you get to slow down and focus on this one thing at a time.

MJ: Right. Yeah. Yeah. And it’s nice. It’s rewarding. It’s cool. You were talking about TypeThursday as a group of people that get together to — I think you called it a critique — What was the phrase that you used?

TT: Like a painters’ group — A painters’ crit. Yeah.

MJ: Yeah. There’s also a group of stone carvers. There’s a national organization, The Stone Carvers Guild of America, and we get together about once a year. You have a group of people that really understand the time and the effort and the thought process and the nuance that you put into everything and that’s really rewarding, too. Then to go off and spend another year carving and then come back together and share with each other our work. It’s a small community. So it’s nice to hear that you get it too. That’s good.

TT: Absolutely. That’s why I reached out to you. I felt that. I sensed it.

Matthew’s Work with the University of Austin at Texas

I got to be introduced to you and your work was you were involved with a rebranding of the University of Austin at Texas, or Texas at Austin.

Your work with the University of Texas at Austin to apply the branded typography in a stone carving environment is super cool.

Could you walk through that process?

MJ: I was contacted by the architects and design team that were in charge of the rebranding for the University. It was Dyal Partners, a group out of Austin. They asked me if I could come in and consult with them and also do the work. So we met, we went over the typeface and we went over the design of the entire entryway in order to integrate the size and layout of the typeface, to make it a part of the piece. Once we had gotten the design details all worked out, we ordered the materials. The time frame was a little bit accelerated because we were trying to work toward the commencement day for UT, which was in the end of May. So we had to expedite some stuff from the mill.

TT: What was the timeline for this?

MJ: This would have been toward the beginning of April. The way that stone projects work in an architectural format is that you get the design completely worked out, and then you order the material to dimension, so you get everything to the right size as far as the actual rough, square-cut blocks of stone. So we got that ordered by late April. I went with the architects to the mill and we picked out the stone that we wanted to use for the centerpiece especially, the part with the words on it. Once I got those stones to my shop, I started on it immediately. I want to say that it took me about three to three-and-a-half weeks to carve the entire phrase, “The University of Texas at Austin.”

TT: On that one piece?

MJ: It was on three pieces of stone, but yeah it was a single phrase. I mean, I don’t know how much nuts and bolts you want to get into. It seems like you probably like nuts and bolts.

TT: Oh, I think we do! We love those nuts and bolts.

MJ: Well the first step was to do a carving of a sample piece using the GT Sectra typeface. This is the first time that this particular typeface had ever been carved in stone, so I didn’t have any samples to reference. A lot of times, I’ll go online or go to my resource books and I’ll look at samples that have been carved in the past. When you have unique aspects of a typeface, like the ligature or other details. This particular typeface was designed with the idea of… I think it’s a broad-faced nib. Is that the term?

TT: Yeah.

We went to the onsite place and put it where it was going to be so that we could observe it in the light.

MJ: So there were points in the curves, like where the O would come to the top, that a lot of times is just a solid, continual curve, but in this typeface there was a little tiny angle change at the top and the bottom of a lot of the curves. It’s very subtle, but critical to the overall effect of this new typeface. So I wanted to make sure I got that right. I did a little sample that worked through the ligature and worked through some of those unique angle changes, took that to the architect. We went to the onsite place and put it where it was going to be so that we could observe it in the light.

We actually watched it over a little bit of time to make sure that the light was hitting it right at different times of the day and to see how it read.

We actually watched it over a little bit of time to make sure that the light was hitting it right at different times of the day and to see how it read. That’s a step that a lot of times, people overlook, but is just extraordinarily critical, because when you’re carving in your shop, you have artificial light coming pretty much from overhead. Especially if it’s an outside piece where you’re going to be working with the sunlight, there’s no way to artificially reproduce that during the day. So I always try to take a sample to where it’s going to actually rest and make sure that it reads in the changing light.

The variable that can be changed is the angle of the slope. The style of the letters is called V-Sink. It’s when the edges of the letter or character slope in toward the center and you have that bold center line emerge. The thing that you can change, depending on where it’s going to rest, is the angle of the slope, because it creates more shadow. So I wanted to make sure that I got that angle right, before working on the actual piece.

TT: That’s so cool. That’s a level of consideration that if you’re not a stone carver, you wouldn’t appreciate that. You wouldn’t notice that.

MJ: Right. It is something that a lot of times people overlook as being a critical part of the process. So after we had that out there, we put it where it was going to be, we walked, I want to say probably, about fifty feet away to make sure that it was still legible from a distance, and watched it over time. I made some minor adjustments as far as the angle and then that’s when I went forward with the piece. An interesting thing about V-Sink, too, is if you ever go up and you look closely at letters that are carved in the V-Sink style (which is the classic style for carving letters) you’ll see that the depth of the letters from the flat surface changes.

No matter what you’re carving, whether it’s an acanthus leaf or the letter A, you’re always carving light and shadow.

So at very wide points, the letters are really deep and at really narrow points, you’ll have a much shallower cut. The reason for that is because what is critical in this style of carving is to keep that angle uniform and consistent, so that as the angle travels around, and the width of the letter widens or narrows, the center rises or falls as it follows that angle. I don’t know if it’s because culturally we’ve just become accustomed to it or if there’s something actually physiological about it, but this effect creates a greater legibility when you’re reading, because as the depth changes, the shadows change as well.

TT: So it’s like you’re carving with light.

MJ: Absolutely. No matter what you’re carving, whether it’s an acanthus leaf or the letter A, you’re always carving light and shadow. You have to think of it that way, because that’s what people are actually seeing. So that’s a really important thing to always keep in mind when you’re carving.

So… that’s what I did for three weeks, three-and-a-half weeks. After we had gotten all those details worked out, basically maintaining that uniform angle throughout the course of like 22 or 23 letters. You’ve got to make sure that when you start with the capital T in “The,” by the time you get to the X in “Texas,” you haven’t accidentally changed your angle. You have to keep going back to and checking and verifying that your holding the original angle that you worked out.

TT: Be consistent. Yeah.

MJ: Yeah, you have to maintain that consistency. And that’s just a matter of making sure you don’t spiral into some sort of depth that you’re not really looking for. You have to keep perspective of where you started.

After that, I delivered the pieces. The rest of the entryway, the pieces that went around it, were all delivered from the mill directly, because I didn’t have anything to do with cutting those, because that was just what’s called mill work. And it was set in place. And we met our deadline.

TT: Excellent. Always an important criteria.

Matthew, I thank you so much for your time. This has been really great talking to you.

MJ: No problem. Thanks for asking me. It’s fun to talk to someone that can appreciate the time that goes into the little details. So thank you.

Interested in learning more about Matthew’s work with UoT? Read more here

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Type Thursday

A meeting place for people who love letterforms.


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A meeting place for people who love letterforms

Type Thursday

A meeting place for people who love letterforms.