Book Page Design

Van de Graf Canon for text layout The Book Arts Jam at Foothill College yesterday was a buzzing hive of book arts activities and vendors. I am always amazed at the great variety of approaches to making books, many of which involve little or no text. But books can tell their stories structurally, or with images, with texture, with fabric, with acetate or metal pages, or even with a pink painted lizard! Being such a text-oriented person, these books amaze me with their inventiveness and originality. The creativity was overwhelming. For a look at some of the above-mentioned books, visit the Gallery section of the Bay Area Book Artists.

My contribution to the exchange of learning and ideas at the Jam was a short artist’s talk about the making of Spelling Words. My presentation was divided between talking a little about the conceptual background, and some of the practical techniques I used to actually make the books. The deep background will no doubt be the subject of future posts, but today I want to share something about page design.

The photo above shows a stencil I made from card stock and covered with clear tape to preserve it from water media. The two windows provide the classic text areas on facing pages as described by the Van de Graaf Canon. This method is a modern revival of what is believed to be classic page design as practiced in medieval books and incunabula (early printed books). Its proportions are thought to be based on the Golden Section, a formula of aesthetically pleasing ratios used by Renaissance artists, architects, and mathemeticians. It was popularized by Jan Tschichold, a 20th century type designer who was originally trained as a calligrapher. Over the years of my training it was taught to me by several of my calligraphy teachers. When you draw the lines to arrive at these blocks, it looks a bit like a big star.

Using these traditional text areas in Spelling Words was an exercise in following and deviating from classic page design in the telling of my story about spelling words. The pages that define the more mundane version of spelling conform to the traditional page proportions, while the pages that show the magical version of spelling creep out of the boundaries and ask you to think “outside of the box.”

acetate overlays for designing text and image placementThis photo shows a few of the acetate overlays I used to try out lettering. Because the acetate is clear the painted background can be seen through it. This is not your usual acetate, but a special kind called wet-dry which can be drawn and painted on with ink and gouache. It is a great aid to visualizing where to put the words on the page, particularly on busy colorful paste paper. On the left you can see I was conforming more to a moon shape for the text than the rectangular text block.

Spelling Words 3 pages on wall for sequencing before textThis last photo shows an early stage in the design process, after the pages were painted but before text was added. Putting them up on the wall let me really look at the sequencing all at once. You can also see where I was experimenting with turning some of the spreads upside down so the text block is weighted at the bottom of the page.

Learning the rules is fun because then you can break them if you want to but with a clear idea of what has gone before. I have made plenty of books that did not in any way conform to this canon of page design, but this time around it served my purpose to use it.

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