The Art of Stationery Making
(on your own....)
by Michael Kovacs
“Images precede language and are closer to feelings. They summon feelings before they’re named and categorized , when they're still fresh and sometimes hard to recognize or categorize.”
- Eric Fischl, painter, from his book “Bad Boy, My Life on and off the canvas”
Thank you for attending this seminar. I hope that you will leave here with a new look at stationery and how you can make your own at home.
So as to make sure that there is no confusion or disappointment for anyone attending, this seminar will NOT be dealing with the following:
* Paper making
* Intensive graphic design
* Drawing or any other artistic techniques outside the basic use of basic colors
* The content of the letter itself or anything to do with writing style
In this brief seminar, we will discuss:
> Ink color, types of paper
> Basic layout and design
> Ways of creating your own style
> Stationery and envelope making
In this class you will need:
paper, scissors, q-tip, ink, paper towel and a glue stick....
.... and a willingness to just go with the flow of creativity!
To start with, I believe that there should be a few basic definitions that need to be stated so that we are all on the same page, so to speak. Stationery is, for today’s purposes, any ornamentation of paper and envelopes that may or may not exist before the creation of the body of the letter itself, to accentuate the mood or content of the intent of what is being communicated. In this case, the medium actually is the message.
A very brief history of this would be to start at illuminated manuscripts. An illuminated manuscript is a manuscript in which the text is supplemented by the addition of decoration, such as decorated initials, borders (marginalia) and miniature illustrations. In the most strict definition of the term, an illuminated manuscript only refers to manuscripts decorated with gold or silver, but in both common usage and modern scholarship, the term is now used to refer to any decorated or illustrated manuscript from the Western traditions. Comparable Far Eastern works are always described as painted, as are Mesoamerican works. Islamic manuscripts may be referred to as illuminated, illustrated or painted, though using essentially the same techniques as Western works.
My reason for starting here is as follows: while the personal letter has a history back to pre-Roman times, personalizing stationery with a unique and copyable image or images first occurred here, and also this is within the realm of being an OPTION that was chosen.
Ornamented stationery is, for the most part, not needed, or at least has not been considered to be needed for the majority of the history of the letter. Outside of a wax seal, most letters were written on some sort of writing material and sent off. As the golden age of letters occurred when they were the only real form of communication between parties of any distance, most people just said what they had to say and got it off to those they needed. But it is the fact that at one point, pictures were used to ornament the written word. Take note of this. It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Insular art appears using this technique around 600 AD. Technology always dictates the parameters of what is possible for society, and all art with written word was labor intensive and very costly.
For today's class, fast forward to the times when movable type and paper were easy to make and literacy was higher. Having the physical appearance of the personal letter hold some sort of meaning became important, and we carry this through to today. The most obvious example is wedding invitations. People spend a great deal of time getting the right paper and then picking out the right stamp to put on the envelope. Even in today's digital haze, there is still a place where stationery really matters.
At the turn of the 20th century, mourning stationery was used for calling upon the bereaved. The white or cream stationery was bordered with black. On a more general and pragmatic note, the envelope used for Air Mail is a wonderful example.
Stationery is one of the hardest artistic creations to perfect as it is, by definition, UNFINISHED until it is used. Most stationery I have seen for sale tends to be too heavy or light in image and color. What I mean is that there tends to be too much image on the page making it claustrophobic or it is too minimal. We all liked the Griffin and Sabine books, but how many of us are trained artists getting paid to make stationery? There are simple ways to make stationery on your own that require little work and can look quite nice.
The only real decision one must make when making stationery is: what matters more, the visual or the language. All other design decisions come from that one point.
We will approach today’s class with the following premise: what is written on the stationery is the primary focus of the letter, that the decoration of the paper will add to the words and not the other way around. Since there is limited space to write, let us set the general equation to be that no more than 50% of the page can be filled with anything other than words.
Judging by what I see in the chain stores and small boutiques, as well as some that I saved from days gone by, personal stationery design (that is to say, stationery that is used for personal letters) falls into three design camps: border, clumps/images, and a combination of the two. Very fine stationery tends to have one or more of the sides of the paper lined with a color or two, or even a design. If that is not the case, then either there will be a blob or some sort of image situated somewhere on the page. We can learn from this and do better.
We have all gone to the store and spent time looking at rows of stationery trying to find the right one to use. We then buy it and go home and, after a few letters, get tired of it. Why? To me it is because the mood of the letter should, if possible, fit the stationery. If you are having a miserable week full of little comedy and lots of tragedy, having your words be alongside cartoons of cows riding a motorcycle can give you some cognitive dissonance or at least throw you off your game. I started making stationery simply because I wanted the images on the page to reflect the mood of my writing. Period.
Stationery can be created before or after writing the letter. You can design it before and store it somewhere, or leave a space while writing to add colors or images after the fact to accentuate the mood of your words. In the end, this is not about being clever, but about being as true as possible to the emotion you are trying to convey.
There will be three main concepts that we will be dealing with today:
#1) Color: Mark Rothko, Vincent van Gogh, Monet, Kandinsky, Pierre Bonnard, and many many many other painters have showed the power of color. Today’s class will assume that either black or blue ink will be used to write upon the stationery. Please note that black (or sometimes blue) ink on white paper is still the most popular in written communication because of the contrast. It is simply easiest to read. While Midnight Black Ink on black paper may SEEM like the best way to truly tell someone how you are feeling, it makes the reading of the words, how should I put this, annoying and difficult. Try to focus on clarity before cleverness. If you want to play with ink colors and you have many to pick from, please print out or buy a color wheel. This nifty device will show you quite easily how to work colors with each other.
I have chosen to color the pages today with ink. Why? Well, it seems that most of us here have bottles of ink lying around that we do not use, and why not put them to use? That bottle of Noodler’s Edgar Allan Poe red ink was a nice idea, but how much can you use? And how about those three different bottles of black ink you got thinking they would look reallllly different from each other that turned out to be.... kinda the same? Or how about that ink you bought from some new company that ruined every pen you put the ink in? Yep, time to use it!
We will be using a medium bond paper today to absorb the ink and not ripple after it is absorbed. If you are artistically inclined, you can you ANY medium to color your pages. Gouache, markers, colored pencils, blueberries, WHATEVER! But, since I have a personal preference towards ink and it is handy, we will go with that for today. Please note that the more liquid the color medium, the heavier the paper you will need to avoid the post-application warping of the paper.
Papers can be used for both colors and design. All art stores carry sheets of paper with interesting designs on them. For a very small investment you can get enough paper to last you a very long time.
#2) Image: This is where the cue ball hits the rack of possibilities and self expression. Today we will be using old photographs and images from vintage magazines. Again, this is simply a matter of personal preference on my part. You can get old photo albums and magazines at antique stores or on Ebay. In the end, it is whatever you feel best describes you and that could be vintage pens, puppies, fashion, the periodic table, power tools, cigars, puppies smoking cigars using power tools while playing cards... whatever. For today, let the limitations help you make decisions. Remember, you do not have to use any of what you make today.
#3) Placement: Where the above two concepts are placed on the page are very important so as to make the words of the letter be easiest to read. Again, we are placing the word content equal to or above priority to the visual content.
Here is the one almost absolute rule I have for making stationery and my amazing artist friend Abby agrees: If your piece of stationery looks complete you have done it wrong.
A piece of “art” can stand alone and deliver its message. Stationery is, by definition, incomplete until it is written upon. This makes it one of the most difficult mediums to create in. So, when making stationery, one must always try to find the point to stop.
Finally, please note that if you desire to have your stationery look and feel like real stationery, all you have to do it take your work to either your local self-copy place or perhaps even your own home scanner and copy your work. This will give it uniformity of texture and image. Also note that if you plan to do any post-writing addition, make sure to use the proper bond paper in the printer/copier.
If you truly wish to take a stab at making your own styler making stationery, I would suggest that you go about it in the way Elton John and Bernie Taupin went about writing together: they wrote about 100 songs simply trying to see how to get it right. You can go to any art store and buy a spiral bound art book and fill it up with stationery attempts. If you like what you make, there should be no problem in taking it to a self serve color copy place and making a usable copy! The key is to simply try and see what happens. Over time you will find that your own voice emerges and you will never look back.
Thank you again for taking the time to come to this seminar. I hope you had fun and left with some ideas as to how to go about making stationery on your own.
If you are interested, you can see some of my own stationery for sale at:
If you wish to be in touch, please fell free at:
PO Box 200
Old Bridge, NJ 08857
My deepest thanks to Christine Kovacs, Abby Gualtieri, Kerry Gibson, Ilana Kein, and Sabine for keeping me able to give this seminar.