Archives for category: Asemic

I bought a number of old chinese calligraphy workbooks earlier this year. I like the asemic qualities of oriental scripts and I was curious about the physical qualities too, particularly their papers and bindings. I was moving some books this evening and rediscovered these beneath a pile of others and was reminded of their minimal elegance and sparsity of ornament.


I will put together another post showing the other books too, as well as the covers and bindings later this month, but for now, just enjoy…

If you are a regular visitor to this blog, you may notice something familiar about these images. I made a composite image of the background textures for the cover of my first asemic book ‘Four Fools’ more images of which can be viewed here, and the book itself can be bought here and by clicking on the link in the left hand menu.

Ladies and Gentleman of the internet, I am proud to present my first book; “Four Fools” is an asemic novel presented in a unique written form.

The book switches between calligraphic and typographic styles, and uses a specially designed typeface that has been developed for this project, of which some of the development can be viewed here.

This black and white 38 page book also features a range of intriguing  images, both hand drawn and computer generated, which, combined with the textual compositions, provides the reader with numerous opportunities to interpret the careful juxtapositions each page presents.

This is what I hope to be the first of a tetralogy of asemic books. You can buy a copy of this book and view more sample pages here. Please leave comments…

I have been experimenting with glazes and oxides recently. I rolled some tiles in krank clay just explore some finishes…

These are simply white glaze with black oxide brushed on over the top.

There is a lovely effect that can be seen on the image above, where the oxide has been drawn from the brush and created some areas of saturation at the top, and then a real textural effect as the oxides ‘thin out’ towards the end of the stroke.

I was also testing some imprints too. Inspired by the chinese tradition of the ‘chop’  I decided to see if I could achieve a similar effect with a bit of  typography…

These were all from an incomplete set of Cooper Black – an ampersand and a Pilcrow!

I have just been featured on THE NEW POST-LITERATE, a gallery of asemic writing by Michael Jacobson. I am quite excited about this as this site was one of the first places I found that helped me make sense of my secret obsession and recognise it as a legitimate form. Especially one that was being explored by others.

Go there now, and see some stuff of mine I haven’t posted here. Whilst you’re there, have a really good poke around – there are some excellent asemic writers and artists out there, like Dakota Crane,  Tony BurhouseGeorge McKim and Cecil Touchon.

I’ve been quietly beavering away (yes, beavering!) at my asemic writing these last few weeks. Just a little here and there between other things, or whenever the mood has taken me.

I have been using a number of the dip pens I bought recently and have been practicing my ‘script’ in preparation for a much larger scale piece I am planning for next year. I especially like the fine nibbed mapping pen and creating tiny figures:

I like the feel of this sort of ‘penmanship’ -and when I’m sat beneath my old anglepoise (another project waiting to happen) with all the pens, ink, papers, testers and wipes, I feel far removed from the CTRL+Z environment I spend most of my time in, and like to think of those scribes who laboured through their lives using such tools.

I am making simple compositions on small, pre-creased sheets of thin watercolour paper I had left over in an old book. and eventually will bind them in some way, but I don’t really have much in the way of planning or overall idea of how these will end up.

I am enjoying the setting up, the continual prepping of the pens, as well as doing just a little each time, setting aside a batch to dry overnight. It is a good thing to see in the morning…

This post is just to show of my latest eBay splurge; a collection of dip pens. I have been thinking about getting a dip pen for a while now, particularly to explore more asemic writing techniques. I had been to my local art supply store and looked around online, but the modern dip pens all seem to be aimed at ‘the hobby calligrapher’ or ‘Wiccan Spellwriter’ market, and I couldn’t bring myself to buy into either. Plus, they were are all largely without any character; not something I had really considered before, but seemed to be quite important as I was looking around. So I had a look on eBay and tentatively bid on a few old examples that I thought might lend themselves to my use. I bid on some silver pens, as well as ebony and bone, but all went for (unsurprisingly) more than I was willing to pay. Until this lot came up that is:

Eleven pens in total; seven wood, one plastic, two steel and one steel with a mother of pearl letter opener at the other end:

I don’t know much about pens although I understand that there is a collectors market and that some can be valuable. I doubt any of these are worth any more than I paid, but I think that I have added something interesting (and useful) to my kitbox.

The pens have a very unique quality in that they are the grandfather of all modern western pens, but on closer inspection there are other details that have a different sort of attraction. Some of the pens have manufacturers names or model numbers stamped into the nib-holder, like this one (shown twice at different angles)

The nibs themselves are also marked, and each has a small hole called a reservoir to hold a small amount of ink, this one is heart-shaped.

This one also has a decorative floral symbol as well as the manufacturers information.

There are a couple of very fine pointed nibs too, especially this one, which is significantly smaller than the rest. I believe that this is a ‘mapping pen’ and was intended for use in inscribing the finer details and text.

So, with a fresh bottle of Windsor & Newtons black indian ink, I tried them all out. Let me say here that I am no calligrapher – my own handwriting has been likened to ‘prescriptions written by a senile Doctor with palsy’ – so please, no comments on the quality – if it’s fine calligraphy that you want, look no further than Paul Antonio

I had a little go with each of the pens – there were a couple of  broad nips for calligraphy, and some that appeared to be better for writing, others for drawing etc. I have a couple of early favourites, but this one gave me a lot of satisfaction as I transcribed a few lines from Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ – I am a little infatuated by Ginsberg at the moment…

These next few examples are only around 15mm square – they have a vaguely Ralph Steadman/Gerald Scarfe quality…

Once I felt comfortable with the pens and their constant refilling (a few words at a time) I tried a little asemic writing. Oh boy, I am smitten:

I have written loads over the last few days, and am beginning to feel the pens are dictating the style. Also I am working on a much smaller scale with the mapping nips, mimicking the tiny ghubari scripts that are found in ancient copies of the Quran.

I have deliberately posted this image at a very large size – the original is just under 5cm in height.

I did this page about fifteen minutes before I started writing this post.

This last image shows all of the pen nibs at a larger size – I know that there are people out there who like to look at the details…

My asemic writing continues to develop apace whilst my arm gets better. I am in the middle of several projects right now, all of which need my right arm to be  fully mobile and pain free – I removed my sling to early and got back into things a little too energetically – I am now paying the price…

Following my rather sarcastic post featuring my ongoing explorations in asemic writing, I decided to take it a step further and see if there was any natural structures forming in my sketches, and to work it up into some format that could be converted into type. I began by selecting a small section that appeared to be visually quite consistent:

Taking the diagonal as my lead stroke, I drew up a simple grid using a fairly rakish 45° angle. I made a conscious decision at this point to accentuate the diagonal dynamic as I wanted to continue to development as I progressed from paper sketches to screen:

I’m using Adobe Illustrator CS4 for this (still thinking about CS5!) and placed in the original image and tidied it up in Livetrace. Using a standard line/brush combo, I created a symbol from several lines, sometimes joined, and sometimes not.

I spent some time creating continuous line loops. I originally drew circles and modified them to look as if they flowed, but realised that if I was to apply any calligraphic brush effects later this would cause problems with the line quality. So continuous lines it was…

After I had created the first line I got impatient to see how things would develop so quickly added a simple calligraphic stroke, reduced in down in order to create some scale, and reversed it out from a red background to get rid of the monotony of the black and white lines. This also has the effect of ‘bringing it to life’ – I find that I when I am working with lines, I need to change the colour schemes regularly as I stop to appraise the work, in order for me to step out of the production mode of thinking and view things a little more subjectively:

OK, I admit I was a little excited at this point. I was very encouraged by what I had produced so far, and whilst I could see one or two characters that required further work, I pressed on to complete the rest of the piece. When I had all the characters drawn in a basic line my workspace looked like this:

At the top in the yellow box are all of the ‘finished’ characters, below are all the lines, shapes I made whilst in production – a kit box of spare parts, additions and rejects. The artboard (bottom right) is A4.

I then identified the characters that needed some immediate attention:

The following images show some of the revised characters against their originals:

This one took a little while to pin down, but I think that number six is a more natural shape.

Having designed a couple of regular western typefaces over the years (nothing that I would like to share with you here though!) I am very aware of the amount of time it takes to everything right. I am in awe of those who do this for living, and feel lucky that I am working on an entirely fictional set of characters; I am able to make aesthetic judgements without stirring the wrath of the typographically offended!

These first revisions completed gave me another look at the full effect. This one is with a standard monoline:

Adding the calligraphic line really brings the script to life.

I am really surprised at how much difference the calligraphic strokes make and the effect that changing the characteristics of the brush make. I love the extreme line contrast here – I know it is a little too extreme, but I do like the effect:

This style is a little more consistent. The flat horizontal brush gives this a slightly Cyrillic feel and a more rhythmic flow across the lines.

As well as the Cyrillic reference, there are also echoes of other formal scripts too:

Above Cyrillic     Below Urdu


Above Sinhala       Below Kufic

There are approximately 30 characters so far drawn, and I am not sure whether I will keep them as ‘characters’ made up from a number of key stokes, or whether I will attempt split them into their component parts. There are some interesting stages to come as this develops; I need to look at kerning and alignment, as well as the quality of the lines and stresses, as well as all the optical adjustments that will eventually see each line move away from the original grid in order to look right.

Right now, after about six hours over two or three evenings, I a pretty pleased with what I have got so far. I created a new brush in the end that seemed to give an appropriate ‘medium weight’ whilst allowing a clear contrast between the thick and thin strokes. This, of course, may change again as I progress, and I intend to produce a semi-serif version once the sans is complete.

Another characteristic of the new brush is that it is not flat, but very slightly elliptical. This gives a pleasing softness to the shape of the end of each stroke, making it less masculine in appearance. The enlargement above shows this detail well, as well as the uncomfortable counter spaces that need more work…

The image above shows how the next stages will develop and refine the strokes. It shoul be a simple animation – if you can’t see the colour changes, just click on it. So I will post again when I have made lots and lots of adjustments.

For us academics it is the season for meetings. A good many of them follow each other in a steady stream of ‘importants, essentials, reflections and projections’ much as they do every year. They will, of course, feature all the best acronyms, abbreviations, buzzwords, jargon and newfangled managerial codswallop. 

I’m not complaining. It is a regular feature in modern education and we, as professionals, develop our own strategies to deal with much of the monotonous drudgery that the majority of these meetings are. Given that most of the important and essential information that can be gleaned from all of these meetings can be included in a Twitter-style email of around 140 characters, that leaves a fair amount of time for the mental gymnastics that provide the most rewarding return.

This can be demonstrated further in the following equation :

In light of the recent research findings published by Professor R. Soale of the Hugh Jars Foundation in the Netherlands, it is important to recognise the importance of diversionary awareness in the disenfranchised academic as a means of measuring the collective effectiveness of management initiatives. This was succinctly expressed by Prof. Soale (and concurred with by Dr. Jurr Kough of the Pointlessness Institute of Saffron Waldon) in June 2010 at the TotalWasteOfTime Conference as:

A full transcript of Prof. Soale’s paper can be seen below.

If you didn’t get to the TotalWasteOfTime Conference this year, or perhaps your tolerance for absorbing forgettable and tedious information, statistics, buzzwords and initiative is much higher than you previously expected, you can continue to view extracts from the good professor’s paper here..

But I’d like to sign off this post by featuring the most poignant part of  Professor Soale’s paper, which many of you will remember as particularly moving as it was the seventh PowerPoint presentation of the day:

Wise words, indeed.

Following my recent ‘outing’ as as an asemic writer, I would like to post this about an image I’ve had knocking around my WTF files for a few years. It is the sheet music to what can only be described as asemic music.

John Stump was an American music engraver and is largely only known for his ‘unplayable’ works that contain instructions to the musicians not to play softly or loudly and other practical notations, but more bizarre things such as ‘release the penguins!’ amongst other things:

If we view the visual quality of the sheet music (for those people who cannot read music, all musical notation will be asemic) we can recognise the visual language of musical notation in the layout and symbols; there are rhythms and patterns that we can understand as the instruction for sound, even if we cannot ‘hear’ it in our heads as we read (as someone who can read music – albeit very basically – I have some understanding of the complexity and contradictory nature of this composition.)

There is also another composition titled “String Quartet No. 556(b) for Strings In A Minor (Motoring Accident)” of which the above image is page 2. This is a little more deliberately visual in it’s arrangement, and I feel more effort has been put into the visual effect of the musical notation, but it loses some of the effect that the Faeries Aire has. It seems to be a little more visually forced to me. That is not  a critisism, just an observation – I include it here as a model of invention. Plus, I have always admired those who have dared to dance to their own tunes…

“And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche

I just wanted to share this. There are some good links via the Wikipedia page, especially the Colarado Music Teachers Association attempt on Youtube and the excellent informative blog by Stump’s nephew. There’s even a Facebook page, but I won’t go that far.

According to Wikipedia, the word asemic means “having no specific semantic content”. The term asemic writing or asemic art can be applied to many visual styles, but in layman’s language, it means false or imagined letterforms, text or writing, or simply the use of literary formats for visual purposes. The writing is usually unreadable, but used to create the effect of visual communication. Asemic writing allows the reader/viewer to interpret the context and arrive at their own unquestionable conclusions.

Tim Gaze, a designer and publisher of asemic writing sums it up beautifully on his website:

“It looks like writing,
but we can’t quite read it.”

You can view or download several of his asemic magazines here as well as follow some of his links.

I stumbled upon the term asemic on an old post at the (sadly now defunct) the nonist as I was looking for something else. This link will take you to a post where the author admits to his first discovery of the term. I am staggered to say that I had the same type of experience where I had, for some time been using letterform and grammatical structures to create images; indeed, I filled several pages in a notebook just a couple of days before:

I had been creating asemic writing then. It’s good to have a name for it. It’s good to know that I was not the only one scrawling away, for page after page, totally unreadable writing. I haven’t posted anything here before because I really thought that I was a bit wierd. I feel as if I have just ‘come out’ about my asemic tendencies. I have considered the obvious contradictions between my often obsessive typographic fixations and the freeform, wayward habits of these non-typographic doodlings and explorations. I am ok with my typoholism; I see myself as a self-medicating typoholic these days. But this, this is something else. I am quite excited by the idea of publishing this post as it will probably mean that I am commiting myself to a more public exploration of my newfound (well, new-named) orientation!

I have long been interested in the work of non-western graphic designers, especially those who work with arabic, asian and non-latin letterforms. I have been lucky enough to have attended a couple of Icograda conferences where non-western designers have presented their work, their cultural influences (I will never forget the film showing the morning traffic in Beirut by Halim Choury!) and craftsmanship, and have always tried to consider these ‘angles,’ particulary in teaching environments. My students will know about my appreciation of the work of Oded Ezer, Hassan MassoudyReza Abedini (and Catherine Zask too), and I will confidently state here that I know that many of my students, past and present now count these people amongst their influences and inspirations.

I am humbled by the visual eloquence of non-western designers, and their visually linguistic cultures. I am also ashamed of my own ignorance during my schooling and regret not treating the learning of foriegn languages seriously. I don’t regret much, but I do regret that.

I am a product of my birth, environment and schooling, until I left college. I am proud of who I am and where I came from, but can with real honesty say that my schooling left a lot to be desired.  I can also blame myself for this, but thinking about this now as an educator, I have a better understanding of my role. I was, at least, encouraged to think at college, and that Mike, Alwyn, and Peter passed on one or two wisdoms that I, as a naive, ignorant and self-assured young punk acually learned from. Absorbed. Absorbed at the time and didn’t actually learn from, but have come to realise twenty five years after. Thanks guys. Sorry as well – I didn’t show you much respect!

The picture above shows a view of one of the buildings at Newfield Comprehensive School in Sheffield, just prior to it’s fairly recent demolition. It’s a stark contrast to the last images. I’m glad it’s gone – and I feel lucky to  have come as far as I have – it could have sapped the life out me just as it did thousands of others who filled it over the years.

This point brings me neatly to the subject of ignorance in another context. I have recently had the honour of observing the Chinese master watercolourist and calligrapher Chen Hong, and closely observed him deftly scribing beautiful Chinese characters that mean nothing to me linguistically, but take on a more important , almost talismanic quality because of my own lack of understanding of the language. Indeed, although he told us that he was writing poetry, he could have been putting down his last grocery shopping list for all I knew. This too then, is asemic writing to me (by default or ignorance) as is the work of others who choose to utilise their written language in their own art, either by choice or culture.

Of course, we can travel back in history, and pre-history, to where language was evolving and where ordinary people were recording their experiences and instructing their offspring, to potential leaders, mystics and spiritualists who were aiming to demonstrate their dialogue with deities, spirits and the arcane, to find examples of proto-language, lost languages, deliberately secretive languages (just consider the stonemasons and masons for instance), expounding religions, inciting rebellion and making themselves heard to a select few for whatever reason.

There are some great stories about the deciphering of ‘forgotten’ languages (the Rosetta Stone, the Voynich Manuscript-more of which later…) as well as the re-interpreting of old translations of ancient texts (The Rubayat of Omar Khayam) and many populist films have been made where ancient texts are a key element in the plot (The Mummy, National Treasure) and the deciphering or translating of text (the DaVinci Code, all the Indiana Jones films.) There are great tales of how ‘minority’ languages have made big impacts in word affairs – (consider the story about the US army during WW2 who made use of two native american indian soldiers from a tribe whose language was totally verbal – no written language – were given the task of radioing sensitive information across to one another from the mainland to the Pacific bases. The Japanese, who were excellent code-breakers did not have any reference to begin to understand their language and never cracked it)-  all these have made the subject kind of sexy. Not that it needed to be any sexier for me; I appreciate and accept the implied romance and glamour. (Mrs Lestaret would say that I need it, too.)

 Whilst I was searching for more general asemic information on the web, I came across  a number of references to the Voynich Manuscript, a mysterious 15th/16th century vellum book that has never been deciphered, and alleged to be a very elaborate hoax.

The entire manuscript is available for download on various websites, and can also be viewed in good scale and resolution here, and read views and theories here , here and here, amongst many others on the web.

I find that both concepts of authenticity and hoax plausible but leave too many unanswered questions to be able to come to a conclusion. This is only natural as I have recently found out about this, and I hope to be able to spend more time with it before offering up any real opinion of my own. But what a fantastic thought – a detailed and illustrated manuscript containing the thoughts and knowledge of … an extinct race? A mysterious cult? A breakaway religion? Settlers from a place that left no other records behind? The eloquent ramblings of a deranged monk? Or did someone take the time to create an entirely new language and carefully scribe it using ancient methods and authentic materials just make a few quid and fool the elite collectors, scholars and ‘experts?’ I like the idea of both, but why on earth would it result in this particular book. And why has it survived for so long/been the subject of so much investigation if it is a hoax? I’m no amatuer conspiracy theorist, but I like this idea.

It was whilst jumping from link to link, looking for full versions and more academic analysis I kept coming across the name Codex Seraphinianus in a number of related blogs, posts and reference links. Well now, this got me going!

The Codex Seraphinianus was create during the late 1970’s by an Italian artist/designer called Luigi Serafini and is, for want of a better description, an Encyclopaedia Britannica of a fictional and fantastical place, highly illustrated and annotated, but all in a completely fictional script. I was stunned. I wanted a copy of this book, I really did. My birthday was approaching and I had already justified it as a birthday present to myself – well, after all, it’s not every day that a boy’s forty-two, eh? More research on the internet revealed that original copies were quite rare and there had been a paperback (I’m not a book snob, but this had to be a ‘proper’ book!) but I had a quick look if Amazon came up with anything – well, you never know…

At this point, I could safely rule out being the owner of a decent copy on the grounds of religious belief – like many a devout follower of the Northern Skinflint cult, I made many vocal rounds of the traditional rosary including; Oh Jesus!; Christ!; Good God!; and ‘I’m not paying that much!’ Now and forever, Amen. This is a book I really want. The fact that I can’t afford it obviously makes it more desirable, but I know I that want a copy. Not just to say that I have one – I want to hold it, open it to a random spread and enjoy it’s eccentricity, absurdity, graphic beauty and craftsmanship. I even suggested to my students that they may wish to club together to buy me a copy for my birthday, but even split between them it was too much. If anyone has a copy and is foolish kind enough to loan me theirs, just for the enjoyment, please don’t hesitate to get in touch!

A few links later I found a full PDF version on the internet (a Google search will find one for you!) and I have begun to examine its content at a more leisurely pace. Not that this is a substitute for the book of course, I still want one – more so now – but this is all I have.

Ok, back to the main thread. The Codex contains visual and written information about flora and fauna, peoples and places, cultures, and science and technology amongst other things:

All 370 or so pages of it! And all in this unfathomable, unique but very ordinary script:

The thing is, that although the script is unreadable, it is legibile. I can understand what it should be saying. The whole concept is exceptionally well observed – it shouldn’t work really – this is no more than a big April fools prank – but the sheer scale and structure of the book give it credibility that goes beyond this. It even has an index at the back – I am assuming it is an index because it looks like one. And that’s the point. It looks like one.

There is implied meaning in these pages. They use the visual/grammatical conventions of modern language, and conform to an accepted format without having specific meaning. We can follow their general direction through the the visuals, and place meaning upon ther formations on symbols that acompany them. We can understand titles, subtitles, captions, sub- and superscripts, references and incidentals. This is an amazing and intelligent work, that goes far beyond it’s fictional content.

I admit that I am obviously in awe of this work. It is new to me and follows the discovery that my personal imaginings are not isolated; that others have explored and experimented with fictional written languages – way beyond my indulgent doodles – and produced volumes of work that as collectable as conventional books, or even more so, given that only a limited number of people may still hold them in such esteem for their graphic content/inventiveness/percieved intellect/visual quality.

So where next for me and my asemic doodles? Well I needed to do something beyond the sketchbook so I did a little development on-screen:

Using the simplest of the ‘characters’ I had produced recently I created a vector line version and began to explore line qualities:

I even toyed with the idea of a ceramic 3D letterform in the style of the ampersand and ligature I made last year:

I doubt that I will go this far, but I am now thinking about putting together an asemic alphabet. You’ll be the first to know, honest.


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