Mandolin On My Fence: Poster-Making Magic

I was pleased to work on two posters for Louisville’s Street Faire last summer. The first poster I worked on took on an epic quality as a simple idea grew thorny, complicated, and ultimately, quite beautiful. As I was getting this site finally live, I wanted to look back at what I did.

If you just want to see the completed poster, you can find it here. Otherwise, read on.

Drew Emmitt is a Colorado native, part of Leftover Salmon, and someone whose music you’d think I would know better. A local favorite tune he wrote with Leftover Salmon is "Gold Hill Line," for crying out loud. But I didn’t really know his stuff. So first I picked up his new album, Long Road, and started listening. (it is really good, by the way)

The distinctive shape of Drew’s mandolin became my inspiration for a poster. Somehow I wanted to take that shape and, I don’t know, carve it in stone, paint it, something. I searched for pictures, found one to trace, and that was the beginning.

And then I started looking at the paint peeling off the fence outside my window. And I had my idea. I drew a grid on some large sheets of paper, and taped them up to the fence:

Then I searched for a photo that gave me a clear shot of Drew’s mandolin, and traced it in Illustrator.

The perspective needed tweaking, so I experimented with the shape on its own to find the right feel:

I exaggerated the lighting levels of the fence picture so I could find the grid lines, plotted the points in Illustrator, and overlaid the distorted grid with the mandolin shape:

The grid allowed me to distort the vector art until I had an image which looks funny straight on, but, when shot from the correct spot (gaff tape on the concrete marking the points of the tripod, tripod locked in lowest setting—the marks stayed there for weeks). I printed this and then used it as a guide to draw onto the paper on the fence.

Then I really got to work. With a utility knife, I carved the distorted mandolin shape out of the fence, and then stripped the paint back, leaving the peeling paint in the shape of the mandolin.

Finally, I had an image with the composition I wanted. The diagonal line of the fence and the mandolin shape gave me dynamic areas for type, and the whole image had a nice, laid back late summer afternoon feel. Just right for the Faire.

It was time to work on the type. I had considered carving letters, but that seemed plain crazy. The simple mandolin shape had already eaten up most of a day in carving alone. So I found other ways to go crazy. So I drew some letters on paper, and then traced them in pen to clean them up:

I thought they looked so-so, but a little cheesy. Not really that tight yet. So I traced them in Illustrator, straightening and cleaning things as I went, adding flourishes, and skewing the type upwards a bit to fit better into the poster:

After dropping the type into the poster, I thought the type had gotten too sterile, so I printed out the type, and then—madness beginning to really show here—re-traced the inner and outer lines of the letters with a graph pencil.

I then scanned that back in, and did clean up work in Photoshop. I had to find the solids:

The lines needed some clean-up, but they had the roughness I wanted:

Finally I took the type back into Illustrator, used the Live Trace feature to trace the art, and I had my tight, clean, dirty, rough letters. Smmmokin!

The poster was looking pretty good, but lacked a little oomph. The lighting didn’t quite feel right. And the mandolin didn’t really stand out as much as I had expected. I ended up scraping off more paint to make the shape more prominent, and then I had another idea.

I had occasionally been using my iPod Nano as a flashlight, flicking a button to see my way down the steps. What about using that with a long exposure on the camera? This might look really cool.

I also have a solar hanging lantern with 6 yellow LEDs I got from my sister a few years back, and I brought it into the mix in different ways:

All the setup. Might as well take more, experiment:

AAANNNNNDDDD some more. Oh - looks like the moon’s coming up. I think we’re done.

Now remember, all of these shots were taken from exactly the same spot, and I never changed the zoom. So I was able to stack them up in Photoshop, set each layer’s transparency to lighten, and experiment until I had the right blend of images. Dang, looks like fire’s coming out of that there mandolin!

I put it all together and proudly showed it to Mark Zaremba, who had commissioned the poster, and who had final say. His first take: "This is wicked, but, um, Drew Emmitt doesn’t play heavy metal!"

REALLY?!? I thought I was done. But, he was right. So I tried a few more things:

"It’s still ... just ... creepy," Mark told me, after some experimenting. "The trees are just not friendly. You’ve got to put in a nice sky."

So, finally, I had to do what I really did not want to do: cut out the fence in Photoshop.

That, a decent starry sky image from somewhere, and a LITTLE MORE WORK, got me to a more friendly glowing mandolin image.

And finally, we were there.


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  1. Nice work! Really, I appreciate it. Think I’d never have the endurance to complete such an act of crazyness 😉
    I like your page design and your contribution to the CSS Zen Garden is wonderful. Keep up the great work 🙂

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