Measurements

The finished Measurements painting hanging in our kitchen.

The finished painting in our kitchen.

This week I got a coat of varnish on my Measurements painting and we hung it in the kitchen.

This piece is an experiment: a mural-size diagram of US imperial measurements using typography. My old neighbor, Greg, told me that when he was a kid, his teacher showed him how to draw diagrams to remember the ratios between units. He’d draw a big G (gallon) with four Q’s inside (quart). Then inside each Q, two P’s (pints), and so on. To convert between units, you can count letters, e.g. four cups per quart. (Note: For the record, imperial units are a train wreck. They’re inconsistent, weird, and impossible to remember. Nonetheless, for some reason, America has never let go of them, and so here we are. Metric units do not require diagrams like this. )

I borrowed Greg’s mnemonic diagram and added my own twist. The letters are nested, flush, so that each forms the counter of its “parent” letter. (Note: In typography the “counter” is the empty space inside a letter, like the hole in a Q. ) Each layer alternates black and white, so the black counter in each Q is actually two Ps, and so on.

The whole "stack" of nested lettering goes:

  1. G(allon)
  2. Q(uart)
  3. P(int)
  4. C(up)
  5. O(unce)
  6. T(ablespoon)
My original vector layout for the Measurements painting.

My original vector layout

A detail view a quart in my original vector layout.

A detail of a quart

This ended up being a very hard picture to design and execute. I laid it out it with vector software, (Note: Sketch and Affinity Designer. ) and used an old transparency projector to “trace” the big letters with masking tape on a 4’ x 4’ braced panel.

Once the big letters (the G, Qs, and Ps) were done, I cut masks and stenciled the smaller stuff. Stenciling is new for me and I made a lot of mistakes, but it turned out alright in the end.

The finished Measurements painting, in my studio

The finished piece, in my studio

I like that this piece weaves together a few different threads from my background: typographic design, data visualization, and painting. It (hopefully) works as both a useful diagram for kitchen measurements and as an abstract/minimalist painting. Maybe more the former than the latter. I ended up sacrificing a lot of legibility for visual style. But in this case I feel okay with the trade-off.

Although I designed this digitally, I bumped up against the limits of what I’m able to reproduce by hand. In earlier iterations of my (digital) layouts, I went down to teaspoons. But, given there are 3 teaspoons to a tablespoon, I would have needed to paint 768 teaspoons for the gallon shown in my painting. Even if I had the patience to cut masks and stencil all that, I found it was too small for me to cut with an Exacto blade. In a 4-foot panel, each teaspoon would have been less about an eighth of an inch wide.

Down the road, I’d like to do a print edition of these. This piece would lend itself well to screen printing — a process I’ve been wanting to work with more. That would allow me to reproduce my digital layout on a screen using photo emulsion, rather than having to cut masks. If I print at a relatively large scale, I can hopefully get a nice sharp print with the same (or greater) detail, with a touch of the organic imperfection that I love about hand-pulled prints. Stay tuned.