I received this email from Caroline today, and thought it would be a useful question to post:
Hi!... I am currently in the throes of wedding planning and even though I'm an abysmal DIY person, I thought I would take on the monumental challenge of designing my own wedding invitations. I have no background whatsoever in graphic design but I want to challenge and make something myself. I by no means plan on starting a letterpress company, I'm just trying to push my creative envelope. I'm in the process of learning how to use Adobe Illustrator and playing around with live trace and I was wondering if you could advise me on the following. I am into the pretty engraved letterpress illustration you discussed and I'm wondering how it's created- in particular botanical illustrations. Do designers take old engraved prints or photos and live trace and play around with the design? Or do they freehand them and scan them in? I have attached the following sites: to me they look almost identical- is there a botanical illustration resource book that these designers use?...
I'm just a novice but I would love any insight as to how this engraved botanical illustration look is created. I would like to use that engraved style and add my own designs that have been floating in my head.
Letterpress illustrations come in one of two ways: the company either hires an illustrator (or retains one in-house) to have them drawn specifically to their needs, or out of copyright engravings are used. Since you're not a business or planning to be, as you mentioned, you'll probably want to go the out of copyright route - so I'll focus my time on that... Most of the Dover Publications-esque resource books are out there aren't really of the caliber that letterpress wedding invitations generally use. For that reason, to find out of copyright engravings I'd head to the library, antique store with a book section, or a vintage books store. If you have samples of the kind of illustration you're looking for, the staff will most likely be able to direct you to what you need. Browse through some books and find a few samples you like, then buy the books or check them out. I'd make sure you have a few possibilities - in design, I find that you never truly know what works until you try it, and sometimes the prettiest artwork can disappoint you! If that's a dead end for you, I found this thread - some of the suggestions aren't very helpful, but it's still worth taking a look at. Also try your shot at Gutenberg.org - it's a site with a bunch of online out-of-copyright texts, and they upload the book's artwork as well. I was able to find a few things when searching for "flower", "botanical", and "engraving".
Because of the nature of polymer plate letterpress, it's not necessary for designers to use Live Trace in Illustrator [blog note: Live Trace is an automatic function in Illustrator which allows the designer to automatically convert Bitmap ("pixelated") images into vector ("non-pixelated", graphics are drawn by mathematical equations by your computer) based on a variety of preferential settings] - all you need is a nice, rich black. The same applies if you're planning to use Gocco - it's the quality of the black that matters. It will actually give you better aesthetic results if you don't Live Trace it - by turning the engraving into a vector image, you lose the handmade quality of the illustration, and thus, the beauty and personality this type of letterpress design capitalizes on. I recommend just scanning in the art, adjusting the scan in Photoshop (or a similar program) to suit your needs (the contrast and levels will probably have to be adjusted slightly), then printing it out on a laser or carbon-based ink printer to get those blacks you'll need for exposure on the plates or the Gocco. If you are going the letterpress route, I'd recommend having your plates sent out - small detail, which is essential to this kind of artwork, can be difficult to achieve if you haven't done the process before. I'd point you to Boxcar Press for that - they have a great reputation, and they're pretty cheap - plus, that means less supplies to buy and fewer chemicals lying around, huzzah!
A big congratulations to Caroline on her upcoming nuptials! I hope that was informative for her as well as everyone else - and please, if you have a question, don't be afraid to ask! If I can't answer it, I'll try my hardest to point you in the right direction!