Art History ABCs with Illustrator Paul Twa

Paul Twa's ABCs of Art History

Earlier this year, Canadian graphic designer and illustrator Paul Twa completed a 36 Days of Type project on which he took us on a trip through art history. Day by day, Paul travelled back to an art movement or era by illustrating each letter and number in that era’s style. From cave paintings to Art Nouveau to Yayoi Kusama and Keith Haring, Paul took us on a chronological art ride through time, giving us the backstory on the era or artist, as well as his personal sentiments towards them.

The result is an awe-inspiring final body of work displaying not only Paul’s deep knowledge of art history, but also an impressive range of illustration abilities. (I learned so many new things from Paul’s project!)

I was lucky enough to chat with Paul about his project, process and love for art history. Here’s our interview below!

Illustrator Paul Twa
Paul, you’re both an illustrator and a designer. How did you get into design and illustration?

I would say childhood training of just loving to draw. I came from a family of artists, all three of my older siblings were interested in art and creativity. So that was the culture around me growing up and that became my main passion. 

I went to the university of Alberta for their four year bachelor of design program. We had one illustration class that was just a focus on illustration and that was a big aha moment. Illustration became a huge part of my design practice, merging design thinking with my love of drawing from childhood.

Would you consider yourself one more than the other: designer versus illustrator?

One of my friends in Edmonton that runs a studio just used the words “an illustration led designer” and I love that.

I can’t live without one fully. I love type too much to not use it. And I love illustration too much to not do that as much as possible. I often think about design at its essence being about using type and image, and sometimes the work I do involves illustrative lettering. 

Paul Twa’s full 36 Days of Type project

So this year you did the 36 Days of Type Project. Why did you decide to do it? Was it your first time doing it?

For people that don’t know, 36 Days of Type a global creative challenge that takes place in the spring. You post a different character in the Latin alphabet, A to Z plus numbers- zero to nine over 36 days 

So that adds up to 36 days posting a new letter that you design every day, which is a lot! 

I started doing the project with my coworkers at the agency I worked in in Edmonton in 2020 and thought: one day I want to do them all.

Since I moved to Toronto and had the space and it was also the pandemic, I thought this is the year to do it. It was something that was very grounding for me that formed a daily habit I could look forward to.

Tell us the concept behind your alphabet series.

I had this idea to do the series of letters as a chronological, timeline of art history and visual cultural history.

I was jotting down what that would look like, from “A” at the start of art history to number “9”, the last number in the series. “A” would be Venus of Willendorf or the cave paintings, and then I’d sprinkle in notable things from an art history textbook throughout.

I liked the idea because people can follow and get a story being told that we’re chronologically kind of traveling through this timeline together over those 36 days.

How did you organize yourself and narrow down the eras?

It required a lot of working in a Google doc to figure out if I’m spending way too long in this time period or running out of ideas before the end.

I wanted to see in front of me, what those 36 things look like.

I knew in terms of ancient art history, there’s a lot of time there but only so much art so you’re gonna be jumping pretty quickly. But then I knew that 20th century art, which is my favorite to talk about and work within, had a lot of points I wanted to include. It was this Google doc that shifted until I felt mostly happy to get started with.

What was your process for creating the actual illustration each day and how long did each day take?

My struggle was that I was intentionally making each letter differently designed because it was themed after a different period. And yet I wanted them to all look the same. 

There was a point in time where I was gonna do an Art Nouveau style letter or for ancient Greece a Trajan or a typeface that references that time period, but that felt too disjointed.

So instead I chose to trace over the silhouette of a basic sans serif type face.

My worry was about being consistent. It’s not always my strength. I wanted to have a consistent color palette and I wanted to work off the same basic typeface that I would kind of use as reference for the silhouette of the rough letter shape. 

As far as time, it was quite different: about three hours was a pretty middle of the road. I haven’t fact checked it but the longest certainly felt like it took seven hours. That was my letter “N” which was Dutch Still Life.

Then the quickest would’ve been about an hour and a half and that might be the letter “W” for the Bauhaus or number “3” for Bridget Riley.

Is Procreate what you used to create all of the letters?

Yes Procreate because it has the great time lapse footage. That was my main program. I also used Illustrator to load in my color palette, to create the static templates of the typeface and to decide what the main background color and main letter color was gonna be.

Ultimately I knew people would view these as a grid with all the letters at the end so I wanted to make sure there’s not a bunch of similar background colors or similar letter colors in a row.

I’m gonna ask you potentially a hard question – do you have a favorite letter?

I was most proud to share between letter “M” to letter “Q”. That spans Baroque Art, Dutch Still Life, Wedgwood Pottery, Japanese Wood Block Prints and then Van Gogh. I liked making those the most, and they were the most time consuming.

It’s funny that those are often my favorite because they feel labored. And therefore I can appreciate all the the blood, sweat, and tears that goes into them.

How did you find inspiration and research for the letters?

I was a little sad, I have a good collection of research books at home in Edmonton, but I just moved to Toronto right before making these so I didn’t have those book references that I so love.

It was mostly just Googling and a few websites that I did spend a lot of time on. One was called The Art Story – it’s just a catalog of art movements and artists.

Especially in the later stage of the project when I was highlighting specific artists in the 20th century, it was helpful to think of what decade they should fit in. When was their work that was most iconic and how to situate one in front of the other, because they worked through many decades and could have kind of been put in different orders.

My roommate had our old art history textbook, so I definitely cracked that open too, to get some visual reference and I got a library card as soon as I moved here. There’s something about looking at a book for reference that I really love, as much as the internet of course is great.

How does art history inspire you and your work?

I’m really at the stage in my career where I’m trying to find my place and trying to find my niche. One thing that never seems to go away is my love of art history and design history. And it’s further confirmed when I look at my childhood – I loved studying history growing up.

I truly believe that our childhood selves dictate our future, foreshadowing what we’ll end up doing.

"I started to think of the phrase being inspired by the past but creating for the present as something of a manifesto for being a visual time traveler."

Realizing that I didn’t want to just do work that was inspired by the fifties or the seventies that was retro. Stepping way back into art history and then mixing that with contemporary references which I’ve done in other, other projects. That mix of old and new seems to be a through line.

The study of history can bring us really cool inspiration points or stories that we discover from the past that have always been there, but we didn’t know. There’s a sense of uncovering something and you feel more aware of the world.

What are your top three art periods?

I would say Ancient Greece. Classical sculpture seems to be something that’s always interesting to me. Illuminated manuscripts for the reason of them being quite illustrative and maximalist and very ornamental, decorative and laborious to make.

And then maybe the Arts and Crafts – again, very ornate, very visually dense and very preciously handmade in reaction to the Industrial Revolution.

If you could travel back in time and watch one artist at work, who would you pick?

My gut says: the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo painting God and Adam. I remember as a high school student going to the Sistine chapel at the Vatican and just being transfixed, so much so that I took out my earpiece with the travel guide and when I put it back in however many minutes later, they were calling my name because I was the last one from the groups still in there. Up on that ceiling, that would be an incredible moment to witness.

To finish up, what do you think about the importance of looking back at art history and past artists and how can that influence current illustrators and designers who are working today?

I think that’s a huge thing. I think about pulling from art history a lot, because I’m really preoccupied with the idea of originality in my illustration work. I really want it to be something people haven’t seen before. There’s so much out there that we see online every day. I think borrowing from the past is like a free space that people can recognize the reference point, but also it’s removed from us and therefore remixing it with other ideas can be a place to find originality.

The full project legend

Thank you, thank you Paul for the wonderful chat and insight into your impressive project!

Dive Deeper

Paul is selling his ABC’s of Art History project as a poster available here. You can also view his illustration portfolio on his website, including his epic “Year in Review” where he illustrates the year in review to a visual theme. Finally, give him a follow on Instagram to stay up to date on his work.

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