Tag Archives: Zip-A-Tone

Letraset, Zip-A-Tone and my first art piece for press.

In the summer of 1983 my best friend was an anti-nuke protester. He was hanging out with Dana Beal and the Yippies at the Yippie headquarters at 9 Bleecker St.

This meant that I was hanging out with them too, like a Pulp Fiction Vegetarian. Even though I thought they were mainly creeps who used politics to get close to attractive young people. I was sixteen, and we were drinking and taking drugs there, but nobody cared.

My friend was mostly hanging out to be with a girl, I think, and I wanted to get with her too. One night we had a bananapants threesome there involving jug wine and queening with red wings.

Overthrow 1982On the second floor loft level of the HQ there was a workstation where the nice artist/illustrator who put together the YIP newsletter, Overthrow, worked.

I wandered over to him one time in the haze of some drunken summer night and he showed me the paste-up he was doing. He was using a swirling checkerboard Zip-A-Tone or LetraSet decal on a pasteup illo of a Cheshire Cat. I was absolutely fascinated as he told me about this old-school – even then – material for print art. You can see his use of it in the cover above!

I did my first print-ready commercial illo, for the YIP newsletter, when I was sixteen, because of this cool guy.

I offered to help, and wound up doing an illo of a homeless guy sitting on the steps of a fancy Village brownstone with a big Christmas wreath on the door.

It was in my usual meticulous Rapidograph style, black and white. I intended to be a book illustrator, fashion illustrator, or some other kind of commercial artist, back then.

I can see the drawing so clearly in my mind, still, but I don’t have a copy. I realize, to my shock, that I could probably find the issue – printed somewhere in the second half of 1983 – online, and buy it and hold it in my hands. Isn’t that weird?

LetraSet and Zip-A-Tone are gone now, of course. Like paste-up and the YIP headquarters. So it goes.

Fast sketching Tiepolo-style!

aklamio 5 year anniversary party berlin by Suzanne Forbes June 17 2016Here’s a sketch from the five-year anniversary party of the wonderful company my husband works for.

sketch with midtone Suzanne Forbes July 17 2016This is how I did it- first pencil sketch for structure and gesture, then a 50% grey pen to spot in midtones, then fine line outline, then brush pen strokes for the heavy line weight on the undersides of things and solid blacks.detail pg 27 Advertising Layout Techniques by Harry Borgman 1983

This approach is a callback to the old-school commercial illustrators’ pen and marker techniques I learned from books in the 80s.  Scan to the right: detail of pg. 27 from “Advertising Layout Techniques” by Harry Borgman, pub. 1983.

I loved this style of rendering because it was about drawing– it was didactic as hell, a formatted iconography for storytelling through pictures. The audience had been taught to read the visual language of illustration and comics over decades. They had an encoded understanding of what kind of mark-making represented what textile, what line weight meant highlights, what kind of shadows meant black or white surfaces.

I have a whole collection of books in my art library that offer instruction in now-obsolete techniques like Prismacolor and Chartpak markers and beloved, vanished Zip-A-Tone.* The earliest layers of my library reveal just how little I ever intended to be a fine artist- I just wanted to be a working stiff journeyman illustrator.

Detail pg 18 from New York The Big City by Will Eisner 1986

Detail pg 18 from New York The Big City by Will Eisner 1986

Comps Storyboards and Animatics by james Fogle and Mary E Forsell 1989








The grey-scale rendering methods of the great 20th Century advertising artists were already disappearing from the curriculum of art schools in 1989, when I left New York. They stayed alive in comics for a few years longer, because of the specific exigencies of comic printing before direct digital and the Black-and-White Boom.

By the time I was sober and enrolled in the Minneapolis College of Art & Design, in 1990, the career emphasis had shifted to digital graphic production. There were computer labs and programs like Illustrator and Photoshop and the illustration program at MCAD was skeletal. Teaching drawing for commercial art was over.

Tiepolo_angelLucky for me, I was able to become a painter. I pivoted to FIne Art in the MCAD curriculum just to get enough teaching in things I cared about, but there were many hidden benefits to leaving the commercial illustration track, and I had some fine teachers.

Tiepolo Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra

Tiepolo Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra

One of my painting teachers at MCAD told me my preparatory sketch for a painting reminded him of Tiepolo‘s ink wash drawings. He showed me what he meant and I was amazed at how modern an eighteenth-century drawing could look.

Of course, we don’t know how Tiepolo produced these works- he might have done the pencil sketch and line-work first, then added the midtone wash. Either way, the grey-scale (or sepia-scale!) is a thing of beauty.



I hope to do some ink-wash drawings utilising grey scale values later this summer, as well as some chalk drawings on grey paper. I’ve been thinking about how Sargent said if you get the midtones right, everything else falls into place. I’ve never been a midtone person; I’ve always focused on line quality and hard black and white values. But people change 🙂


*Note: as of Nov 2020, incredible artist MechanicalPencilGirl sells home-made Zip dot screens, on adhesive matte film, in a wide range of density, plus grids and grits!!!