Q: Why on Earth would you be asked to bring a sharp kitchen knife to your typography class?
A: Without that sharp knife, you can't carve potato? Obviously. Duh.
Earlier this Spring, my typography students engaged in the very, very serious art of creating block prints from potatoes. We began the term with some reading and discussion of historic typographic technologies: moveable type, letterpress, etc. But in order to put into action the things we were examining, I thought it would be good for the class to get their hands dirty (read: starchy) by making their own blocks of typography for printing.
Certainly, carving letters out of a potato isn't quite the same as what the old masters used to do; potatoes are drastically different than steel blocks and lead slugs. But the basic concept is the same: you want to produce a raised letterform on the flat surface of a block that can be inked and then used for printing that letterform on paper. What the class did with their potatoes required skill and patience, yes, but after spending a good deal of time and attention on their potato print blocks, I wondered aloud, "Can you imagine doing this same carving of letterforms in steel for, say, a letter of type measuring 6 points?" (We were working in 180 pt. type.) I think we could all agree that such an activity was… beyond both our means and materials.
It's interesting to witness how letters printed with potatoes lose their sharpness and clarity after several impressions on paper. This degradation of the letter form(s) is akin to what you'd have with moveable type, though with your metal blocks the process of corners getting more rounded, and of delicate features wearing down would be much more gradual. Alas, the potato will remain more of a side dish than a vital resource for the creator of type.
See the pictures below for an overview of our activity. This is really simple to do, and it doesn't require anything really fancy or expensive. If you're interested in trying this yourself, you'll need:
– some potatoes (organic, locally grown seem to work best–go figure!)
– a sharp kitchen knife or paring knife
– something to 'etch' an impression of a letter into your potato (we used pencils)
– printer's ink or tempera paint
– a palette knife for spreading/stirring your ink or paint
– a healthy supply of paper for printing onto
After you've made several prints/impressions (you'll want to make many, dozens of prints per letter, as the materials here produce results that are… mixed), you can scan the best prints and then easily use/manipulate them in digital files. Be sure to scan at a high resolution. Oh, and don't clean up or 'fix' the scanned prints TOO much. After all, it'd be a shame to get rid of all that charm and lovely, rugged line quality created from your typographic tuber.