ART & QWERTY

b_1Daily, we lay our fingers on our QWERTY keyboards. But while we type out words, German artist Robert Dörfler conjures portraits, buildings, animals, and landscapes. An artist with a mechanical easel and alphabetic brushes, his Instagram is both fascinating and unexpected. I was delighted to catch up with Robert to chat about his amazing process…
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How did this interesting art form develop for you?

As a child I played around with my sister’s electric typewriter, doodling little stickmen in tiny landscapes while laying out make-believe newspaper pages. As time marched on I forgot about doing things like that and began to learn programming and playing different musical instruments. Back in the old pre-Windows days of widespread text-based home computer use, people might occasionally encounter illustrations up on the screen made out of text characters — called ASCII art! — and I thought that it looked like fun. I made several pictures in that style, some of which even won art competitions!
d_1But one day I came across other specimens of the older typewriter art again and realised that there might be some logical connection between the two styles, figuring that some ASCII art techniques could be applied to the typewriter, and I could apply what I had learned from the newer style to the older… with mixed success. Of course, the paper page isn’t limited to columns and rows the way a fixed-width screen of text is on a computer, so you can still manage to go outside of the box and push boundaries outside a strict grid even typing with straight lines.
n_1Typewriter drawing can feel like you’re using some analogue Photoshop with layers and a wide range of colours, except of course without any “undo” function for erasing mistakes that might come up.
i_1How do you translate landscapes and buildings to typewriter keys?
There are a number of ways to adapt an image, depending on the aesthetic style you’re hoping to achieve. You could make a picture simply by typing a single key over and over again, but an easy technique for building up an illustration is to sketch it out like an artist might do with a pencil in their notebook: every building has edges that could first be translated into lines by typing exclamation marks for vertical or dashes for horizontal lines. Slanted edges such as rooftops could be typed with a slash or, if it is available, the backslash.
k_1What is the most difficult thing about creating a piece?
Maybe the most difficult part is simply getting a new picture started without knowing how much further work — sometimes weeks’ worth! — remains ahead until it is completed. To be honest it all depends on what the typist is aspiring to achieve in terms of the look of the piece. For instance, I like to type portraits to look as realistic as possible, and that just might be the most difficult thing for me… because if it doesn’t look the way I’m hoping for, I just start over again and again and again. I’ve learned to begin with the eyes, because I always want them to look perfect, and many times I’ve almost finished lovely portraits and then ruined everything typing in the eyes wrong.
a_1What brands of typewriters do you use?
My favourite typewriter is a Brother Deluxe 1300 that is actually already so broken that it can’t even be used to compose a letter, as every capital letter is out of place. Usually I like to stick to the typewriters of my homeland like those made by Continental or the so-called “Erika” typewriters from Saxony in Germany. It may not be obvious, but every typewriter has its own distinct typeface and so they aren’t all just interchangeable for different applications. I also enjoy using my Olympia Traveller with its Cyrillic typeface — the Russian alphabet has dense letters that can turn a lot of blank space black just by typing a single letter!
h_1Name your top 5 typewriter keys to use, and tell us why!
I can’t quite get it down to five, but here are seven of the keys I use the most: _ . – ! and ` for drawing outlines, and % and m fill space like nobody’s business. Ding!

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Images courtesy of Robert Dörfler

In accordance with State and Princeton University measures to contain the spread of coronavirus, the gallery of the Cotsen Children’s Library is closed until further notice, and our children’s programming as been suspended during this closure. Until our library reopens, the blog will post once a week. So every Tuesday, please check in to see what we’re up to…from story time projects to awesome interviews!

Click Clack Awesome

click clack awesome againCows that type? Yes indeed. You can too, using this awesome box typewriter and funny Mad Lib letters!

We read Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type, written by Doreen Cronin, and illustrated by Betsy Lewin (Simon & Schuster, 2000). It’s cold in the barn at night, and the cows have had enough. They type a note to Farmer Brown requesting electric blankets. When he doesn’t comply, the cows go on strike. No milk! The hens are cold too and soon it’s no milk, no eggs at the farm. Infuriated, Farmer Brown types a note demanding milk and eggs, reminding the protesting parties that they are, after all, cows and hens. The cows hold a meeting, and a counteroffer is made. The typewriter in exchange for electric blankets. Done! Farmer Brown delivers the blankets, but the typewriter appears to be missing. Until a note arrives from the ducks. They want a diving board.

You’ll need:

  • 1 box (mine was 4 ½” X 4 ½” x 9”). A large tissue box works great too
  • A box cutter
  • 2 paperclips (mine were 1.75″ long)
  • A selection of color masking tape
  • 2 jumbo craft sticks (mine were 6″ long)
  • 1 typewriter keyboard template, printed on 8.5″ x 11″ white card stock
  • 1 paper towel tube, cut down to 8.5″ long
  • 1 piece of construction paper
  • 1 balloon stick, cut down to 10.25″ long (a wooden dowel works too).
  • 2 wooden beads
  • 1 pipe cleaner
  • 1 drinking straw
  • 4 pom-poms (mine were 1″ in diameter)
  • 1 typewriter letters template, printed on two, 8.5″ x 11″ sheets of paper
  • Scissors and tape for construction
  • Markers for decorating
  • Hot glue

Optional bell:

  • A small piece of pipe cleaner (approximately 4″ long)
  • 1 jingle bell

The majority of this project will be demonstrated using a white craft box, but I’ll show you how a regular old tissue box (the long, rectangular kind) can be adapted too!

finished typewriter with paperWe’ll start with the craft box. Use scissors to cut the tabs off the box, then cut diagonally down each side like so:

typewriter box step 1Push the tall, right-hand side of the box against the diagonal sides, and secure with tape.

typewriter box step 2Fold the overhanging section over the back of the box, trim down the resulting flap, then tape the flap to the back of box.

folding the boxIf you’re using a tissue box, follow these steps. Flip the tissue box over so the opening for the tissues is resting on top of the table. Then, use a box cutter to cut a hinged top like so:

tissue box step 1Now use scissors to cut diagonally along the sides of the box:

tissue box step 2Follow the exact same steps as the craft box to finish (i.e. fold the overhanging piece over the back of the box, trim it, and secure with tape). Done! Now turn the slanted part of the box towards you, and tape a paper clip to both sides of the box.

paper clip placementThe orientation and placement of the paper clip is important. The end of the paper clip with the double curves needs to be sticking upwards like this.

typewriter paper clip

Later, the upper parts of the paper clips will hold the axle of your typewriter’s “cylinder” (i.e. the round thing that your typewriter paper wraps around).

Decorate the back, sides, and front of the typewriter with color masking tape (or just use markers). Decorate a jumbo craft stick as well (the stick will eventually become your typewriter’s “space bar”). I used color masking tape for the space bar you see in the image below, but markers work great too!

space barColor and hot glue (or tape) the typewriter keyboard template to the front of the typewriter (if you don’t like the all white template, here’s one with a black background). Note: the keyboard template doesn’t go all the way to the top of the box. That’s good! You want it to be at least 1″ below the top of the box (otherwise, the keyboard will get covered by the cylinder). Finally, hot glue (or tape) the craft stick space bar to the bottom of the box.

typewriter keyboardOK! Now for the cylinder! Wrap an 8.5″ paper towel tube with construction paper (we used gray paper). Then thread a 10.25″ balloon stick through the first paperclip, the paper towel tube, and the second paper clip.

threading paper clipThe cylinder is now secured on its balloon stick axle, which is in turn held in place by the 2 paper clips.

typewriter balloon stickWe slid 2 wooden bead on the ends of the balloon stick to keep it in place (masking tape or scotch tape on the ends of the sticks works too!).

typewriter wooden beadsYour cylinder now needs a “paper finger,” (i.e. the little mechanism that keeps the paper from flopping over). Believe it or not, it took us FOREVER to figure out how to make this simple and workable with easy-to-use materials. The winners? A drinking straw and a pipe cleaner. I only had clear drinking straws in the art cabinet, so it’s a little hard to see it in the photo below. You’ll definitely need it. The smoothness of the straw allows the paper slide easily!

attached paper fingerThread a pipe cleaner through a drinking straw. Bend the ends of the pipe cleaner inside the cylinder and secure with tape. The paper finger shouldn’t be super tight against the cylinder – leave a little wiggle room for the paper!

attached pipe cleanerAlmost there! Flip your typewriter on its back, and hot glue 4 pom-poms on each corner. Hot glue a jumbo craft stick to the front of the box. This will add some weight to the front of the typewriter, and act as a counterbalance the cylinder.

underside of typewriterYour typewriter is finished!

finished typewriterReady to load some paper? Starting from the back, slide an 5.5″ x 8.5″ piece of paper under the cylinder, then curl and tuck the paper under the paper finger. Tug it upwards a little, and you’re done!

typewriter paperYou can put a blank sheet of paper in your typewriter, or you can use the Mad Libs we created on our typewriter letters template. I recommend the Mad Libs. The kids and their caregivers had quite a bit of fun filling them out! I managed to catch a couple at story time.

letter 1letter 2letter 3letter 4letter 7letter 8letter 5letter 6

letter 9One last thing! You’ll notice that the finished typewriter has a bell. The bell is optional, but I have to say, it was pretty cute. There are a couple ways to attach it.

finished typewriter with bellFirst, thread a jingle bell through a 4″ piece of pipe cleaner, then curl one end of the pipe cleaner to keep the bell from sliding off.

Then you can either:

  1. Tape the uncurled end of the pipe cleaner to the upper right-hand corner of the typewriter before you hot glue the keyboard on.
  2. Peel the upper right-hand corner of the keyboard back, tape the uncurled end of the pipe cleaner to the typewriter, and re-adhere the corner of the keyboard.
  3. Tape the pipe cleaner to the side of the typewriter.

At our story time, we went with option 1, and attached the bell early in the project. For option 1 or 2, just make sure that the keyboard completely covers the uncurled end of the pipe cleaner. Otherwise, the pipe cleaner could snag your typewriter paper (or poke your fingers) as you’re loading it on the cylinder.