Chromatic typewriter types works of art
By Emily Price
December 6, 2011
A typewriter that paints? Artist Tyree Callahan modified this 1937 Underwood Standard typewriter to do just that, replacing each key with a different hue that can paint on paper. A chromatic typewriter isn't by any means practical (the keys have to be manually reloaded with paint) - but the concept is still pretty interesting.
So, how did he come up with the idea to create the typewriter, and once he had that idea how did he turn it into a reality? We had the opportunity to talk about the project with Tyree. Here's what he had to say:
How did you come up with the idea for the typewriter?
The idea for the Chromatic Typewriter came about one day in the studio as I was struggling along with a watercolor. I had an old Olivetti typewriter laying around and I thought to add some text to the watercolor. I rolled the watercolor into the carriage and started typing and that's when the inspiration struck. I knew that an older typewriter would be more ideal for the final version of the project, largely because of the design-sense the old manufacturers had. They built those machines to last. This machine must weigh thirty pounds! I have an entirely new appreciation for typewriters now. You can Google a handful of online typewriter museums to get a sense of their beauty. In fact, looking on the virtual typewriter museums made me realize that the satiny/eggshell finish on my machine wasn't really supposed to be there. A lot of the museum pieces have a beautiful gloss. That's when I learned all about about nicotine tar.
How did you put the idea together?
It took a few months to find this one [the typewriter]. My friend and fellow artist Steven Cousens found it at an antique store a block from the studio.I built the typewriter over the month of November. It took about three and a half weeks to clean it up and put it all together. I had the toughest time cleaning it up: it must've had four decades of nicotine tar on it! I pictured some sort of Hunter S. Thomson/Edward R Murrow type hunched over it, chain-smoking and struggling with a story. Once the tar was cleaned off and the machine was shined up a bit I did a mock-up with some cut-out colors and stuck another painting in the carriage and knew the end result was going to be pretty special.
The piece was intended to be purely conceptual, but I do have a confession: as I was applying paint to the keys I could not resist trying it out. This led to a discovery, albeit one impeded and limited by the machine itself. Were there a more practical way to re-apply paint to the keys, it would make some very interesting and fantastic art. The way typewriters are designed, of course, leaves a bit of white space between the characters, to keep the alphabet of one's thoughts from stacking up. In this case, however, the typing of colors left a bit of white space between each color, and the effect would be quite amazing. Sort of like a blocky pointillism.
The additional challenge, however, was the layout of colors. Tracing the history of typewriters during the course of this project, I've learned that the letters on (what has become) the standard QWERTY keyboard were placed so that the commonly used letters do not get jammed up. If you've ever played with a typewriter (I'm 39 and it's surprising to me how many younger folks people have not), you know the phenomena. For colors ... well, the language of color has never necessitated a logical, machine-oriented distribution like the qwerty system, so it was to me a baffling mystery how in the hell one might produce a painting with the Chromatic Typewriter! There is no Mavis Beacon for this machine!
The colors were chosen from an HTML color palette chart available online. I also tried to incorporate things that would offer a significant suspension of disbelief to the piece. The ribbon, for one. At the moment, it is a slice of a stellar spectrum analysis of our sun; an homage, of sorts, to the one thing that really makes art in the universe: light. The keyboard's space bar also incorporates the idea of "negative space." I also replaced the ruler on the carriage with a white-to-black tonal gradation. There are a couple of other modifications that I'm keeping secret, too.
I cannot imagine how one would create art with this in a practical way. If the paint could be automatically applied some way, it could be feasible. As it stands, the keys have to be manually reloaded with paint. I have but one short paragraph typed with the machine.
Tyree's typewriter is currently a contender in the West Collection's annual artist competition. You can download the West Collections app to learn more about Tyree's creation, place a vote for him to win, or browse through some of the other artists' submissions. You can check out more of Tyree's paintings (not made with a typewriter) at his personal website.
If you like Tyree's modded typewriter you may also like this Drink-mixing typewriter, that mixes drinks based on the buttons that are pressed.
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