Iceland, Viking Ship Stamps, 1969

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Stamp Drawer was briefly on hiatus due to a freelance project frenzy and some traveling, but now it’s back! I had an amazing time exploring Iceland a few weeks ago and, coincidentally, some vintage Icelandic stamps have just surfaced in the Stamp Drawer. This handsome pair, depicting one element of the nation’s storied history—the Viking ship—was released in 1969. I love the simple, graphic treatment of this iconic image, loose line drawings disappearing into the negative space of the stamp’s margins.

For those of you who’d like to add these to your collection, they’re Scott numbers 404 and 405. I picked up quite a few contemporary issues from a post office in Reykjavik while visiting and will share those shortly. In the meantime, happy collecting!

Czechoslovakia, Prague Music Festival Stamp, 1967

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This afternoon I’d like to share a stamp that I love for its quirky lettering treatment. Issued by Czechoslovakia in 1967 to commemorate the Prague Music Festival, this stamp, appropriately, has a really melodic feel. I love the design’s flourishes and uneven letter heights and baselines. The decorative floral treatment dividing “Československo” and “Pražské” takes on a shape reminiscent of a musical instrument. A really charming addition to the stamp drawer collection, I think!    

Farm Animal Stamps by Christopher Wormell

I am really excited to share these stamps because they JUST arrived in the mail yesterday and I’ve been wishing for them for quite some time! This morning we have a lovely batch of stamps issued in Great Britain in 2005. They were illustrated by British artist Christopher Wormell and printed using a four color gravure process by Joh Enschede Security Printers, a specialty printer that produces stamps for over sixty countries. 

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Wormell is a linocut artist and wood engraver (these stamp designs were created with linocut); I love how his style looks at once classic and modern.

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I was excited to discover that Wormell’s the author & illustrator of a series of children’s books that I adore (I thought this style looked familiar!). There’s a great interview with him over at Seven Impossible Things (a wonderful children’s book illustration blog by Julie Danielson) where he discusses the other media in which he works (watercolor, pen & ink, colored pencil), his process for developing a picture book and his road to becoming a professional illustrator. There he shared this beautiful wood engraving of a hedgehog, among other pieces. Look at those textures!   

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I was surprised and delighted when I learned that Wormell is a self-taught artist (so am I!) who has, nevertheless, succeeded in commercial and book illustration in general. He has won several prestigious awards for his illustration work. He broke onto the scene in 1990 when he won the Ragazza prize at the Bologna International Children’s Book Fair; in 2004 he was awarded the New York Times Book Review’s Best Illustrated Children’s Book Award for his book Teeth, Tails and Tentacles.      

If you’re really enamored with his work you can purchase limited edition lino- and wood-cut prints by Wormell here, including these charming bear and elephant prints from his book An Alphabet of Animals (which appears to be out of print), and a handsome stegosaurus from Wings, Horns & Claws.

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Just a couple of covers from Chris Wormell’s many charming children’s books, Mice, Moral’s & Monkey Business and Through the Animals’ Eyes, areshown below.  

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For my philatelist friends: you can find more detailed information about these lovely stamps, including a catalog of the special postmarks created by various British counties for their day of issue, at Norvic Philatelic. Their Scott# is 2260a. 

Germany, Folk Tale Stamps, 1973

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This Friday morning in the Stamp Drawer we have a set of six stamps issued by the German Democratic Republic in 1973. This is one of several sets Germany commissioned during this period depicting fairy & folk tale narratives—in this case a Russian tale called “At the Pike’s Behest.” I really love the movement in these illustrations—each stamp is really quite dynamic in spite of its simplicity. I also like the fluid lettering at the bottom of each one.

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As with many vintage stamps in my collection, I’ve had a difficult time tracking down these ones’ designer, but believe they may have been created by someone named Bläser. Other stamps believed to be designed by Bläser can be found on the wiki site Catawiki

I welcome comments with any further info about this fun series and/or its artist! For the super collectors in the audience, this stamp series’s Scott Catalog # is GDR 1504-09 :)

In Defense of Stamps

Stamps are the best. They’re tiny, inexpensive, collectible bits of art. They’re historical documents, cultural artifacts, remnants of communications long (and not so long) past between real people.

I began collecting stamps as a kid and have collected them on and off for the couple decades since. I’m an illustrator and have filled my studio and house with all kinds of illustrated ephemera, but my book of stamps might be my favorite, most interesting collection. 

These four stamps are some of my most cherished. Designed by Portuguese Modernist illustrator & designer Maria Keil (1914-2012), issued in 1962 to commemorate the International Pediatric Congress, I adore their simplicity and graphic boldness; their warm, genuine gestures and their juxtaposition of sketchy line and shape. These are images you might expect to find in the pages of a mid-20th century picture book.

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Keil did, in fact, illustrate children’s books; a charming example from 1967, entitled The Book of Marianinha, is shown below. In addition to her illustration work, she was highly regarded as a painter, engraver, designer of textiles, mosaics (azulejo) and interiors, working on diverse projects throughout Portugal from the 1930s to only a year or so ago. 

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I collect stamps because I see it as an opportunity to discover the world’s heavyweights of illustration and design and to own little pieces of their creative legacies.

Many stamp collectors focus on a specific nation, geographic region, historical period or topic, amassing collections of Soviet-era military stamps, for instance; or stamps from the various British colonies; or Polar Expedition stamps; or stamps from the United Nations; or stamps commemorating the Olympic games; or stamps depicting dogs, ships, dinosaurs, flowers, maps, libraries, machines, food. I have some French Antarctic (TAAF) stamps that I really love, like this one, designed by French printmaker Pierre-Yves Tremois and issued in 1985.

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My collection isn’t too cohesive. I’m an animal fanatic—always have been—so I used to collect animal stamps willy nilly. Now I simply seek out stamps whose illustration styles intrigue me. My book of stamps includes lots of issues commemorating fairy tales and folk costumes; promoting children’s literacy, health and well-being; saluting cartoons and comics; advocating for letter writing; paying homage to national architecture and native landscapes; and celebrating children’s books, their illustrators and authors. I like stamps that reproduce images from well-loved books—Great Britain’s Edward Lear “Death Centenary” stamps (1988) and Finland’s continuous commemoration of their national comic icon, Moomin, are examples (over a dozen Moomin designs by Tove Jansson have been issued by Finland’s Post since the late eighties. Below, a pair issued in 1994). 

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But I love stamps with original imagery even more, like the Portuguese and French Antarctic ones pictured above and the German pair, designed by Gohlert in 1958, shown below. A stamp designer must work within limited constraints to create an image that properly honors its subject. She or he designs within minute dimensions, works in vital typographic details, communicates in symbols or in as universally recognizable imagery as possible, finally creating an image that people will want to buy (and later collect) in its own right.

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I still have many of the stamps I collected as a child; most are from Germany, Austria and the Netherlands and cover every topic imaginable. Many are still attached to envelope scraps my Oma (grandma), who corresponded with her German family regularly, saved for me. I rediscovered stamps in high school, when I began to take illustration seriously, and found what seemed to be an under-appreciated illustration goldmine. I found stamps in every possible illustration style—from the most traditional to the most expressive and cutting edge, reflecting the interests, priorities and visual languages of their times. When looking at dozens or even hundreds of stamps depicting a single topic over a period of time, you witness graphic styles develop and peter out. I look forward to sharing examples of this on this blog in the coming weeks and months.

Lots of folks think of stamp collecting as banal, tedious business. It certainly does require patience. In the process of searching for a particular issue, you can sort through hundreds, if not thousands, of duds. The digital age has streamlined this process, which used to mean attending stamp shows and spending hours sifting through phonebook-style catalogs and long cardboard boxes of individually-filed stamps (which are often organized by nation, date and catalog number, not topic). eBay and wiki sites like Catawiki allow you to narrow your search criteria and improve your chances of discovering a gem in a short period of time. I do attend stamp shows periodically but most of my acquisitions happen online. I have a pretty healthy collection but probably only spend around a hundred dollars a year to grow it.

I don’t consider myself a hardcore philatelist. I mostly feel out of my element at stamp shows (granted, I’m usually two to four decades younger than the majority of attendees). I don’t know all the stamp jargon; don’t care for the unusual, expensive misprints; don’t nerd out with other collectors. I don’t think I even know another collector. I am just an illustrator who collects illustrations printed on stamps. I like owning bits of illustration and cultural history and spending just fifty cents or a dollar or two to do it. (Each of these stamps were acquired for less than a dollar; they hearken from Andorra [1979], Germany [1982] and Bulgaria [1966], respectively and are a few more of my favorites.)

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So this is Stamp Drawer. A place where I collect stamps and drawings of stamps. And since I like drawing even more than stamp collecting, I thought it might be a fun exercise to create my own stamps and post them here too. I’m not trying to one-up the real stamp designers. Instead, I’d like to get other illustrators, artists and art appreciators interested in stamps; to have a platform to organize and share my collection with the world; and to have another project to create illustrations for in 2013.

One more thing. Now that digital communications have largely eclipsed their traditional counterparts, stamps could become a thing of the past. Many postal services are struggling to stay afloat. Some countries, like Sweden and Denmark, are issuing a text message service that allows citizens to pay for postage without actually affixing stamps to their mail. Man. The Scandinavians have designed some of my favorite stamps ever, like Sweden’s 2010 “Delicious” collection. 

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It could be that stamps will become another curiosity of communications history, like telegrams, switchboards and landline telephones. I hope not! I’ll continue to collect and share my collection with the small hope that some people who didn’t think stamps were cool before give them a second thought.