From the first time I read the opening scene of the fourth act of Macbeth I’ve always wanted a shelf a dusty vials and jars of questionable contents, labelled with the sorts of things that would make a serial killer blanch. I wanted something unique, but since I have the graphic design skills of a drunken three year old, I figured it would have to exist in the one of the terrifying recesses of my mind. So when I discovered Chocolate Rabbit on Etsy , oh but my dark little heart skipped a few beats.
After looking through her shop I simply had to contact the creator of the labels. Happily, the designer, Betsy, agreed to an interview.
How did you become interested in vintage labels, in general, and designing them, specifically?
I discovered vintage Halloween imagery about 8 years ago and fell in love with how the old stuff was so dark and scary. This was back when Halloween was a holiday for adults. Beistle’s illustrations especially caught my eye with their imps and haggard, fanged witches all done with pen and ink. From there I started really looking at all kinds of colorful ephemera specifically for ornate typography, and the beautiful litho illustrations. The majority was from old holiday postcards and advertising. Even the bad rhymes fascinate me. I’ve always been an artist and have loved beautifully drawn images, pen and ink work, and hand lettering.
I have a rather warped view of things and thought I’d like to experiment at making my own advertisements using the notion that witches and mountebanks were mainstream, and you could buy supplies and their wares in a regular market. I loved the idea of these empowered wise women as entrepreneurs, opening their own companies and producing the old recipes for modern witches in a busy world. it was a fascinating idea, and I started with potion bottle labels. I love the dark, mysterious world. I’ve studied paganism, I’ve researched the ‘old ways’, and have a great deal of respect for men and women who live this passion. I think I must have been a hedge witch in a past life. My current life doesn’t allow me to brew my own potions although I do dance under the moon from time to time.
Though the Halloween labels are my favs (obviously) you have an eye for all sorts of designs–do you do graphic design in your professional life or is it something you do for fun?
I’ve done a few custom designs for people. I was asked to make something for the Salem Witch’s Ball. That was pretty cool! Most of my work is for fun though, and the fact that people buy it is really nice.
What are your favourite types of things to design?
My favorites are the Halloween labels. It is the perfect opportunity to mix up the dark and strange with some silliness. I also love the pseudo-Victorian advertisements that I’ve made. The old ads for patent medicines really make me laugh, and I try to incorporate some of that craziness but like to keep the label looking like it could almost be real.
My husband is a graphic designer–a visual person–while I’m a word person so I can’t picture the process of designing something new. Where do you find inspiration? What’s your creative process look like?
I’m definitely a visual person. When I’m browsing pictures of old labels or advertisements there will be some that just stick out and hit me in the nose…and I think things like “Strichnyne Syllibub…Nettle Nostrum…Hemlock Hotpot…” I know it’s weird. Using the structure of the old labels gives me a great starting off point for my own strange visions.
Something that I enjoy are the names of some of the witches–they’re perfect! How do you come up with them? Do you keep a list of ideas or do they just come to you when designing something?
The witch names..lol! I try to use old fashioned Victorian names. It just makes sense to me that the witch next door would be named Hortense or Esme. I think a witch would be more likely to choose something a little dark as a last name. It just goes with the profession…like Grimraven, or maybe she’s just called “Granny so and so” or “Auntie”. My husband had an Aunt Prim. I just love that. My Great Grandmother was Fannie Mayberry – awesome!
When you’re being creative do you listen to music?
When I work I listen to audiobooks. My favorites are anything by Dickens, and my favorite but sadly departed Jack Vance the master of SF.
I have to geek out for a second: Dickens is one of my fav authors! Bleak House is my second favourite book ever. Do you have a number one fav?
I LOVE Bleak House. I have to listen to that one again. I also have to confess that I love Mrs. Gamp in Martin Chuzzlewit and her “cowcumbers with vinegar”. My ultimate favorite is anything by Jack Vance. He was an artist at turn of phrase, developing outstanding character machinations, and ending his stories with very satisfying justice for the hero. The Lyonesse Trilogy, and the Dying Earth are favorites. Dickens rocks though and is a very close second.
Does every single thing in your house have an incredible label on it? I’d bet so.
Too funny about the labels! Actually no. My house is more like a work that is most likely not going to progress. I have 2 teenage boys and a husband. That should explain everything.
That’s kind of a bummer. I liked the idea of the dog being labelled ‘Dog’. Do you at least have your own little shelf of odd-looking bottles of potions and tinctures in the house?
I actually have a collection of ratty looking potion bottles that I made several years ago. I would love to live in a cottage in the woods with a cauldron on the hearth and a few cats. It would have to have air conditioning and and Internet though… I’d label everything if I had a cottage.
Tins from Betsy’s house
Your font collection must be impressive. (I love fonts.) How many do you have? Ditto for clipart.
Font hunting is a favorite sport. I have just about every free Victorian-esque font available. My dream is to make my own because it is so hard to find that perfect one when you need it. My image collection is probably more than 50GB worth on my computer and there are more coming in every day. There are some great ephemera groups on Flickr and sometimes the owner of the image lets you play. My laptop is sick and I haven’t been able to open Photoshop for several days. I’m getting shaky and scared.
Just thinking about not being able to use my computer gives me the jim jams. What else is in your digital toolkit?
My tool kit is mostly Photoshop. Sadly it is the wimpy version and not the full strength playground of digital delight. I also have Inkscape the free vector program but I’m trying hard to not hate it so much. If I didn’t have a Mac I’d also run SAI. Oh…and a pair of glasses
I used acrylic matte spray to finish them and it aged/bleached the colours on the last three.
I think the first time I came across the idea of ‘eye of newt and toe of frog,’ etc was in the first scene of the second act of Macbeth, where the three witches are doing an extended potion-making. Have you ever considered doing a sort of Weird Sisters Pack of labels with a bunch of things a witch would need for that spell?
The Weird Sisters idea is great and I’m going to get right on it as soon as I get my computer back! [Note: Since this interview was completed, Betsy's computer has been repaired and the labels have been created and they are fabulous .]
It’s very cool that you allow people to use your labels on items they sell–your work is such high quality that it alone could be the tipping point for something. Do people ever send you photos of things they’ve put your labels on? If so, what have been the coolest uses of your labels that you’ve seen?
I so wish that people would send me pictures. I hear occasionally what people are going to do with them but never get to see the final product. So sad.
Well, thanks to you, I’ve finally started my first curiosities cabinet –something I’ve wanted to do for ages–and I’ll be posting photos of the potions and such I make using your labels.
Since you’re into the potions, are you a Slytherin, or would you just do really well in that class? What would your worse class be at Hogwarts (and don’t try to tell me you didn’t attend).
Ah Hogwarts! Slytherin sounds so appealing but I have an annoying sense of honor and need to do the right thing so I probably would have been sorted into Gryffindor or Ravenclaw.
I would have excelled at potions. History of Magic would have been too dry and dusty for me.
History of Magic would have been my worst subject, as well. Thank you for your time. Keep making great art!
You can check out more of Betsy’s incredible art at the links below. And you should. Because it’s awesome.