It is an art form involving the painting of the letters of the alphabet by ingeniously forming their contour out of the shape of human figures, animals, plants, and quotidian objects. A piece of letras y figuras normally emblazoned an individual’s name (first name, middle name, or initial, and apellido- surname) –usually the patron’s –but other words are known to have been painted, as well as the entire set of the English alphabet to serve as primer for the children of the rich family.
It was the most riveting of the Filipino visual art forms. For the attraction of the letras y figuras was its illusory optical effects. The letras painter spent hours depicting (even inventing) human and animal poses and actions—casual, acrobatic, or impossible—in order to form the contour of a specific letter. The illusion achieved, the finished painting held the viewer captivated in pleasurable distraction as he figured out the letters or the figures or whatever first attracted his glance. The letras were normally done in watercolor on Manila paper. The light brown color of the famed papermade out of abaca is a vital element in the trompe l’oeil scheme for it could serve as the color itself.
As regards to the letras being uniquely Filipino, no old example of letter embellishment as an independent easel painting along the approach of the Filipinos’ letras has been found in any other culture. Although the art of letter embellishment may be traced back to the illumination of capital letters in medieval manuscripts, not one of these shows the deliberate exploitation of shapes of objects to form the letters. On the contrary, the letters were designed to contain scenes. Known so far as the closest example to the unique approach of the letras is the set of Human Alphabets designed by Theodor Wibault and Israel de Bry of Frankfurt, Germany in 1596. But these neither made use of color.
The earliest example so far known of the letras y figuras dates to 1845 and this might have been painted in Manila at the time of the genre’s inception – if it weren’t the first one. The last extant specimens were done in the last decade of the American period, in the 1930s. By which time, there were letras y figuras painters all over Luzon region as suggested by specimens found in Bulacan, Pampanga, and Laguna – examples may still turn up in the Visayas – which shows the art form had then rooted as an artistic exercise, if not a genuine expression of the folk.
The earliest known painter of this genre, perhaps its inventor, is understandably also the most celebrated practitioner of the art – Jose Honorato Lozano. He lived from about 1821 to the 1880s. He became one of the illustrators of the magazine, La Illustracion del Oriente. His albums of watercolors of Philippine scenes became one of the most sought after items among the foreign business community. In 1995, an album of Lozano watercolors were auctioned at Christie’s London at the starting bid of 300,000 pounds.