"I'm just such a fan of your lettering, and was wondering how you developed your style and perfected your script--traditional classes? A mentor? A book and lots of practice?"
I’ve received a number of emails like this, asking me about how I got started, what techniques and supplies I use, and what advice I have for contemporary calligraphers just starting out. So I thought I’d tackle this question today.
I. AN INGLORIOUS START
My mother was a hobbyist calligrapher so, from an early age, I grew up with pens, light tables, shrieks of horror as the ink smeared on the very last word of a project. I was lucky enough to attend Reed College where the legacy of master calligrapher Lloyd Reynolds is still very much alive. (Click here to listen to Steve Jobs describe how his time at Reed, studying with Reynolds, influenced the design of Mac. The weathergram, pictured above, is a signature Reynolds creation: a short poem written on a paper bag and hung from a tree.)
During a summer in New York I studied Italic calligraphy with the talented, patient and irreverent Paul Werner. When I moved to Philadelphia, I took small group classes in Copperplate at the home of Carole Maurer, who is an exceptional teacher, and joined the Philadelphia Calligrapher’s Society an active group that does great work. During this entire time, (and maybe even still, by some accounts) I was a terrible scribe.
At Reed, I collaborated on a project with a photographer friend that involved calligraphing the names of professors on the mat that framed their photos. During a recent visit, the photos were still up, but he mats had been replaced. In New York, I remember the thrill of a café asking me to redo their chalkboard menu. I was so proud that I mentioned it to Paul at my lesson and he insisted we return to the café so he could see it, whereupon we discovered that they had immediately erased my work. At a holiday ornament swap in Philadelphia, my ornament was the only one not chosen as a take-home gift by my more talented peers. Lesson #1: you will face adversity.
I loved certain parts of the letterforms I studied – the angle, how an "e" connected to a "v," but I’d work myself up into such a tizzy of anxiety over how perfect the letter needed to be that the practice lost all pleasure. And shouldn’t it be pleasurable? This feeling was compounded by the fact that every time I’d travel to Europe or visit a flea market I’d end up at those bins of old letters and postcards, swooning over the handwriting which – with its history and lack of pretension – resonated with me far more than the samplers or abecedariums of yore. Letters and handwriting associated with a time and place were urgent, and conjured visions of streets, mailboxes, homes, cafes, gardens, postmen, wars, lovers and the spirit of the person writing. Lesson #2: be honest about what you find truly inspiring.
II. A GAME-CHANGING BLOG POST
Around this time Betsy Dunlap’s work hit the blogosphere. I encourage you to visit this Design*Sponge post from 2007 in which Grace gives just-starting-out Betsy a lovely introduction and the classically-trained calligraphic community erupts in a hateful, embarrassing, vitriolic screed against Betsy’s work (a sample above). Five years later, after appearing in countless Martha Stewart spreads, creating stunning and memorable work, and calligraphing Grace’s own wedding invitations, Betsy and her compatriots sent a unmistakable signal to this small but vocal faction of the mean-spirited establishment. Work that conveys a unique vision has been met with overwhelming success and appreciation by a grateful public. Lesson #3: always be generous of time and spirit and, in the words of Amanda, this type of cynicism can suck it.
III. FORGE AHEAD
So in 2009, as I was gearing up for my own wedding I decided to give it a go (thanks very much in part to letterpress artist Emily Johnson who said, during a fateful drive to the airport “you should give it a go.”) and inject pleasure and my own sensibility into the letterforms I had studied. What resulted is Neither Snow. I placed an ad on a Practical Wedding (which should answer the “perfecting a script” question – what I do is constantly evolving). And I joined the ranks of a cohort of younger, collaborative scribes who are just as inspired by photoshoots in Russian Vogue as they are by Redwood trees in their back yard. It’s been two and a half years of unimaginably gratifying collaborations, confronting the well-documented challenges of being a small business owner, and glimpsing worlds – from penthouses to Oxford libraries—that I never knew existed.
My suggested reading list for bringing a baseline of consistency to your letterforms before developing your own style is:
Barbara Getty and Inga Dubay, Write Now: The Complete Program for Better Handwriting (and please give this book to every school principal you know and ask them to teach a more intuitive form of handwriting before the skill dies out altogether).
And as for materials: play around with pointed pen nibs, of which there are countless varieties (be sure to run them through a flame before you use them). Try out different holders – straight often work best for left-handed calligraphers (like me). Experiment with inks (do you prefer Dr. Martin's or McCafferery or Sumi or mixing your own with gouache?). Practice with paper that feels good – I like Canson’s Marker-Pro. Study with real people (from classes at a local extension school to immersive classes like Reggie Ezell). My go-to resource for materials and questions is Paper and Ink Arts.
Thanks to so many readers for taking the time to write, and for all of your questions. Please comment below if you have others. I'd love to hear your thoughts.