When I started, I didn’t know “becoming a calligrapher” was an option. I fell hard for broad edge calligraphy as a child. My first class was over a school break in 5th grade. I got a scholarship for the course my teacher, Theresa Randolph, was offering. We used Elegant Writer felt tip markers to write Italic script and what we called “Old English”. I got to keep the markers and I was hooked. I loved the way the strokes fit together and I could just write and write. 25 years later, I still love those elements of calligraphy.
Darren Rhodes, owner of Yoga Oasis and founder of yogaHour, asked me to paint calligraphy in the teacher training here in Tucson. Yoga Oasis was making improvements throughout the space, adding artwork and structural interest to different areas. He took some time to think over what he wanted the mural to read and settled on the same inscription carved into the entryway of the main studio room:
Ali Manning taught us how to make this handmade Collage Book in a Zoom workshop. She sells her books and teaches through her website, Vintage Page Designs. I’m a member of her Handmade Book Club. She gave the workshop up in several segments throughout the day with ample breaks in between. Ali used Zoom features to make it similar to an in-person workshop experience.A note about the timeline of this workshop . . . She’s in Massachusetts and I’m in Arizona, so we, “we”, were starting at 5:45am my time. I got out of bed around 7 my time, (I think?) and tuned in to the current meeting.. All I brought to the computer was my coffee and the theme I chose for my book: Dream.
Ed, my client, called me on the telephone and tentatively asked if I could letter an excerpt in calligraphy as a gift for his new girlfriend. I smiled and said, “I do that all the time.” The excerpt is from a book called The Little Prince and it reads, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” We discussed different sizes for the piece and other decor of the home. After consulting with a conspirator, he gave me the green light to get started on this sweet and thoughtful gift.
These are the sample pictures I sent to him. We decided on a wood panel that would most likely be displayed on a table. I like cradled panels, or ones that have a wooden frame behind them, because to me they feel more polished when complete. This panel is 8″ by 10″ — not too big, not too small.
Prepping the Panel
I started by painting a layer of acrylic gesso over the front panel and all the sides to give the next layers something to adhere to. I also did this because I wasn’t sure if the wood panel would absorb any paint, so I wanted to start with a sealed surface. I sanded the gesso, knowing that I would need a smooth surface for the calligraphy. I forgot to take a photo of this step because I was excited about the next part!
Painting the Background
I was inspired by the work of calligrapher Denis Brown for the layering of acrylic paint as a base behind the letters. I am pushing myself to use more abstraction and more than one calligraphic hand in my work. The weekend before I made this piece, I made a collage book that really set fire to the perfectionist side of my brain. I was excited to get my hands on this project.
When Ed first described the project and occasion to me, the colors red, white, bronze, and blue came to mind with white letters. My client chose Foundational hand for this piece after viewing the Laughter piece in my Gallery. I worked with thin washes of red and abstract brush strokes in blue and copper, sometimes wiping away parts with a towel to create depth and interest. I drew partial circles and used diluted copper paint to write the title of the book the quote was from. I did this lightly so it would be a part of the background. After it was dry (a few minutes in the Arizona summer sun did the trick!), I continued to build up layers. It needed to be dark enough that calligraphy would be visible. I painted the edges of the panel dark brown, followed by a thin layer of copper paint to give it a bronze-looking finish. Using the copper paint also tied the edges in with the rest of the piece and it catches the light from different angles.
I sealed the surface with a matte spray seal and let it dry before continuing. This was to make sure the surface was even so that the white paint and brush wouldn’t interact with the paint below it and pick up the other colors.
Transferring the Letters
Yeah, now for the juicy fun part! I did a few drafts of the quote and finally decided to vary the size of the letters. This emphasized sentiments in the lines of text but they also draw the viewer in — they can read the large parts and have to get closer to see what else it says. And then they get to pick out the nuances of the background.
I cut my draft down to size and used my tools to make sure the text was straight before taping it to the panel. Then I slipped white transfer paper under the draft and carefully outlined the letters. Here’s what it looked like when I was through:
I used teeny paintbrushes and the best of my eyeball power to fill in the letters with titanium white acrylic paint diluted with an acrylic paint medium. When working with paint or ink, it’s important to make sure it will actually move as you work with it. Otherwise you’re just fighting with the paint and brush to get them to interact. The small brushes I have are cut to a flat edge, so they mock the behavior of a broad edge nib.
After finishing the letters, I went back in with the background colors and added a little more to wherever I thought needed it. I also dipped into the white paint a little for this step to tie the letters to the background. I used a dark brown colored pencil to add a slight shadow around one side of the letters. This made them crisp and gave a little gravity to them. I sealed it one more time with a good few coats of matte sealant to protect the colors from sunshine and surface damage and let it dry in the sun.
I delivered the finished piece to my client in a nice little bag to protect it from scratches and also just in case he bumped into the birthday girl! You just never know.
If you have any questions about this project or would like to book me for a piece of your very own, I would love to hear from you.
I drew these versal letters to spell out the phrase, “Be the reason someone smiles today” and added the floral illustrations in watercolor. These are one of my favorite types of letters to create because there’s so much room for variation and decoration.
Eloise is the first daughter of a friend of mine — they call her Lou for short! I asked my friend for the details of her birth — the date, time and her measurements. I included her birthstone and a couple of her astrological placements in the border surrounding her name. The flowers are snowdrops, flower of the month for January. I used Arches watercolor paper for this piece. I really enjoyed the opportunity to practice with decorative capitals and illustration.
Over the years, I’ve developed an understanding of what makes skillful calligraphy sooo appealing. I mean, there’s so much to love — paper, color, texture, fluidity and confidence of lines — but what truly elevates calligraphic work is invisible: it’s the negative space. When I say “negative space”, I mean the shapes inside the letters, the spaces between the words and letters, and the space around words and sentences. The mind is truly satisfied when these things are in order and it can relax, allowing the gravity of the work to sink more deeply into the viewer. Sounds a little like magic. And come to think of it, the space isn’t nothingness. It’s deliberate. The lines and motions made by the penman carve out those beautiful shapes from the blank page. As if they were already there before the lines were.
It comes down to consistency and for that, practice is required.
Numbers for my website have jumped, people being home or online as a result of self-quarantine measures. Firstly, thank you for participating in physical distancing. It’s one of the many ways we can work together as a community to stay the damage of this virus and its effects.
With that, I’m seeing tons of creative learning opportunities spring up online and for the first time, people have the time to dive into something that’s maybe been on their list for a while. Calligraphy is so popular right now and it can be difficult to find a “way in”. Calligraphy is also a little deceptive because often times we just see a hand, writing. There is sooo much more to calligraphy than that. The first comparison that comes to mind is stock car racing to driving a regular car. They look the same, but one is way more nuanced and focused than the other. Calligraphy isn’t a life or death situation, but at times there’s a lot more at stake than say, penning a letter to a friend. In the following sections I’ll offer the things that have worked for me the best in my own studentship of yoga and calligraphy over the past 20 years and counting.
When I learn something new from a calligraphy teacher, I am reminded of how magical calligraphy can appear to be. As someone who practices and teaches calligraphy, I can get caught up in the aspects of difficulty and perserverance that accompany the writing. But there’s nothing like watching someone who has honed their skills at something deftly demonstrate for you.
To be in a classroom setting is similarly enjoyable to me — to be in a room with people who have differently nuanced knowledge around calligraphic hands, tools, and materials can offer lessons in and of itself. Of course, I know that this is not unique to calligraphy.
I often write for the web with an audience in mind. Maybe this one can be me writing for myself like I normally do, and you can be a witness, as you normally are.
Toward the end of 2019, I felt like I was crawling out from under a rock. A few months after my big dog passed, and just after my 35th birthday in October, I started giving the living and dining areas of my home a facelift. I may go into detail about that on a different blog, but a friend helped me remove the popcorn ceiling that was original to the house, built around the time I was born. I painted the ceiling and walls and replaced the trashed carpeting with interlocking vinyl planks. This was a satisfying project and this is now the part of the post that I address the title.
Rackel Gehlsen, a wedding planner in Tucson, contacted me about this exciting project — a seating chart on a huge mirror. She said it was so big, it could only be transported by truck to the venue. I collected a deposit from the bride, Samantha, and did a little research on the best way to execute this project. I learned that china markers, or wax pencils, mark on smooth and ceramic surfaces, but can be wiped away easily, which was the most important part of the planning of this piece.
There are some things I learned from experience and from preference, and there are some things that deterred me from even wanting to sit down to write. I wrote this to share what I wish I’d known to support your comfort and success in your calligraphy practice.
Renee is a an artist who is continually making an effort to avoid making a mess of her hands and studio. She loves to garden, cook, and of course learn everything she possibly can about calligraphy. She has attended countless workshops, both online and afar. Her first love was broad pen calligraphy, though she has developed skill in pointed pen calligraphy as well. She also loves to draw, paint and sit in the sunshine. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her wonderful teenage sons and too many plants, pets, and books.
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