Letter lovin’

It turns out I am not very good at holidays. Rather, I am very good at them, and do all the things that I want to do—but I don’t rest and recuperate, or stop working! I’ve temporarily shifted my action-packed life to Sydney, where I have taken up several other classes instead of the ones I regularly take in Brisbane, and where I am still painting, inventing a knitted item, attending life drawing and going out with excellent people.

Saturday I attended a light-hearted and thoroughly enjoyable workshop called Type by Hand, run by Wayne Thompson of the Australian Type Foundry, and his accomplished accomplice Gemma O’Brien. Gemma gave an excellent talk at last year’s Semi-Permanent, and I’ve been a fan of her elaborate scripts and general enthusiasm for letters ever since—it was a real treat to meet her and watch her in action.

The workshop walked a nice line between theory and practice, and the emphasis was firmly on practice. Our tables were lined in paper, stacked with paper, and extra wide-nibbed Copic markers were placed in our hungry vicinities to complement our Artlines and other pens and pencils. So much paper! So many pens!

Wayne led with some ‘letter life drawing,’ where we warmed up by copying some old favourites. He then asked us to draw specific letters and, after giving it a shot, gave us simple explanations of very specific type ‘rules’—or perhaps more accurately ‘precedents.’ These established letter constructions are reliable ways to ensure legibility and to compensate for optical illusions. Most notably, the X is not a simple overlay of two lines—if one line is thicker, it must be broken, meeting the other bar at different points, or it will appear refracted. After drawing a sans serif P and R, we looked at ‘real’ Ps and Rs and saw with our own eyes that typographers have historically shifted the middle bar of the P slightly lower, to account for that unwieldy empty space.

Yuck! Terrible phone photos! My apologies.


The rest of the day was really about experiment—trying new media, copying fancy text, getting a feel for where letterforms came from by giving calligraphic lettering a go. A little prompting to try adding embellishments, or ligatures, or to think about how words might intersect, and we were transforming our simple lettering into Things of Beauty.

I didn’t feel stretched or overwhelmed at any point, but I felt like I’d received a shiny new box of tools—a bunch of exercises to loosen up and imagine lettering in new ways. I grasped the letters, shaped their forms with my hands, carved them from the inside out and watched them emerge from negative space. I’m discovering that I think spatially far more intuitively, and that my drawing—of letters or otherwise—need not be constrained to lines.


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