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Designer Spotlight

Marina Chaccur on calligraphy, lettering and type

April 04, 2017 by
David Sudweeks
David Sudweeks

David Sudweeks interviews Marina Chaccur on the impossible task of separating lettering from its related disciplines, and how her work has changed since the lettering boom.

Thanks, Marina, for making this interview possible. You’re not only an accomplished letterer and practicing type designer, you’re also quite a talented calligrapher.

Marina: Oh, thank you very much.

Have you arrived at a good definition for calligraphy and how it differs from lettering?

Marina: There are quite a few. There’s one by Gerrit Noodzij that…

[Marina pulls a copy of The Stroke off her bookshelf, immediately turns to page nine, and reads: “Calligraphy is handwriting pursued for its own sake, dedicated to the quality of the shapes. Handwriting is a single-stroke writing. Lettering is writing with built-up shapes.”]

Marina: That’s it. It’s very concise, and at the beginning of every lettering workshop I give, I put a line across the board that says “handwriting—calligraphy—lettering—type.” So I would say, it grows in complexity and also in how much you manipulate the forms. Starting with handwriting, which is just basic handwriting and that’s it. When you develop different handwriting styles, it’s already a bridge for personal calligraphy, since you’re thinking about the way you write and are pursuing it for the beauty of it.

Then professional calligraphy is art on its own. The end result is produced directly from the (calligraphic) tools. Here I usually skip lettering and go to type design to talk about how whatever design you choose for your a is going to be all the same unless you have alternate characters, stylistic sets, etc. These are the prefabricated shapes that are going to build your text.

And then I go back to lettering, which can use any of the others (handwriting, calligraphy, type) as a starting point. You can do a logo based on someone’s signature (which is handwriting); or it can be based on something you’re doing with calligraphic tools; or you use a typeface for the sketch and you start manipulating it. You need the knowledge for that.

So lettering is this great area where you can use many, many different tools and means to get to your end result. This is a super-short version of something I tend to talk about in a very extensive way.

One thing I’ve noticed in the past maybe five years is that lettering has gone from a pretty rare skill held by relatively few to something that anyone with a pencil or a brush can do. How has that changed your work?

Marina: One of the biggest phenomena I see is this “modern calligraphy” thing, writing with a brush pen, alternating baselines, which everyone wants to learn. No problem with that, but from a teaching perspective I prefer to teach lettering in a broad sense, helping students develop skills that give them the ability to work in many different styles, and develop their own skills and aesthetics. It is great to see a wide variety of results from a workshop. Each one with a unique voice. I see many courses teaching a specific kind of alphabet, and a specific kind of skill. Personally, I’m not interested in teaching someone something that specific. I have taken several courses, with many different teachers, and I highly recommend that, because I find it interesting and inspiring how the combination of all this knowledge and techniques crosses over, mixes, and matches. And that happens in my classrooms, in a way. Students get inspired by each other and how they solve their lettering puzzles.

I regularly have people ask me, “Oh, what about personal style? I need to have my own style. I need to find my own voice.” And it’s like, okay, you just started doing lettering and you already want to have a unique style? Is it something that you really need, or not? It was very useful to me to not be married to a specific style and instead be versatile, and be able to do different things, in different ways. If a client changes the direction of a project, you are still able to do it. Every project is a new challenge, and that’s a very fun thing.

In my own lettering practice, I try to focus on concepts that are more unusual. Doing things like a reverse-contrast script, but not in the way you would expect, like top- and bottom-heavy. If you think about reverse contrast, we mostly see the weight in the horizontals and keep the verticals thin. When you think about pointed pen calligraphy, which can be related to brush pen lettering or calligraphy, you basically have thin upstrokes and thick downstrokes, because that’s how you do it with a pointed pen, applying pressure on the downstrokes. But with a brush pen, for instance, the tool allows you to have thick upstrokes and thin downstrokes. I haven’t seen anyone else doing it like this yet. And for me it becomes an interesting aesthetic because you have very unusual distributions of weight.

I noticed the piece of yours that did it in the Alphabettes header.

Marina: Exactly. I had also sketched something else because there had been already some script headers, but in this case I thought I could introduce different elements. There were none that varied the axis and that also had a reversed contrast. So, why not?

Nowadays, with the tools we have (and can create) for type design, and new font formats—there are many things that are possible in terms of emulating handwriting in a very efficient way. And there are so many handwriting fonts we’ve seen in the past years that are great, that people can easily use those instead of hand-lettered and handwritten work. So then, how can we use lettering and calligraphy in a unique way? I would say we can explore things that are more difficult or tricky to do with a font, like changing the axis of the letters within a single word, or having vertical ligatures across lines of text.

Is there a lettering community, separate from the type and lettering world I’m familiar with?

Marina: Lettering is kind of a blur within other disciplines. As far as I am aware, usually you have the calligraphic community, and the type community, both with their specific events and only a few people who frequent both worlds. It is common to see lettering activities within the type and calligraphic gatherings, but not so easy to find an event purely dedicated to lettering, unless we talk about the sign-painting community. But apart from that, I would like to see something else shape up. A while ago I even considered starting a lettering conference.

Really?

Marina: Yep. But then it was like, “Okay, where are the boundaries? Would we have a calligraphy workshop? A sign painting one?” And so on…

Huh. So it’s actually really hard to draw the line.

Marina: It’s hard to draw a line around lettering itself. Like when you see a piece of lettering, unless you know who did it and how it was done, depending on the piece, you can’t definitively identify it as lettering.

You’re right, sometimes it’s nearly impossible to tell.

What kind of work do you see others doing that you admire?

Marina: I like work that pushes boundaries, people who get inspiration from unusual sources, and things that mess with expectations.

There are people doing type who keep only looking at type specimens. And even though that is a relevant source of reference for context, go look out the window. Go for a walk. Pay attention to other daily things. Being inspired by varied sources, I think, is crucial for being creative. When that happens, a breath of fresh air comes across the projects.

Thanks so much for your time, Marina. My best to you.

Marina: Thank you, David, it was a pleasure. Best of luck to you and your type endeavors, too.

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Find out more about Marina Chaccur, her workshops, and hire her by visiting her website.

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