The Art of Calligraphy and How it Compares to Lettering with David Grimes

The Art of Calligraphy and How it Compares to Lettering with David Grimes
June 15, 2016 Daniel Palacios
david grimes address

Calligraphy is usually the first step in my lettering process. I use brush pens to sketch out my composition and tracing paper to further develop my ideas. This combination of writing and drawing is how most of my lettering projects are completed.

I invited my friend to briefly discuss the ancient art of calligraphy and how it compares to lettering in this interview to help you understand them better.

(Other than the questions, everything is written by David.)

Introduce yourself. What’s your name? What’s your specialty and how long have you been doing it?

I’m David Grimes, a calligrapher and designer living in Portland, Oregon by way of Tucson. While I’m studying to be well-versed in the spectrum of calligraphic arts, my specialty lies in an early 20th century pointed pen style known as ‘Engrosser’s Script’.

I’ve studied in a semi-formal setting with my mentor and now teaching partner for around a year and a half, but I’ve been practicing calligraphy in general since mid 2013. I’m also an active member of several professional organizations dedicated to preserving and sharing the rich history of penmanship, lettering, and calligraphy in the United States.

What got you interested in calligraphy?

As a student, I spent a lot of time being told that I needed to care more about typography. After being marginally aware of the work of some of that field’s legendary designers like Doyald Young, Rudolf Koch, and Hermann Zapf, I had some idea of how calligraphy was used to inform typographic work, and how learning more about it would help on a fundamental level with things like typesetting, brand, and information design. I wasn’t able to jump the gap and actually bring myself to take it up until I came across a video of English lettering artist Sebastian Lester using a parallel pen to write out a blackletter alphabet on Vimeo in early 2013. I remember distinctly stumbling across that video on Reddit and thinking: “I’m gonna learn to do this.”

While the style that I’m most proficient in today is almost nothing like the above clip, it was enough to introduce me to the cathartic experience of putting pen to paper. I haven’t looked back since.

Once you start to appreciate how much effort went into developing the visual language that we consume so rapidly today, you have a deeper understanding of how to better create it for yourself or your clients, and that really helps everyone, doesn’t it?

What are some of the causes for the study of calligraphy?

I think that anyone who wants to call themselves a ‘lettering artist’ would benefit from taking a step back and looking at the history of where certain styles come from. Humans have been using different tools to make marks for communication purposes for millennia. Whatever style you, I, or anyone else is doing likely has it’s roots somewhere along that timeline. By understanding where style comes from, we have a fundamental perspective on the context with which certain things may be received.

When you take the time to study the development and history of a script, you’ll begin to see that there are really dozens of distinct styles within any larger ‘family’ of script. Certain artists did it this or that way…some used a ligature in this scenario…some only ever executed layouts like this. It gives you insight into not only the people who were writing the letters, but the society and culture that they were writing them for.

Almost every step of the evolution of calligraphy has been purposeful, for one reason or another—to save paper, to save ink, to save time, for readability, for ease of education…the list goes on. Once you start to appreciate how much effort went into developing the visual language that we consume so rapidly today, you have a deeper understanding of how to better create it for yourself or your clients, and that really helps everyone, doesn’t it?

david grimes bookprep

What makes calligraphy different compared to lettering?

I would say that calligraphy is a more in-depth approach to the same end. As a calligrapher, I regularly need to vectorize my work, and I’m pretty proficient with keeping all those bézier handles nice and flat in Illustrator. I think there’s this misconception that calligraphers are all old, stuffy people locked away in a dimly lit monastery transcribing some religious text or another, but that’s just not the case.

The biggest difference that calligraphy has made to my ‘lettering’ work is that I’ve added a step to my process before my final drawings that asks: “Okay, that looks great, could this be made with a tool?” Asking that simple question allows you to check your design for a basis in reality, and though that may be subtle—even invisible—to most people, it has value, and adds a groundedness that really brings a design together, in my opinion.

If you can establish really clear goals, it becomes really easy to track down where to start.

david grimes whichscript M

What do you recommend to people who are interested in learning this skill?

If you’re serious about learning calligraphy, there are a few things that you need to stop and ask yourself first:

  1. What are you hoping to achieve?
  2. Which script do you want to learn first?
  3. When do you have the time to dedicate to study?

If you can establish really clear goals, it becomes really easy to track down where to start. There are a number of really great resources online to help point you in the right direction, and once you get started, you should seriously consider either enrolling in a class with your local guild or college, or finding someone will take you on as a student or apprentice. Lots of times, more experienced calligraphers will be happy to get on the phone with you and give you advice and that’s really the best way to go.

My biggest advice to anyone interested in starting would be push yourself to get out there and meet people. That’s probably something some of you have experienced with creative work in general, it never really works when it’s done in a bubble.

david grimes ovid

Where can people find you?

You guys can check out my stuff on my website at www.masgrimes.com, on Instagram & Twitter as @masgrimes, or by emailing me at david@masgrimes.com if you’re in Portland and would like to get together for Mexican food and talk about letters.