Being an artist is really hard. Learning the craft, making it a job, being consistent. It’s a lot to take in, and takes time and some major dedication. Often, creatives will jump into calligraphy and lettering thinking that it’s easy to make it a full time job. Many assume that because he or she can draw pretty letters inspired by beautiful posts on Pinterest and social media, that they’ll make it big as a letterer.
Unfortunately (well, sorta fortunately?), those who think this way most often don’t make it – but more importantly – they usually aren’t true to themselves or what they can uniquely offer to the industry. Those who take the easy way will rarely have a body of work that is distinctive and therefore fade into the sea of Pinterest glitter or will be called out for ripping off the work of another.
So what’s the point of this Real Talk? Well, folks, my point is that it pays to be distinctively you. If you are aspiring to be a calligrapher or letterer, you need to dig down deep and accept that it’s going to be hard to stand out but you can do it. Here are 5 tips that I think will help you on your journey to becoming more distinctive with your body of work:
I think this is possibly the best tip you’ll get on this topic. If you are the artist that is patient and understands that good, distinctive work comes only from time and diligent practice, you’ll make it out on the other side if you simply put that time and practice in. Those who want to go the easy, quick way won’t make it.
Get really really good at your craft.
I lied, this is just as important as having patience. Before you have high expectations of distinctiveness, you absolutely, positively need to get good at your desired craft. You need to understand all the ins and outs of lettering and calligraphy. You need to know the correct way to hold your pen, to apply pressure, you need to know proper proportions and how to execute them every time without fail. Composition, techniques, color, check, check, check. You need to understand the history of the craft and how it relates to modernity. This step is going to take the longest and you’ll need to be patient with yourself.
Find artists that inspire you and then find out who inspired them.
This was a trick that my CCS professor Don Kilpatrick told me years ago, and I never forgot it. It’s one thing to find artwork that inspires you, but it’s even more valuable to know who they were inspired by and where their inspired stylization began and how they changed it to make it their own. Understand the history of stylization and technique and it will give you a greater impact on manipulating your own distinctiveness based on those techniques.
Copy only to learn.
Some say you should never copy another artist, but I disagree. Why? Because you can learn from copying. In art school, the professors almost always have you copy a master painting in your foundation classes so that you can learn color, composition, and technique from someone who really did it best. But there’s an important consideration here – copying should only be for learning. You would never post your recreation of Bouguereau’s The Nut Gatherers on your portfolio and say it was yours, right? One should never copy the work of another (whether directly or simply copying a stylization) and post the work on the internet or display it as a representation of their own doing. Remember my tip on being patient? Yup, it applies here. If you’re stoked on your ‘copied” work, keep it to yourself or let a friend, family member, or teacher in on your excitement. It is definitely a milestone to be able to learn from copying, but eventually you’ll be able to create something that isn’t copying – that’s what you can share and be really proud of.
Can you copy the work of the masters as a learning practice and feel confident in your abilities? Are you well read in the history of calligraphy and letter illustration and its modern context? Do you know you who you are truly inspired by and how they found their own personal voice? It’s time to start creating work that is distinctively you; work that is risky and different. Don’t be afraid to take what you’ve learned and change the technique to be different or weird. Your difference is what will make you stand out, and with your sound skills, you are destined to eventually make a mark that is breathtaking and distinctive. Without working hard through those first steps, you’ll never get to this point. The space where you can take well educated risks is a beautiful one.
I could continue on and on about ways to grow into yourself as an artist but I think that these simple tips sum it up pretty well. So what about you? Are you in the copying stages? Are you finding out who inspires you? Perhaps you have found some surprising connections between artists that you never knew of before (hey, did you know that my lettering stylization was highly influenced by Tim Burton when I was just starting out?). Maybe you are at the point where you’re starting to take risks. Share your story in the comments below!