How I got into Calligraphy

A lot of people have asked me recently how I got into calligraphy. It is a bittersweet story. It is certainly not all rainbows and unicorns. I tell the story simply because it might actually be of benefit to someone out there to hear it.

I have loved letters for a long time. I was designing experimental digital typefaces in art college in the mid ’90s and went on to work as a corporate type designer for nine years, designing custom typefaces for big companies, often banks and airlines. I had always appreciated traditional calligraphy but the received wisdom was you had to do it for ten years to become really good at it. I was very driven to achieve things in digital type design and digital lettering, so I didn’t feel that committing to huge new learning curves and traditional tools would be a good idea. I felt it would be detrimental to my personal progress and career.

In early 2011 it felt like my career was about to really take off. I was working on a front cover for Creative Review, which any graphic designer reading will know is a pretty big deal. I was also working on a very big project for Nike and lined up to be speaking in Australia at a Semi-Permanent Design Conference later that year.

Then, out of the blue, my partner Pamela was suddenly diagnosed with advanced bowel cancer. This was a big shock to both of us and it turned our world upside down overnight. Pamela went from having what we thought was bad IBS to suddenly being lined up for a major emergency operation in three days. I had to walk away from all of those projects and ended up being a full time carer for 18 months. There was nothing heroic about it, my partner has no family for support and clearly needed my fullest care and attention. She went on to have four major operations and spend over three months in hospital, including a couple of weeks in intensive care. Without going into detail there were lots of serious complications and difficulties along the way. It was by any standards an incredibly tough experience for both of us.

There was no way I could do client work during this period. I could hardly switch on my computer, but what I could do was find time to doodle in sketchbooks sporadically. As Pamela’s condition slowly stabilised I was able to spend longer periods of time writing and trying out different pens and ideas. Calligraphy was the only creative outlet I had at this point. Playing with words and letters became a very absorbing escapism, respite from what was a very dark period in our lives. I had occasionally dabbled with calligraphy pens before, but I don’t think I would ever have found the time to learn calligraphy any other way.

Today Pamela is in remission and healthy, fingers crossed. My career is back on track. Life is pretty good at the moment. For now the sun shines again. I learned that you can get through really tough times if you hang in there. To quote Winston Churchill “If you’re going through Hell, keep going”. I learned doctors are fallible and make very bad mistakes, so be a nuisance if you have concerns about a diagnosis. It reminded me that life is short at the best of times. A fragile, fleeting experience that no one should take for granted. I try to make more time for projects that really matter to me now. I work very hard, but I also have a greater appreciation of the good people and good things around me.

The experience brought Pamela and I closer together. I also came out of it being able to write some pretty fancy letters with a pen. Against the odds the experience actually ended up making me a better designer and artist, perhaps even a better person. Whatever the future holds that will always be a beautiful thing.