letters sculpted from the alphabet are my friends. but not the capitals. they look bossy. the small letters, though, they’re the cast of characters who sit beside each other, creating words, thoughts and books. i have always been in love with letters and not just the writing of letters or receiving of letters, which is always a delight, but the individual letters themselves.
in high school, i loved to string these lovely single characters together and doodle them on the covers of my notebooks. i would mesmerize my friends when i’d slip personalized hand-written notes into their textbooks, going from desk to desk in science class and art class and making special deliveries to lockers, detailing the fun and feelings i shared with my friends while trying to figure out those teenage years one semester at a time.
my letter stringing skills started to develop, and my love of crafting short phrases grew to encompass lengthy pages. but still, i’m drawn to letters themselves, their shapes, their sizes, and their individual personalities as they jump off billboards, transport trucks, marquees, and posters.
my earliest recollection of loving letter forms came from my beloved tiger beat magazine. i would carefully inspect the glossy magazine covers with their enticing messages plastered across the pictures that donned the handsome grins of donny osmond, my personal favorite, david cassidy, my second personal favorite, and the loveable robbie benson, always good to stare deep into his eyes. their celebrity faces staring back at me with longing enhanced my secret crush with dreams dancing in my head of my idols picking me to be their girl. one can only hope.
when the time for university and college planning came knocking, my interests sat clearly in the arts field. i applied to the design arts program in toronto where i was accepted and exposed to interior, architectural, manufacturing and graphic design. my preference going into this program was interior design but what i discovered along my educational path was that graphic design came easy for me and i excelled at it.
my professor announced to our class that there was an opportunity to try out for a job that would provide experience and exposure in the design field. he carefully explained that three students would be chosen from the course for the interview, but only one student would be selected for the position. the position, which was only temporary, was to assist the in-house graphic artist doing paste-up for a local magazine. to my surprise, i was one of the three chosen.
in today’s terms we might call it a co-op position; in my day we just called it applying for a job, and to my surprise and shock i beat out my two amazing design friends and was actually hired.
sounds very romantic and professional – not so much. i was hired at an electronics magazine, not vogue, not cosmopolitan, but for a magazine i had never heard of and never bought. this magazine didn’t sit next to the tiger beat or the fashion magazines in store fronts. no, this little magazine was situated in the “do-it yourself, techy, science section,” or as i like to term it, “nerd alert section” of the stores.
sorry, smart pursuers of knowledge. at age 20, i wasn’t doing any “do-it-yourself” projects yet, let alone figuring out how to build a circuit board!
but i was a paste-up artist, an intern putting the magazine together with supervision, issue by issue placing text, pictures and advertisements in their rightful place. selecting fonts sizes and styles was like strawberry picking, selecting only the juicy ones, in hopes i would craft a sweet issue each month.
from my early days of paste-up, my love of letters sent me on a quest to learn calligraphy – the beautiful art form of cursive handwriting using a pen or a brush. over the years, though, every time i searched for a course in calligraphy, nothing was available until this past november when my search was rewarded and i found the perfect place to explore this art form.
over the phone, the course leader steered me into enrolling in “brush marker lettering,” an easier form of calligraphy used with markers instead of ink, pen holders and nibs to fuss with. the master instructor explained that this technique of cursive writing was easier to grasp before venturing into the land of calligraphy and ink.
at my first class, just the studio name, “quills,” told me i was where i was meant to be to further my love affair with letters. this wee studio was situated off the beaten path in downtown hamilton above a little café. what could be more charming, coffee and letters! as i walked up the simple staircase, three well placed windows lit the one room studio and flooded my senses. as i came to a rest at the top of the stairs, i was stilled by the rows of stationery, inks, pens, markers, bookmarks and stamps.
along with a grumpy old turn of the century printing press sitting quietly by itself off to the side.
as i gazed around the studio, breathing in the beauty of this spot, i spied a framed quote fashioned in brush lettering sitting next to a floor-to-ceiling wall of vintage typewriters exclaiming: “either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” then i spotted another framed quote: “coulda been the willie nelson, coulda been the wine” ~ tragically hip
oh man, i love this place!
in front of the vintage typewriters lay an expansive table set with individual place mats made from 8” x 14” white paper. the names of each student sat happily etched at the top of each page with clever curvy loops of brush marker lettering marking our place. each name was as unique as the individual letters.
on top of the place mats sat a clipboard with instruction sheets, a full set of brush markers, a blank practice booklet, a pencil, a candy cane, a small bottle of perrier with a straw, and at each end of the course table waiting to be enjoyed were fresh, warm right-from-the-oven apple fritters. life at that moment couldn’t get any better!
our trusty instructor, jenn, placed herself at the head of the table, standing next to an easel with chart paper firmly attached with brush marker in hand and clever wit ready to begin our first drawn letter. that letter was the letter “i”, the easiest letter to master. from there all the other letters filed out from the alphabet in random order from easiest to hardest onto our practice sheets.
watching our master instructor demonstrate each letter was awe inspiring. her letter composing skills was like a conductor directing her symphony. the “ooo’s” and “ahh’s” of each brush stroke was riveting to watch. she brought life and personality to each letter while making it look so easy.
but it was just the opposite for the novice, a real learning curve. holding the marker at just the right angle while learning to adjust the pressure with each turn from the down stroke to up stroke was a lesson in patience and patience. and did I say patience? and of course, practice. during our practicing, our master instructor would reveal tidbits for technique as well as other nifty information such as, “it is advised that caffeine not be consumed before attempting brush lettering, as shaky hands makes for uncontrolled uneven strokes.”
really! that should have been in the disclaimer section before i consumed my morning cup of joe!
with a practiced alphabet under our belts, our last lesson came down to creating a framed piece to take home. this piece would be a favorite quote or whatever we liked. at that moment panic and fear entered the room. what, no practice sheets? you’ve got to be kidding me!
with gentle encouragement our master instructor reassured us we could pull this off.
one by one, quotes started to appear magically on the thick white paper: “you go girl” and “i love you to the moon and back” and “our nest.” it didn’t matter what the quote said as long as the letters got to hang out with their friends.
to this day, i write personal letters and practice brush marker lettering whenever the desire strikes. you should see my grocery lists.
Liz White is a lover of words who was looking for a writers group to inspire her to write on a regular basis. “Writing Personal Stories” with Brian came to her hometown of Burlington that fit that niche. She plans to work her way through Brian’s courses to better her writing skills. She aspires to craft her own story and be published one day.
The next Writing Personal Stories course is on Friday afternoons, starting April 13 in Toronto (see here). See details of all seven weekly classes, from Introductory to Intensive, starting this spring here.
See Brian’s complete current schedule here, including writing workshops, weekly writing classes, and weekend retreats in Algonquin Park, Bolton, Barrie, Brampton, Burlington, Caledon, Collingwood, Cambridge, Georgetown, Guelph, Hamilton, Kingston, Kitchener-Waterloo, London, Midland, Mississauga, Oakville, Ottawa, Peterborough, St. Catharines, Saint John, NB, Sudbury, Toronto, Windsor, Woodstock, Halton, Muskoka, Peel, Simcoe, York Region, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.