John Stevens is a truly accomplished lettering artist, with many years of experience and a great deal of wisdom. A number of lettering artists dream of not only having John’s skills but also his confidence too. One moment John could be lettering a beautifully precise and elegant certificate using calligraphy, the next moment he could be creating a piece of brush lettering with loose flowing letters. John is a master of many lettering styles and there seems to be no end to where his talents lie.
John has written a book titled ‘Scribe’, has lettered a number of prestigious certificates and awards, some of which have been given to Presidents, and has many other achievements to his name. John actively teaches lettering through retreats, lectures and workshops. Quite recently John led a lecture for [email protected] about expression, form, rhythm and movement within lettering. It’s really worth watching if you haven’t already seen it.
John shares some very detailed and in depth thoughts on the significance of learning and understanding Roman letterforms. He also provides insight into mastering many styles of lettering and tips for lettering the whole alphabet through addressing composition, along with so much more in the following interview.
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The president of the United States approaches you and asks you to re-letter the Declaration of Independence, there was a tragic incident with a cup of coffee. How would you letter it, and why?
“Ok, a fun question…in the same vein as how would I like to live on Jupiter.
I will try to buy in: If such a thing happened, the best conservators in the world would be called in to repair the original. BUT, sticking to your premise, and assuming we are not talking about forging a duplicate… in any case, it would take months. Since I am reporting to the President, (and would show lots of ideas / options just to extend my visits, I would read a typeset version of the text and probably be stressed about whether I am to do a period piece or a modern interpretation.
Ultimately, I would emphasize what I think should be emphasized; a kind of editing by design, then there would be an interesting content / form balancing act to engage me. I would ask myself “why does this need to be hand-lettered” (which would figure into my design decisions) Hermann Zapf’s Preamble to the Charter of the United Nations would be a good role model.
Form / function would play a huge part (where other words, I could play with meaning a bit more).
The honest truth? I have no idea. Either way, I would take the job.”
Roman letterforms influence a portion of your work, do you think it’s important for anyone new to lettering to spend time studying Roman letterforms, or is it just a style that took your interest?
“The Roman letter has endured 2000+ years and counting.
My whole understanding of calligraphy and letter design stems from the simplicity within the complexity that the Roman letters present us with. So, my model of learning is that there should be a lot of theory / background knowledge to this, not merely aping the movements of an exemplar. Sensitivity to form, nuance, power, etc. Its not the final word on calligraphy, but it is a pathway to many of the important aspects / issues that have enlightened me.
Letterform and design theory interest me. I am aware that is not true for everybody. There are also technical issues that when confronted make you a stronger calligrapher. Styles become popular and then they get tired, but not Roman letters.
“When in doubt, use Roman Capitals”. – Edward Johnston
Let’s not overlook the fact that Roman Capitals are a structure that presents a lot of expression opportunities: kind of like the human figure. It is not one fixed style. I work them along a continuum between formal – informal with shades of grey in between.
My basis for lettering starts with: Capitals | > Minuscules | > Cursive… = meaning with these 3 basic structures, you can make anything (if you know what you are doing). Style emerges over time with working those themes and variations.
The other influences are 1. World calligraphy 2. Writing (from scratching marks into walls to handwriting) 3. Design.”
The amount of movement and rhythm reflected in your work is incredible, and you appear to create your work fearlessly. What would you suggest for those that struggle with fear when trying to add movement and rhythm to their own work, and have difficulties making loose strokes or bold moves with their pencil, pen or brush?
“In my Cooper lecture, I show 3 teaching devices I use for exactly that. For the past number of years I have been working with a triad (teaching model) I call “Form, Rhythm & Movement” and another model I call “The Script Model” (both in my book). Fear (as you mention) is relative. You have heard it said that stating the problem correctly gets you more than 50% of the way? Deciphering the code of what we are looking to achieve takes a while. i.e. What are the right notes that make one melody connect with people and other combinations that simply don’t?
On that note, it is not so much a technical issue as it is perspective and refining your focus. We each have strengths as well as under-developed parts of our work. Knowing how to organize and capitalize on each is the part a good teacher can help with. In general, I think people focus too much on A. technique and B. outer appearance “style” and C. What the hand is doing, what brush, what paper, etc.
We want to ultimately find / create letters that live! Hopefully expressing something deeper than “Hey, look at my awesome letters”…We want US to show up on the page. Figuring out what that means can be daunting to some. It’s like I am talking Architecture and maybe some only want to fix up the apartment.
The idea has 2 important parts: you learn to make swift and presumably energetic / expressive marks and with practice that comes. But the second part is doing it while in the process of lettering. It’s a very Yin / Yang kind of thing…especially those of us that do originals to be viewed as originals (not scanned or photographed, but the actual piece).
Think of being a musician; you have to learn the instrument, the eye hand coordination and you have to learn music theory. In other words, you play the instrument and you play music. One hopes they are the same thing. I call that integration. So, step one: Isolate. (in this case we are talking about movement) so we focus on that dimension and try to gain an understanding of it in the abstract, then: Step two: integrate it into our agreed upon signs / type-forms.
It was always referred to as “disciplined freedom” but I find that term too vague and overused. So, to get people to EXPERIENCE it, they have to confront the problem. By the way: no truth lives
outside of us, it only becomes true for us when we own it which to me means experience it within ourselves.”
Not only do you create unique pieces of work made up of words, phrases or quotes, it’s not uncommon for you to letter out whole alphabets. Is there a good place to start when lettering a whole alphabet, and are there any other considerations, as it can be different to lettering a quote or phrase?
“In either case, you are making a page; a composition. There are things I teach that make the layout part a bit easier. So, as with many things (a painting, a symphony, etc) one considers the pieces to the whole and vice versa.
With calligraphy, there is a performance element that drawing in vector does not have. Balancing between sound letter design, good movement and composition is practice. It is a lifetime of work if one is serious about it. Of course, that is not the way calligraphy has been “sold” in the West. In the West, it is a very accessible (10 easy steps kind of thing). Only a few move on to the next level (or even want to know that there is a next level). I can appreciate all levels of commitment, so I am not being an elitist. I am only sharing what I know.
Doing good work in any field is hard work…in a creative field, it is thought that just the privilege of creating is its own reward. I just don’t think a lot of people realize how much sweat goes into being a good calligrapher, especially as we all work hard to make it look effortless.”
You are a master of many different styles of lettering. What has been the biggest challenge of specialising in so many?
“The big challenge is that it is hard for people to understand how I could be fluent in many. We are in the age of specialization, right? We are also in the age of knock-offs and derivatives. So, most uninitiated think that is what someone like myself must be doing. The other challenge is people have become used to the “font menu” approach, so the thought of making letters from the ground up is unique or of another era.
Serious calligraphers are like concert pianists who are also composers. Fair to say the public (whom may also be clients) do not have a lot of contact or experience in this realm. Even made worse by the fact that handwriting is under siege. As I tried to explain in my Cooper lecture, my understanding of letterforms allows me to go in many directions.
This is a complex topic for me. Style has to do with the surface differences. Beginning calligraphers see the differences as a way of learning. But, over time you begin to understand that the relationships are far more important than the differences.”
Is it best to be comfortable at lots of different styles of lettering or develop your own style?
“This is a “that depends” question; Best for whom?
From a marketing selling perspective, it is easier to sell to someone who is identified with a style, especially a popular one. There is a young woman on Instagram who writes words and quotes in what I presume is her personal style; a pointed brush. All of the posts are in the same style. They are nice, and they are usually videoed. Well, her following has exploded. It was that way for a while for Chalk Board lettering stylists too.
The answer is I don’t know. I came at lettering and design from the problem solving side of things. When I am doing pure calligraphy, I don’t think “style”, I think tone, attitude, composition. As previously mentioned, I can vary anything so that it works with what I am trying to do. However,
Social media has really shown us (via instant feedback) what the general public responds to and I think that has become important.
Style also has a ‘fashion” connotation which sometimes bothers me in the same way a popular hit song can drown out other, perhaps finer musicians. Popular is not always good (as we all know). That’s the fashion side of it.
There is the other dimension of someone working over time and a “style” emerges, meaning their work is recognizable as their own. Tendencies and visual cues that are used that reflect the artists values, beliefs, training, integrity and maybe technique. Hermann Zapf, different from Edward Johnston, different from Hans Joachim Burgert, different from Thomas Ingmire different from Tony DiSpignia. Each of these examples are artists with very different sensibilities who happen to work with letterforms. So, the question itself is a bit misleading. I appear to work in many “styles” but that is not how I look at it. My whole book is about how I see the relationships.
All of the major “styles” of writing, i.e. Uncial, Blackletter, Carolingian, Italic…are part of a continuum of de evolution, starting from Capitals | Rustic | Uncial | Half-Uncial | Carolingian | Textura | Humanistic Book hands, Italic, etc and riding right along side of these major developments were cursive informal writing that was connected to the period.
The artist may develop a point of view that is fresh and unique, and over time doing many projects one can see the unique perspective as “style” as well. If you try to identify artists by “style”, you most likely will have put them in a box and most artists I know hate being put in a box.”
What advice or tips would you give those first starting out at lettering?
Be interested in learning what is good (which by the way, will probably change the better you get). Be curious, study, don’t just mindlessly copy. We see a lot of things online, but that is not study. History (both ancient and recent) has a lot to teach us. A lot of brilliant people existed before we showed up. Learn where letters came from, starting from the ground up. Take some workshops… preferably from someone that knows what they are doing, and see some original work in places like the Lubalin Center NYC and The Morgan. Also, the San Francisco Public Library / Harrison Collection and LetterForm Archive…on the West cost…to name just a few.
More from John Stevens
If you’d like to see more of John’s amazing and varied work or find out a bit more about him, you can visit his website johnstevensdesign.com, Facebook page, Instagram account, Twitter account or Behance portfolio.