Erica McPhee • Paperwhite Studio
I found Erica Mcphee and her Paperwhite Studio what seems like years ago now, she really was one of the only ones at the time discussing modern calligraphy and sharing information when it was near impossible to get any information on the subject. Erica since then has become a force to be reckoned with within the lettering community with her Flourish Forum and Dasherie Magazine. I knew this interview was going to be a good one and if you are a lettering enthusiast this should be bookmarked stat for reference! I hope you thoroughly enjoy!
Where are you located?
I am located in southwest Florida between Sarasota and Sanibel Island.
How did you get started in lettering?
I started learning calligraphy in grade school after my mother gave me a calligraphy kit for Christmas. I instantly fell in love with it and by 6th grade had commissions for things like Daisy Girl programs, framed poems, etc. I was always the little entrepreneur! I practiced broad pen such as Italic, Blackletter, and Uncial through high school and college just for my own enjoyment. The only other person I encountered that did calligraphy was a high school graphic design teacher. It wasn’t until many years later I saw Spencerian calligraphy in a magazine and knew I had to learn how to do it for my own wedding invitations. In my mid-twenties, I found a local guild and finally met other people who loved calligraphy and lettering as much as I do and I began studying at workshops.
What are some of your favorite supplies?
I love walnut ink. I use it almost exclusively when doing work for reproduction (lettering that will be scanned into Photoshop). I love the variations in tone it provides and the delicate hairlines. I’m also a big fan of Dr. Ph Martin’s Bleed Proof White. Brushes are hit or miss for me so I don’t have a favorite. I also love cola pens. I used to be a huge fan of the Hiro 41 nib because I liked the rounded square-ish tops the tines naturally made. However, that nib has been so finicky for the past two years I no longer recommend it. The Nikko G is my go to nib – it is always reliable, wears in nicely, and hardly ever skips or splats. Nibs have come a long way in the past 20 years and even though I enjoy using vintage nibs and love the variety of lines you can achieve with different ones, I find the new nibs reduce the frustration factor significantly. My absolute favorite practice paper is HP Premium Choice Laser. I buy it by the case and can easily go through a half ream or more when working on a single project!
Can you name some of your inspirations?
People may find this surprising, but I often listen to rap music like Macklemore and Eminem while I work. There is something so moving about not just the rhythm but the stories. It touches a nerve and you can feel the energy to your core. There is a piece of me that identifies with the tragedies being told and it releases inhibitions that might otherwise prevent me from letting go. That is powerful when you are expressing yourself visually. My husband used to laugh at me because I would be listening to Eminem and calligraphing these beautiful, delicate flourished pieces. But it’s really all about passion and perseverance and when your heart is in it, one way or the other, you can see it.
Contrarily, I also like to listen to classical music like Vivaldi or Palchelbel and musicians like Enya and Ray Lynch (Deep Breakfast is one of my all time faves).
I have recently been inspired by Japanese culture and art. Not so much the specific results, but the process and the approach. When I see a piece of calligraphy on Instagram or Pinterest that resonates with me, it’s often a Japanese artist. There is something about the clean design and meticulous execution that appeals to me. Perhaps because I am the opposite in real life (I am on the brink of being a hoarder of beautiful things) and I teeter back and forth between being organized and messy. I’m currently reading, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo. My studio is still a mess but I’m not done reading yet so … one can hope.
Can you go a little into your process of how you work on a project?
Sometimes I think of how I want something to look right away and I just plow in and start working. But the majority of the time, I think through the process in great detail before I begin. I will look at Pinterest or go through my “Inspiration” drawer and start getting ideas for what I want to do. Once I decide on what I want it to look like in terms of feel, color, and overall impact, I sketch out little ideas. I should keep them in one book but they are on everything from the back of envelopes and the kids’ school papers to various notebooks.
I’m a very detail oriented person so if I am doing a personal project, I usually try to incorporate lots of little details that make the final project extra special. I love nooks and crannies and secret treasures so I try to build that feeling into what I am working on. I’ve been known to create really intricate pieces like the Valentine I created last year that was printed onto fabric, stitched into a heart, with a ribbon in the back which held a tiny die cut card with a jewel embellishment. The heart was trimmed with pinking sheers and then had a cut out paper swirl dangling from a gold thread and the whole thing was hung by a silver grommet and twine. They were sent in envelopes that had the address inside a flourished frame and used a capital alphabet I had designed solely for that Valentine. It was about a 15 step process for each one and took me almost two weeks full time to finish. But that is what I love. The process is the best part! And when you can hold it in your hands when it’s done — where before there was nothing, there is now something beautiful that you created from pure love.
Any tips for newbies on how to develop their own style?
Some people have a natural talent for developing their own style — no matter the medium. Others (like me) have to work at it — sometimes (often) for a very long time. I don’t believe you have to learn a traditional style like copperplate or spencerian before trying to develop your own, but I do think in the majority of cases, it would lead to better letterforms overall. You learn how to use the pen, how the thicks and thins work, about spacing and form and how to manipulate the letters.
I don’t think it is always, “you have to learn the rules before you can break them” because there are no real rules to a modern personal style. So you aren’t breaking any rules – you’re inventing them. But I can say the more I practice traditional styles, the better my own personal style becomes.
The most obvious tip of all: practice as much as you possibly can, whenever you can. The most unexpected tip: practice drawing. Drawing not only teaches you how to see what is really there, but the more I draw, the more confident my lines become.
Lastly, try not to get discouraged. There are only a handful of people who can pick up a pen and a few months later they have a personal style. It’s about the process, enjoy it!
Any recommendations of books or classes for lettering enthusiasts to further their studies?
If you can take a class in person, I highly recommend it. However, find out ahead of time the instructor’s experience level and what exactly will be taught in the workshop. There have been lots of frustrated modern calligraphy learners going to workshops only to find out they were already ahead of the instructor.
For more serious students, search for a local guild in your area. The experience is invaluable and many guilds host excellent instructors from all over the world. Plus, who doesn’t like to get together with other people who talk calligraphy?!
I am a bibliophile and have an extensive library of calligraphy and lettering books (remember that hoarding of beautiful things?) so it’s hard to name just a few. But I recommend the following:
- Mastering Copperplate Calligraphy by Eleanor Winters
- Learning to Write Spencerian Script by Michael R. Sull & Debra E. Rapp
- The Calligrapher’s Bible by David Harris
- Creative Lettering by Jenny Doh
- Brush Lettering by Marilyn Reaves & Eliza Schulte
- Calligraphy: A Complete Guide by Julien Chazal
- The Uncommon Numbers Trilogy edited by Brenda Casey
Lastly, be sure to check out The Flourish Forum for free tutorials, answers to questions, and over 3,500 of the friendliest people on the internet who just happen to love all things calligraphy, too!
I would love a little background detail on how the magazine "Dasherie" came to fruition.
I’ve had my calligraphy business, Paperwhite Studio, for over 14 years and have focused on many different things such as wedding invitations, monograms, logos, greeting cards, and even tattoo designs. I love it but as a mother to three children, life has taken me in so many different directions, and it has become harder and harder to work under client deadlines. I felt like I needed a break and at the same time, I felt so focused on the calligraphic arts as a whole and what was happening with the boom of modern calligraphy.
Like books, I have always loved magazines. I had the idea to create a magazine in the back of my mind for about 18 years (and I still have all the outdated books I bought on the subject). My background is in Communication and I originally intended to be a journalist until I became disenchanted with the reality of today’s media.
My first ideas (way back) were for a little quirky newsletter for photographers and lettering artists but then the internet took off and people seemed to move away from physical periodicals and blogs came into being. Once Pinterest and Instagram came to be, I realized how many people really love calligraphy and lettering, too. I thought there must be a way to bring all of that inspiration into a more permanent, physical form.
Perhaps one of this generation’s biggest tragedies will be the loss of our visual mementos because of the evolving and impermanent nature of digital mediums. Artists are tactile beings and I love nothing more than to hold something in my hands and look at what inspires me over and over. It’s an altogether different experience than staring at a computer screen or cell phone.
Additionally, with the emergence of modern calligraphy and a booming trend of all things hand lettered, I thought there must be a way to organize and share what we do with those who want it.
I’d spent so many years thinking about it but it was finally time for me to make it happen. As a writer, photographer, calligrapher, and designer, it is the ultimate final expression of all I have learned and gathered over the years. At the same time, it pushes me to do new things, challenge myself, and continue to be inspired and learn from so many others on a whole new level.
Any advice on what ‘not’ to do?
Don’t compare yourself to others, instead allow yourself to be inspired. If you really want to learn, don’t just try a few times and give up thinking you can’t do it. Try a different nib or different paper. Take another class with a different teacher. Don’t expect to learn in a short time.
Unless you are doing gestural lettering, make sure your letters are legible. Unreadable modern calligraphy makes me shudder. And no matter what anyone else says, don’t put those nibs in your mouth — random metal is just plain bad for you.
Name one random talent you have that people may not know?
I bake amazing organic, gourmet cupcakes and whoopie pies that always make people ask for another one.
Erica's Shopping List
Mastering Copperplate Calligraphy by Eleanor Winters
Learning to Write Spencerian Script by Michael R. Sull & Debra E. Rapp
The Calligrapher’s Bible by David Harris
Creative Lettering by Jenny Doh
Brush Lettering by Marilyn Reaves & Eliza Schulte
Calligraphy: A Complete Guide by Julien Chazal
The Uncommon Numbers Trilogy edited by Brenda Casey