An interview with Tara Spencer
Where are you located?
I am based in beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia. I love everything about the city – the overcast skies, the coffee culture, the mountains. We live two blocks from the sea and as a prairie girl, I’m constantly pinching myself.
How did you get started in lettering?
I wanted to address my own wedding invitations a couple years ago. My style has definitely changed since then, but I fell in love with the process. It’s such an unnecessary, time-consuming thing, and that appealed to me for some reason; it’s so different from most things we encounter day-to-day. I had a romanticized idea of what it might mean to be a calligrapher, but some of it did hold true. I love that a critical aspect of my work is going for long walks, dreaming up ideas. I love that I get to constantly evolve and recreate my aesthetic, and try to learn and improve.
What are some of your favorite supplies?
I am always discovering new materials, and I don’t have much loyalty to anything in particular. I’m obsessed with exotic papers; there’s incredible options from Japan, India, and Italy, of course. I also love discovering artists a bit closer to home who are making handmade surfaces – Stef Marieh from Share Studios makes some delicious deep blue sheets, and Signora e Mare’s delicate papers are a dream! Papeterie St-Armand makes really wonderful papers in Québec as well. When I’m working on something to be digitized, I usually use bristol.
Higgins Eternal is a good solid black ink that everyone recommends, but I’ve moved to using a lot more Sumi ink of late.. I love its rich quality, and it seems to sit a bit better on handmade papers, without being absorbed. I also love J. Herbin inks, especially their gold. I haven’t gotten into a lot of brush-lettering, but I use Grumbacher brushes for my watercolor work. There’s a revolving door situation with my nibs (I’m pretty rough with them), but currently I’m liking a Brause EF 66 nib. It’s very delicate and creates a beautiful fine line. Another two I keep coming back to are Hunt 56 School and Brause No. 65.
Can you name some of your inspirations?
My background is in contemporary art, and I did some studio painting and exhibiting for a short time. That’s still a part of who I want to be as an artist in the future, but I enjoy the tactile, artisanal nature of hand-lettering. It was a struggle to make that transition initially – to move from making ‘serious’ work, and needing a conceptual justification for what I was making, to doing something for the beauty and experience of it. Now I think the two complement each other.
I love reading as well, especially French thinkers like Sartre and Camus and more ancient art, like cave-paintings and Italian frescoes. I’m drawn to the flatness of medieval art, because it’s so different from how we portray the world. But as a calligrapher I’ve really come around to Cy Twombly; I never cared for the lettering in his paintings until I started with lettering myself, but now I go back to it for inspiration all the time. Julie Mehretu is another artist whose drawings have influenced me, and I’m also inspired by a lot of floral design and photography.
Photographs via Tara-Spencer.com.
Can you go a little into your process of how you work on a project?
My art background has probably influenced my process quite a bit; I think of calligraphy in terms of color and composition a lot more than in strokes and letters. I’ll usually start with an idea for the flow of the page; my preparation sketches look a lot more like scribbles and waves and lines – I’m trying to think more about where I want a cluster, or where the letters should be more spread out..
I like to start with a mood-board as part of an initial project proposal, because it guides the process from start to finish. Then I tend to spend a lot of time alone or in cafes, sketching a lot and experimenting with styles. Most of it ends up in the trash, but I’ll cut up little pieces that I love (ask my husband, they’re everywhere…), and then I’ll be ready to actually put pen to paper. Other times, I’ll just sit down, and it will be right the first time – it really depends on the project.
Any tips for newbies on how to develop their own style?
I think the right answer here is to learn the basics – master the skills, and then learn to break them, and I’m definitely believer in that. For me though, I stumbled into it, and I’m just adding those foundational skills now. In a lot of ways, I think that’s kept my lettering fresh.
The best advice is probably just to have fun with it, and experiment with things that aren’t letters. Don’t just write the same words over and over – take a poem you love and use the shapes of the words to create a picture.
An awful exercise from back in art school is contour drawings. It’s the most agonizing thing, but it helps you appreciate lines for their own sake, and to realize how interesting they can be when you’re not controlling them too much. You take an object – maybe a flower or a piece of fabric, – and then you draw as slowly as you possibly can, without ever looking down at the page. You focus only on the shapes and outlines of the object, and follow all its tiniest, most subtle changes without ever lifting your pen. When your eyes reach a darker area, you press down your nib, and lighten up for softer spots. You end up with a completely unrecognizable mess of wobbly lines.
Any recommendations of books or classes for lettering enthusiasts to further their studies?
There are associations in most cities that put on classes, and IAMPETH has some incredible online resources for learning Spencerian, Copperplate, and others. They have great information about supplies, and really helpful articles about traditional calligraphy techniques.
Do you have some favorite projects you would like me to mention?
I absolutely love working with brides; weddings are such beautiful, joyful times! At the moment, I’m enjoying all the brand work I’m doing from all over the world; from florists and photographers, to blogs and charcuterie, I love how much passion goes into creative businesses. It’s such an exciting process to take someone’s vision, and help shape and define it into something tangible.
Any advice on what ‘not’ to do?
Maybe just to not rush through projects – look at things that inspire you and get your juices flowing before you begin. And don’t compare yourself to others! It’s exhausting and completely crippling!
Name one random talent you have that people may not know?
I already mentioned my painting, but maybe the fact that I’m into philosophy – I took it in my undergrad and the interest has really stuck.