Interview: Lauren Essl
Rose and fuchsia and coral, oh my! Lauren Essl is a master of bold, neon color, particularly in the range from peach to pink. Color is imbued at the very heart of Lauren's aesthetic — even her calligraphy and design studio, Blue Eye Brown Eye, is named for her dog Olive's blue and brown eyes. Couple this penchant for neon with Lauren's whimsical style of pointed pen calligraphy and brush lettering, and the result is a strikingly modern and distinctive style.
Lauren has a special passion for weddings. She brings her colorful, modern twist to couples' events from start to finish: from save the date to thank you notes. Her work has been featured in Style Me Pretty, designlovefest, Ruffled, Grey Likes Weddings, Green Wedding Shoes, 100 Layer Cake, Oh So Beautiful Paper, and Wedding Chicks. She has also designed stationery which was sold at Anthropologie stores throughout the U.S.
Lauren lives in Fort Worth, Texas with her husband and three rescue dogs. I interviewed Lauren via email to get at the heart of her passion for pink and her tips for freelance success.
What is your creative and artistic background?
I came into calligraphy and design in a sort of backwards way. While I was raised on art (my mother has an art degree and taught art for years and encouraged me to explore my creativity), I did not go to art school. Instead, I went to Texas A&M (which I loved), and got a very fluffy liberal arts degree. But mainly, had fun. Out of college, I worked at an ad agency on the account service side, where I got a big taste for creativity in the professional world, and also learned a heck of a lot about client servicing, estimating, invoicing, handling crises, pitching new business, etc. It was an amazing opportunity to learn. But alas, I knew I did not want to be there forever.
In walks my mid-20’s crisis. I quit my job with no plan, took two months off to figure out my next steps, and decided I wanted to start a wedding invitation business. I knew not a thing about graphic design. So I started over. I took graphic design courses at a local community college, took a soul searching journey to Portland (Oregon, USA) and San Francisco (California, USA) for 10 days learning letterpress from a variety of professionals, all the while working as a personal assistant to pay bills. This was a humbling time in my life, let me tell you. But I cobbled together the pieces, got myself a computer and the Adobe Creative Suite, and worked and worked and worked. While I often wish I had gone to art school and set out on a more direct path, I also love that I came into all of this in a very indirect way because I meet so many people wanting to do the same thing but feel stifled because they do not have the knowledge. That should not stop anyone, because there is always time to start over.
What sparked your interest in calligraphy, and what path have you taken to master the art form since that time (formal training, independent study, a combination of the two)?
When I was engaged, my mom suggested we take a calligraphy class in the hopes that I might be able to address my own save the date and invitation envelopes. I hadn’t ever given calligraphy a single thought, but it sounded like fun, so I was game. We signed up for a pointed pen script class with a seasoned veteran in Dallas, and I left thinking it was very cool. I had a lot of time on my hands at the time, so I practiced voraciously, and continued to sign up for lessons with this calligrapher. I learned all sorts of hands: Old English, Uncial, Gothic, Italic, but the pointed pen really got me. I took about 3 months of lessons, going weekly, and after that, kept up the craft on my own. With the foundation in knowledge, I was able to play around with style, try different nibs and inks, and finally find the things that worked best for me. It is incredible to me to look back at my work from the beginning. It is AMAZING what dedicated practice will do. For seven plus years now, I have practiced calligraphy almost daily, and that has allowed me to find my own calligraphy “voice.” My style continues to change and evolve, and I love that dynamic aspect of what we do.
Your work frequently incorporates strikingly bold, bright colors. Has this aesthetic developed over time, or have you always had a penchant for such vibrant hues?
My style has certainly been an evolution. When I initially started, I worked in a lot of neutrals, but a few years ago, I began this love affair with pink. I updated my branding to incorporate more of these colors, and you’ll see a lot of those tones in my personal work. I am inspired by color. Coming up with different color palettes is so fun for me, I love to mix colors and inks, and feel like it has become my trademark. In a business that sometimes can seem saturated with a lot of talent, I also like that color helps me stand out. Many calligraphers play in the soft, romantic tones, and it’s my goal to be a bit more bold and bright.
What are the most important lessons you learned when establishing your creative freelance business? Specifically, what advice can you offer a budding lettering artist interested in monetizing their hobby?
So many lessons! Six+ years in, and I’m still learning lessons daily. A big piece of advice I give to those just starting is to value your work. When starting, friends and family are a great place to acquire commissions, but do not work for free! If you’re working for free, you’re only fostering a hobby. I encourage people to give friends and family discounts, for sure, but there must be some sort of payment. This establishes yourself as a professional, not an amateur.
As you become more confident in your work, I also encourage people to raise prices. The art of calligraphy is time consuming, and your time and talent need to be valued. It is easy to want all of the jobs, and keep prices low, but by raising prices you elevate the quality of your work, and decrease burnout.
NETWORK! Cliché as it sounds, it works. About two years into doing calligraphy and design professionally, I felt I was just not as busy as I wanted to be. I decided to crank up the hustle and put my neck out there. I collaborated on countless styled shoots, introduced myself to planners, designers, floral designers, etc, and the work started to flow in. As a calligrapher, I encourage people to seek out the planners and designers whose portfolios you love, and introduce yourself to them. They are often the first people to get in front of a potential client, and you’ll want to be on their recommendation list. Also, stationery shops, invitation designers, and printers are great people and places to network with, as well. People want to work with people they like, know, and trust. So if you’re not introducing yourself, then how will they find you? Or get to know you?
Do not spend outside of your means. As you establish yourself in business, be smart. One of the lovely things about calligraphy is that there is not a lot of overhead. You can work from home, pass along costs of inks, etc, to your clients, leaving a large majority of invoices to profit. What a beautiful thing! So as you’re establishing, do not feel like you need to rush out and have a studio right away, spend tons of money on things you don’t need, etc. Those things will come with time. Learn from my mistakes of rushing into odd warehouse spaces that did not work out, hiring PR firms that turned out to be a nightmare, or hiring and training assistants you might not need. Count every penny and spend wisely.
SHARE SHARE SHARE. I mean this sort of two-fold. First, share on social media. Post pictures of your work on Facebook, create an Instagram account, be active in the calligraphy community. So much of my work comes from Instagram – a FREE tool. Capitalize on that. On the flip side, share with others what you know. This doesn’t necessarily mean teaching workshops. But if people ask you questions, answer them. Do not feel like you’re helping the competition. There is no harm in sharing knowledge and fostering dialogue and communities.
As a creative freelancer, how do you combat creative burnout and stay motivated?
To avoid creative burnout, it’s important to learn to say no. Initially, you’ll want all of the work. But I think it’s very important to have balance and leave time for your personal life and also time to work on your own creative endeavors. Having time to experiment with different techniques, try different media, or create your own projects keeps you thinking and pushing. I also feel strongly that you don’t have to feel like you need to do what everyone else is doing. Push yourself to stand out and think outside of the box! That certainly keeps me motivated. A trip to the art store is a place I love to go and wander around the aisles, too. It gets me thinking instantly.
What is the most unusual, interesting, or difficult commission you’ve worked on to date?
Several years back, I did a huge lettered installation that was the backdrop of an alter. It took forever, and the paper was so hard to work with. One mistake or one rip of the paper, and you had to start over. It was tough! I was also hired once to address over 1,200 envelopes for a corporate Christmas card. I was asked to address the envelopes in their office, so that was definitely a different work environment!
Do you have a hidden talent or hobby that you don’t usually share?
My husband and I are what I like to call amateur art collectors. We’re very into art, discovering artists we like, and have slowly started a collection. We tend to like – no surprise – really colorful, vivid pieces. And if it has some wit, whimsy, or a touch of shock value, we love that, too. I am very obsessed with Peggy Guggenheim (she’s one of my favorite women in history), and find her life, and the collection she obtained, to be remarkable and fascinating.