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3 Local Artists Giving Text Its Own Personality

3 Local Artists Giving Text Its Own Personality

Words and photos by Olivia Bauso

From street signs to chalkboard menus, personal Instagram accounts to national ad-campaigns, hand lettering is everywhere these days. Bursting through the digital environment of design, hand lettering brings flexibility, adaptability and personability to text through the art of drawing letters. I chat with local letterers Ilana Griffo, Elaina DeBoard and Anna Vos to learn more about the craft and the differences between their individual styles.

The term “lettering” is pretty broad and may be used to cover any kind of letter-making including calligraphy, drawn lettering, monumental letter carving, typeface design and more. A lot goes into making lettering look right, but the concept is very simple: “a specific combination of letterforms crafted for a single use.” This is not to be confused with typography, which is best understood as “writing with prefabricated letters.”

Local Graphic Designer Ilana Griffo’s love of lettering first came from her education in typography. After spending too much time pushing pixels, she decided she wanted to create more handmade designs for her clients: “I was freelancing on the side while working because I felt really uninspired at my first job. I did a lot of illustration and branding and decided I wanted to give my clients something more personal. You know, get my hands dirty!” After taking a letterpress class at Flower City Arts, Ilana eventually found herself taking part in a 30 day lettering challenge. She shared her progress on social media and found that she loved creating something off the computer; she now incorporates lettering in some way in most of her work.

Ilana tells me, “My lettering is inspired by typography-- it’s not handwriting. It’s a thought out process that has a lot of type and design elements brought into it.” Unlike traditional and modern calligraphers alike, Ilana uses pen and pencil to literally draw letters as you would a person. Once she finds a shape and layout she likes, she then takes her drawings into the computer and edits them into their final product. She explains, “Nothing is in its original form. They’re all brought into the computer where I change colors, make small adjustments and add texture. I like to find the balance between handmade and computer generated.”

This balance is evident in her business, Sugar and Type, which is modern, simple and crisp. She names Amy Rau of Green Girl Press her inspiration for letterpress and type skills, and local artist Virginia McDonald her inspiration for illustration and letter drawing. Most of all, Ilana draws inspiration from nature, paintings, vintage type and packaging and through nonstop research of fonts.

The term “calligraphy” comes from two Greek words roughly meaning “artistic beauty” and “writing or drawing.” Rochester area native Elaina DeBoard of Flower City Letters began practicing calligraphy just two and a half years ago, after studying publishing and writing in graduate school. After learning of her new interest, her fiancé gifted her several vintage calligraphy books, which were originally given to him by his great great aunt who used to practice calligraphy as a young woman (she’s now 99!). These books became her primary educational tool.

Elaina practices Spencerian Script, a style of ornamental cursive that was frequently used from 1850 to 1925 in both business and personal lives. Elaina has been selling her calligraphy skills for about six months. She made the shift from hobbyist to professional after receiving so many requests from family and friends to make custom cards and invitations. Though calligraphy was used so commonly back in the day, perfecting Spencerian is not easy. Elaina tells me, “When starting out, a lot of people think you can just take your handwriting and add a calligraphy nib and holder. With Spencerian, you’re using different muscle movement and letterforms; it feels very different from every day writing with a pen.”

One of the biggest challenges in practicing calligraphy is getting used to how the pen moves and how the nib responds to pressure. Elaina uses traditional oblique holders and nibs in her pointed pen practice. One of the major components to learning this art is learning how to use and care for the materials. Elaina explains, “There are all different kinds of nibs based on size, flexibility and sharpness. For Spencerian, you want a sharp and flexible nib so you can get fine lines and really thick swells.” She empties her holders and nibs on the table and shows me their differences. Elaina goes on to say, “This is the first time I’ve really considered myself artistic; I can’t draw or paint, but something about calligraphy just stuck.” Elaina shares these two websites, which she looks to for guidance and inspiration: The Flourish Forum and IAMPETH.


Similarly, local letterer Anna Vos hasn’t always been an “artistic” person. She has, however, always had a fascination with calligraphy and the aesthetics of words in general. She tells me, “I assumed it was too hard, or that you had to have some formal training to make letters that pretty. Then a friend of mine started posting some of her work on Instagram, and I kind of had this, ‘If she can do it, I can,’ moment!” From there, Anna used the magic of Instagram and Google to practice and learn more about the art of hand lettering.

Anna is a brush letterer and uses markers, ink and watercolor in her pieces. She calls herself a modern calligrapher, but really uses that title as a jumping off point. Anna has recently been broadening her skill set to learn more about the graphic design approach to lettering (like Ilana’s process!). Instead of sketching and concentrating on the concept as a whole, Anna has previously studied pressure and technique to create complete pieces without secondary computer editing. She’s now adding iPad lettering to her bag of tricks.

For Anna, lettering is much more than just an artistic practice. She tells me, “I find that it’s a mindful practice for me. It’s a portable craft that you can do by itself or with other things (like Netflix, Podcasts or music!). It’s the slowest thing I do all day, since I’m usually chasing after my two kids. It’s nice to really think about the shapes that my hands are making, and have something to do for myself.” Anna has been teaching her lettering knowledge for over 8 months, and tells me she learns more with each class. She names Jess Antonow from Bless the Messy, Kelly Place of Kelly Place Creative and Xomeghanelizabeth as some of her local sources of inspiration.

Which style of lettering speaks to you? Find your niche and learn more about lettering with Ilana, Elaina and Anna during this month’s What a Crafty Weekend: Lettering! As Ilana says, “We all bring something different from not only our process, but also our product.” The three will be teaching a variety of classes in their respective specialties over two days. Get your weekend pass or individual tickets to classes here. For more lettering classes, keep your eyes on our revolving class calendar.

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