Calligrapher’s Corner:Consulting with the Experts, Volume 12: Stephen Rapp
1. Describe how you began your love of lettering and how you started your career in calligraphy.
I was what you might consider a late bloomer. I did not grow up in an artistic family and was a house painter well into my thirties before it occurred to me to find something different and start college. During that time I saw a calligraphy exhibit in Northampton, MA. From that point, I took every calligraphy class and workshop I could and eventually started getting job requests. Early on I’d do just about any job. I lettered on walls, did sign work, poetry broadsides, lettered on a harpsichord, and even did chalkboard menus before they were hip. I supported myself primarily as a housepainter then, but in the late 1990s things started taking off. I was just starting to get more commercial work when I got a call from Current Greeting who hired me as a full-time lettering artist. Two years later I landed at American Greetings.
2. What would you consider to be your area of greatest expertise?
That’s more of a box than I’d like to fit in. It’s probably safe to say designing type, though in many ways it is joined at the hip with my work as a lettering artist. I love calligraphy and lettering and I do get a number of commercial lettering jobs. I worked as a lettering artist at American Greetings for a decade. So naturally you’d expect commercial lettering to top the list, but another opportunity caused a shift in my career. When I started at AG there was someone on the lettering team who digitized fonts full-time. I was asked to design a font, but I wanted to be in control of how it was digitized. So I convinced the creative director to get me a copy of Fontographer and let me try. After that I kept getting requests and eventually was put in charge of font development. I left there in 2010, but they still have me doing all of their font work. So despite my passion and experience with lettering, font development is what I’m mostly known for and is where most of my income is derived.
I hope to someday teach a font design class at a calligraphy conference, but I find myself more and more teaching calligraphy at typography conferences like TypeCon. Of all the classes I’ve taught I actually like teaching brush lettering best. I’ve been developing a class I call The Expressive Brush. One of the main focuses of the class is developing writing with more freedom of movement. That fluidity can be used for strings of small writing similar to handwriting or for patterns of marks that form language at various levels of legibility.
3. With whom did you study, and who were/are your biggest influences?
I started studying calligraphy in 1989 with Mary Funai in western Massachusetts and later started taking classes and a year long intensive with Suzanne Moore. Along the way I took plenty of workshops both locally and at places like Camp Cheerio and Ghost Ranch. I was also very much self taught in many respects. I had a thirst to learn and so typography, logo design, and anything to do with lettering fascinated me. Some of my biggest influences are the folks who letter behind the scenes at American Greetings. I think of them as being equivalent to the studio musician vs the pop star. Both have their place.
4. What products can you not live without?
I particularly love the Fude version of the Pentel Colorbrush. It’s delicate enough to work small and loosely, yet has enough bristle to get some hefty letters out as well. For sable brushes I still like the Scharff 3000 series Fine Line. One of my fonts is based on lettering with the Scharff brush. For paper I tend to buy a lot of the Strathmore 400 series Recycled Sketchpads. I use Arches text wove when I want a slightly better paper, but the Strathmore has enough tooth and durability for most of what I do. My favorite inks are the walnut ink that you mix from crystals, Moon Palace, and the J. Herbin inks which are great for pointed pen lettering. I always keep some Pentel Colorbrushes, Parallel Pens, and Pigma Microns handy for doodling and am fond of the old school drafting pencils with 2mm leads.
5. What advice would you give a new calligrapher?
Something I personally recommend for learning calligraphy or lettering is to be investigative in your studies. I’m not sure if investigative is the best word, so I’ll explain. This involves not only looking into every aspect of a particular skill or subject, but also self analyzing what you are actually doing right down to the minutia. When I first started teaching that became ever more apparent. In preparing to teach a workshop like brush lettering, I like to vocalize what I’m doing as I practice demos. In doing that I am
verifying parts of the process and questioning others. That type of investigation will accelerate your learning process.
6. What is something people would be surprised to learn about you?
I play traditional Irish music on flute and whistle. Actually I’ve played a lot of other instruments and music genres over the years as well, but mostly Irish. Just recently I bought a 5 string banjo and am learning some old time fiddle tunes from Appalachia. Old time banjo is a very different beast from bluegrass which most people associate the banjo with. Openback 5-string banjos played in an older pre-bluegrass style called claw hammer produces a much earthier and more percussive sound.
7. When you are not lettering, what do you enjoy doing?
Some times I’m playing music, and sometimes I’m watching movies or TV series online mostly. My favorite genres are Sci Fi and Historical Dramas. Often if I’m watching a flick on the computer I will doodle a bit. One of the doodles I did while watching a movie ended up as a piece in Letter Arts Review.