Last month we went to the Dublin Port Riverfest. The weather was just awful, but I got some good photos before we had to flee.
I’ve decided to do something a little different and start reviewing art and craft books as I try them out. First up: Nib + Ink by Chiara Perano.
Nib + Ink focuses on contemporary calligraphy — the kind which is really fashionable at the moment, usually done with a dip pen (or a brush marker), and with a much less rigid approach to proportions and letter shapes than conventional calligraphy. With traditional copperplate or Spencerian calligraphy, there is room for improvisation in swashes and decoration, but the letterforms themselves are extremely standardised. In modern calligraphy, the goal is still to achieve a beautiful result with a consistent look, but the details are very much up to the individual artist and there’s lots of room for improvisation. This can be both liberating and challenging — there’s less pressure to match a perfect standard letterform, but you have to make a lot more decisions yourself!
Perano starts with a clear explanation of the basics, including selecting your materials, and then moves on to the main body of the book: exercises and sample letters, with practice pages for you to fill in. There is one practice page, with guidelines printed, for each letter of the alphabet, and extra pages here and there. (Some people don’t like when a book like this has a lot of practice pages, preferring a shorter book with just instructional pages, but I like being able to work without having to switch back and forth between the text and an A4 pad. Also, the fact that it feels like I’m using a school workbook helps me to get into the right frame of mind.) For each letter, she gives several variant forms and encourages the reader to become familiar with all of them. I really like this, as it helps to keep practice sessions from getting too repetitive. As some of the letterforms are much more complicated than others, there’s scope for a learner to grow as they develop their skills, become more comfortable with the pen, and attempt more challenging letter styles.
There’s a short chapter on connecting letters into words, plus some sample motifs and phrases for different occasions. At the end are a few suggestions for craft projects using calligraphy: gift tags, wall art, place cards, and so on. They’re simple and straightforward, and there’s not too much space given to them, which is fine, as they aren’t really the focus of the book.
This is a well written book with very clear instructions and it’s definitely improved my calligraphy skills. But there’s one problem, which is probably the publisher’s fault rather than the author’s: ink feathers like crazy on the pages. This means that I wasn’t able to do the exercises actually on the practice pages, which is clearly what you’re intended to do (I bought my own copy rather than borrowing from the library, specifically so I could write in the book).
After trying every brand of ink I own and then moving onto paints, I found that gouache and watercolour didn’t soak into the page too badly, but I don’t know that those are great options for a beginner.
Looking at other people’s reviews online, nobody else has mentioned this problem, so I don’t know if they were all using a different ink (the book recommends Higgins Eternal, which I haven’t been able to find in Ireland) or if various printings of the book used different paper. Either way, it’s a pity. It’s a good book, but more ink-friendly paper would make it a great book.
This issue aside, Nib + Ink is an excellent introduction to modern calligraphy; it’s visually very appealing, the amount of detail is just right, and the instructions are thorough without being overwhelming. Definitely recommended; just bring your own paper!
Earlier: Part 1
Today I’m going to talk about some of the online resources that are available to people who want to teach themselves a new creative skill. The internet is obviously full of tutorials and how-tos, but the quality of these varies a huge amount and it can be hard to find the good stuff, so I want to share a bit about what I’ve found helpful specifically.
There are a gazillion art and craft and design blogs out there, but my favourite by a mile is The Postman’s Knock by Lindsey Bugbee. This blog mostly focuses on modern calligraphy (dip pen and brush pen) and simple watercolour tutorials. Lindsey’s instructions are very straightforward and clear, with lots of beautiful photography. She also sells a wide range of calligraphy worksheets, which are very reasonably priced. While the specific details of her tutorials are really helpful, just as important is her tone throughout; she writes as if anyone can learn to be good at art, they just need the right instructions, and that confidence rubs off on the reader. Her tutorials are what gave me the courage to buy my first set of 10 watercolours after a lifetime of thinking I could never learn to paint!
Online video classes have really taken off in the last few years. I’ve talked about my love of Skillshare before, so I won’t repeat myself too much here; let’s just say I’m a big fan. The website has thousands of classes on all areas of creative practice, art, design, photography, and, ahem, craft. Some of the classes are better than others, but the best are really good. I’ve taken some that have helped me improve specific skills that I use in my work, some that have greatly expanded my idea of what kind of art I can make, and some that demonstrate crafts I might never need to do, but are just enjoyable to watch. It’s been really fun!
(There are plenty of other platforms out there for video classes: Craftsy seems similar to Skillshare but you pay per-class, rather than a flat subscription fee like Skillshare. I haven’t tried it but I would love to hear from anyone who has!)
For those doing digital work, Method of Action is a fun site with mini-games to help you practice with the Pen Tool, kerning and colour matching. It won’t turn you into a designer by itself, but it’s a good place to hone your skills.
In a more general sense, the internet is full of great visual inspiration, and I do want to give some recommendations for that. But too much inspiration can quickly become overwhelming, and the effect can be intimidating rather than motivating. So I would urge beginners to look at Pinterest and Instagram and Tumblr as long as it’s fun, but to step back every so often and take a break, remind themselves that the amazing work they’re seeing is often the result of years of practice, and work on making something of their own.
That said, here are a few of my favourite artists to follow:
Embroiderers: Chloe Giordano‘s work is just amazing; the level of detail is beyond anything else I’ve seen. I also love Yumiko Higuchi‘s intricate patterns, the lush, colourful florals of Kristen Gula and Jessica Long, and Alicia Watkins‘ smart, snarky cross-stitching.
Watercolours: I’ve been a little obsessed with Abbey Sy‘s gorgeous watercolour hand lettering for a while now — and I recently learned that she’s self-taught, too! I’ve also fallen in love with Kirsten Sevig‘s bright and beautiful watercolour patterns; check out this blog post for a very helpful, detailed account of how she digitises them.
Over to you: what online resources have helped you build your creative skills?
Over the last few years, people have asked me if I could teach them how to cross-stitch or embroider. I initially didn’t feel like this was something I’d be qualified to do, but over time I found myself considering how I might go about it after all.
I’ve talked about how much I like Skillshare before — it’s a platform with video classes on all sorts of topics, including a lot of art and design techniques and I was lucky enough to get a year’s free membership through their scholarship programme. I had a lot of fun and picked up some new skills, and I eventually decided that it would be a good place for me to get started teaching.
Introducing my first class: Cross-Stitch For Beginners. In this class I teach the very basics of how to cross-stitch, and how to design your first project: a ‘mini monogram’ featuring a letterform of your choice. To join my class and access the hundreds of other great classes on Skillshare, sign up for a paid membership here and your first three months will be only $0.99!
Cross-stitch is a really good way to get started in decorative needlework: it looks complex but the techniques involved are actually very simple. If you can thread a needle and sew one stitch, you can cross-stitch; and if you can’t do those things, my class will show you how 🙂 Here’s a few monograms I made earlier:
I’m really excited to start teaching and I can’t wait to see what gorgeous projects my students create. Join the class now and get ready to learn a new skill!
When I started Hextrovert a few years ago, I felt at a real disadvantage because I had absolutely no relevant training. Not only had I not gone to art college, I hadn’t even done art at secondary school, and I definitely wasn’t in a position to go back to formal education. Fortunately, it’s never been easier to educate yourself and build skills independently, which is exactly what I did! This is the first in a series of posts on what worked for me and might work for you.
Today: traditional print media.
A crucial book for me was Stitch ’n’ Bitch by Debbie Stoller, which is really what got me into crafting and all things creative, just as I was finishing university. It made knitting look achievable and explained how to make things I actually wanted to own. I don’t knit any more, but I don’t think I would be a crafter today if it wasn’t for this book. In the years since it came out, craft publishing has gotten huge, and there are a lot of beautifully produced, helpful books out there. Recently, I bought and adored Tilly Walnes’s book Love At First Stitch, which is to dressmaking what Stitch ’n’ Bitch is to knitting; it shows that it’s a craft that anyone can learn, and explains everything in clear, modern language.
Two other titles that were important for me were The Gentle Art Of Stitching and The Gentle Art of Quilt-Making, by Jane Brocket. Both are clear instructional texts with good projects, but the most important thing for me was the sensible, relaxed approach; what you make doesn’t have to be perfect, and that’s 100% OK. If, like me, you have perfectionist tendencies, this is a valuable insight!
In the last few months I’ve been reading as much as possible about hand-lettering. A lot of the beginners’ books cover the same areas — basic tools, anatomy of letterforms, different letter styles, etc — so I feel it’s not necessary to get too many of these. Mary Kate McDevitt’s Hand-Lettering Ledger is a good one. A more advanced book that I’m currently in love with was Jessica Hische’s In Progress, which is a really in-depth look at one lettering artist’s career path, creative process, and specific techniques. I’m a big fan of Hische’s lettering, so I really liked getting such a detailed insight into how she works.
There are also some great magazines around, most of which are very accessible for beginners. I got the idea to try embroidery and cross-stitch when I was at my friend Moïra’s house, helping to make bunting for her wedding, and her mother brought over a stack of Mollie Makes and Cross-Stitcher magazines for us to leaf through. I was immediately fascinated by them, and shortly afterwards I dug out a cross-stitch project I’d abandoned when I was ten, brought it on holiday with me, and actually finished it. (When I got home, I bought a bunch of embroidery supplies and could. not. stop. And that is my needlework origin story.) These days I also like Black And White Photography, which strikes a perfect balance between “Hey, I could totally do that!” instruction and “OMG how did they do THAT?” inspiration. Importantly, it also isn’t snobby about equipment, and regularly discusses and publishes mobile photography.
Apart from specific instructional sources like the above, I’ve also found it really helpful to read more widely on creativity in general. Frankie and Uppercase are two magazines which aren’t specifically about craft or photography but always leave me feeling like I’ve been given new motivation and inspiration. (They are both pricey in Ireland, so I don’t buy every issue, but they are BEAUTIFUL and I see them as an investment.) I’m a big fan of Kate Moross’s book Make Your Own Luck, which is mainly informed by Kate’s career as a graphic designer but is an informative and empowering read for anyone planning to work in a creative field (a while ago I recommended it to a friend who was starting a jewellery business).
On my shelf I have books on printmaking, Japanese pattern design, copperplate calligraphy, 19th-century ethnographic photography, Indian matchbox design, and more — things I may or may not ever incorporate directly into my work, but all of which have helped to enrich my awareness of art and design, colour, pattern, creative processes, and how to make things that are pretty. This is (I assume) the kind of enrichment that would happen naturally in a formal art and design education, and I’m learning to find it wherever I can get it. I tend to buy books by instinct — if a book doesn’t look strictly relevant to my work but I want to read it, I’ll probably go ahead and get it, and if it looks relevant but just doesn’t appeal to me, I’ll probably skip it, figuring there’ll be another way to get the information I need. Choosing my own reading is a big advantage to not being in college 😀
(Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find any good sources on the specifics of running a craft business in Ireland. There are plenty of craft business books targeted towards American or British audiences, but they tend to include a lot of tax and legal advice that is no use at all if you live here. Gap in the market!)
One last thing: public libraries are awesome. My local one doesn’t have a great selection, but they are great about ordering things in, and if you live in Dublin you can order online from any other library in the city and a lot of the rural ones too. This is one of those facts that most people vaguely know, but tend to forget about unless they’re reminded, so it’s worth mentioning here!
Over to you: what are your favourite creative books and magazines? What’s influenced you, and what inspires you?
Back in May we celebrated my mother’s 70th birthday. My parents held a big party in the back garden and we were lucky enough to have great weather. In between taking lots and lots of family photos, I took a few shots of the flowers in the garden. I’m now in the process of adding some of these to my Redbubble and Society6 shops.
Along with crafting, cookery is one of my big passions. For a long time it was really my main creative outlet, and I love trying new recipes and techniques. I don’t post about my cooking much online though, because I find food photography really hard! Part of the issue is that for a lot of the year where we live, the light is pretty poor when I’m making dinner, and everything photographs horribly under the kitchen lights. Also, to be entirely honest, once I’ve gotten something on the table, I’m much more concerned with eating it than with figuring out its best angles!
But for ages I’ve really wanted to improve my food photography skills, so I worked through a Skillshare class on the subject. (By the way: Skillshare is THE MOST FUN.) I was making a modified version of the butternut squash galette from the Smitten Kitchen book
(because I am a middle-class stereotype) and decided to get some pictures while I was chopping up the squash. As it’s such a strong colour I thought it would make for good shots. (Plus faffing around with the camera was a nice excuse to take breaks from all the chopping; squash puts up a hell of a fight.) I covered the dark countertops with Ikea MÅLA paper (which I love for this kind of thing, as it provides a nice light background and comes on a huge cheap roll, so you don’t have to be precious about not getting it dirty).
I took some shots that were pretty straightforward…
And some close-ups to show the textures…
A nice tidy bowl of scraps and peelings makes me feel like I’m being very efficient.
Took a couple more abstract shots just to try something new:
And later I had fun playing around with different effects in Lightroom.
Anyway, “squash” isn’t a real word any more, but the dinner came out great.
To celebrate the long weekend, I’m offering free shipping at my Etsy shop from now until Tuesday. Just use the coupon code FREESHIPPING at checkout!
Also, I’ve recently partnered up with The Dublin Inquirer to sell a selection of my work through their online shop. Go check them out!
In May I travelled to Wexford with my friend Aoife, who had promised me an old-timey cemetery and a forest that was perfect for photographing. And I was not disappointed!
Big thanks to Aoife for hosting me! (And thanks to the weather for being unexpectedly co-operative!)