Five years ago, if you had been looking for a professional calligrapher, you would be hard-pressed to find one here. Today, all you need to do is open up Instagram – a platform where Clarence has been consistently sharing the progress of his calligraphy and hand-lettering works ever since he began writing more than five years ago. Social media served as his only avenue back then to push his work into the field, be it for feedback or exposure.
Yet to label Clarence as a ‘calligrapher’ would be to skirt on the peripheral realm of his craft. His love for letterforms transcends mediums. From the perspective of a long-term onlooker, his moving transformation from raw passion to full-time occupation can be traced back to his final year project (he read Visual Communication in Temasek Design School), where he embarked on a series of typographic explorations. This follows a two-month long internship in The Netherlands, where he was blown away by the Dutch’s fresh approach to typography.
His journey might have been intuitive, but it was not without self-doubt, honest introspection, a lot of hard work and perseverance. People often raised questions on the commercial viability of his path. Despite that, he devoted day and night to his craft, teaching himself how to draw or write letterforms. Soon enough, a client, who saw his work on social media, came knocking on his door and the rest as they say, is history. While it has been eight years now, he continues to practise on a daily basis.
Why did you pick up calligraphy and lettering? Do you recall your early attempts?
I was really trying to understanding letterforms – the positive and negative spaces in each letter intrigued me. So I thought, what better way to understand type, than to pick up calligraphy? It is the most fundamental way of forming alphabets with your hands.
I was also curious to know why calligraphers and lettering artists worldwide were able to create [typographic] artworks using similar tools, yet there were so much variation in their output. While my eyes could appreciate their work, my body could not seem to catch up. So I focused on getting the fundamentals right and did a lot of basic strokes, over and over again. It did get monotonous. Sometimes, I tried what the other artists did so I could assess my problems before continuing my practice.
Is your self-taught process largely based on personal critique? How else do you push yourself to become better?
Studying references and looking at other calligraphers' and lettering artists' works help. I also read books and watch videos. I would ask myself, what am I doing differently, and why? What do I lack?
I critique my work because I want to open my eyes to observe and to understand the craft. Execution is not something that can be done instantaneously – not that it is impossible but differences are inevitable, and when it comes to ‘differences’, are they a result of a personal trait? If so, how can I further refine my work so it becomes more proficient?
Do you think you have a signature style?
I won't say that I have a signature style. What I love is to try and achieve quality work. When the project requires, I do enjoying customising a hand to suit the characteristics of the client or brand. This is achieved by studying the brand or client to fully understand what works.
I remember that you created abstract visions of letterforms in your final year project. What did you learn from that?
The output was a digital typeface where I had the least control over. To create it, I placed two different typefaces of the same alphabet on ‘opposites’ and triggered a software to generate transitions of the alphabet from one typeface to the other. After which, I extracted each form from the midsection of the alphabetical transition and collated them into a family.
What I learnt was no matter how distorted the 26 alphabets became, they retained the essence of their forms. I realised that fundamentally, letters are not just alphabets, they are visual representations of what we have been taught since we were young.
Speaking of childhood, do you remember any early encounters with writing?
I might have been subconsciously influenced by my father, who would practise his handwriting in the living room when I was young. It looked like he was really enjoying himself.
That is interesting. What is your daily practice like today?
It consists of warm-ups and basic strokes. My daily sessions can take from an hour to six hours, depending on my schedule. It is important to practise because calligraphy trains the eye and muscle memory, so the more you practise, the better you become. And when you stop practising, you lose muscle memory.
Six hours is a long time. How do you stay focused?
I look for three kinds of body connection – assessing with the eye, so the mind can understand the situation and enable your body to react to it. It takes time and I think that I am still in my infancy.
Things grow gradually. Your eye needs to see more to train more. Your mind needs to think more to train more. Your body needs to train more to become better. It is an ever-growing journey.
A conducive environment is also important to me too. It has to be a comfortable place where I know that all my tools are a hand-stretch away.
Who inspires you?
Herb Lubalin. His works are mind-boggling. They may be created a long time ago but looking at them now, they are still timeless. While some may be quite fanciful, some minimalistic, they all survived. His eye for balance and the understanding of negative and positive space is extraordinary. At least that is how I feel about his work.
Your four-lesson copperplate workshop seems to set your students on a long-term journey of practice. Why do you do that?
The journey of understanding calligraphy is very personal. I applaud anyone who dedicates a few hours every day to understand it because while calligraphy slows you down, it can also frustrate you. It is always a pleasure to witness the aftermath of hard work, tears and sweat, when people start to get the hang of it.
You incepted Tralligrapher, which took you to various cities where you set up ‘booths’ to pen notes for strangers. Which part of the experience did you enjoy the most?
Doing calligraphy is one thing, and people being in awe of my work is another, but more importantly, it is the human interaction that I truly enjoy. Be it the interaction with the person who was kind enough to host the project in their space, the part where I introduced myself, or even when I was being rejected. These moments are precious. Once a shopkeeper in Australia loaned a table to me – even though I was being hosted next door and not in her shop! While these may be irrelevant to a certain degree, they are also forms of ‘fireworks’ that result from talking to strangers.
Your work can get physically demanding. Do you ever intend to scale up?
Yes. I am always in search of people who are interested in typography or letterforms to train them as calligraphers or sign-painters.
Meanwhile, I feel really blessed to be able to do what I love. It is mindblowing. I hope to do it for as long as I can. Even if I pursue something else in future, writing will always hold a special place in my heart.
Photos by @colinchen.jpg
You can sign up for a workshop and learn the art of calligraphy from Clarence himself here