Calligraphy and collage artist Sabine Pick’s lettering tells stories in curves, lines, and smudges. Simple words and phrases, full of movement and texture, exude emotion. Pick’s letters marry calligraphy and art, raising lettering to new heights. We hope you enjoy her story and her “perfectly imperfect” art.
Meet Sabine Pick
My first hand-lettering attempt was:
I was around six years of age. I remember writing a card to my teacher, and, after handing it in to her, I pinched it back because I really liked what I had written and how I had written it.
What is your favorite place to work, and why?
In my studio. It is my space. I open the doors, and sunlight flickers in. Add some sweet music, and I am very happy with my workspace. Time seems to stop.
What’s your best flea market find?
Old vintage letters and documents from a flea market in Munich, Germany. The documents are all handwritten from lawyers and bureaucrats. The letters are from 1770 to the mid-1800s, and the handwriting is stunning and varied. I have often referred to these letters to practice calligraphy.
Q&A with Sabine
Cloth Paper Scissors: Can you tell us a little about your upbringing and education? Do you come from a family that encouraged creativity?
Sabine: My parents were German immigrants arriving in Australia, and I was born soon after their arrival. My mother is a creative being. Untaught in everything, she has a style like no one else I know. She has great handwriting herself.
I finished high school at 15, and my father suggested that I attend two years of art school. I was drawing flowers all the time at that stage and was deciding between horticulture and art. Art won. I was the youngest person in the class, and it was one of the most liberating experiences of my life.
We had life drawing, painting with oils, printmaking, photography, dark room photographic printing, and art history. The older students took me under their wings. I loved the freedom of it. Later, when I was in my early 30s, I had a desire to go to university, and completed a Bachelor of Visual Art in Sydney, Australia, with a double major in painting and printmaking. Every day I remind myself how fortunate I am to have had this wonderful experience.
Cloth Paper Scissors: Your former career was in graphic design and magazine publishing. Why did you choose graphic design, and did you find it fulfilling? Why and how did you make the switch to calligraphy?
Sabine: I chose graphic design quite by accident. Naively, after completing my earlier college course, my mum and I hit the pavement. We went to as many advertising agencies as we could in one day, showing my art portfolio in the hope of getting a job. Luckily, I was hired by Fairfax Media, and for three years, I worked on various magazine titles until completing my apprenticeship.
Having lived in Australia, I wanted to live overseas. So, I moved to London, where I lived for eight years. I had a mix of full-time and freelance graphic design work for several magazines, including Marie Claire, Elle, and Company. For the 25 years I worked in graphic design, I never didn’t want to go to work.
While working as a graphic designer, I started practicing calligraphy. I always used Japanese ink and an array of nibs. I attended a five-day calligraphy course with Donald Jackson, one of the world’s foremost Western calligraphers and scribe for Queen Elizabeth, where I learned how to cut and temper a goose quill.
I remember always being interested in creating my own style of writing, doing more than just copying and learning the formal rules of calligraphy. I was often asked by other designers to create contemporary calligraphy with scratchy pen lines or ornate swirls. My work was even featured on the cover of Britain’s Harpers and Queen magazine.
Cloth Paper Scissors: How did your calligraphy style evolve? Do you believe in the learn-the-rules-in-order-to-break-the-rules approach to art?
Sabine: I like playing around with letterforms and looking at old scripts and manuscripts to see if I can change them, especially the work of Italian calligraphers Giambattista Palatino and Giovanni Antonio Tagliente. I have attended many calligraphy courses, enjoying the more contemporary and experimental courses, as they were more liberating and expressive. I have always struggled with traditional training, as it didn’t feel like I was honoring the joy I had when I was making imperfect letters.
More recently, I have accepted that a part of my art-making practice is one of “not quite right” or imperfection. I have always felt that the imperfect is more true to who I am. I get great satisfaction from writing like I do.
Cloth Paper Scissors: As your style developed and evolved, what is the process that brought you to where you are now?
Sabine: I have taken many workshops with the Calligraphy Society of Victoria, in Melbourne, Australia. I usually consider myself the rogue calligrapher. Through the Calligraphy Society, I was lucky to have taken two workshops with Brody Neuenschwander. He is a wonderful, energetic, and inspirational teacher who has a broad knowledge of calligraphy and its history. Elmo Van Slingerland was another international tutor. I don’t practice everyday; I practice when I feel the need to.
Cloth Paper Scissors: How did you develop your imperfect style?
Sabine: By accident! I have broken many nibs and torn a lot of paper trying to push what a nib can do, to see what other marks I could create. I love a line that is beautiful and retains an essence of the human who wrote it.
Cloth Paper Scissors: Is ”perfectly imperfect” your comfortable, natural writing style, or do you work at imperfection?
Sabine: My writing is generally full of imperfections in my eyes. I guess my writing style depends on how much time I give it. When I am in a hurry, my writing can get quite scrawl-y. When I practice, I usually start with simple cursive and then, as I get going, I push the letters until I am happy that they are a mix of readable and almost unreadable. Only then do I really feel it is a successful result.
Cloth Paper Scissors: Your calligraphy style is quite varied. What approach do you take to trying something new?
Sabine: In some of the workshops I have taken, especially with Brody, we used tools that were made from combs or bits of balsa wood, and created new alphabets. We looked at Kufic and Japanese calligraphy and practiced writing backward, top to bottom, and making extreme and unusual letterforms. So, I often have these ideas in the back of my mind and push myself to try a different letterform.
Cloth Paper Scissors: Can you describe your workspace/studio?
Sabine: I work out of an industrial area in Byron Bay, Australia. I have two letterpress machines: a Vandercook SP15 and a Chandler & Price 10 x 15. I have lots of windows and a small garage door, which is the first thing I open when I arrive, as it brings in most of the sunlight. At the moment, I have a very messy workspace because I am experimenting with new media. I have been using the floor a lot.
Cloth Paper Scissors: What do you do with your letterpress?
Sabine: I used to print small commercial jobs, such as wedding or birthday invitations, but now I print exclusively for my own desires and wants. I make my own photopolymer plates by hand and expose them to sunlight to harden. I have a reasonable collection of wooden type that I sourced from eBay, etc. that I print, using rubber-based inks given to me by an old printer. I like the fact that even my inks are hand-me-downs. I also print my own stationery for personal use.
Cloth Paper Scissors: What fascinates you about letterpress, and how do you combine it with calligraphy? How did you come to pair letterpress with calligraphy?
Sabine: I love the imprinted texture of letterpress. And, paired with flowing writing, I think it creates beautiful tactility to paper.
Cloth Paper Scissors: What is the satisfaction for you in turning handwriting into letterpress images?
Sabine: There is a special joy I get when I letterpress print calligraphy. From the first print taken, which I hold up to the light to see the detail, the shadows of the lettering thrill me. Perhaps my favorite is blind debossing, a process where no ink is used, as it is so subtle and ethereal.
Cloth Paper Scissors: Some of the recent work you’ve been showing on Instagram involves collage. What is your process of creating collage that includes your calligraphy, and what inspired your collage work?
Sabine: I started making collage a few years ago at a difficult time in my life, and it just seemed to click that this was my next passion. I was instantly drawn to it and wanted to make more. I use scraps of paper that have letterpress or calligraphy added by me. I have boxes of calligraphy practice or wooden type I have printed for other jobs or experiments. I find the process peaceful, and I enjoy it. It seemed a natural extension of my work to include collage.
Cloth Paper Scissors: Why do you think hand lettering is enjoying such huge popularity now?
Sabine: I’m sure it is a part of the craft or handmade wave that is being enjoyed worldwide. I think we all recognize that we have let creative skills take a backseat, and by using our hands in traditional art and crafts we get back in touch with ourselves.
Cloth Paper Scissors: What is your process with commissions? Is there a typical client, and how do you go about working with them?
Sabine: I ask the client for some reference photos or reference material for what they are looking for. Then I have a basic idea, and can work from there. Unless a client asks for a radical style up front, I tend to start more conservatively and work my way to a more scratchy and loose style. I give several options. It is less confronting that way. If I start too scratchy, it is often less legible. And I find most of my clients tend to choose the less edgy calligraphy. My work is often logos and tattoos, and they are best when they’re readable.
Cloth Paper Scissors: Is there one piece that you’ve created that you will never part with? If so, why?
Sabine: Yes. It a small artist book I wrote and hand printed in pale blues and aqua, using a poem about cornflowers. I had it perfect bound and printed an edition of five. The lettering I did pushed me creatively to another level, and I still refer to it often. It still inspires me to push my calligraphy work and not be formulaic.
Cloth Paper Scissors: There is a sentence in your bio on your website that jumped out: “Emotional, physical and real, the art of hand-lettering reminds us we are human.” So much of the evidence of our humanity is disappearing due to technology. How does hand lettering preserve our humanity, and are you hopeful that more people will understand its importance?
Sabine: I think that is already happening. Humans are makers. I believe everything is cyclical, and technology can exist alongside the traditional and simple ways of making and writing. Language itself may change, but I believe that creating by hand will still be involved in things that make us feel.
This Artist Profile is also included in our January/February 2018 edition of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine. In this issue, discover how to make luscious, layered art; create handmade books that tell a story; explore new surface design techniques; and so much more. Visit our online shop to purchase a copy.