A Conversation with Brazilian Calligrapher Cláudio GilMarch 4th, 2019
Bom día! Today we are pleased to introduce you to faculty member Cláudio Gil of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. With a master’s degree in design from the Escola Superior de Desenho Industrial (ESDI-RJ), Cláudio’s self-taught calligraphy journey began in 2003. He has exhibited his work internationally, taught numerous workshops and has developed a new Blackletter course that he will give this summer at Rendez-vous. In the following interview, learn more about Cláudio’s influences and favourite tools and hear the story behind the 110 meter long public mural he created in São Paulo.
Where did you grow up and what first sparked your interest in letters?
I was born in the southern region of the state of Rio de Janeiro and spent my childhood and adolescence in Valença where I had my first contact with typography and lettering. A friend's grandfather owned a small print shop where the city's first newspaper was printed. I still remember looking at the metal type and trying to copy the letters, when I was about eleven or twelve years old.
What is the first hand that you learned, and which hands resonate with you most today and why?
The first hand that I learned was Carolingian. I was very interested in Edward Johnston’s foundational, but I didn't have a lot of information about it. I was always very interested in typography but I did not know much about calligraphy. It was a different and very difficult discovery for me. Because I am self-taught, I didn't have a master to guide me and there weren’t many resources available. It took me a lot of time to understand and to execute the drawings with the broad-edged pen. I always liked handwriting, but I did not have enough information to distinguish it from calligraphy. Today I am very involved with Roman capitals, brush lettering, gothic hands and Italic, but I know that it could change at any moment. I also feel very comfortable with secretary hands and some Gothic cursive styles.
Which teachers have made the deepest impact on you and your work, and why?
There are some masters I deeply admire, but I believe Hermann Zapf and John Stevens were the most influential. In 2017, I had the good fortune to have John Stevens as my first calligraphy teacher after almost 15 years learning everything by myself. My admiration for Stevens increased even more after meeting him in person. The quality of the drawings and compositions of these two masters in both the technical aspect and originality are undeniable. Both aspects are a huge challenge for me. I always wanted to develop an original, expressive, singular work and the reference of these two masters in relation to the techniques was very important for me. I use them as a reference to be always up to date with my practice and search for original marks. I have a lot of admiration for many talented and important calligraphers such as Sheila Waters, Julien Chazal, Thomas Ingmire, Carl Rohrs, Gabriel Meave and Julian Waters.
Where do you create, and how have you organized your work space? What is your best time of day, and do you prefer to create in silence or with music in the background?
I am currently developing my work in a studio that I set up in 2016. It is a small but very flexible space, designed so that I can configure it according to the project I am working on. I like to draw vertically and use the walls to practice, but I also work standing and use taller tables for horizontal work (such as my daily practice of Roman capitals with brushes). My materials are organized on high shelves to better utilize the space. I have very good natural lighting and a well-designed lighting system with scrollable spots. I usually work during the day taking advantage of natural light and the fact that Rio has bright days even in winter. But the best time to create varies a lot. When I am deeply connected to my work, I feel free and these hours are usually the magic hours of my day. In those moments, I do not miss anything at all. I love music. I usually work listening to good music, rock, classical, jazz, Brazilian pop music or whatever the day asks for. When I'm focused, I do not miss music. Usually the pace of work becomes a song I listen to internally. Only when I stop working do I often realize whether or not music was playing.
What are three of the most essential tools for your calligraphy practice and why?
I love broad-edge tools, mostly brushes and Brazilian pens from Dreaming Dogs, but I use any instrument. Currently the square-tipped brushes have been my main instruments, as I practice Roman capitals on canvas and walls and other vertical areas. The instruments that I currently work with are mostly square tip. I also believe that it is because most of the historical alphabets have been made with broad-edge tools. I can produce many of them, not to mention that the expressive side of my work is communicated with these instruments because I feel very comfortable with them.
You have written that daily research is a vital component of your work. What subjects are you currently researching and exploring, in connection with your art and calligraphy?
Yes, I love to research in a way that allows me to practice. Many insights occur during this process. I really like to try to find common points between them during the practice of different alphabets, and in the last three years I have invested a lot of time in combining distinct alphabets, which has led me to a series that I am producing widely and that I call "Bruta". "Bruta" is a combination of a non-serif Roman and a bold fraktur style. Now I am working with a partner to develop a digital typeface based on these drawings.
What has been one of your most meaningful commissions or projects? What made this project particularly special, challenging or rewarding?
I have been invited with some regularity to create murals and environments. In the last five years I have dedicated myself to this type of work and I have painted walls, ceilings, glass walls, food trucks etc. I painted the entrances of the rooms and two walls of the first floor of the European Institute of Design in Rio, which is a historic building where a casino and an open TV station already functioned in the past.
One of the works that I consider a turning point in my career was the painting of a 110 meter glass wall in São Paulo a year and a half ago. The panel was part of a project called Words of Order, promoted by a unit of the SESC of São Paulo (Social Service of Commerce, a large institution fostering arts in Brazil). Painting the glass was the first opportunity to test my studies for the Bruta series in an external environment where thousands of people walk by every day. The glass was covered with a clear film that did not accept any type of acrylic or vinyl paint. The paint had to be made entirely in synthetic enamel during the winter of São Paulo, with temperatures between 4º and 12ºC. At that temperature the enamel was too slow to stretch, and I had to be patient and determined to get the job done in a short time. I had calculated five days to paint everything, but before we closed the contract I stipulated ten days to do it, because I knew there could be bad weather. It was tense, but it was sensational and the people gave me very positive feedback about the work, inviting public school students to visit and putting me in touch with them through lectures and small debates so that I could talk about the work. It was a very striking project. I loved doing it.
Can you tell us the genesis behind your class “Black – Gothic Eyes for Nibs and Brushes”? What knowledge and skills will students gain after participating in this five day course? How would you describe your style of teaching?
Black is a program that I have been working on for about two years. It reached a degree of maturity recently, especially after studying with Julian Waters in February 2018. There was a lot of new light on this project and I thought it would be ideal to work with it during the Rendez-vous conference, after giving several two to three day workshops on this topic in Argentina. I believe that, with five days, the students will have more practice time during the lessons, mainly in the part related to the practice with the brushes. I see a possibility of generating a great number of strokes from the drawings previously made with metal pens using brushes afterwards, because the students will be able to take advantage of the greater flexibility of this instrument to generate a great variety of styles, still preserving their personal style.
My teaching style is mainly to show everything I can within the allotted time. I always like to take a historical approach with each style so that students contextualize what they see and take advantage of this information to develop their own styles using (and also breaking) the rules. Fortunately my classroom environment has always been filled with friendship and a sense of collaboration. I respect the individuality of each student and try to make them feel as comfortable as possible. I see my classes as a time of valuable exchange between me and the students, as I am always trying to take full advantage of our time and think about the next steps..
How would you describe the calligraphy community in Rio de Janeiro and Brazil? What does community mean to you, in the context of the lettering arts?
We do not have a calligraphic community in Rio de Janeiro yet, because we are few in numbers, and Rio is a very particular city (if not weird in some aspects) about teaching and learning. In Rio, I only know three good calligraphers, but they are also type designers. We do have a group of around twenty friends in Brazil who really study and take the exchange of true information seriously. We also try to help each other in trying to develop works that are well done and with good information. But the positive fact is that the competitors (if I may call them that) are friends, almost a fraternity. And we still have the type designers who are always very close, because they are few too, especially if we are to consider the size of our country. Unfortunately Brazil is not a country that values the arts in general. Here anyone hardly knows what calligraphy really is. But I will continue trying, with my other calligraphy and type design friends, to broaden this community.
Outside of calligraphy, what are some of your other interests, hobbies and/or pursuits? What might be something about you that people would be surprised to learn?
Lately I have spent some time in academic drawing, trying to combine figurative and calligraphy. I have always loved to draw, and I draw all the time. This revisit of a more traditional type of drawing started when I began working on my "Bruta" series and studying tattoo, which is my great hobby right now. I believe I will be tattooing real soon. I'm also investing some time with the art of graffiti.
I really enjoy singing and for years I participated in choirs and took singing classes. I risked learning some opera arias because of my father who was a great baritone. Although I am not committed to singing today, sometimes when people hear me, they ask me why I did not take this interest further. My answer is always the same - my passion for calligraphy is bigger.