A Conversation with French Calligrapher Julien Chazal

Hailing from eastern France, Julien Chazal is a teacher, professional calligrapher and author of the book Calligraphy: The Complete Guide. With twenty-five years of experience, Julien has worked on numerous films creating letters and manuscripts, and his client list include brands such as Chanel, Louis Vuitton, L’Oréal and Shiseido. This summer at conference, he will teach two classes : La Chancelière dans tous ses états (all about Chancery script) and Calligraphie, traces et compositions, a composition course. Read on to learn more about Julien’s calligraphic journey and philosophies!

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Where did you grow up and what first sparked your interest in letters?

I was born in Nancy, Lorraine, in the eastern part of France. I moved when I was about 25 years old to live in Paris, after a short time studying fine arts. I discovered calligraphy with a guild at Metz, near Nancy. There were a number of us who travelled this distance every month to work with letters. I went from, what was for me, a static and structured fine arts program to the open camaraderie and enthusiasm of these calligraphy classes. The human touch, dialogue, exchanges and continuous discovery of alphabets became a passionate attraction. I discovered a world beyond the studio walls. That’s what I remember from that period and what I try to perpetuate. There is really a connection and camaraderie around letters and calligraphy, deserving of such a patient discipline.

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What was the first hand that you learned, and which hands resonate with you most today?

Carolingian was my first foray into calligraphy. That little, round form that is so pleasant to work with. I don’t often use it these days, but without a doubt, it remains one of the most beautiful alphabets around. Since then, I’ve done the circuit of many different styles of lettering. Over the years I have developed my preferences. Roman Capitals, Copperplate, Italic… mostly a gestural version these days. In fact, I use all of these styles in a rather artistic way for my compositions, which are less historical or pedagogical.

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Which teachers have made the deepest impact on you and your work, and why?

I’ve had the pleasure of crossing paths with many great calligraphers. Laurent Pflughaupt was my mentor for a long time. Then I learned a lot from Kitty Sabatier. Others like Denise Lach, Jean Larcher or Brody Neuenschwander have also influenced me greatly. Learning calligraphy is a long process. I focused on the letter, composition, technique, but also on the pedagogy and vision that each instructor provides. Today, it’s the educational and artistic approach that interests me. Knowing how to perfectly recopy a letter is no longer my goal. It’s rather to see behind the letter, to the person and how they interpret, what’s their approach, sensitivity and spirit. Art is feeling above all else.

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Where do you create, and how have you organized your work space? What is your best time of day for work?

Creation is a solitary endeavor. Nobody can create for you. It takes lots of self-discipline, coffee and perseverance. My routine follows the rhythm of everyday life, and I try to adapt according to what I want. Don’t forget that this profession becomes a constraint when customers require it. We must always be available. I prefer working in the evening when everything is calm.

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What are three of the most essential tools for your calligraphy practice?

I work with many different tools and alphabets. For beginners, there’s no need to have 36 pens. A Brause 2mm can essentially do most letters, along with a 1mm pen (or Speedball C5) for writing cursive or gestural letters. After that, one needs to work bigger. A reed pen is always very nice, both as an object and for its strokes. The automatic-pen or the flat brush have sensitivities that change strokes greatly. I also opt for a fourth tool, which is the sharp brush. As beginners, we can’t imagine the possibilities that one can achieve with these.

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Would you share a favourite experience in the filming industry, as hand-double or trainer for actors? What do you need to take into account when you create manuscripts, letters, etc for films?

The world of filming is very interesting. To see behind the scenes, the movie stars… but it can also be very frustrating. We’re at the service of the director and one doesn’t really control very much at all. I did have good times doing this though, and have made some nice discoveries. Now, when I watch a film, I can’t help but dissect the gimmicks, the staging and sets. In calligraphy, I’ve adapted many tips from this staging. Everything is done according to the story and the position of the camera. If you want a clearly legible result, the camera take is slow and wide. For a weaker character scribbling, the nervousness of the style is reflected in the general feeling… it’s all a game.

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What has been one of your most meaningful commissions or projects and why?

One of the craziest jobs I’ve ever done was working on globes. A businessman wanted to develop this idea and proposed two prototype spheres, 1.5m and 2m in diameter. A whole team was involved: technicians, engravers, gilders. It was an exhausting, stressful job that took place in a small Paris studio during a very hot summer. I really got into it, even though I had other jobs on the side. I’ll skim over the details, but the result was very upscale, quite bold and impressive as a whole, since it carried calligraphy beyond simple studio work. It was an immensely tiring contract. I don’t know what has become of those globes today. I worked with Laetitia Harder and Beryl Le Gallo for the calligraphy.

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Would you share a little bit about the development of your class, Calligraphie, traces et compositions and  La Chancelière dans tous ses états? What knowledge and skills will students gain from this experience, and how would you describe your style of teaching?

These are two courses that I have done quite often and that give very good results. They are both open to beginners and beyond, with a global approach to two aspects of pedagogy that I appreciate: the technique on one hand and composition on the other. I wanted to make an evolving pedagogy by changing the eye of the student, not through the classical letter to letter of an alphabet, but through the evolution of simple, pragmatic exercises. For example, paper can change the work of the calligrapher by influencing the quality of the line, or to dare to destroy one’s work, reshape it and create a new artwork. It’s not obvious at all and one needs to take risks with composition. As for Chancery (or Italic), it is always a pleasure to (re)discover.

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How would you describe the calligraphy community in France? What does community mean to you, in the context of the lettering arts?

It must be twenty-five years now that I’ve been doing calligraphy. In France, we are fortunate enough to have a very high level of calligraphy, thanks in particular to the formidable scriptorium of Toulouse with Bernard Arin. A lot has happened since then. Many students and associations have continued with calligraphy over the years. Today, we have perhaps attained the limit of the strength of calligraphy and the associations. There are very few recent calligraphers, as the business of the letter remains in the hands of amateurs who don’t appear to need professionalism. I think that there is still a lot to be done, in particular to find pedagogies adapted to young people who might want to become professional calligraphers.

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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?

I’m a jack of all trades. I do some drawing, sculpture, photography, metal engraving or lapidary engraving. I never understood why it was necessary to restrict oneself to a subject, a single practice, a single point of view. I know it’s personal. I’ve always been like that. I like to discover what I don’t yet know and it’s sometimes difficult to keep one’s enthusiasm intact. I cannot tell what surprises others… the future will tell. For me, I’m looking out for projects that move me to dream.

Julien Chazal

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