A Conversation With Canadian Calligrapher and Illustrator Renée Alexander

Our faculty interview series has now brought us to North Vancouver, to speak with our final Canadian instructor, Renée Alexander! Renée is on the faculty at the Emily Carr University of Art & Design and over the past three decades, her work has been featured in a variety of publications, television shows and feature films. A skilled illustrator, Renée will teach Leaf and Letters at this summer’s conference, a unique five day course that combines botanical illustration and lettering. In the interview below, learn more about Renée’s calligraphic journey, discover her most essential tools and hear about her work for Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events!

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

I grew up and still live in North Vancouver, British Columbia. Both my parents were artists so you could say that I couldn’t help but be interested in art from day one. My father was a visual artist, my mother a calligrapher in the English tradition. Her teacher was Grace Melvin who studied with Edward Johnston.

Every year my parents would produce their own Christmas cards. When I was a teenager I remember the whole family participating in the finishing of the cards. My father’s design that year was of a stain glass window depicting a medieval angel holding a banner on which my mother lettered a Christmas message. My father silkscreened the cards with black printing ink where the leading of the window would be and when the ink was dry we each sat around the kitchen table with a different thinned down watercolour and brush. As each card was passed around we would drop our colour into a specific shape to give the impression of stained glass. The smell of printing inks, paints and thinners are still some of my favourite scents.

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What came first for you, calligraphy or illustration? What do you find most appealing about botanical illustrations?

Calligraphy came first. Of course, I knew about calligraphy from my mother. As a young woman I remember attending her night school gothic course which pleased her greatly. At that time, I also met the talented and witty Martin Jackson through my mother and I took a couple of Italic courses from him. He was and is a very entertaining and considerate teacher. Later I studied from Sheila Waters (more about that later).

While working as a display artist in a very trendy Vancouver department store, the special events department would sometimes have visiting artists come and demo. One of the visiting artists was a botanical illustrator. I remember being totally fascinated with her work. It wasn’t until many years later, after working for a long time as a calligrapher, that I took some botanical illustration courses from Elizabeth Mancini at Emily Carr University of Art and Design and later did self-directed study at her studio.

What I love about botanical illustration is the luminosity of water colour on paper, the ability, if all things come together as they should, to capture the light reflecting off of the plant punctuated with dramatic shadows. When painting botanical illustrations, one must look so closely and carefully that it becomes a very intimate experience with the subject.

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What is the first hand that you learned and which hands resonate with you most today and why?

The first hand I learned was Italic. In my business I do a variety of hands and for many years I did a lot of Gothic, along with Copperplate, because many of my clients, including my largest, an International organization, required those two hands.

Today the hand that I am most drawn to do is Compressed Italic. I have always felt comfortable doing this hand right from the time that I studied it with Sheila. I like the tightness of it and the flicking up of the strokes. Today I enjoy doing a freer slightly gestural interpretation of it.

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

The teacher that has had the biggest impact on me is Sheila Waters. Before I met Sheila, I had an interest but not a passion for calligraphy. I met Sheila for the first time when she came to teach a workshop in Vancouver. During the workshop Sheila had prints of her Under Milkwood manuscript displayed. I remember intently studying those beautifully illustrated and lettered pages. It was an inspiring moment.

A couple of years later and more lettering knowledge and practice under my belt, I headed off for my first of two visits to Gaithersburg, Maryland to study with Sheila. It was an incredible experience. While there, Sheila showed us, her pupils, the latest project she was working on, The Roundel! I saw it up close and personal, from the geometrically precise and detailed pencil layout to the painting on vellum. At that time, she was working on the centre which originally had different samples of tree foliage throughout the seasons: a sprig of pine, or turning leaves etc. I thought it absolutely exquisite! I was just a little disappointed when I heard she had erased those tree sprigs and replaced them with the lettering, “And God said, let there be light and there was light”. It is a magnificent piece.

The following year I returned for the more advanced workshop, which included colour theory, but this time I was pregnant! I felt very lucky that I managed to do the two workshops that Sheila was offering. While I sit here writing this, I can’t help but reflect that what drew me so much to Sheila’s beautiful work was the integration of calligraphy and illustration.

Before travelling to Gaithersburg to study with Sheila, I went on a group trip to England and Ireland to view ancient manuscripts at the British Museum, many cathedral libraries and the rare book collections at Cambridge and Oxford as well as Trinity College in Dublin to see the Book of Kells. This trip also included a workshop with Anne Hechle. This was the first exposure I had to letters that did not all follow the same slant, height or containment within two lines but had a spontaneity that until then I had not experienced. It was a remarkable workshop and trip which I thank my mother for as she organized it from the Vancouver end.

Other calligraphers who I have studied under and who have influenced my work are Yves Leterme for his “thoughtful gestures”, Denis Brown who is fearless, Julian Waters for his masterful pen manipulations and John Stevens for “two lines intersecting”. I thank them all for their serious study of the art and ability to share their knowledge.

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Where do you create, and how have you organized your workspace? What is your best time of day and do you prefer to work with music or in silence?

I have a home-based studio. There are two doors that separate me from the rest of the house so I am at home, but not at home. My studio is set up so that most things are within reach from my chair. I have many drawers organized with different materials in them. Because my studio faces south, I need to block out any direct sunlight and control the lighting inside with flood lights, an angled light table, a magnifying light, task lighting and a small spot light to highlight subject matter.

The best time of day for me to work is first thing in the morning, but I usually work till four or five in the afternoon. It is not my preference to work at night. I enjoy working with music as well as in total silence, depending on my mood and what I am doing. I enjoy many artists and genres. My current favourite is Max Richter.

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What are three of the most essential tools of your practice and why?

Aside from pens and ink I would have to say my essential tools are:

  1. An HB mechanical pencil which I use every day whether it is for laying something out, doing an initial outline for a painting, transferring and most importantly it is the pencil lead I use most to do my graphite drawings.
  1. My #2 sable watercolour brush because it is the most versatile size for painting, not too big and not too small but just right. It comes to a fine point for detail.
  1. A plastic burnishing type tool that I have had for years and could not replace as I have never seen another. I can’t even remember where I got it. Oddly enough an expensive burnisher does not do as good a job for what I use it for which is rubbing graphite tracings of lettering or illustrations onto good paper. It makes the process faster and less damaging to the paper than going over my work with a pencil.

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Could you tell us details about the illustrations that you created for Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events? How did you become involved with the film and what did the process look like from start to end?

I have worked on a few movies and TV shows throughout my career, so I am known locally in the film industry (Vancouver is referred to as Hollywood North). Having worked for the prop mistress on other productions, she contacted me for the show “A Series of Unfortunate Events”. Initially I was asked to only do the writing on the serum bottles and the character Monty’s handwriting in his snake journal. I was told that the Series’ staff artists would do the illustrations. For a sample page to show the art department how the lettering would look I produced an illustration done with pencil crayons and lettered around it. The director and Series Production Designer both loved my illustration so asked me to do all of them for Monty’s Journal. In the snake Episode the camera is pointed right at the journal as the children look through it showing the illustrations to good advantage. One of the snake illustrations is included in the opening credits for Season 1

I also did Beatrice’s 500-page love letter to Lemony. I did not actually letter 500 pages. Instead I did about half a dozen pages of very tiny Copperplate and they were then reproduced to create a 500-page document. It was very satisfying that my work didn’t end up as snips on the Editor’s floor.

When Netflix needed another book lettered and illustrated in Season 3 they came back to me. I did the entries for the same character Beatrice in the great book in the last episode of Season 3 when the children end up on a tropical island.

Usually in the film industry you have to work fast. I worked solidly for several days and nights for the Lemony Snicket Series. Normally I take my time doing detailed illustrations, this time I had to be imaginative about how to indicate foliage etc. quickly.

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You will be teaching “Leaf and Letters” at Rendez-vous. What knowledge and skills will students gain from this class and how would you describe your style of teaching?

Students taking my class will learn how to draw and paint a simple leaf. Painting will include some colour theory, mixing, matching colours and several watercolour techniques. Basic layout will be discussed when positioning the leaf on the page and then lettering in relationship to the leaf. Students will learn a form of the compressed Italic hand and lettering with gouache.

My classes are not intimidating. We are all at different stages in our development and so I encourage students not to compare themselves with others in the class. I hope that everyone has fun exploring the intricacies of nature and go away with a renewed appreciation of how awesome nature is.

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

The calligraphy community in Vancouver is kept vibrant from the hard work of women in the Westcoast Calligraphy Society. They are a small but dedicated group, in particular Wendy Cowley and Sherry Springall, who have worked for decades to bring the wider calligraphy community to its members as well as keeping their members engaged.

On the west coast, we are fortunate to have two other guilds within easy travel time of Vancouver. There is the Fairbank Calligraphy Society running out of Victoria, just a ferry ride away from Vancouver. Myself and many members of the Westcoast Calligraphy Society are also members of Fairbanks and members of both take advantage of each other’s workshops. Alphabeas Calligraphy Society in the Valley in Langley (just outside of Vancouver) is the third guild in southwestern British Columbia.

Like many of you out there, I have found the online calligraphy community an invaluable resource. I have met so many great artists and artisans online from around the world as well as reconnecting with old ones. It is encouraging and inspiring to be part of this global community. Thank you Facebook and Instagram!

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Outside of calligraphy, what are some of your other interests and hobbies? What is something about you that people might be surprised to learn?

I enjoy many activities including cooking, swimming, walking and reading. I have a dirty little secret though… I sometimes binge on Netflix.

Renée Alexander

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