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Maria Montes Featured Profile | Interview

Melbourne-based designer Maria Montes, combines her digital and analog skills to create incredibly beautiful typographic pieces.

In this interview, Maria tells us how she learned the art of lettering and shares her list of inspiring creatives and resources every type lover should know about.

Read this interview with the lovely Enza Lacherdis from Typerie.

Tell us a little about yourself.

I was born in Blanes, a town on the beach 70km north of Barcelona. When I was 19 years old I moved to the big smoke to study a BA (Honours) in Graphic Design. I lived in Barcelona for 10 years before moving to Australia.

When did your love for type begin?

When I was 18 years old, I studied a Fashion Design course during the day and by night, a Graphic Design course. I was unsure which discipline to specialise in so I decided to do both at the same time and make a decision by the end of the academic year.

I remember looking at Paco Rabanne’s work and discovering the packaging of his XS perfume. Something about these letters caught my attention and I couldn’t stop thinking about them for months.

By the end of the academic course I decided to specialise in Graphic Design as I would have the opportunity to learn more about letterforms.

Do you consider yourself more of a graphic designer or a typographer?

I consider myself a graphic designer which is a broader term. I write and draw letterforms and use illustration work to communicate my clients (or even my own) voice.

What are your favourite kinds of projects to work on?

Firstly, conceptual driven projects. Having a solid concept, visual reference material, a colour palette and a deadline make me focus and look for the best possible outcome.

And secondly, personal projects. For the last 15 months I have been working on a personal project called The Shit Series, where I am experimenting with different writing and drawing styles to communicate common Australian expressions using the word shit.

How did you learn calligraphy and hand lettering? What resources helped you most?

I learnt calligraphy for the first time in 1996. At that time, calligraphy was a 9-month compulsory subject part of my BA in Graphic Design. I learnt about letterform structure, composition and positive and negative space through the art of writing.

I graduated in 2000 and after spending ten years working in front of the computer as a full-time designer for different studios, I decided to go back to the foundations.

I consider typography the main tool for a Graphic Designer and I felt that I needed to upgrade my knowledge. So, in 2011 I went back to Barcelona to study a postgraduate course in advanced typography. After ten years of digital practice, I grabbed a calligraphy nib again and I haven’t let it go since!

I use calligraphy for design purposes. My approach to each calligraphic style is the base for my lettering work. I have a strong graphic design background and I am very passionate about all kinds of letterforms: from calligraphy to lettering to typography. I am daily training my eye to become a better designer.

In 2012, I studied a type design condensed program at Cooper Union in New York City. During the course, I learned a hand drawing techniques that I have apply to my textile prints and lettering work.

My first lettering piece was inspired by Gemma O’Brien’s work. “Perfect typography is certainly the most elusive of all arts (by Jan Tschichold)” was my submission for the Homage to Josep Maria Pujol, a group exhibition held at Barcelona’s Eina, Espai Barra de Ferro Gallery.

The piece was designed in 2013 and it took me many weeks to finish. I first wrote the quote using a ruling pen, then hand drew the skeleton letters adding weight and contrast, and then added details on top. Once the hand sketch was felt balanced, I scanned the original and redrew everything in vector format using Illustrator. I wanted to explore the visual possibilities of creating a vector lettering piece with a hand drawn look and feel.

My second lettering piece was my personal brand MarchTwentyTwo. This time the lettering exercise became even more complicated as I realised that the lettering had to work in very small sizes (3x3cm) as well as in large format. I started again with my own calligraphy as a base and then I drew 10 weights by hand. I selected 3 weights, redrew the letterforms in vector format and tested various sizes, legibility and readability. The whole process took me over 3 weeks!

To keep up with my personal and calligraphic development, I go back to Barcelona once a year to visit my family and study calligraphy under the tuition of Keith & Amanda Adams.

What were some of the difficulties you encountered while learning?

Learning a skill takes time. You know what good work looks like and you also know that your work may not reach these standards. Bridging the gap between where you are and where you want to be is the hardest part. I am afraid the only answer is hard work and determination.

What medium/s do you enjoy working with? Why?

I get bored easily so my favourite part of my work is being able to jump between analog and digital mediums or combine them both if possible.

Do you have a favourite nib? Ink? Material?

For my broad pen work I use Brause&Co nibs and bamboo pens with walnut ink or liquid watercolours. For my Copperplate work I use Nikko G and Zebra nibs.

I have recently purchased an Arttec bond layout pad and I love it. The paper is Bleedproof 70gsm which allows you to see the guidelines clearer.

If I want to create a beautiful original I use a few different papers depending on budget. From Canson watercolour paper 300gsm, to Canson Basik 370gsm, to Moulin Du Gue 270gsm to hand-made paper.

Any advice to share with beginner calligraphers out there?

Before spending a great amount of money on fancy materials, make sure you use the basic tools to learn the foundations: Letter structure, ductus, rhythm, angle of writing, letter spacing.

There is a comprehensive book called “The ABC of custom lettering” by Iván Castro that I recommend to everyone wanting to learn calligraphy and hand lettering.

Keep your own books! Even if you think your calligraphic skills are very good or very bad today, file them. I keep folders and folders of my daily calligraphic practice. Generally I look at my own writing and, I although I mightn’t be satisfied, I file everything.

Overtime I have learned when we are too close to our own work, too attached, we can’t see the goods and bads about it. But, once we take distance we are able to judge more objectively and identify what we thought was good, wasn’t really… and what we thought was horrible maybe was actually pretty good. The more we grow as calligraphers and designers, the more we are able to see and our eyes become the only referee.

What does your set up look like? Do you warm up? How?

My desk is divided in 2 areas, the analog and the digital one. I spend at least 2 hours a day writing. When I am teaching calligraphy at Rotson Studios in Melbourne, I focus these daily hours of practice on the specific calligraphy style that I am teaching that weekend.

In the analog area, I have an A2 lightbox that I use on a regular basis. Most of my lettering work starts with calligraphy, so once I have a good calligraphic sketch I start to redraw on top of it using paper, a mechanic pencil and a fine marker.

For my calligraphic work, I have started to use a portable easel and my neck feels better. In the digital area I have a vertical mouse (due to my back problems) and a Wacom tablet.

You’ve also designed three beautiful typefaces, what are some things you learnt from this process?

In comparison with calligraphy and lettering, drawing a typeface is incredibly time consuming. You need to consider many different aspects and not only the 26 uppercase and lowercase letters of our basic Latin alphabet.

I am talking about hundreds or thousands of glyphs including punctuation marks, diacritics, mathematical and currency symbols, spacing, kerning, hinting and the list goes on and on and on… In the past, I have attempted to finish drawing my first two typefaces without succeeding. I am currently through my third attempt, and I will try my best to release my first font this year.

“Why do typefaces cost money? Go try to make one and find out” by Sydney based typeface designer Dave Foster pretty much summarises the experience.

Who are some type masters you’d recommend to follow?

You can follow one of my calligraphy teachers called Oriol Miró on Instagram or Facebook.

I follow John Stevens on Instagram and I hope one day I’ll be able to attend one of his workshops.

For Copperplate and Spencerian calligraphy I recommend following David Grimes and Nina Benito Tran.

For hand lettering, I follow Ken BarberMartina Flor and Jessica Hische. All three have recently published books about the art of lettering.

In the national scene, you can follow the amazing large scale work of Gemma O’Brien, the brush lettering work of Carla Hackett and a great community of type enthusiasts at Typism.

You can become a Melbourne Lettering Club member and ask anything related to letterforms, events, freelance gigs and read about featured artists.

If you are interested in learning more about typography, make sure your read all Typograph.Journals by Brisbane based Nicole Phillips and sign up to Typograph.her and Type Worship’s email newsletters. For type by hand workshops, Wayne Thompson offers various workshops around Australia.