Roman Capital Workshop With John Stevens

article by Yolande Lessard
translated by Barbara Gapmann 

John Stevens, who began his career as a lettering artist, is an internationally  renowned calligrapher. He possesses exceptional dexterity, as demonstrated, for  example, in the way he manipulates the flat brush. His pared-down style and the  high quality of his work make John one of the calligraphers I admire most. 

The Roman Capital workshop organized by La société des calligraphes de  Montréal consisted of five weekly two-hour Zoom sessions. A private Facebook  group was set up so that we could exchange ideas and take the learning process a  little further. Each participant could post his exercises on the site and get John’s  comments on the work completed during the week. A vote of thanks goes to Erin  Neilson for managing the Zoom sessions. 

We began our studies with Neuland script, using the flat brush. This script features  bold sans-serif strokes, often using a minimal interline in order to create a good  dense texture. We then practised sans-serif block letters, using a narrower flat  brush. We also worked on monoline, using lead pencils; this style has uniform  strokes, without thicks and thins. The forms and proportions of these letters are the  basis of Roman capitals. We wrote a long monoline text, using a fine-point marker,  in order to familiarize ourselves with interletter, interword and interlinear spacing,  and learn how to avoid rivers. 

By the third meeting we were well prepared to get into the meat of the subject of  the Roman capital, which dates back to the 1st century B.C., when it was used in  stone inscription. One of the most beautiful examples of this classic alphabet can  be found at the base of Trajan’s column. This elegant script, executed with a flat  

brush one-half inch wide, features serifs as well as thicks and thins. We started by  making large-module letters (five inches tall), a method used for acquiring muscle  memory. A good quality flat brush is indispensable for a really clean line in  producing Roman capitals. Most of the strokes are pulled; the letters are  constructed by varying the angle, pressure, stroke thickness, rhythm and  manipulation of the brush. It all seems so easy when you watch John forming a  letter—but make no mistake, it’s not easy at all! It takes careful study of the forms  of the letters, knowledge of proportions and hours of practice. John provided us with a manual (Capitals / John Stevens), as well as videos he produced on  preparing the flat brush and how to execute every stroke used in Roman capitals.  All these things were of great help in the learning process. 

John has a great deal of experience in the fields of publishing (magazines, books),  packaging, advertising, television and film. He enjoys speaking about aesthetics  and design, which form an important part of a calligrapher’s work. He invited us to  create a book title, explaining the rule that the work as a whole should make a  lockup. He emphasized the importance of the relationship among design elements,  diversity in unity, and the balance between form and counter form. 

As the fourth week approached, we moved to the study of a more informal writing  style, a variation of Roman. I felt that this part of the program was too short; there  was enough material for another workshop. John discussed rhythm, fluidity,  movement and the ability to express the spirit of a text through our calligraphy. We  explored a number of alternative approaches, combining writing, drawing, and the  use of such tools as the bevelled nib, pointed nib, pointed brush and long-hair  brush. 

I’d like to thank John Stevens for sharing his knowledge and experience with us.  He is a teacher who knows how to inspire his students and open up new avenues  for us to explore.

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