When was the first time you picked up a calligraphy pen?
It was in 1977. My mother had learned some calligraphy when she was at teacher training college in the 1940s, and one day, while sorting through some stuff, she found her old Witch pens and exemplar sheets. She gave me some guidance, but I didn’t start calligraphy properly until four years later when I was at art college.
What is the best advice you ever received (lettering or otherwise)?
When I was a teenager and being rather shy and modest about my abilities as a potential artist, an old family friend called John, who was very encouraging, said ‘Don’t hide your light under a bushel, Rachel’. It has biblical origins, of course, but I’ve never forgotten it!
Why do you letter? What keeps you coming back every day?
Essentially, it is my life’s work. I am driven to do it and 40 years after I first started learning calligraphy at art college, I still find those 26 letters of the alphabet thrilling.
What is your dream project?
I think it would be something that included drawing. I have drawn my whole life and think of calligraphy as drawing. Over the years I’ve occasionally had a commission which involved drawing the outline of an animal for a logo. The lines used needed to be very calligraphic in style. I always loved these jobs as they included my three great loves: drawing, calligraphy, and animals.
What research do you do when learning or starting something new? i.e. a new style or new project.
If I want to experiment with a new tool or a variation of an existing style, I just start. I rarely do pencil roughs (preferring to use the primary tool), and instead think carefully about what I’m trying to achieve, ‘see’ an image in my head, and then just go for it! I then work through many ideas until I achieve what I want. If I wanted to try a completely new style to me, then I would find examples done by the best masters and analyse strokes and letterforms before having a go myself.
Name 3 non-lettering artists who inspire you.
Rembrandt, Leonardo da Vinci, and J.M.W Turner.
What do you aim to say with your work?
I don’t feel that I am trying to say something with my work, at least not consciously. For myself, my aim is always to produce excellent letterforms and good design.
Why do you teach? What is your teaching ethos/style?
I teach because I want to pass on my knowledge to other people. I believe in being open about what I do and in helping others achieve their goals. I think being very clear when teaching is important, so I break things down into manageable parts and use clear and concise language so that students aren’t confused or anxious. Some of the work I do may look as if it’s just dashed off, but there is method to it and it’s possible to analyse the process and pass on techniques.
What is your favorite pastime when not in your studio?
Walking the wonderful paths through the fields and woodland in the beautiful rural landscape where I live. While I’m out I also love to take photographs and if I can chat to some horses along the way, so much the better!
What jobs have you done besides being an artist?
I’ve never done another job! I became a self-employed calligrapher and lettering designer when I left art college in 1985 and am proud that I have earned a living from that and supported myself for 36 years.
Your work ranges from formal, tightly designed logos to very expressive lettering, yet it always seems to retain legibility; is illegibility a line that you will not cross?
My views on legibility have changed over the years. When I was younger, I didn’t think it mattered as much as I do now. My aim is always to produce excellent, well-designed letterforms, and this includes legibility. However, that does not mean the letters are necessarily very clear, like for example, a classic typeface. I am interested in pushing letter design to its extremes while still retaining legibility.
Flat brush shapes created by Rachel Yallop
Flat brush shapes created by Rachel Yallop
A sample of Rachel Yallop’s gestural ruling pen writing
You are known mostly as a copperplate artist. But your portfolio also includes a lot of flat brush and ruling pen work. Even though the tools have very different line qualities, are the techniques used with them mostly interchangeable?
For me, everything is about line. I love the lines made by a brush and a ruling pen; and in copperplate, the swelling line made by a flexible pointed nib. With these three examples, my primary concern is how to hold the tool to achieve the line I want. The position of the pen or brush in the hand and to the paper, is very important, as is the speed of the strokes. Careful, but confident execution of those written lines is vital.