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Interview: Ian Barnard, lettering artist and influencer

20 May 2022

I dipped broccoli in ink, and filled a chili pepper with ink and cut the end off’

Linda Esparanza Aragon/Tearfund

In its most basic form, a lettering artist draws letters. Rather than use founts, I draw letters and words by hand, combining calligraphy, lettering, and typography, which means I can add character, and can fit letters round my subject.
 

It’s a bit like deciding to buy a suit off the hanger which you know will roughly fit, or going to a tailor to get one perfectly suited to your form. It’s illustrative work rather than handwriting. My handwriting is still terrible, but if I spend time doing a few letters, it does look good.
 

I was 34 when I started to pick up a pen, though I was a graphic designer. When our second child was born, my wife started watching Downton Abbey. It is very good, but I’m not a period-drama fan; so I got a dummy’s guide to calligraphy, and discovered that I really loved copperplate. Downton Abbey changed my life. . .
 

Each day, I practised drawing one letter the traditional way with a dip pen and ink. I’m glad I did it, because, though I mostly use an iPad with digital pencil, I still use traditional construction techniques for letters.
 

It was a very incremental progress, and I could only see it by comparing photos of my work. But I started getting commissions, and people liked my Instagram videos. I also make money by producing my own digital brushes for the iPad, and producing typefaces.
 

I mainly create custom lettering for brands, including book covers, posters, logos, wall murals, or on instruments like violins and guitars. I’ve even done large-scale lettering which read: “The future belongs to the curious” in the black sands of Iceland, using rakes and spades and drones for an online learning platform, killshare.
 

I’m quite messy, and I once spilt a whole bottle of ink in our lounge — my wife said that that was the last time I could work in there. At the moment, I use Japanese calligraphy brushes, but actually a Crayola washable marker is a very good pen for amateurs. With practice, you can get the thick and thin lines by changing the angle and even using pressure.
 

One of my first jobs was for a church near by whose carol-service posters I’d been doing. I offered to do one by hand to practise my skills, and they liked it. I did some hand-lettering for a Salvation Army T-shirt, and then a poster for Speedo, and the initials for Ted Baker shoe-bags.
 

I made a video showing that you can make half-beautiful lettering with anything if you’ve got the skills: I dipped vegetables like broccoli in ink, and filled a chilli pepper with ink and cut the end off. It got millions of views, and led to an interview on the BBC World Service.
 

I love the construction of letters. I don’t always have to have a message — sometimes I might just use a single letter. Some are more graceful than others, like “R” or “S”. My wife and I did a piece together using the ampersand and floral elements, just using my passion for letters and hers for flowers.
 

But, a lot of the time, I use my art to promote Christianity. I’m doing five different pieces for Tearfund, working with an illustrator friend. I’m really looking forward to making a live mural for their Big Church Day Out, based on Isaiah 61 and how it is speaking to me, particularly after seeing the work of Tearfund first hand.
 

It’s probably the biggest one we’ve done so far. Because I’m doing it live, people are bound to ask me questions, and I’m looking forward to telling people about what I saw with Tearfund in Colombia. The design has to factor in time spent talking.
 

Just over ten years ago, a team of us from my church visited Tearfund’s work in Cambodian churches in HIV prevention and education. I loved how they were holistic, caring for people’s spiritual as well as physical needs.
 

I use my platforms to promote them because I believe in what they do. They follow Jesus where the need is greatest, and, through the Church, they empower local communities for the long term in practical and spiritual ways.
 

Recently, I went to the art, music, and performing arts project Sus Propósitos Foundation in Cartagena, Colombia. It brings together Venezuelan and Colombian children to take part in art, music, and dance. It focuses on their cultural similarities rather than their differences to help integration in the community and reduce xenophobia. Everyone was a volunteer there. Loira, the art teacher, impressed me. She used art to help the children to express their identities. She used Bible stories as her inspiration, and Jesus as a role-model.
 

I brought a load of materials from the UK, including canvases and paint markers for the children to customise their own letters, making up the word “HOLA”. I gave them ideas, but they could come up with their own to express their creativity.
 

Colombia was bright and vibrant. I usually use a more limited colour palette, but Colombia has pushed me to liven and brighten up my work. There was art in the poorer communities where they hand-painted their own signs and murals. They had very little, but made the most of what they had. Richer areas had standard big-brand vinyl signs, impersonal and not inspirational.
 

I met Zuleima, who had come over from Venezuela, escaping a terrible situation there. Through a self-help group, she was able to work and become an entrepreneur and president of the group. She was a creator, like me, and her faith kept her going. She created art from driftwood and rubbish, and generated income to buy tools to increase her production.
 

When I was in youth group, it felt like Jesus’s words made sense, like a light-bulb moment. Since then, it’s been a steady journey of trying to understand how God wants to use me, and where, especially my creativity. I regularly do artwork for my church, and at least one piece of artwork attracted someone new to come in, which is really encouraging.
 

I’m not a great leader or a great preacher; so it’s nice to be used as an artist. People don’t see what’s inside a church first: they see the outside; so it’s good when the posters attract interest and provoke people to ask questions. I made a live mural alongside a Christian musician’s gig which said: “Broken but redeemed”. People told me that it made them really hopeful; so that was really encouraging, too.
 

I enjoy coaching my nine-year-old son’s football team, and I like learning other crafts that don’t involve me drawing letters, like woodwork.
 

I’d love to drive a campervan around America with my family. It has so many different environments: deserts, beautiful beaches, dense forests, cities. We went to New York and Boston for our honeymoon, and I’ve visited a few times for design conferences and Apple events. I’d love the kids to experience all the different cultures there. But we’ve just got a new puppy.
 

I’m happiest spending time outdoors with my family.
 

Seeing vulnerable people, especially children, being mistreated makes me angry.
 

The sound of the sea and early morning birdsong is the most reassuring sound for me.

 

Knowing that the future is all in God’s hands gives me hope, and that’s what I really want to convey through my work.
 

I didn’t think we’d have a war like this, and feel helpless watching the news, but our church is welcoming two or three families here, and my son has got two Ukrainian children in his class; so we’re accepting them, and making sure they feel welcomed and valued. We’re modelling Jesus to them, and praying for a resolution to the atrocities, and that something good can come from such a bad situation.
 

I pray most for the spiritual welfare of my children.
 

If I was locked in a church with anyone, I’d choose Shane Claiborne, who wrote The Irresistible Revolution. It stoked the fire of social action for me.

 

Ian Barnard was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

He is supporting Tearfund’s Recover, Restore, Rejoice campaign at the Big Church Day Out festival, 3-4 June. www.tearfund.org/bigchurchdayout

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