Adding a New Business to your Studio

Calligraphy by Li Ward, from Fat Orange Cat Studio, who was named one of Boston's Best Calligraphers in 2011.

What prompted you to start lettering?

I love pens! Paper! Writing! My husband Dan yells at me because while I’m on the phone I’ll absently doodle on bills if they are within reach. I have always admired calligraphy and dabbled in it for awhile in high school, but it never went very far before I moved onto the next thing.

My interest in calligraphy returned when I discovered Bryn of Paperfinger online. I loved her informal but beautiful style of lettering and decided to have her update my logo with some hand-drawn elements. When we talked over the phone to discuss the work, I found that we had a lot in common: we had the same engineering degree and the same industry job before we both left engineering to start a business doing something totally different…I was so inspired. If she could do calligraphy, then so could I!

original logo, and then with hand-drawn cat & calligraphy

In what ways do you incorporate hand-lettering into your photography business?

PACKAGING! I calligraph the names of wedding clients and include it on the spines of CD/DVD cases or press albums wedding.

Customized DVD cover from WHCC

I make a stamp too and imprint their names on the surface of their DVD (the printable kinds only). I also use the stamp on their thank you cards. After all the imprinting is compete, I tie a bow around the stamp itself and include it in the final package. The calligraphy gives everything a handmade yet professional and consistent look. Hopefully it also lets the clients know all the attention that went into delivering their photos, whether they care about calligraphy or not.

Rubber stamp used on DVD cover

How long does it take to customize a client’s packaging with calligraphy?

It takes me about two additional hours per client:

A month before the wedding…

  • I calligraph the couple’s names on calligraphy paper.
  • Then, I scan their names at 600dpi.
  • I clean up the files in Photoshop by erasing fuzzy noise around letters and adjusting levels to make blacks very black. Then, I make the file transparent.
  • I save the file for each client as BMP & PSD formats.
  • Finally, I order rubberstamps using the BMP file.

Right after a wedding

  • I quickly make photo selections using Photo Mechanic, immediately flagging favorite portraits & detail shots.
  • Then, I customize and order a WHCC DVD case using a favorite portrait shot. I place the PSD file of their calligraphed names on the spine of the DVD case.
  • Finally, Stamp stamp stamp! Everything that ends up going to the client is customized with their stamp.

Calligraphed names used on book spines, stamps, cd cover, thank you letter

They say you learn from your mistakes. Has your calligraphy work given you any learning opportunities?

Why yes. Early last year, I came up with a set of Save-the-Dates called the Orange Parrott Collection. A collaboration between me and stationer Sarah of Parrott Design Studio, I would calligraph the text and she would letterpress print them. They were offered exclusively to couples who booked me as their wedding photographer.

The idea was to get my clients to work with me early, when they were just booking their vendors – like a photographer. It was also to attract like-minded people who appreciated the art of hand lettering.

The Orange Parrott Collection was also a way to differentiate myself from the ever-growing pool of wedding photographers. I imagined that once I pulled out the Save-the-Date samples during meetings, potential clients would be so impressed with my multi-offerings that they would book me on the spot!

The Orange Parrott Collection: calligraphed Save the Dates

In reality… most people give the Save-the-Dates a polite glance at best. The calligraphy is “cute” or “interesting.” And, alas, they do not book me on the spot.

Do you still think adding calligraphy work has helped grow your photography business?

Yes. By adding calligraphy work to my studio, I’ve been able to develop my creative sensibilities and my overall style. The key for me is to keep doing what I like, consistently and earnestly, without feeling the need to spin it into some Grand Business Scheme That Will Blow People’s Socks Off. While the Orange Parrott Collection didn’t turn out the way I originally envisioned it, I received unexpected perks – press on wedding, stationery and lifestyle blogs. All marketing is good marketing!

In any case, I’ve stopped mentioning calligraphy as an additional service during my meetings. After all, my wedding clients are here to talk about my photography. If they bring up the calligraphy on their own, then I know I’m one step closer to booking my ideal client and of course, I will pursue it further. I’ve had many couples who do not hire me as their photographer but return to hire me as their calligrapher. Without calligraphy, our relationship might have ended at our first meeting.

What materials do you use for calligraphy?

I use a metal pointed nib that you attach to a nib holder and dip into an inkwell. When you bear down slightly, the pointed nib flares open for thick strokes. Lighter pressure keeps the nib at a sharp point, producing thin strokes. It’s this variation of thick and thin strokes that makes calligraphy so beautiful. Your own hand makes it unique.

I started off using this pointed nib made in Japan, and after experimenting with different varieties – some smaller, some pointier – it’s still the nib I prefer. For inks I use Higgins Eternal, Sumi Ink, J. Herbin, or gouache (mixed with a little water and loaded by hand onto the nib with a small brush…although this is a huge pain).

What have you found to be the best method of developing your own unique style?

Practice. I know, seems like the most overused and unexciting answer but it’s true. I’ve always had decent penmanship to begin with, but the first time I had a nib pen in my hand I felt like I was writing with my foot. But, I kept at it. Once I had enough muscle control, I started mimicking other calligrapher’s styles to get a feel for how letters were drawn. I also went to, did a search for “calligraphy” fonts and mimicked some of those. For better or worse, I didn’t crack open any books and took no classes, not because I didn’t want to, but because I have no patience at all! I just drew at least an hour every day on my own, mimicking and making stuff up as I went along.

Is there anything you can suggest to get started?

Practice. :) Luckily, the materials are inexpensive and available: a pointed nib, a nib holder, a bottle of Higgins Eternal Ink, and tablet of calligraphy paper (any art store) or sketch book plus whatever scraps you have laying around – stationery, printer paper, magazines, bills – and have at it. Purchase different nibs too and experiment with different combinations of nibs, paper type, and ink. You’ll see some combinations work better than others. Also, don’t drink caffeine.

What do you love most about calligraphy?

How slow and deliberate the process is. It is like meditation.

What do you like the least?

How slow and deliberate the process is. It is like, taking too long! Unlike photography, there is no “calligraphy workflow” to speed the process. You can’t write faster. You can’t write more. The most I’ve been able to letter in one sitting is 2 hours and then the cramps set in. Honestly, I have no idea how full-time calligraphers do this.

What is your favorite thing to calligraph?

Right now, anything that I know will be letterpress-printed. Chalkboards have been great fun too, except I like using chalk pens, not real chalk. Oh and lately I’ve been enjoying lettering with gel pens or markers instead of nibs.

Wedding menu and wine list using chalk pens

What inspires your lettering styles and/or your work?

Old letters and manuscripts and Jane Austen (whose characters I use frequently as mock couples), EdwardGorey.

Charles Bingley of Netherfield, written with a Le Pen marker

I also love using some of my lettering and drawings when making DIY projects! I had a very good pet client whose boxer’s name is Kendall, named after the Kendall-Jackson winery. As a gift I made them wine labels from Pinhole Press. It had to be done.

Pinhole Press wine labels

For the holidays I sent all of my past and upcoming wedding clients cards of hand-drawn cats and dogs. Many are pet lovers. I calligraphed their envelopes as well. They were really fun to make. But I won’t lie: a little part of me hoped that cards might serve as gentle reminders of my other services too!

Pinhole Press holiday color block card, sent to clients

One Response to “Adding a New Business to your Studio”

  1. cat says:

    I love your lettering work Li! Thanks for sharing.

Leave a Comment

March Index Leave a Comment