Death is Nothing at All

My client, Jack, and I found each other through our local art supply store, Arizona Art Supply. I was dropping off business cards for calligraphy and he was looking for a calligrapher.

The Poem

At his late sister’s funeral, Jack read a poem by Henry Scott Holland titled, “Death is Nothing at All”. His brother-in-law loved the poem asked Jack for a copy. Jack wanted to present it to him as a gift rather than as a copy or a printout. We chatted about the poem and he emailed me a copy of the text. The poem is from the perspective of the deceased, a comforting reminder of all the ways they never truly leave us. I love gift commissions — I enjoy ferrying love and thoughtfulness from one person to another.

The Project and Materials

When I read the poem, I felt adoration bubbling up throughout it from the speaker. Knowing that in this case the voice was of a wife who passed on, I thought simple line drawings of flowers around the poem would be subtle and decorative. I confirmed this with my client and began gathering materials. The poem he sent me filled a regular 8.5″ x 11″ page. Calligraphy tends to take 2 to 3 times the space of printed text, between proportions and decorative elements. I chose to work with an 18″ x 24″ bristol board. Originally, I wanted to work with handmade paper because it’s unique and delicate, much like a loved one who has passed form. But I am not experienced enough with textured paper to work with it efficiently. I have read articles and captions about how difficult it is to work with a nib on textured paper. The inevitable snag on handmade textured paper spelled a blob and a redo for me. Instead, I chose smooth bristol board and mounted the final piece on handmade paper.

The Process

I remember telling friends about this project and saying, “My pieces just keep getting bigger!” As a general rule, I am an expert on beginning a line of text far enough from the left margin that by the time i get to the end of the line, I’ve run out of room for the rest of the text. To try to avoid that issue with this poem, I did a practice run of the poem. I taped two large pieces of newsprint together and drew a line down the center. This would mimic the size of the final piece. I then lettered the poem on practice paper at scale and cut out each line of text. I folded each line in half to find the middle line and taped each line to the newsprint at the center line mark. This way I would have a visual reference to work from as far as where to begin each line.

Calligraphy practice cut into strips
Calligraphy practice cut into strips.

Next, I ruled up the bristol board. I drew guidelines 5mm apart all down the page. These served as reference lines for the height of the body of the lowercase letters and the length of ascending and descending strokes. Then, I measured and drew slant lines: guidelines that are 55 degrees from the baseline. These help me to maintain a consistent degree the letters are written on. It took me a few sittings to write the whole poem in calligraphy. Taking frequent breaks to stretch and move around is important. If you have been working for longer than 30 minutes, you start to get fatigued and this fatigue in the body and eyes transfers directly to the quality of the letters.

Calligraphy, Erasures

The Illustrations
After I was finished with the poem, I left the guidelines on the page for the time being, thinking that I would probably want them later for one reason or another. I set to work on the flowers. I chose alstroemerias to accompany the poem because their lines are simple and sparse, but detailed enough to add interest and charm. I made practice sketches of them using photos I found online as a reference.

Tools and flowers
I used drafting tape to secure newsprint in place over the completed calligraphy to protect it from dust and smears.

But the photos I found were limited in angle, so I bought some alsroemerias the next time I hit the grocery store. For as long as I can remember, these have been my least favorite type of flower. As I drew them, I fell in love with their grace. I loved drawing them with their elegant lines and curves. I drew the flowers directly onto the bristol board and traced them in dark brown ink. That was as far as I initially planned to go with the flowers, but next to the calligraphy, they just looked blank. I added some lines to the flowers show shape and depth. I didn’t want to make the lines defining the flowers thicker because I thought it would interfere with the nature of the flowers.

Calligraphy and Flower Illustration

I added color after all, using colored pencil. I started by keeping it really light so as not to distract from the poem,  but its paleness continued to be an eyesore so I just kept layering on and blending the color and even adding depth to the lines using ink again. When all was said and done, the flowers were yellow with orange tips, just like the ones on the desk.

Completed Calligraphy and Flowers

I erased the guidelines, except for the ones that showed the center on the vertical and horizontal edges. I cut the handmade paper to be 2″ larger than the bristol board and glued them together. I framed the poem in a dark brown frame to accent the depth of the flowers and the calligraphy. I love to deliver final pieces framed when possible, or ready to hang if it’s a canvas. Nothing like hanging your new piece of art directly on the wall when you bring it home! My client loved the piece and said it was so much more than he was expecting.