Interview with Maria Montes

Maria originally comes from Barcelona, where she studied design and typography. Today she is a graphic and textile print designer, letterer and illustrator based in Melbourne, and I am pleased to say that she is the first contributor to Lettering Hub! Read on for a big bunch of helpful tips and resources from her.

Tell us a bit about yourself. What and where did you study, and how did you get to where you are today? 

I am originally from Barcelona where I studied a BA (Hons) in Graphic Design. While doing my Honours degree, I was offered a junior position with my teacher and renowned designer Josep Bagà. After 3 years working with Josep I went back to study a MA in User Interface Design (UXD) in Barcelona.

Right after my master’s degree I found a job as a senior graphic designer in a small agency. I worked with two German designers, one Italian, one French and my art director was from Argentina. All of them spoke their native languages, plus English and Spanish. This made me want to travel, learn English and work in another country as a graphic designer. A designer friend of mine had spent one year in Sydney and she was really happy with the experience, so I thought “Australia… why not?”

I landed in Brisbane in September 2006 and after 3 months learning English I was lucky enough to be sponsored by a small studio as a lead graphic designer. While working in Brisbane I did small weekend trips to Sydney, Hobart and Melbourne.

My daily routine in Brisbane was pretty quiet. I didn’t have a dynamic social life and the house I was living in was very affordable which gave me the opportunity to save up money, so I started to dream about taking one year off and travel around the world.

By the end of 2008 I had enough savings to make my travel dreams come true. I was planning to visit several countries in Asia and Europe and finish my trip in New York City where I wanted to live and work as a graphic designer.

Just a few months before I left for my trip I met someone that seemed too good to be true. I decided to follow my plans and take a year off anyway, but once I arrived in New York I had many second thoughts about staying. Rob (who is still my partner after 7 years) and I kept in touch while I was moving around and I decided to come back to Australia and give it a try. By the end of 2010 we relocated to Melbourne where we currently reside.

Which came first – Illustration or lettering? And what sparked your interest in lettering specifically?

First of all came calligraphy, then typeface design. Through textile design came illustration and finally lettering as the sum of all!

I learnt calligraphy for the first time in 1996 under the tuition of Keith Adams. During my first year at university we had to study 9 months of formal calligraphy as a compulsory subject.

After working as a graphic designer for over 10 years I felt that I needed to go back to the foundations. I consider typography the main tool for a graphic designer and I felt that I needed to up-skill my knowledge.

In 2011 I enrolled for a postgraduate course of advanced typography in Barcelona. During the course I studied formal calligraphy again with Keith Adams and Oriol Miró. I was shocked by how something you love so much can be forgotten for so many years. I grabbed my calligraphy nibs again and since then I haven’t let them go.

I learnt the foundations of typeface design with Laura Meseguer, Iñigo Jerez and Josep Manuel Urós.

After my postgraduate course in Barcelona I came back to Melbourne and started a collaborative project on textile design. I learnt how to illustrate, create patterns and all things related to CAD from my bedroom. I re-discovered that drawing was another of my big passions.

My collaborative textile project was going really well: I was illustrating all day, every day and learning a great deal of new stuff.

The experience of learning type design in Barcelona was so good that a year later I decided to enrol for a condensed program in typeface design at Cooper Union in New York City.

Type@Cooper was a turning point in my career. By that time I was illustrating full time and writing calligraphy every morning as a personal development. At Cooper Union I learnt a method to draw type by hand under the tuition of Jean François Porchez. This approach to typeface design was a revelation for me and I started to apply the same methodology to illustrating for textiles.

1 year after studying at Type@Cooper I was still designing textiles full time. In 2013 one of my typography teachers at university passed away and I received an email asking for submissions to pay homage to Josep Maria Pujol, a great typographer, teacher and type historian. This gave the motivation to send my first lettering submission to a group show.

Lettering made so much sense to me. I see it like the result of my daily interests and practices.

What is your typical process when creating a piece of lettering? How much happens by hand VS on the computer?

First, I use my own calligraphy as a base to start off. Then, I redraw the letterforms and reinterpret the shapes using the same system that I learnt at Type@Cooper and that I use when illustrating textiles.

I work with a bunch of ballpoint pens and a very thin one for tiny details (Pentel Hybrid Technica 0.3mm). I always use tracing paper and I add and remove weight several times using a scalpel. I place one tracing paper on top of the other one as if they were layers in Illustrator. I always create my own grids where I decide the x-height and the angle of each lettering piece.

Once the sketch is advanced enough, I jump onto the computer and I vectorise the letterforms, using exactly the same approach I used when I studied typeface design. I feel like lettering is the sum of all my passions.

In terms of time, maybe I would spend 30% of my time on the sketch level and the rest fighting with my Bezier curves. Although this is slightly changing nowadays as I am experimenting a lot more with hand sketches without vectorising them afterwards.

Which tools do you use and where do you buy them? How important do you think it is to have the right tools?

For me there are three very important game changers: pen, ink and paper. You can change one or the three of them and the outcome of the piece will change dramatically.

I encourage everyone to experiment with these three elements as much as possible.

Pens

I have on my desk traditional calligraphy nibs from Germany and England. I also have contemporary nibs – a take away version of the traditional ones called Pilot Parallel pens–. I buy empty Pentel brushes and experiment with ink colours. I use sharpies, bamboo pens that I cut myself, nibs made out of beer cans, flat brushes, Rotring Rapidograph, Artline pens, Daiso and Muji brush pens, ruling pens, Pentel Hybrid Technica 03 for tiny details, liquid chalk pens, Pentel Touch pens and a very important scalpel for my lettering and illustration work.

I buy most of my pens in Melbourne at Deans Art, Eckerleys, Pen City and Officeworks.

Paper

For warming up I use regular copy paper. Then I jump between tracing paper, Canson Basik watercolour paper 370gsm, bleedproof paper and anything in between. I experiment with every single paper that I find around. You can find beautiful handmade paper at Magnani and Neils Art stores in Melbourne.

Inks

I use liquid watercolour inks from Spain but you can find a similar quality ink called Talens Ecoline in many art stores in Australia. I normally go to Deans Art or Eckerleys art stores.

I use walnut ink that I prepare myself. You can find liquid walnut ink at Senior Art supplies in Melbourne CBD. I also use gouache, Chinese ink and instant coffee. I have used liquid acrylic once for illustrating a skateboard deck. There is a great shop in Fitzroy called St Luke Artist on Smith Street.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to get started with lettering?

In my case calligraphy has been instrumental to understand the structure of letterforms and its rhythm and contrast. The ductus (order of the strokes) and the type of nib –broad edge or pointed–  inform where the thin and thicks are and why.

Calligraphy, lettering and typeface design have many aspects in common but all three are very different disciplines. Understanding the differences and learning about the three of them, gave me the knowledge to get started with lettering.

Where do you draw inspiration from? Are there other lettering artists that inspire you? 

My inspiration comes from my day a day life. The people I am surrounded by, my neighbourhood, my partner and specially the nature in Australia.

Nowadays you can find so much talent out there! I keep in my heart a few of people that have inspired me to move forward in key moments of my life. A few years ago I discovered Alex Trochut and his work blew my mind. He is a designer that I have always looked up to.

When I moved to Melbourne I discovered the work of Luke Lucas and his great technical skills.

While studying in New York I learned about Jessica Hische who I have a huge respect for. Her website is not only filled with amazing work but also with incredible resources.

My first lettering piece was inspired by Gemma O’Brien’s work.

And last but not least, an instrumental person for me who has guided me locally along the way in the past 3 years is Bobby Haiqalsyah.

What’s your favourite piece of work you produced so far?

In general, my level of satisfaction lasts 6 months. After that, I start looking at my latest piece of work and I can only spot mistakes or things I could have done better. This is a good thing (I think!) as it means that I am growing as a designer and 6 months later I see things that I couldn’t see before.

My professional approach is that “the best thing is yet to come” so I guess my favourite piece of work has not been done yet!

What are you working on at the moment, and what’s next?

At the moment I am designing bed linen (which I have never done before). I am slowly working on an uppercase typeface design. I am also experimenting with a calligraphic alphabet and teaching calligraphy workshops in Melbourne, Brisbane and maybe Sydney this year.

I would love to visit my parents in Catalonia later on in the year and attend a calligraphy retreat in France if possible!

Check out Maria’s upcoming workshops starting 23rd of April!

Maria Montes

Want to know more about Maria?

We collected a bit more information about her, including more work, links to her website and social channels. Check it out here.
All images were provided by Maria Montes or taken from mariamontes.net with permission. Photo credits go to Mark Lobo and Teagan Glenane.