Sarah Dungan is a professional lettering artist, who founded the Arrow Art Studio in 2013. Based in California, Dungan’s work is not the traditional fine art we usually feature on the blog, but using professional marker pens and watercolours, she demonstrates admirable artistry, infusing the craft of lettering with a dedication and practice that can inspire all. In this interview we learn that Sarah’s approach to her work has many overlaps with approaches to painting and drawing within fine art practice.
Lisa: Please can you tell us about the Arrow Art Studio, how long it’s been running, and why you set up shop in the first place?
Sarah: Arrow Art Studio is a boutique lettering firm specializing in hand made signage and calligraphy for weddings and special events. Having worked in the restaurant industry for decades, it was behind the bar that I discovered my love for lettering. When chalking the specials board became more fulfilling than mixing drinks, I knew I’d found my calling. I was hired as a sign maker at Whole Foods Market and although I didn’t feel the corporate environment was a good fit, it did make me realize that I needed to spend my days making art. I started Arrow Art in 2013 and made the leap to working full-time as a hand letterer in 2016.
Lisa: Why is it so important to keep signwriting and handmade lettering alive?
Sarah: To quote Immanuel Kant, “the hand is the window on to the mind.” It is only through creating – by trying, failing, and repeating – that one can truly grasp the fundamentals of any art form. For me, working to put in the 10,000 hours necessary to master my craft is simply more fulfilling than going digital. The tactile nature of working with my hands is something that can’t be reproduced when machines are involved. And I believe others have similar values, in a culture rife with mass-produced goods, we are drawn to that which is handmade because we appreciate quality and individuality, not quantity and conformity. No matter how skilled the artist, all lettering done by hand will have imperfections. In a digital world full of perfect shapes and straight lines, hand lettering stands out because it’s organic aesthetic gives it a human feel, in turn lending it a lot of personality.
Lisa: How do you go about perfecting the handwritten fonts you use? And do you have a system for deciding what kind of lettering to use with each project?
Sarah: I love the repetitive nature of creating letter forms. The muscle memory, putting in 10,000 hours – that totally appeals to my compulsive side. I’m also just a happier person when I’m working with my hands, so making letters without the help of machines correlates with my analog approach. It’s really just a matter of showing up and putting in the time necessary to improve my craft, I haven’t found another way that works besides practice, practice, and more practice.
I have a few different styles of lettering that have become synonymous with my brand, but since I produce work for specific events, I usually let the client’s input guide my decisions on what kind of lettering to use for each project.
Lisa: What kinds of brushes and tools give you the best results?
Sarah: For calligraphy, I work with an oblique holder and a variety of nibs. When I’m working with chalk ink, I love Posca markers as well as Molotow. Sharpie water-based markers also flow beautifully, and I’m devastated they recently stopped production on the medium point markers. When doing brush lettering, I usually reach for brushes with a round tip in a bunch of different sizes, and Higgins Eternal Ink and Sumi ink are my favourites. And I can’t say enough about Angelus Direct leather paints which have been instrumental in my recent work playing with leather crafts. However, I’m a big proponent of the adage ‘the tools don’t make the carpenter” and I strive to create beautiful letter forms regardless of the quality of my materials. Some of my favorite pieces were done with Crayola markers, basic dusty chalk, and simple number 2 pencils on scrap paper.
Lisa: How would you describe the essential conditions in which to create?
Sarah: I do my best work early in the morning or late at night, usually while everyone else is asleep. I need a clutter free workspace in order to focus on the project at hand, and some good background music is a must. Being under a deadline actually helps me, when I know something is due I don’t have as much time to second guess myself so the work tends to be a bit more original and free.
Lisa: Would you say that there is a meditative quality to sign-writing?
Sarah: Yes, I definitely get in the zone when I’m lettering. Time tends to fade away and all of my attention is focused on the rhythm of creating individual letterforms and stringing them together to construct words. Although there is so much to consider like posture, grip, various materials, and letter structure, once your muscles learn how they’re supposed to move, it’s a bit like magic that the brain takes a backseat when you get in the flow.
Lisa: What are your hopes for the future of Arrow Art Studio?
Sarah: Mainly, I’m just hoping to keep Arrow Art Studio alive and continue to produce enough profit to spend my days making art. After 6 years, I’m finally feeling ready to start teaching lettering, so plans to lead some workshops and classes are on the horizon. I’d also like to grow into doing more illustration-based work as opposed to solely working on events. While I love working with clients, I’d like to explore offering goods in addition to providing a service.
Featured image: Sarah Dungan in her studio, photographed by Jess Rankin (jessrankin.com)