Ian Barnard, lettering artist and influencer


In its most basic form, a lettering artist draws letters. Rather than using fonts, I draw letters and words by hand, combining calligraphy, lettering and typography, which means I can add character and insert letters around my subject.

It’s a bit like deciding to buy a suit on a hanger that you know will fit roughly, or go to a tailor to get one that fits your shape perfectly. It is a work of illustration rather than handwriting. My handwriting is still terrible, but if I spend time writing a few letters, it looks good.

I was 34 when I started picking up a pen, even though I was a graphic designer. When our second child was born, my wife started watching Downton Abbey. That’s great, but I’m not a fan of period dramas; so i picked up a dummy calligraphy guide and discovered that i really like copper engraving. Downton Abbey changed my life. . .

Every day I practiced drawing a letter in the traditional way with a fountain pen and ink. I’m glad I did, because although I mostly use an iPad with a digital pen, I still use traditional construction techniques for the letters.

It was a very gradual 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 producing my own digital brushes for the iPad and producing fonts.

I mainly create personalized lettering for brands, including book covers, posters, logos, murals or on instruments like violins and guitars. I even made large-scale letters that said ‘The future belongs to the curious’ in the black sands of Iceland, using rakes, shovels and drones for an online learning platform, killshare.

I’m pretty messy and I once spilled an entire bottle of ink in our living room – my wife said that was the last time I could work in there. At the moment I’m using Japanese calligraphy brushes, but actually a Crayola washable marker is a great pen for the hobbyist. With practice, you can achieve both thick and thin lines by changing the angle and even using pressure.

One of my first jobs was for a nearby church that I had made Christmas carol posters for. I offered to make one by hand to practice my skills, and they liked it. I did hand lettering for a Salvation Army t-shirt, then a poster for Speedo and initials for Ted Baker shoe bags.

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

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

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

This is probably the biggest we’ve done so far. Because I’m doing it live, people are bound to ask me questions, and I can’t wait to tell people what I saw with Tearfund in Colombia. The design must take into account the time spent talking.

A little over ten years ago, a team of us from my church visited Tearfund’s work in Cambodian churches on HIV prevention and education. I loved how they were holistic, mindful of people’s spiritual and 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 Venezuelan and Colombian children together to participate in art, music and dance. It emphasizes their cultural similarities rather than their differences to promote integration into the community and reduce xenophobia. Everyone there was a volunteer. Loira, the art teacher, impressed me. She used art to help children express their identity. She used Bible stories as inspiration and Jesus as a model.

I brought a load of materials from the UK, including canvases and paint markers for children to personalize their own letters, making up the word “HELLO “. I gave them ideas, but they were able to find their own to express their creativity.

Colombia was bright and vibrant. I usually use a more restrained color palette, but Colombia pushed me to animate 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. Wealthier areas had standard vinyl signs from major brands that were impersonal and uninspiring.

I met Zuleima, who had come from Venezuela, escape from a terrible situation there. Thanks to 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 carried her forward. She created art from driftwood and scraps and generated income to buy tools to increase her production.

When I was in a youth group, I felt that Jesus’ words had meaning, like a light bulb moment. Since then it has been a constant journey of trying to figure out how God wants to use me, and where, especially my creativity. I regularly do artwork for my church, and at least one artwork has brought in someone new, which is really encouraging.

I’m not a great leader or a great preacher; so it’s good to be used as an artist. People do not first see what is inside a church: they see the outside; so it’s good when posters spark interest and encourage people to ask questions. I did a live mural next to the concert of a Christian musician who said: “Broken but redeemed”. People have told me that makes them really optimistic; so that was really encouraging too.

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

I would like to drive an RV across America with my family. There are so many different environments: deserts, beautiful beaches, dense forests, cities. We’ve been to New York and Boston for our honeymoon, and I’ve been to design conferences and Apple events several times. I would like the children to know all the different cultures there. But we just got a new puppy.

I am happiest spending time outdoors with my family.

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

The sound of the sea and the chirping of birds early in the morning is the most reassuring sound for me.

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

I didn’t think we would have a war like this, and feel helpless watching the news, but our church has two or three families here, and my son has two Ukrainian children in his class; so we accept them and make sure they feel welcomed and valued. We model Jesus for them, and pray for a resolution to the atrocities, and that something good can come out of such a bad situation.

Above all, I pray for the spiritual well-being of my children.

If I was locked up in a church with someone, I would 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 supports Tearfund’s Recover, Restore, Rejoice campaign at the Big Church Day Out festival, June 3-4. www.tearfund.org/bigchurchdayout


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