Tuesday, July 14, 2009

calligraffia chats with David McGrail

For the next in our series of calligrapher’s interviews I’m thrilled to introduce our chat with the marvelous David McGrail. For the uninitiated, David is a designer 'with a passion for calligraphy’ (his words exactly), living and working in Dublin, Ireland. It’s no surprise to me then to learn that he is a long-time friend and colleague of Denis Brown, with whom he has co-designed and authored a number of issues of ‘The Edge’ - I’m equally unsurprised to learn that David was the first recipient of the CLAS Advanced Diploma of Calligraphy, is a CLAS fellow, and has received numerous awards and honours for his spectacular work.

Gemma Black, also a long-time friend and admirer of David eagerly suggested calligraffia highlight this fabulous calligrapher - so without any furt
her fawning from me I’ll hand over to Gemma and David… enjoy!

Two wolves –
Coloured pencil drawing of fighting wolves,
watercolour marks, mixed media with gold and silver powders

Gemma B: David, welcome to calligraffia!

David Mc:
Thank you for inviting me to do this interview for Calligraffia, Gemma – I’m honoured. Your website has an excellent reputation – it’s great to see so much enthusiasm and encouragement for the calligraphic arts. It covers a great deal and it’s especially good that you continually update it with new work and fresh information. Talking about myself doesn’t come easy. Having a tooth extracted comes to mind as a somewhat similar feeling!

GB: David, with Denis Brown you have co-authored three issues of 'the Edge', the Journal of the Calligraphy and Lettering Arts Society UK CLAS . An issue in 1997, 2005 and 2008. It appears that between the two of you, you made decisions to prepare different articles yet they seem to gel as an overall publication. How did you and Denis develop your plans for these now much sort after publications?

DMc: Being close friends, discussion and on occasion, argument, about calligraphy over a pint and a meal have been an enduring feature of our friendship over the past 20 years. Denis’s love of and mastery in calligraphy inspired me at my first class with him and that has strengthened over the years. We both enjoy dancing to different calligraphic tunes yet we always keep faith with the fundamentals of beauty and harmony. So when it came to the Edge (the CLAS publication), we each had a pretty well-developed sense of the other’s needs and priorities. While we talked a lot about the look and feel of it beforehand, we worked individually on our own articles and layout. But it was with a consciousness of the other’s work and in the context of the overall publication. As Denis has a design background and I work as a designer, this aspect of the Edge mostly fell into place.

Vibrant Lines
Design for the cover of the CLAS Festival of Calligraphy 2009 brochure

GB: Your students dubbed you the Holy McGrail, how did this come about and are you comfortable with the honorary title which obviously is a mark of respect (personally I love it and it is very clever)?

: Now I am delving into the past. Yes, my students at Dun Laoghaire College of Art did call me that alright. Students often begin to search for miracles around March and April in their final year. I couldn’t oblige with miracles, but I was passionate about opening their eyes/exposing them to possibilities/different ways of seeing that they could bring to their work. Trying to forge a creative identity in the context of a college project is not easy for students. They get bogged down in satisfying others’ often divergent criteria rather than enjoying the process and looking inside themselves for answers. Giving them space to reflect on their project and its meaning for them rekindles their self-belief and often reveals possibilities to them; ideas can surface that enable them to produce work that surprises themselves. Often too, the difference between a seemingly ordinary work and an extraordinary work is a small sideways step. Recognising that can only happen when people are able to tap into their own deep resources.

GB: David, your work has a spiritual presence, a good sense of self, obvious excellent design, sensuality and depth of meaning. What and or who have been your influences perhaps starting with your formative years?

My first job after graduating was as an illustrator at the Natural History Museum in London. There in the cavernous bowels of that beautiful building I spent my time drawing all manner of animal. That solitudinous time spent in the close-up company of dead creatures was a very curious and rich experience. I became fascinated with the structural form of even the tiniest insect. In time, the structural form of illustration deepened to a more artistic perception of form as substance. To this day, I find so many things interesting – whether it is in the beauty of rain storms or the grand vaulted roof of a medieval cathedral – they all enthral me. And cathedrals have other characteristics that I love – emptiness, space and quietude. They are testament to human endeavour and commitment. In a way, they are qualities that I would like to emulate in my work. Emptiness is the space for our imaginations. Finitude is for instructions and signage.
Moving on from illustration to design after five years was a natural progression for me. I could indulge my passion for white space in my role as art editor for the publishers, Dorling Kindersley. What was absent or left unsaid was as important as what was visible. The sheerer a design is, the more successful it is. To me, an ideal design is like a haiku: it conveys a story in a simple, lean way, through metaphor. It is pared to its essence – one stroke, a hint, an atmosphere. Indeed, I found the aesthetics in Japanese culture echoed my own idea of design: it embodies simplicity, mystery and suggestion.

Japanese concertina – Intangible,
concertina book double sided limited edition
inspired by Japanese aesthetic principles, mixed media. 20 pages


Some years later I was seduced by calligraphy and began the long haul journey. What I liked about calligraphy was its propensity to unruliness. The riskiness of it was a welcome counterfoil to the meticulous planning of book grids and type design. I wove its spontaneity, the unexpected accidents, into my design work.

Most calligraphic work that I do never sees the light of day. The pieces live for the moment. I like doing them but finishing them invariably eludes me. The pleasure is in the process. Assembling ideas or just thinking about possibilities; taking things apart and re-working them; discovering connections between things are very satisfying to me. I find inspiration in many different areas. My bookshelves reveal my eclectic sources. As well as my calligraphic books with work from many traditions – I love the mysterious qualities found in Oriental brush and Arabic pen work – I enjoy delving into architecture, philosophy, literary criticism, fine art. They all absorb me.
In the end, perhaps I’m a mirror to the world - always reflecting.
In a direct way, all the wonderful teachers at workshops over the years have given me great encouragement and inspired me and influenced my work in one way or another.

Arabic on black
Arabesque pen manipulations in gold watercolour on black paper

GB: In your business, Q Design, you work in partnership with your life-partner, the equally talented Hilary Wardrop. How much do the two of you draw from each other and how do you prepare your work, collaboratively or separately? Is it an easy task to draw the line between the relationship and the work?

DMc: I think the reason our design business is successful is because we brought totally different talents to it. Hilary studied law and had worked in systems analysis and computer sales – a world apart from my background. So our separate skills seemed to gel. For me, Q Design gave me the opportunity of producing work that I wanted to and Hilary enjoyed the challenge of breaking into a new business. For us both, it was a great freedom to wave goodbye to 9 to 5 commute jobs. Years later, many of our clients that gave us work when we started are still with us. We both share the responsibilities and still revel in it and, miraculously, we’re still together despite seeing each other 24/7.
Generally, Hilary discusses the project with the client and, depending on the requirements, one or other of us will work on it; then at a certain point, we’ll come together to discuss our thoughts and ideas. So we both have input into all our work and it has become an integral part of our life.

Concertina Neruda – If only you would.
Limited edition concertina book, mixed media. 14 pages (detail)

GB: One final question David - are you working on any calligraphic projects at present that you can share with us?

DMc: Yes indeed. Browsing in a secondhand bookshop, I came across a worn biography of Jeanne d’Arc which was fascinating for its detailed and erudite account of her life and trial. It provides a day-by-day account of the last two years of her life and a complete verbatim transcript of her trial.
One of the most puzzling and amazing things about Jeanne was her ability to answer her interrogators in such a direct and resolute way. Here was a young 19-year old girl from a rural peasant family, uneducated and unworldly, yet showing an agility of mind, an intuitive knowledge of military strategy and a maturity and wisdom that was inexplicable.
What I found intriguing were her replies to the ruthless questioning–often trick questions to catch her out. She answered with simple honest integrity, guided by her intuition. She showed an incredible sharpness of mind, a penetrating wisdom which at its heart was simply common sense. This went far beyond a normal intellectual response .
There was a simplicity to her profound, unshakeable faith that the combined might of the church and its political accomplices found impossible to subvert. In the end, they could only convict on a specious charge in order to sentence her to death.
I was greatly moved by the detailed accounts of her trial and my current work, a triptych, grew out of this. My reaction was not a religious one, but an intellectual curiosity in the way she thought.

Panel 1 - Visions
Here is the calmness of certainty.
Jeanne’s supreme confidence that came
from her convictions enabled her to take control
and lead fearlessly into battle.
She commands the respect and admiration of all.

I have for some time been interested in contemporary stained glass window design – there is a fractured quality that appeals to me. Using the shape and feel as a basic structure, I built on that in layers of watercolour, mixed media and calligraphy. Each panel follows a similar structure of a main image combined with a few stark and direct words. A reminder of Jeanne’s integrity. Some of the lines are in French to bring us back to her own language. At the bottom are personal quotes about her in varied coloured capitals that give a rich trembling effect – a hint of the unsettled life that Jeanne was to experience. In essence, her life represents the triumph of intuitive understanding over the power of the applied logic of the institutions.

Panel 2 - Justice
This panel represents the beginning of the conflicts and
a gradual deterioration of events.
Jeanne never understood the betrayals and the
political intrigues that were endemic in the world she had entered.

Panel 3 - Betrayed

This panel represents her final days –
her world has disintegrated; she has been betrayed
by those whom she had admired.
Her cruel death by fire, however,
is a final liberation where she becomes a role model
for all those who seek honesty and freedom.

(click on pics for larger view)

Thank you, Rhonda and Gemma, for giving me this opportunity to show my work. I hope your viewers find it interesting.

Thanks Gemma and David both - what FABULOUS work and words!


  1. WOW!
    "Emptiness is the space for our imaginations" - love it.
    David, you bring the best of graphic design and calligraphy together - your work is stunning! Would love to see the actual pieces.

    Thanks for bringing this interview to us, calligraffia!

  2. I was lucky enough to be taught by David while studying Visual Communications at IADT (www.iadt.ie) back in the 1990s. Along with Senator Eoghan Harris (who continues to teach there), David's classes/workshops were indispensable and were crucial to my development as a student and latterly as a designer.

    His workshop notes/handouts (all of which I've retained) were beautifully written and beautifully designed. Each workshop combined practical exercises and visual techniques with experimental design processes and visual researching methods.

    In particular, I remember a fantastic workshop titled 'Exploring Synesthesia' which directly contributed to my awareness of the metaphorical potential of materials – an awareness which has been of great benefit to me as a working designer.

    Like many designers, I split my working life between studio work and teaching. When speaking to students I often find myself quoting David. 'You have to lose sight of the shore to discover new lands.' was one of David's favourite sayings, and one which I continually repeat.

    Thank you David, you were and remain a massive inspiration.

    Oran Day, 05.05.11

  3. The Jeanne d'Arc pieces have all the hallmark characteristics of the tension between fragility and strength captured in your own very unique way. The insights and wisdom you shared in the workshops come flooding back.

    Like Oran I still have the beautiful notes you shared with us and actually came across this article searching to see if by chance you had ever compiled them in a publication. They still resonate today and provide a portal back to fond memories of learning to unlearn, travelling uncharted waters and finding overlooked and forgotten avenues. Many thanks.