A Q&A with Gemma O’Brien: The Queen of Handlettering

If you don’t know the work of Gemma O’Brien, you should. She’s an Australian artist and designer who specializes in creating stunning handlettering and typography. A master letterer, she doesn’t spend all of her time doodling in front of her computer. Instead, you can usually find her creating large-scale typographic murals on gallery walls, creating gorgeous work for brands like Volcom, and serving up regular inspiration on her Instagram (@mrseaves101).

A photo posted by Gemma O’Brien (@mrseaves101) on

A photo posted by Gemma O’Brien (@mrseaves101) on

She is about to bring her skills to southern California with her new exhibition “MRS EAVES 101: The Hand-Painted Typography of Gemma O’Brien” at the Laguna College of Art + Design in Laguna Beach, California, March 3-26, 2016. During the exhibition, she’ll be creating her large-scale murals—a true treat to see in real life.

We caught up with O’Brien ahead of her exhibit to chat about her work, her inspirations, and her favorite letters in the alphabet.

What first attracted you to typography/handlettering?

When I finished secondary school I actually studied law before switching to design. In my first year at the College of Fine Arts in Sydney I had an opportunity to learn to set type by hand in the letterpress studio. This really sparked my interest in typography, because the metal letters were tangible; the rules of typography made a lot more sense to me when they were physical rather than limited to the computer programs. From that point forward I was obsessed with the history of typography, examples of signage and text in the environment around me, and I decided to focus on lettering and illustration in my own practice.

How would you describe your creative aesthetic?

I’m instinctually drawn to bold, black-and-white graphic visuals that are dynamic and detailed.

A photo posted by Gemma O’Brien (@mrseaves101) on

Are there any materials/mediums you’d like to experiment with that you haven’t before?

Definitely. While I love to work by hand, my practice to this point has been limited to drawing, painting, and digital work. I would love to spend time learning different printmaking techniques, explore translating some of my illustrations into three-dimension, and experiment with new calligraphic tools.

A photo posted by Gemma O’Brien (@mrseaves101) on

What are the best and most challenging parts of your work?

Embarking on large-scale murals was a challenging part of my work over the last couple of years. However, the more I do it, the easier the process becomes. On a conceptual level, I find the phase of idea generation always very challenging. I want to create work that satisfies a personal creative desire but also speaks to a wider audience, so at times choosing the right words and phrases to feature in my work can be difficult. The best part of my work is probably the variety in scale and technique I like to explore: I love the variation of working on a small-scale illustration one day and a huge mural the next.

A photo posted by Gemma O’Brien (@mrseaves101) on

Is there a historical document/famous piece of text you’d love to tackle?

I keep notes of interesting or meaningful quotes and passages of text, which I then revisit for different projects. There’s no one single historical document/famous piece of text that I have my eye one, but I do love the words of Alain de Botton and the lyrics of certain Australian ’80s rock songs, which I’m hoping to illustrate soon!

A photo posted by Gemma O’Brien (@mrseaves101) on

What’s your favorite letter in the alphabet to work with?  

When using a brush pen my favorite letters are “M” and lowercase “k.”

A photo posted by Gemma O’Brien (@mrseaves101) on

How do you get inspired when you feel creatively stuck?

Sometimes I wander around second-hand book stores—just to escape the computer and digital sources of inspiration. I also like to take a break from thinking creatively altogether. Often after days laboring in the studio for a new idea, it will come to me while riding my bike, falling asleep, or in the shower.

A photo posted by Gemma O’Brien (@mrseaves101) on

What would you name your personal font?

Well, my social media pseudonym (mrseaves101) was inspired by an existing font called Mrs Eaves (designed by Zuzana Licko in 1996), so in a way it already exists!

A photo posted by Gemma O’Brien (@mrseaves101) on

Since you’re an expert in all writing tools, what’s your go-to pen?

I love the Tombow Dual Brush Pen. It’s ideal for the brush script I love to draw, and the ink lasts for a long time.

A photo posted by Gemma O’Brien (@mrseaves101) on

Are there any trends in lettering/typography that you’re excited about (or any you want to see die)?

The trends of handlettering come and go so fast these days. There was the grand chalk trend of 2013, then brush styles and hand-lettered inspirational quotes. I think trends are always an insight into the things that connect with people but then become too repetitive. I like trying to understand what is driving a trend on a deeper level  and find other ways to meet that need. I think it’s good for young designers and aspiring typographers to look back to history of typography and printing rather than being inspired superficially by popular styles of the time.

A video posted by Gemma O’Brien (@mrseaves101) on

What are you most excited about for this upcoming exhibition?

I’m looking forward to the challenges of an unknown space, bringing my craft to Laguna Beach, and working with a team of student art assistants from LCAD.

Follow O’Brien on Instagram. And for more info on the exhibit, go to the LCAD site.

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