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Talking calligraphy with Kirsten Burke

Updated: Apr 6, 2020

 One of the most in-demand & respected calligraphers  in the UK, Kirsten discusses her distinctive take on the traditional craft of calligraphy. Using either brush or nib, she turns words into images in a way that is totally unique. 

Below: Kirsten uses her calligraphy to make bold and colourful pieces.

"I’ve always loved being creative, and particularly hand lettering. I did an art foundation course, followed by a degree in Graphic Design. Halfway through the course, the hand drawing techniques we’d been learning were replaced with creating layouts using computers. This didn’t appeal to me! Happily, I managed to persuade my tutors to let me complete my degree using just hand lettering. I even wrote my dissertation by hand – and the rest is history! "

How did you develop your calligraphy skills? I wanted to be a professional calligrapher but I preferred to concentrate on bold pieces using vibrant colours, splashes and abstract shapes. I knew that I needed to learn the rules and foundations of formal calligraphy to be taken seriously as a professional. I was accepted into the Roehampton course in traditional calligraphy, and gained a full understanding and respect for the craft. 

You work with nib and brush, so what are the differences? Which is your favourite? Although the pressure and release is the same for both the brush and a pointed nib, they produce very different results. Nib work is lovely for smaller, delicate pieces, while brush is great when working big. My favourite tool is the brush, it’s so flexible and creative, and I love to work large!

How did you become a professional calligrapher? 

I got a part-time job teaching calligraphy to adults in West London. As well as doing that, I designing internal signage for the All Bar One chain of restaurants. My school friend Jill ran one of their bars in the City of London, and she saw an opportunity. She approached All Bar One to put on an exhibition at her branch whilst it was closed over the week-end.

It was so successful that the pieces hung at the site for a month, and then toured other All Bar One restaurants around the country. It was following this exhibition that the work was noticed by artistic director at the Globe Theatre. He approached Kirsten to create a 13-metre mural for permanent display within Sam Wanamaker's newly rebuilt replica on the South Bank in London, which led to more commissions. 

What are the biggest delights and challenges of running the business with your best friend? We work perfectly together because we bring such totally opposite things to the business. She is logical and thinks strategically; I process everything visually. We never compete – we complement each other.

We respect and trust each other completely as neither one of us could do the other one’s job. We get to work with and meet some amazing people and have travelled all over the place installing our art. The biggest challenge is when she’s checking my spelling on a final piece – we both keep our fingers and toes crossed and hold our breath! 

Have you ever had any disasters or made any mistakes? Once I finished a piece that had taken three hours, but as I pulled the masking tape holding the artwork to the drawing board away I ripped the paper and had to start all over again. I always imagine that my first version of a piece that I’m working on is a run through. That way, I take the pressure off myself and if it works out first time I am pleasantly surprised!

Where do you most like to work on your designs? I’m really lucky that I work in a beautiful studio, only 10 minutes from my home.

What do you like to do when you’re not in the studio? I have two young daughters, so most of my free time is spent with them – we love a walk along the beach, and my favourite thing is to potter around in the garden. 

What new projects do you have coming up? We’re rolling out workshops around the UK, tutors will deliver the workshops that we have developed, so that we can offer classes all over the country. Plus, we are running masterclasses which teach professional calligraphers the tips and tricks they need to do live event calligraphy work. 

We are busy creating mock ups for the luxury brands we work with, ready for their Christmas campaigns. These are then used as assets for our team of calligraphers across the UK to follow. This means the style of calligraphy for every brand is consistent, no matter which store, and in which town the calligraphy personalisation is taking place.

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