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The Master Penman


Artist Robert DiSilvestro has taken penmanship to a whole new level with his mastery of calligraphy and engrossing. 

Commercial sign artist Robert DiSilvestro is making it his mission to bring back the dying art of penmanship, specifically calligraphy and engrossing.

He points out, however, it’s not a lighthearted hobby for people who expect to succeed in a day.

“Just because you buy a pen for calligraphy doesn’t make it calligraphy,” the Crystal Lake resident said.

It’s all about the right supplies like using Chinese ink sticks. It’s about the proper technique, like pen strokes that take 10 to 15 minutes to make it just right, DiSilvestro said. It takes weeks and months to get right. It takes years to master.

“You have to have the talent, but most importantly, the patience,” he said. “You have to have the willpower to succeed. You have to make strokes — 3,000, 4,000, 5,000 to learn how to handle the pen. You have to practice for hours and learn the lettering, the style, the spacing, the colors and how to lay it out on the document, diploma — what you are working on.”

Once-in-a-Lifetime Opportunity

DiSilvestro, a native of Italy by way of Paris, moved to Chicago with his family in 1960. He had learned the art of hand lettering signs at the Paris School of Beaux Arts in France. He said he didn’t really have an interest in calligraphy then, but in Chicago, he was given the opportunity to learn calligraphy and get a job doing it. He fell in love with it and mastered it.

“I didn’t speak English, but a Belgian who spoke French interpreted for me,” he said. “The boss [of an art studio] wanted to know if I wanted to learn calligraphy. I saw it and it was the most beautiful work I had ever seen. I figured, I had been hand lettering, why not [try]?”

He also knew it was a way to secure a living. He learned what he could from his teacher — and then stayed up late nights practicing.

“My mom would ask, ‘What are you doing?’” he said. “I would practice my [pen] strokes from 9 p.m. until 2 a.m. until my arm couldn’t [move]. I told my mother the only way to be employed by the studio was to do calligraphy and I had to earn my position.”

After 40 days, he said he proved he was ready and applied for the job.

“There were 10 artists and I was the youngest,” he said. “I was earning $3.28 an hour; that’s quite a lot of money at that time.”

DiSilvestro worked creating diplomas, testimonials, certificates and other documents of distinction for about 20 years. He learned engrossing, which is a step up from calligraphy. He would create elaborate letters that were embellished in gold and were typically used as the first letter of a person’s first and last name, or the first letter of a proclamation.

Since the 1980s, he said he has worked as a commercial sign artist, but his passion remains in calligraphy.

Sharing His Secrets

DiSilvestro said the art of engrossing lost a lot of appeal in the early 1980 when organizations such as universities and colleges began to spend less on documents. A proclamation or testimonial done in calligraphy can take more than seven hours to create and can cost hundreds of dollars.

“Now it can be done on plastic for about $25,” he said.

But he doesn’t want to see the artwork fade away.

“I’m finally ready to share my secrets,” the 73-year-old artist said. “It’s time.”

For the past year, he’s taken on students for private lessons at his studio at 820 E. Terra Cotta Ave. in Crystal Lake.

He can also be found demonstrating his work at the Crystal Lake Hobby Lobby from about 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays through Christmas.

This is the first time he’s started to show off how he does his work.

“I had one man say, ‘I’ve seen all kinds of artists, but never calligraphy,’” DiSilvestro said. “The man added, ‘That looks perfect.’ I told him that it couldn’t be. Each letter is slightly different. It’s handmade. If you want perfect, get a computer or a machine. This is custom. It’s handmade.”

About Engrossing

Flourishing in the United States from the late 1800s through mid-1900s, engrossing is an art form where a body of text – usually congratulatory or memorializing in content – is designed and ornamented with elaborate border treatments and decorative words and letters. Engrossers tended to be a combination of master penmen, illustrator and designer. Source: International Association of Master Penmen and Teachers of Handwriting

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