Introduction to Calligraphy
I am writing this article with the intention of clarifying a few things about calligraphy, and to hopefully shed some light on misunderstandings about this beautiful art form.
In my opinion, calligraphy suffers from an image problem. I find that people associate it with older people writing religious texts and with wedding invitations! But calligraphy is much more than that.
In recent years, calligraphy is undergoing a revival, which makes me really happy.
Calligraphy vs Lettering vs Typography
Calligraphy is the act of writing letters with relatively simple strokes, looking for a rhythm. When writing calligraphy, we can see the direct movement of our hand and the shape of the tool we are using, through observing the letterforms.
In addition, calligraphy can serve as the basis for creating new fonts and through the study of negative and positive spaces, balance, composition, rhythm and expression of the line it becomes an art form.
However, if we are only drawing letters or building the elements of each letter with several strokes, re-touching and re-drawing them, we are not talking about calligraphy but lettering.
Typography on the other hand, reproduces handwritten or drawn letters, creating a categorised system that allows us to build type compositions at any time.
You can read a great article about this topic by Joseph Alessio who says:
“Calligraphy is based on penmanship; it’s essentially writing letters. Lettering, on the other hand, is based on draftsmanship, meaning drawing letters. Typography was, and has continued to be, primarily the skill of setting type.”
Back to the future
The origin of our Latin alphabet is the Roman Empire. Around 1 AD, the most formal and elevated letterforms were the Roman Capitals (Capitalis Monumentalis). These letters are an expression of the Roman Classical beauty of the time.
In the past, as it is today, knowledge is power. Two thousand years ago not many people could read or write, which means that the vast majority of the population saw the Roman inscriptions as an aesthetic form of art, but could not necessarily read the message. Much like political campaigns today, Roman inscriptions represented the power of Rome and promoted the message of the Emperor in charge.
For the last twenty centuries, letterforms have been intrinsically linked to all other forms of art. Roman Classic Beauty is reflected in the Romanesque cathedrals, Roman sculpture and painting as well as writing. When the Gothic spirit appeared a few centuries later, this new trend influenced architecture, sculpture, fashion, painting and of course writing.
Apart from trends, the other game changer in any significant cultural development is technology. From the Roman period through the Renaissance and into the Internet era, technology has shaped art and culture, changing the tools we work with.
David Gates summarises this idea very well on his must-read Lettering for Reproduction:
“From the beginning, our Latin alphabet has been defined by alternating thick and thin strokes. This is the natural result of the western writing tool: the flat brush or broad pen made of reed or quill. This tool produces, with a minimum of strokes, letters that have good legibility and a pleasant distribution of thick-and-thin forms. By altering letter proportions and pen positions, the scribes were capable of producing a great variety of styles, each of which contributed to the evolutional development of the alphabet. It is important to recognize that during fifteen centuries of development (from the Roman period to the Renaissance) every style of writing was a reflection of the concurrent cultural atmosphere and technology, and also, that the least successful of styles often provided unique ideas for later significant developments.”
As Oriol Miró explains below:
“Roman Capitals, and all letters in general, are not isolated forms. When they form words inside a text and when their counter forms (white spaces) are defined, then letters take their full value and function.
We can appreciate why letters have a specific shape (black), and not any other, when white spaces are defined. Like architects define physical spaces and musicians distribute silences, we set white spaces.”
In Calligraphy, thick and thin strokes flow naturally from a broad-edged pen. We define white spaces while writing letters, and we must see these spaces before executing the black strokes.
These few basic concepts, thick/thin and black/white, are the foundations of our script and with experience, they become intuitive.
Let’s talk about tools
The broad pen (made of reed or quill) is the traditional tool used for writing, but it is not the only one. I use a range of different tools, from traditional German nibs to contemporary pens that I carry in my handbag, to customised nibs made of beer tins. These are some of my tools:
Photo by Rocio Delapenna. From left to right: Copic Wide, Liquitex pen marker, Pentel chisel point M180, broad pencil, bamboo pen, customized beer tin nib, sponge, flat brush, Pilot parallel pens (1.5mm, 2.4mm, 3.8mm and 6mm), Brause & Co 5mm and Speedball steel brush.
These tools reflect my personal taste and are not a definitive list. You can use any of these tools to write styles of calligraphy including but not limited to skeleton Roman Capitals, Carolingian, Gothic and Italic styles among others.
As I mentioned before, changing tools affects the look and feel of the writing style, and also its speed.
I woke up today feeling like Copperplate
“In the late 16th century, the Italic hand, written with a broad-edged pen, drifted towards a more decorative and fancy style. The script that was born to achieve speed [Italic] turned into a slower script, because calligraphers gave more importance to the aesthetics and decorative effects than to the structure and legibility. To reach even more decorative effects they used a drawing pointed pen instead of the broad-edged one. The script that appeared then is what we call Copperplate.” by Oriol Miró.
Copperplate is characterised by high contrast between the thick-and thin strokes, elegant curves and slow writing.
If you woke up today feeling like Copperplate, you can use a range of tools from traditional English pointed nibs to contemporary brushes.
Photo by Rocio Delapenna From left to right: William Mitchell Elbow nib (for right handers), Tombow pen, Pentel Touch Pentel, Sharpie brush, Pentel Salmon colour Brush, Daiso brush pen, Pentel Blue colour Brush and pointed brush (5 Rekab 337 Sable-Ox) which Carla Hackett totally masters!
Another tool that I love using is the ruling pen. This tool, contrary to the traditional pointed nib, is much faster and brings a greater expression to your letterforms. In general terms, the faster the writing the higher control you will need.
Photo by Oriol Miró
Ruling pen calligraphy by Oriol Miró
Calligraphy has a long and rich history and we are experiencing a revival of this beautiful art form in the hands of young people pushing boundaries and taking calligraphy back to the streets again two thousand years later. One great example of the calligraphy come back is the so-called calligraffiti, and the work of one of his ambassadors, Pokras Lampas.
“Social Streetart Calligraphy” by Pokras Lampas. Published on Behance in December 8, 2012
Pompeii. Photograph taken c. 1920 shows graffiti from Pompeii around 79 AD. Most of the graffiti was destroyed during World War II. By author unknown – printed by Edizione Domenico Trampetti, Napoli.
I will leave you with this paragraph from my teacher and great calligrapher Oriol Miró:
Special thanks to my teachers Keith Adams, Amanda Adams and Oriol Miró for sharing their time and knowledge with me.
“Calligraphy is not only writing beautiful letters. It is not about clean strokes and decorated letters. Calligraphy distinguishes itself and becomes an art because is made of rhythmic and irregular strokes, a sequence of lively spaces and unconscious strokes that are the result of hundreds of hours of practice and full attention.”
Calligraphy and Typography, Oriol Miró Genovart
Minúscula Itàlica, Oriol Miró Genovart
Understanding the difference between type and lettering, Joseph Alessio
Lettering for Reproduction, David Gates
How to get started in Calligraphy, Seb Lesber
Cover Photo by Lauren Abbott. Tractor Design School in Melbourne.