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The Art of Calligraphy

Introduction to Calligraphy

Calligraphy, the art of fine writing, has been practised for many centuries. It is a highly decorative art which also has many practical uses and has become popular once again as people rediscover the calligrapher’s scope for artistic expression.

Origins of Calligraphy

Calligraphy means simply ‘beautiful writing’, but is usually understood to mean writing as an art form. Before the advent of printing processes, all books were hand written by calligraphers. While the development of printed type almost killed calligraphy after the 15th century, the introduction of new colour reproduction methods and printing processes actually revived the idea of the book as a work of art. William Morris and John Ruskin became particularly interested in creating illustrated manuscripts which could be reproduced as part of the revival of interests in arts and crafts in Britain at the end of the 19th century. Their work inspired Edward Johnstone, who produced the book which is now widely known as the calligraphers bible. ‘Writing and Illuminating Letters’, published in 1906.

Basic techniques of Calligraphy

Calligraphy today is used in various ways; graphic shapes for poetry, wall hangings, rustic woodcuts, greetings cards, hand drawn illustrations, family trees, town maps, posters and certificates.  

Many calligraphers like to experiment, developing new and exciting techniques with colour, another idea is to use a piece of calligraphy as a guide for cutting out a stencil, which can then be used to make repeated patterns on fabric or paper.  

The main tools of the calligrapher are pens, inks and paper. Other equipment used includes; a drawing board or adjustable desk top which can be tipped up to a convenient angle to save bending, a smooth cutting surface, craft knife and steel rule for trimming sheets of paper accurately and cutting mounts; good lighting; a ruler and set square; scissors and tape; and masses of A3 layout paper (a translucent light weight paper) for planning out the designs.  

Pens – most calligraphers use penholders with interchangeable steel nibs, which are available from good art shops. Other professionals prefer to cut their own nibs from quills, using a special knife. Pens can also be cut, as ancient calligraphers used to, from bamboo cane or reed; and for Japanese calligraphy, special brushes have to be used to create the sweeping strokes.
Most amateurs, however, start with ready bought pens and nibs.  

Paints and inks – The pen is used to apply the inks, or colours, as professionals call them, to the paper.  
In fact, most calligraphers do not use ordinary inks, since they contain shellac to make them waterproof, and this tends to clog the nib. Tubes of water colour, designer’s gouache or cakes of water colour paint, mixed with water to an ink like consistency, give better results. Every artist has his or her own preference.  

Paper – the selection of paper will affect the final results. Ordinary writing paper, which is now available in a marvelous range of colours, can be used, or larger sheets of cartridge and other types of paper available from art shops.  

Different pens and different thicknesses of colour, combined with the texture of the paper, all affect the result.  
Traditionally, parchment (from sheepskin) and vellum (from calf skin) were used, but these are rather expensive and require special preparation.  

The art of calligraphy involves an appreciation of the direction and thickness of writing strokes, the proportion of the letters, the significance of serif and sans serif styles, the spacing of letters and words, and the arrangement of the lines of writing.

There are a great many formalized styles of handwriting used by calligraphers, but the styles do not have to be strictly adhered to. Skilled calligraphers will invariably introduce characteristic personal touches to their lettering.

A decorative element can be added to calligraphic work through the use of borders; simple rules, alternating dots and waves, and so on. Many calligraphers illuminate letters – usually the first letter of a poem or a chapter of a book – in much the same way as medieval manuscripts were decorated. These letters are known as versals.  


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