Knowing how to write was a huge privilege until a short century ago. Knowing how to write beautifully is still a privilege today.
In the day and age of texting, many of us have stopped caring about what our handwriting looks like. Recently, some people decided to even be outraged that schools make their students learn cursive writing.
Calligraphy, on the other hand, manages to survive no matter what. So, let’s get to meet and get to know the art of calligraphy.
Is Calligraphy Art?
It’s both an art form and a practical skill, but it’s more often treated as a skill only. In some people’s eyes, calligraphy becomes art only when it’s included or incorporated into another medium like painting or graphic design.
But it doesn’t take a lot for one to realize that it can both deliver a beautiful message and be a beautiful message all on its own.
In many Asian countries, on the other hand, it’s considered to be a proper art form. In Japan, an important part of the traditional tea ceremony is observing and appreciating the piece of calligraphy that is on display. In China, both modern and ancient pieces are traded for astronomical amounts of money.
The History of Calligraphy
Just like everything else, calligraphy was invented in China. But once it spread across the world, each continent started cultivating its own style.
European calligraphy starts in Ancient Rome. The beautiful lettering is clearly still visible carved on numerous statues and buildings we still have leftover from that period.
Ancient Rome also gave us Christianity and with it the tradition of monks copying the Bible by hand. During the Dark Ages, hand-copied books were the only kids on the block. Here we saw not only the development of what we now call the Blackletter font but also distinct ornate capital letters at the beginning of each page.
Once the printing press took over, humble scribes took over as record keepers. In the 16th and 17th centuries, we see an explosion in different writing styles, all coming from calligraphers who were tasked to write official documents.
The typewriter eventually pushed the handwriting out of official documents as well, and calligraphy slowly becomes an artisan skill. Even the records we have from the early and mid-20th century that were written by hand are not done in an ornate manner anymore. That is saved for special correspondence and texts only.
The earliest record of Chinese and calligraphy, in general, comes from 200BCE and Qin dynasty. A big part of Chinese education included copying classics, and a lot of importance was placed on one’s handwriting.
The written word in China was so important that one would have to kneel to receive the scroll with the Emperor’s decree. And if Emperor bestowed a piece of calligraphy? It was the greatest honor akin to a direct blessing from diety.
One of the traditional scripts, Kaishu, was spread in the 10th century and was the basis for the modern Simplified Han characters. The script is still used for artistic expression.
Chinese calligraphy had a huge influence on Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Each country eventually started developing its own style. The biggest leap happened in Korea with the invention of Hangeul, a phonetic alphabet that was designed to make as many people literate quickly as possible. Vietnamese calligraphy decided not to be outdone and completely dropped Chinese/Eastern characters and started using Latin ones.
Japan at first started setting rigorous rules as to which paper and ink one should use. However, Japanese calligraphy also accepted the most influence from other art movements, like expressionism.
Arabic and Indian Calligraphy
The Arabic alphabet is a truly fascinating thing. Did you know that just a tiny change in the position of a single dot can change the meaning of the entire word?
Anyway, it is quite possible that this style of calligraphy came to the Middle East at the same time as the Arabic numbers (that are known as Indian numbers in the region since they brought them over from India). However, the oldest surviving physical examples we still have today are from the middle of the 7th century in the form of the earliest version of Qura’an.
It’s considered that the golden age of Arabic (aka Islamic) calligraphy is from the 7th to the 11th century when the style truly developed into the one we know and recognize today.
But the oldest examples of Indian calligraphy date back to the 5th century in the form of the Gildit scripts. This is also the time we see it spreading through the trade routes and through Buddhist monks. The Devangari scrip itself was developed between the 1st and the 4th century. It continued evolving all the way until the 15th century when in started looking more like what we recognize today.
Edward Johnston – Father of Modern Calligraphy
In the 19th century, calligraphy experienced a bit of a renaissance through the arts and crafts movent, and the efforts of Edward Johnston, a British craftsman who is considered to be the father of modern calligraphy.
His books and teachings are singlehandedly credited for the revival of this art form in the West. In 1899, he opened a school in London, and he also published a book called Writing & Illuminating, & Lettering in 1906. He even created the typeface for the London Underground (that’s used even today).
As mentioned above, calligraphy is a very respected art form in certain parts of the world with regular exhibitions and showings. Closer to home, calligraphy is either a part of graphic design or used for other practical purposed.
Professional calligraphers are most likely to create invitations and name cards for important events, but also participate in more exciting projects like creating movie props or doing restorations.
How to Hold a Calligraphy Pen
The grip is very important. So much so, that you would probably spend countless hours practicing just how to hold the pen correctly.
Each writing tool has a slightly different grip that will work with it, but there are a couple of things that hold true with all of them. First, you must keep a firm but light hold of the writing tool of choice. And second, you have to mind what’s going on with the rest of your arm as well.
All styles of calligraphy (and all fonts) depend on fluid and confident movements to look good. Relying only on your hand to perform the necessary motion will limit the font size and how many strokes you can make in one go. And holding a pen too tight may lead to uneven lines, jagged corners, and irregular distribution of ink.
Once you start playing with the pen or the brush, you will notice that it is very similar to holding the chopsticks. Well, at least the bottom one. The tool should sit securely in the hand without being squeezed – mostly relying on the anatomy of your palm with minimal force applied to keep it in place.
For styles and tools that require more arm movement, that movement will usually come from the elbow.
The left-handed grip is not too different, but lefties may need to make a few adjustments depending if they are overwriters or underwrites. They may only need to place their paper at an angle, so the nib or the tip of the brush are pointing in the right direction.
Calligraphy Tools and Instruments
An expert calligrapher will create beautiful work with a regular pencil. But let’s look at some of the more traditional tools.
One of the original tools of the caligraphers is none other but the humble quill. We have far better tools now, ones that don’t involve animal cruelty and that are not as fragile and short-lived.
Quills needed regular sharpening and could not hold onto a lot of ink. Once we figured out how to make metal tips, it did not take long for them to be completely replaced.
Of course, if you are in the mood for something to flap around while you’re doing your work, you can buy nib holders and pens with feathers.
It may not be a type of pen you are thinking of, but it’s definitely the tool you will first have to tackle if you decide to learn calligraphy.
When we talk about calligraphy pens, we are usually talking about pen nibs and holders. Two styles of holders are dominant: the straight and the oblique.
Straight is, well, pretty straightforward. The oblique pen holder is the one that has the nib sitting on the side. It is designed to create perfect swirls ad slants and alternate the line thickness.
The magical world of pen nibs
Pen nibs is where the true fun begins. You may have a couple of pen nibs that are the same thickness, but a slight change in shape will give you completely different results when you’re writing out the same phrase in the same font.
Some calligraphers have dozens or even hundreds of nibs on hand. You can start building your collection with a basic start-up kit and allow yourself to expand it as you go along.
Keep in mind, that you can skimp out on almost everything else, but you want to invest in good nibs. As a student, you don’t have to take out a second mortgage to get the top of the line, but you will have to loosen up the purse strings somewhere down the line if calligraphy turns out to be more than a passing fancy.
You can do calligraphy with a fountain pen, but they are a bit limiting. Although you’ll manage to find a nice variety of nibs, they tend to not come in a larger size. This means that you will be limited to smaller fonts and would have to opt-out from playing with larger formats.
If you’re going down this route, know that your classic fountain pen will not get you far. It’s better to invest in one that either has replaceable nibs and/or is specifically designed for this purpose.
No, not talking about your No2 pencil. These are a bit more special and they are called java and handam pens respectively. They are the traditional tool for Arabic and Hindi calligraphy.
The nibs on java pens are made from Javanese thorn grass and are very sturdy and sharp. The handam pens are made from a single piece of wood and are known for being lightweight and not needing ink refills very often. Both types are ideal for achieving those distinct curves.
Brushes are essential for Japanese and Chinese calligraphy, but lately, they have become fashionable in the West as well. That swirly font that everyone is using for their graphics? Yup, that’s a brush font.
Of course, there is a bit of a difference in what each brush looks like depending on the style of calligraphy you want to do. There are also brushes that you can pre-load with ink for mess-free sessions.
Yes, you can use that permanent marker for calligraphy. But that’s not where it ends. There’s a whole host of different markers that can achieve some beautiful effects.
Some more contemporary styles and fonts are designed for classic markers. However, there are some that are designed for classic styles of calligraphy. For example, a brush-tip marker or markers with wide flat tips.
The quality of paper matters. While you can practice on plain copy or notebook paper, the quality of your work will depend on the quality of the paper as well.
Good paper weight is 140 gsm (grams per square meter). Bristol Paper, aka Bristol Board, is universally considered to be a good choice, no matter the style or tool. A smooth surface is better, but you can experiment with texture to see how it influences the design.
If you are enhancing the lettering with watercolors, you should look for paper that is at least partly made out of cotton. Otherwise, any other material is fine.
Calligraphy can get messy. Most calligraphers work with ink bottles, even though there are some pens and ink brushes that you can fill up with ink first.
Today, there are so many options to choose from. From traditional blacks and blues, to amazing duo-chrome and shades laced with golden pearl, to even neon colors that light up under UV light.
But if you’re in the mood for the eastern style of calligraphy, you’ll enter the wonderful world of inkstones and ink sticks.
Ink sticks are a type of solid ink that is traditionally made out of soot and animal glue. They can sometimes even be perfumed with herbs or incense, and they can be plain or pressed in an ornate shape. The soot can come from different sources to produce different types of ink, while there are also versions with added pigments for creating colored ink.
To use an ink stick you should grind it on the inkstone and add enough water for the desired consistency and pigmentation.
How to Learn Calligraphy
In the age of the internet, you can go online and download a few templates and practice sheets, and just get to it. There are books and apps that can help you with that, too.
The process of learning calligraphy is very similar to the one you had to go through when you were learning to write cursive when you were a child. It’s mostly just copying and practice.
If you’re struggling (or if you are a lefty), you may want to look into classes. For lessons in person, look into your local calligraphers and see if they offer classes and workshops. If you live close to a school that has art and design courses, get in touch and see if they have classes that are open to the rest of the public.
In the end, you can also check out sites like Skillshare and Udemy for calligraphy courses.
What Is Fancy Writing Called?
Is it the same thing as calligraphy, or is there another term? Though calligraphy fits the definition, there are so many writing styles that can fit in here.
As long as you add extra swirls and designs to your writing, it will be fancy. To elevate it to the lever of a proper calligrapher, well that will take a lot more effort and practice.
Until then, there’s “good penmanship”. Even today, having beautiful handwriting is considered to be a great accomplishment. Unfortunately, many of us ignore developing this skill because they think it’s unnecessary in the age of texting and the internet.
However, that only increases the value of handwritten notes and letters. Writing out best wishes in your own hand means more than whatever card you can pick up at the local store. Even though it may sound like something coming out of a Jane Austin novel, good handwriting is even today taken as a sign of culture, breeding, and intellect. The letters don’t have to be perfect, but at least must not look like a child sketched them out with crayons. And unlike calligraphy, good penmanship is something you can practice and master with no special tools.
I’m a stay at home mom with our two kids. I really enjoy doing crafts with my kids however, that is typically a challenge with how limited their attention span can be and how messy it gets. So, I’m always looking for ways to make crafting an enjoyable experience and creating fond memory for all of us.