world calligraphy day

My father is a self taught calligrapher. He taught me the rudiments of italics and other hands after a teacher complained about my handwriting. I continued to practice italics at an amateur level for years, repeating my shaky upright alphabet on large-square graph paper – and trying to distinguish myself from my father’s brand, which was tiny, perfect slanted italic on green-tinted computer coding forms, and later tiny copperplate on colored card. I never went much beyond my one alphabet, though I taught it to other people, notably in an ESP summer class, in which one of my friends learned to forge my writing. (I’m not naming names, but he has worked in positions of responsibility in the securities industry.)

Last month I attended my own first lettering class at a local art shop, taught by a prizewinning scribe who impressed us at once by saying she still takes instruction from an even higher guru, in the manner of Margot Fonteyn showing up for morning class with de Valois.

The hand of the day was modern calligraphy, the characteristic display style of the 2010s, the hipster anti-font font, ubiquitous in logos, signs, cards, bullet journals. Meghan Markle most likely used it when she was doing professional lettering. My former officemate C does a very nice modern hand. Modern calligraphy is everywhere, the tutor said: “It seems to meet a need people have for craftsmanship, using the right tools, application and repetition to create something beautiful.”

The other participants were accomplished at what the art people call mark making. Several had taken previous seminars with the same teacher, some were artists and art instructors, and one was a dentist. The tutor said one of the benefits of handwriting instruction for children is to develop fine motor control needed by dentists and surgeons (and veterinarians and machinists and watchmakers and acupuncturists and tailors). Indeed, there is a 2009 national handwriting strategy.

Feeling very Ronald Searle.

Easier than expected: writing with a dip pen. Anne of Green Gables complained that she could not express herself with a bad pen, and I used to think, well of course, you’re using a dip pen. The ones I had tried were toys with stiff nibs, scratchy and splotchy. It turns out that a really flexible nib with good ink and paper writes fluidly and produce the most delicate lines I have ever seen. The dentist was especially good at this.

You do have to redip every three or four letters, but that still gives enough time to establish some rhythm. The India ink we used was viscous and clung to the metal and the paper. My pages stayed perfectly clean. The tutor said she keeps a folded paper towel under her hand just in case, and also so the oil from her hand won’t change the surface of the paper.

Harder than expected: Finding out what can be varied to give the impression of freedom within unity, regularity within variation. Letting go of the quest for perfect consistency. Modern calligraphy looks fast but must be done slowly and calmly; it looks random but has its own rules. You have to move more of the arm, often while manipulating an offset nib as if by remote control (I gave up on that and went back to an ordinary nib).

Student next to me: I feel that I’m just doing bad copperplate. 

We learned to bounce, tilt and space out letters – the bouncing in particular is widely used to communicate joy. As the tutor said, you would not use this hand to sign a sympathy card. It’s the sort of hand you see on messages of congratulations, in shops that sell small frivolous things, in affirmations for office walls. We did some affirmations in felt-tip brush pen.

It is wonderful to be without doing anything.

Student next to me: You have to decide how bonkers you want to go. 

Also easier than expected: Using metallic inks, which are a suspension of metal dust in water with a little gum arabic, or rather they are gummy dust which has to be mixed with water and coddled for a while before using. I had planned to texture the moon surface with gold fingerprints, but decided that this was best as a minimal treatment and did the finger printed moon on a separate leaf.

The art shop was exceptionally well set up for instruction. We were on the quiet second floor, in a space lined with drawers and equipped with a kitchen and a Japanese hot water dispenser for coffee, as well as two toilets. Each place down the long table was laid with an inclinable drawing board and other basic supplies. At one point I needed masking tape to fix clean tracing paper over my rough, and there on the wall right behind me was a whole library of masking tapes. An art cockpit, everything within hand’s reach.

I began to regret throwing out all our old inks in the house clearout last year, even though they were mostly sedimented and would have clogged even the simplest dip nib. This set was already ornamental when I discovered it in the attic in 1977:

Now that I know the basics of a new hand, the question is what to use it for. Snarky office signs? Demo placards for protest marches? Start sending holiday cards again? Any friends planning a second or third wedding and need some place markers? Apart from goals, the biggest challenge in continuing this practice is to recreate the tranquility of the summer Saturday, the studio and the group.

Posted on by Diana ben-Aaron
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