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Why Learn Calligraphy?

Updated: May 23, 2020

Knowledge of letterform

The practice of calligraphy gives a deep ingrained knowledge of letterform construction, so that custom hand lettering will be of the highest quality and unique. Yes, drawing your own wordmarks by hand is the only way to acquire this intrinsic knowledge. You won’t get it watching a lecture, you will only get it by doing !  And this is the main reason that we teach calligraphy here in our Melbourne Lettercraft Lab. As digital natives, we lack this knowledge because it isn’t taught at University, and this is the reason that so much of the hand lettering we see on the internet is of poor quality

Quicker way of Thinking

Embracing the art of drawing the letterform by hand enacts a particular way of thinking unique to using the hand ! Milton Glaser used to say that he couldn’t think without a pencil. With a pencil or pen you can design a quick sketch of a customised word mark in less than a minute. This is a customised logo created from scratch, not a logo created using modified type which anyone can do.

Makes you Happy

Drawing type, and calligraphy is about size comparison of shapes connected to the motion of our hands, and my students often hear me say that calligraphy skill in particular has alot in common with Roger Federer’s skill as he prepares to serve an ace ! There is alot of pre thinking involved and it is something that you feel in your whole body as you “think before you ink”. This process is often referred to as kinesthaesia, and observation is vital. It is about learning to observe small differences and re create them. I call it thinking with the body, as our bodies have an intelligence that we neglect. While there is no scientic evidence, I feel sure that the neglect of this intelligence is probably attributed to common feelings of depression and anxiety. When we use this bodily intelligence, we get “in the zone”, time flies, and we feel highly engaged and peaceful.

How to Be an Alive Noticing Machine

There are common strokes taught in our masterclass, and especially how to draw a balanced and beaufiul letter O.  The O may be round and regular in some type faces, but in copperplate it is an oval or elipse. As letterers, typographers and calligraphers, the O hints as to how much space should be placed between each letter within a word space, and it also denotes the counter shape of b c d e m and n. Learning calligraphy teaches us to see the counter space within a letter, the shape around the letter, and the stroke weights of the letter and how much difference a tiny millimeter can make. It teaches the proportion of how tall all the ascending letters such as “l, t, b, h and d” should be, as well as the descending letters. When we learn to create calligraphy, we start to understand the huge difference that tiny and subtle differences make. For example, should a letter commence with an ascender stroke (an upward stroke) or not ? And if so, how does it alter the character of the word mark if it swings up ? or down? How thick should our pen be?

Calligraphy practised with a small daily goal enables us to commit letter shapes to memory and their relationship to one another in a way that working digitally never can. So that we can draw the letter shapes with our eyes closed. A well practised calligrapher or letterer finds it impossible to ignore poorly constructed lettering and type.

It’s only the tools that teach the Letters

On the other hand, working digitally on the computer will affect the way you think to the point you can almost feel it, and it will feel like a constraint (says Marian Bantjes). This is because letter forms as we know them were created by tools of flat and pointed pen, and if you use these tools (via the art of calligraphy) the tools do direct you. A good way to explain what I mean is the idea of creating a wood block print using a computer mouse. The visual of a wood cut print that we know so well is the result of a chisel, wood, and ink.  These  tools guide the ultimate form of the print. In the same way, a flat calligraphy nib and different ways of holding it guides the contrast of letterform stroke. If you work by hand you will truly understand the forms of the letters and the tool will guide you in the way that a bezier curve simply cannot. Every letterform was born of some sort of hand tool, and this is a convention that goes back for more than 2000 years ! Our eye expects to see this convention in the form of our letterforms, and so our eye automatically finds this pleasing.

Changes your Brain

Learning calligraphy changes your brain and the way that your mind works because it builds new neural pathways.  While looking at good type improves our taste, it is the act of making that lifts us from being critic to maker, and the letters we make our ours alone. The practice of calligraphy teaches us to draw and invent visually pleasing letterforms.  When you do calligraphy well, you feel it in your body and your muscles. The hand drawn curve of the calligrapher is an extension of the body and its alive ! It breathes ! So train your hands and your mind ! So in summary, learning calligraphy is the act of doing that helps us to make the connection of understanding why particular fonts look the way that they do.

Aspiring Calligraphers need a Method of Practice

One three hour calligraphy class is a simply a warm up. You need more, plus ongoing guidance. In the same way you learn to drive a car, or ride a skateboard, you need to give the artform time.  Learning calligraphy properly starts with an day of total immersion, that provides a foundational method of practice to follow over a period of weeks, months then years (all good calligraphers constantly practice the very basics)

A quality learning experience is an introductory class that provides you with the foundation materials necessary for success, that are hard to source from an average art store. Key strokes to continue to implement, and a guide of letter samples to copy carefully are also important. The day involves alot of guidance from your teacher to keep you on the right path so that you are not practising bad mistakes over and over once you leave. A good method of practice helps you to learn to patiently look for small improvements (not big ones) that you will gradually make and to forgive yourself for mistakes and failure. Learning calligraphy is beneficial in that it makes you physically aware, by connecting you with your body and feelings, so that you live in the moment as with mindfulness meditiation. Personally, I believe that Calligraphy is better than meditation because you are actively developing a useful and beautiful llifelong skill to use for your own personal writing when required. When you can write lovely copperplate even on a simple card using a biro it is such a good feeling of accomplishment, and seeing this lost art enacted makes everyone so happy. You can apply this to your typographic projects too.


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