Since the early days of mankind, we have used written communication from pictures and symbols drawn on a wall in a cave to creating entire languages. Calligraphy is an ancient art form that is very popular today and if you would like to learn it reading this beginners guide to modern calligraphy is a good place to start.
Literacy was once a privilege reserved for those lucky and rich enough to obtain it. During the middle ages, monasteries were the only source of education, thus most of the manuscripts we know of today are religious. They were used to preserve the traditions and beliefs of the people who created them.
The heritage of calligraphy doesn’t solely belong to the western civilization since Middle Eastern and Asian cultures have an equally rich history of this art. This is particularly important for anyone who wants to learn the secrets of calligraphy, because, for example, Chinese and Arabic calligraphy are very different from western calligraphy and require an extensive knowledge of these languages and their long histories. Each school of calligraphy had its own unique set of rules that have been passed on from generation to generation. Often these sets of rules included using a particular font.
Blackletter or Gothic script emerged during the 12th century in the Northern parts of Europe and it has dominated western calligraphy for several centuries. It was the font that was used in the first printed book in history, the Gutenberg’s Bible. The invention of the printing press reduced the need for hand-written books, and it marks the point in history from which the importance of calligraphy declined. However, the art of writing survived, and from the XIXth century, it has found its rightful place in the pantheon of the arts.
The revitalization of calligraphy in the western world begun with the arts and crafts movement and its founder William Morris in the 1880’s. In the age of computers, calligraphy is often used in graphic design, the Internet has made thousands of historically styled fonts easily accessible and new ones are being produced daily by using the latest technology.
To get started you need to adopt the basic rules of calligraphy and the most important requirement is the knowledge of the alphabet. Although you can learn the technique of Arabic or Indian calligraphy you can’t really use it unless you know the language.
In Chinese tradition, the best way to learn different styles of calligraphy was by using copybooks that included regular, cursive, running and clerical scripts. However these original copybooks are only available in Chinese, but by downloading a copy sheet from the internet in a style you want to master you can replicate this process in a language you choose.
At the beginning, it might be better to start practising Faux Calligraphy which relieves you of the pains of searching for the right brush or ink. You can simply use a ballpoint pen, chalk or even a marker and create stunning lettering effortlessly.
Before we go any further we should take a look at tools you will need to get started or as the Chinese call them ‘Four Treasures of Study’.
The tools you use to create a work of art are as important as the artwork you are producing. It is important to have the best possible pen, but you also need to know which tools are the most adequate for the task you are facing.
There are four types of pens that are most commonly used in calligraphy. Most of the pens have nibs that are flat round or pointed and sometimes a two-nibbed pen can be used for special decorative purposes.
The most convenient pen for practice is a felt tip pen since they do not require the preparation of the ink and their price is affordable to almost anyone. However, they can be messy because the ink can soak through the paper. Felt tip pens are excellent for becoming more confident in calligraphy, but should not be used for creating artwork or any other document you wish to save for a longer period of time.
Fountain pens are often used by more advanced calligraphers because they can change nibs and replace used ink cartridges. By using fountain pens, you can achieve a wider range of styles while using several different nibs on the same pen.
A dip pen is perhaps the best for experienced calligraphers because they demand a high level of skill and precision. It consists of three crucial parts: the handle, the nib-holder or shaft, and the metal made nib. The nib has a reservoir that stores the ink and a slit that releases it. Most dip pens have small reservoirs that can hold just enough ink to write several lines. A dip pen leaves almost no margin for error and can be messy if not used properly, which is why you shouldn’t use it before you feel that you are absolutely comfortable working with it.
Brush pens are entirely different from pens with nibs and therefore take some time to adjust to. Pressure to the surface will result in thicker lines and that is why you must have a complete control of the pen. These pens use a thin brush, approximately 6 to 20mm wide, with a nylon-made head. The pen is used by dipping the brush into the ink and it demands more practice than most of other pens.
Selecting the pen that best suits you and what you want to accomplish can take some time, so it is best if you try out several different pens and decide which one is the best for you.
You can use anything to write, literally anything that can leave a trace on a sheet of paper, but you shouldn’t use the first thing in your sight if you want to create great calligraphy. While you are still in the practising phase you might want to stick to black inks and leave the colors for later when you gain more experience. You should only buy the ink that is specifically designed for calligraphy.
Selecting the ink you are going to use is an entirely personal choice, but some of them have certain qualities that can make it difficult to concentrate on what you doing. For example, if you choose to use India Ink it may coagulate over time which can be messy and mildly irritating.
Sumi ink is also a great choice, but for the most part, you will not be able to tell the difference between Sumi and India ink since they are minuscule. Perhaps the most famous manufacturer of the calligraphy inks is Winsor & Newton and it is most likely that your local art supply store has some of their products. When buying ink consult with your mentor, if you have one, or simply ask what is the best calligraphy ink they have at your supply store.
The decision which paper you wish to use is very much related to the reason why you are creating the calligraphy. In general, you should look for the kinds of paper that absorb less ink, because some sorts of paper may cause the ink to bleed.
It is often the case that the paper and ink don’t match, so it is important to do a test to see how the two fit together. If you would like to print out a practice worksheet you can try 32 pound LaserJet paper that is generally non-absorbent.
For more commercial purposes any kind of watercolor paper is very convenient since the ink won’t bleed at all and the final result looks elegant. You may also want to try out Rhodia, Clairefontaine, and Tomoe River papers and see which one of them suits your needs the best.
Like in every form of art, it is important to explore and experiment in order to find out which ink and which paper create the desired effects.
Although in our day and age there is no need for an actual inkstone to contain the ink, you should have some sort of an inkwell to mix and dilute the ink in. An inkwell can be any sort of a plastic or glass jar that is wide enough so you can dip your pen in it. Usually, the bottles in which the ink is sold are not very practical and do not fit the pen. The pen has to fit the inkwell you are using, so when you are selecting one, you should test it to see whether or not you can dip your pen in it without any difficulty.
When you have all the necessities in front of you, it’s time to start practicing. The first and the most important step is to practice the strokes. Each letter is painted with one stroke at the time. Western, Chinese or Islamic calligraphy has its own unique and precise stroke order that takes a lot of practice to memorize.
The more you work on it the sooner you will build muscle memory and they will become almost automatic. The pen you are using will determine how your letters will look like. It takes a lot of practice and experience to learn which ones to use for a given assignment, but that is what makes calligraphy so beautiful.
The way you hold your pen is of an utmost importance. Most calligraphy techniques require you to hold a pen at a 45-degree angle, while others are best practised standing up and holding the pen at the 90-degree angle. If your ink is bleeding, you should try to adjust the angle at which you are holding the pen, because it may happen that you are unknowingly releasing too much ink onto the paper.
The repetition is almost a meditative practice and that how you should approach calligraphy. It is a form of meditation and the more you do it the better you get at it. A large number of practice sheets is available online and it is the best way to start learning how to create fascinating letters that will impress everyone who lays their eyes on them.
Above anything else, you need to practice patience. Firstly, you need to be patient and calm in order to apply the ink to the surface correctly and secondly, you must be patient with yourself because it is only through practice that you will get better. Calligraphy is an art of the detail and the more meticulous you are in your approach to it the more skilful you will become. You should look at it as a form of meditation that helps you to clear your mind and focus on very small details.
If you keep practising and learning you will start to realize that the following words of the famous calligrapher John Stevens reveal the essence of what calligraphers do each time they approach a piece of paper with a pen in their hands:
‘Experiment is work without expectations. There is no predetermined outcome. We flirt with surprise or disaster. And if we are clever, we spot when we have done something new and interesting, and harvest it and own it.’