Partly for my own discipline as well as a means of sharing years of experience with those who read my blog, I’ve decided to start a weekly post entitled The Weekly ‘Letter’. Since it seemed appropriate to begin with the letter “A”, here goes : “Anyone can do that!”.
Anyone can write addresses on an envelope. Sure. We all learned to write in school and for some of us, we wrote years of class notes and exams. But can we do it well? And how do you decide if calligraphy is done well?
A few years back, I was asked to teach calligraphy at our local library. When I inquired about the parameters, the very nice woman in the central office said “Oh, we’d like you teach Italic writing”. I subsequently inquired as to how many weeks they were thinking about. To which she replied “Weeks? Oh no, one two-hour session on Saturday morning. Twenty-four branches”. Insert pregnant pause here while I consider how to respond without actually crying or laughing out loud.
I took the gig, but with the following caveat – you can’t learn calligraphy in two hours on a Saturday morning. The world is full of “instant” this and that. One particular local piano teacher offers “learn to play the piano in a day” classes. Not sure what that entails, but I began playing piano at age nine and I didn’t really reach any sort of competency until about eighth grade.
I did however think that people could learn a bit about the history, tools and techniques. And most of all, that I could educate an audience about what “good calligraphy” looks like. Even beginners can be taught to see consistency in letter shapes, slant and spacing. And even more importantly, they can come to realize that what we do took hours of practice. That’s what I taught.
So how, in this age when calligraphy can mean anything from highly skilled lettering to scribbling on canvas, do I know if calligraphy is “good”? First, let’s throw out the word “good”. It’s way too subjective. Instead let’s look at some ways to view a piece of calligraphic art.
What is it’s purpose? If you’re hunting for someone to address your envelopes for an event or wedding, you’re looking for fine handwriting. We all actually do know what that is …. letters are consistently formed and slanted. Remember handwriting in school? You’re looking for letters that “go together” like members of a family. It’s not difficult to learn to manipulate a pen … it IS hard to make those letters reliably the same. Does it look relaxed as if the calligrapher has internalized the writing to the point where he or she no longer has to “think about” each letter or word? Are the lines evenly spaced? Is the paper filled with marks from border to border or are there margins to let the letters breathe? Try to see past all the decorated flourishing and squiggles. Like boatloads of icing on a cake, flourishes are often used to cover up lousy letters.
But what if I’m more interested in letters as art? Maybe hiring someone to write a poem or make a family tree? Much of the same applies here as well. Well formed letters – do the letters lean cattywampus? Look at the “o” shape – it occurs in lots of letters – are the shapes consistent? Or do you see round and ovals all mixed together? The internet is a good place to start your research. If you look at the work of good calligraphers such as John Stevens or Denis Brown that can help your eye develop a sense of beautiful calligraphy.
And then there are the “scribblers”, the innovators, those who are “modernizing” calligraphy in the name of art. That’s, as they say in the Wizard of Oz”, a horse of a different color. If you like it, that’s ok. That in itself says something. But even good modern calligraphy comes from a strong background in fundamentals. You don’t just start flinging ink.
Jackson Pollack dribbled paint on canvasses in ways his predecessors hadn’t. He was an innovator. Many have tried to follow suit, but you can tell a Pollack because it has something extra. Same with Miro, Picasso, Klee and other contemporary artists. They didn’t start out “scribbling”. They were accomplished serious artists who began to play with the lines and color in distinctive ways. Those canvasses stand apart from the others like good jazz music from the garage band keyboardist. Experience counts. Practice counts.
Finally, support your local artists and calligraphers. And if you are one, don’t apologize for charging for your work. You spent years accumulating all that knowledge. You’re worth it!