Preparatory Practices to Calligraphy
A small grammar of writing
More than a year ago I started thinking about what writing means to me.
As a daily practice I enjoy it and I find it both meditative and challenging. Sometimes I get stuck in the net of perfectionism and it’s quite difficult to move on and take “the risk”.
I thought a good start could be teaching myself stuff I already knew about, learned from previously attended calligraphy, sign painting and type design workshops. So I set everything up to teach myself about basic strokes, counterpunches, ink-traps, white space, ductus, spacing, kerning, broad nibs, pointed pens, etc… like a sort of giant recap. I came through this process quite exhausted, reviewing more than five years of handouts in a few months! A lot of questions popped out: What’s writing main purpose? Where do letter shapes come from? Does the act of writing require a certain time, different from the act of drawing? How do we read? Is the shape of letters influenced by reading? How long does it take for letters to evolve? And how do they do it?
The whole point was clear: I realized that in some cases I wasn’t able to explain things clearly to myself and that necessarily affected my results.
So the first thing to do was dealing with the fact that the more simple I keep it, the better I learn it (and that was hard, because there were so many different notions in my brain, and after five years of practice I tend to challenge myself with the hardest ones). Then I immediately felt the urge to create an instrument, something tangible that can go along with some handouts/recap.
But first things first: early drafts (early April 2016) focused on what I think is the smallest unit of writing: the stroke. I don’t know why, but it seems natural to me to start with lowercases from American Cursive Handwriting (from now on ACH) and Italic, ending with Trajan uppercases.
The main struggle was trying to reduce the number of strokes to a few recurring elements/modules. So, writing is a pattern of strokes, arranged with a certain rhythm that creates particular white shapes (inside and outside letters). In fact we do write not only in black but also in white.
For ACH the most recurring strokes are just three, but I expanded them to sixteen in order to make me/everyone stay within the given strokes. One of the main problems that I noticed in people (mostly adults) approaching calligraphy/writing is they start looking for something else: even if you tell them to use just six given strokes, in the end they will introduce a different one that doesn’t belong with the others. Consistency is what I try to achieve at first: a letter can be as fancy as you want but if it has unrelated strokes / movement / ductus to the others it’s useless (this is not an ode to geometry, I love swashes and fancy decorations!)
So I make something really fluid, as writing is, with something very stiff, but absolutely relevant to a criterion.
Obviously, this mechanism is just for a studying purposes, no one
in real life will ever write in such a strict way.
While I was doing these tests I felt like my brain was wearing one of those corsets that squeeze your chest and shape your body: I was shaping the idea of the letters before write them down fluently. Ligatures at this point were out of the question.
The idea of the stencil came out after I ran into some vintage stencils at Camilla’s shop Slay in Milan. The stencil allows you to draw pre-made letters without any effort, in Italy this tool was usually used by architects, and in some cases, by crooks linked with the mafia.
The main difficulty of my stencil was of course you have to find the right stroke, draw it and then add the others in order to make a complete letter.
The material I chose is transparent and light enough to let you see through it, so I set the guidelines for the two cursive alphabets to be lightly engraved by the laser. The goal was to make them align with the same printed guidelines provided in the handouts so you just have to lay down the stencil and you are all set.
For what concerns the Trajans, all I need was the baseline and the caps height: I added a middle guide to keep the brain always thinking about it as a reference, even when the tool became useless.
Basically, the first three parts relate to ACH, Italic and Trajan, while on the bottom I put the three basic shapes (square, triangle and circle), plus an oval (not an ellipse), a proportion guide for uppercases (next to the oval – by overlapping the stencil on a letter you are able to immediately see if it balanced within the proportion), a slanted oval with its axis of symmetry, 90° angle guide plus a gradation 10° by 10°, and a small slanted rectangle which helps to better understand Italic proportions (the famous Arrighi’s quadretto oblongo mentioned in La Operina – 1524). The cut angle at the bottom right is a sort of ruler which helps draw lines slanted at 52° for ACH.
For the handouts I also drew the ductus of every style, so on the same page you have the stiff model made with the stencil and the free hand one with the ductus visible. The examples are in scale 1:1 so it’s easy to overlap the single stroke of the stencil to see if it fits or not.
A complete version of the handout I designed: I included a small introduction about the act of reading, Noordzij’s stroke theory, perception rules and white space. Lastly I add a small list of teachers I studied with (mostly calligraphers).
From a standard and stiff model everyone can understand and experience the beauty of writing. The stroke model is more understandable and easy to use than the “shape” model. If I start to think about shapes I focus on them and I cannot clearly visualize the letter. Plus, every oval or quadretto oblongo has person-to-person different proportions.
After learning the letter stroke by stroke, everyone can add its personality to them: personal style emerges from the details. Starting from stroke connections or ligatures, customization is highly encouraged.
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