Noted calligrapher and designer Julian Waters delivered this
lecture at Washington's Sidwell Friends School, where he was the
1997 Rubenstein Memorial Guest Artist. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the author's
consent. Julian Waters Hand Lettering and Design, 301-253-3422. [email protected]
Chinese calligrapher Wang Hsi-chih said, "Writing needs meaning, whereas
calligraphy expresses itself above all through forms and gestures.
It elevates the soul and illuminates the feelings." In this respect
calligraphy is very close to painting and they have the same beginning.
Prehistoric mark-making used powerfully evocative, primitive written
The term calligraphy comes from two Greek words roughly
meaning artistic beauty and writing or drawing. However, calligraphy does not necessarily have to be beautiful in
order to be of quality. A better test is whether it is expressively
appropriate and whether it communicates well. Today, in addition
to being a kind of communication, calligraphy is a serious art form.
Through the style and composition of written forms the calligrapher
attempts to visually interpret the spirit of texts, headlines, logos,
painterly and abstract works.
calligraphy is rooted in the development of written symbols and
letterforms over thousands of years, from the earliest scratchings
in dirt, cave painting and pictograms to the great classical inscriptions,
and Mediaeval, Renaissance and Baroque manuscripts. The development
of letterforms continued through the use of engraving and other
technologies, and in the forms of typefaces used in printing, from
the mid-fifteenth century up to the present. At the end of the nineteenth
century broad-edged pen techniques were rediscovered by pioneers
including Edward Johnston in England and Rudolf Koch in Germany.
Much is owed to them and to their students and followers who helped
spread renewed interest in the art.
best calligraphers start with many years of historical study and
technical practice, learning from high points of scribal history.
They seek out individual experts as mentors and try to keep up with
developments in the field, as in any profession. It is important
to study fine arts, graphic design, music and many other subjects.
Through much hard work, skill and taste should increase and a personal
style may develop. As in all arts, we respect the past and learn
from it, but we must also create things which have some relevance
in today's world.
CALLIGRAPHY: Calligraphy is a form of artistic writing wherein letters may be
made in few or many direct strokes. It can at times be legible and
at other times completely indecipherable. The most elegant and consistently
harmonious calligraphy can be a self-conscious and highly disciplined
act and is the result of much preplanning and trial and error. Spirited
non-legible work is not always an outgrowth of preconceived notions
of how letters of the alphabet should appear. It is a kind of gestural
drawing or painting which captures the impulses and emotions of
a moment in time. Spontaneous work often happens instantly
on the paper in very quick gestures, after many years of practice
and many minutes of contemplation or mental preplanning. Chinese
master calligraphers often use this method of approaching their
work. Sometimes it is a matter of making variations of the same
design many times until a favorite materializes.
LETTERING: Strictly speaking, if the word calligraphy refers to direct writing, the term lettering usually refers to drawn, built-up
or retouched forms. Logos, headlines and most works for reproduction
fit this category. After many rough sketches are made, a magazine
headline or logo may be freely executed in pure calligraphic strokes.
Then it usually needs to be carefully modified so that all of the
elements balance and everything will reproduce well. Built-up forms can be understood as a kind of additive sculpture,
where a form thickens up over an armature until the designer's conception
is achieved. Retouching with white paint is like subtractive sculpture, as in wood or stone carving. By adding white, outer layers
are chipped and peeled away to reveal an underlying ideal form.
The term lettering may also be used to cover every kind of
letter-making, including calligraphy, drawn lettering, monumental
lettercarving, typeface design, and so on.
DESIGN: Gutenberg's blackletter types and the early
Venetian roman typefaces were based on the broad-edged pen calligraphy
of their day. Metal type took the place of calligraphy and the printed
book spread knowledge to the masses. Traditionally, typeface design
was practiced by a few specialists working for large type foundries.
It was a very long process starting with original drawings, many
proofing stages, the excruciatingly detailed and demanding art of
punch cutting and on to the finished cast metal type. Now, through
the use of the personal computer, many more people are designing
alphabets in much less time. However, the best, lasting designs
are still produced by experts: creative designers and experienced
professionals who put as much thought into the space inside and
between letters as the linear shapes and contours of letters
themselves. As in Gutenberg's time, some modern types start as pen
writing and hand drawing, and are reborn as typefaces, or "fonts" which can be seen in magazines, packaging, signage and websites.
the computer is widely used in letterform design, it is simply another
tool, like the pencil, pen and brush, in the hands of the designer.
Whether made with ink on Japanese paper, or by manipulating Bezier
outline curves on a Macintosh computer, letterforms are still conceived
by humans, using the mind, the heart and the hand. As Paul
Standard said, "Geometry can produce legible letters, but art alone
makes them beautiful. Art begins where geometry ends, and imparts
to letters a character transcending mere measurement."
Artwork on this page by Julian