The secrets of beautiful writing
History began 5500 years ago, when men decided for the very first time to record their actions in stone and earth, using the very first writing characters…
In the western civilisation, writing remained the privilege of scholars and specialized artists for a very long time. But with the Renaissance, it gradually became more accessible to the commoner: in the 16th century, most of the written documents were produced by amateurs without formal training, who had a tendency to neglect their writing style – sometimes making it very hard for us to understand what they were writing about…
It was then that the distinction between handwriting and the “art of beautiful writing” was pointed out : In the southern Low-Countries’ 17 provinces (today’s Netherlands and Belgium), as a reaction to the general tendency to write in an untidy way, calligraphy became a real art form, sometimes even exposed next to master’s paintings in the homes of rich merchants. The professional scribes – also known as “grands plumeteurs” – took advantage of the recent invention of the printing press to pass on their knowledge through copybooks, demonstrating the various hands used in Europe at the time. Mercator in Antwerp, was the first to publish such a treaty in 1540*, and he was followed by numerous master scribes, of whom Jan van der Velde was the most successful.
As you can see, the distinction made between regular handwriting and the beautiful hand of master calligraphers isn’t new…
Today I wanted to share with you some thoughts about the very definition of calligraphy – the art of beautiful writing – and try to point out the elements that make the difference between common chicken scratch and the hand of an accomplished master penman.
– Structure and consistency –
The first thing that the aspiring calligrapher learns today is that every calligraphy hand consists of a limited number of basic strokes that act as a skeleton for the letterforms. The words are just a combination of these lines, usually parallel, evenly spaced and structured, written one after the other at a snail’s pace. Whatever the hand, the repetition of identical shapes creates a sense of balance, harmony and therefore beauty.
Studying the ideal letterforms and learning the ways to successfully be able to write them are the main goal of a calligrapher. But doesn’t it make calligraphy a totally artificial kind of writing ? It forces the scribe to conform to the rules established by past masters, and suppress all the imperfections of his natural handwriting.
– Form and expression –
Technically, the beauty of calligraphed letterforms comes from a multitude of tangible aspects that are quite easy to point out : the repetition of harmonious shapes inspired from nature (I’m thinking about the ovals in Spencerian script and English Round Hand); the simplicity of the few basic principles endlessly repeated; the rhythm, consistency and sensation of orderliness that stems from them; the quality of line and deliberate workmanship… All these elements are at the fingertips of anyone willing to put in the work and time to get there. But is the technique the only path to getting a beautiful hand ?
In his book Scribe, Artist of the written word, John Stevens discusses the limitations that the calligrapher imposes upon himself when he blindly follows the rules and restricts his practice to replicating the shapes used by past masters, as perfect and beautiful as they may be. When the letterforms are too rehearsed, the calligraphy loses its power, it lacks movement and expression, and it ends up losing its visual and artistic quality.
If perfection and consistency are our only goals, we might as well turn to the multitude of typefaces available today to get the job done quicker.
Opposite this harsh view of calligraphy is our everyday handwriting : performed quickly and without interruption, full of little imperfections. It isn’t always considered beautiful – and is in many cases totally illegible to the untrained eye – but it is so expressive that it allows graphologists to decipher our personality.
These days young people have a harder time writing with a pen than using a keyboard, and few people really care about the way they write… What would have been fatal to someone’s career a hundred years ago seems to be of little importance.
Between these extreme viewpoints of perfection of form and pure expression, there must be a middle ground. And it is probably there that the fascinating beauty of the written word lies.
– Beauty and emotion –
But, what is beauty exactly ?
It is an emotional response to a stimulus that triggers admiration – something purely subjective. It may be admirable to respect the ideal forms and techniques taught in the copybooks, but the small imperfections that we try so hard to expel from our calligraphy are precisely the things that make it human, alive and connected to our hearts and emotions.
The synergy of both elements are essential to give us the ability to give our creations the extra “je ne sais quoi” that will make them memorable.
All this thinking brings me to question the constant quest for perfection that drives me during practice. Trying to achieve that perfection is not only an impossible goal, but it also implies that my quest has an end – which is a little sad…
Form and structure on their own will never satisfy my thirst to create something authentically beautiful. As my calligraphy skills evolve, I feel the need to learn more, to give more, and most of all to reveal my singularity. Day after day I evolve, and my vision of excellence needs to evolve with me if I want to be able to breathe life and beauty into my writing.
What about you… tell me what it is that makes calligraphy so beautiful in your eyes ?
*The very brief piece of History that I shared with you is about the evolution of calligraphy in the Low-Countries. Other copybooks were of course published in Italy before Mercator’s, but they were still aimed at scholars… Under the influence of Protestantism those northern regions ended up being at the forefront of the spreading of calligraphy as a commercial tool.