Lettering v. Calligraphy: Are they the same or different?

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Iskra Johnson's picture
Joined: 12 May 2009 - 5:10pm

I have found this thread really inspiring. It has put me in a retrospective mood and made me look at the process I went through to move from being purely a calligrapher to being a lettering artist who works both ways. I've posted an essay, with acknowledgments to several of the contributors here, at http://www.alphabetroadtrip.com with an excerpt here as it is too long to post in entirety. I'm having some formatting issues with Typepad so please forgive me if the font sizes are all over the map:


Solutions that arrive kinesthetically and directly out of the inherent engineering of the tool have a natural balance of positive and negative shapes created without fear of aesthetic incorrectness. They land on the page with a sureness of gravity, an understanding of their own boundaries, and an affection for the community of letters coming before and after. But there is a hazard. In some sense they always look the same. One can tell exactly how they are made.

In studying the work of master calligraphers it is always the mark that I cannot diagnose that catches my eye. For instance Herman Zapf. I nearly killed myself trying to do curving ascenders like his thinking they were made in one stroke, until I discovered by watching a film of him in action that each seemingly single stroke was made up of a series of hesitations, overlaps and deft "pulls." And it is way difficult. It is magic. There is a complexity in this kind of work that holds my attention for a long time. I think it is because it marries two minds: the visual result looks like it originates in gesture, but the method is complex engineering. The stroke is made slowly, self-consciously, yet appears completely "natural."

Much of contemporary calligraphy references this way of working. The calligrapher delicately balances between artless and artful, and the exact cause and effect of the tool is hidden, embedded as a source of mystery. Partly this is the result of new tools such as the ruling pen that have allowed the calligrapher to make marks that have all the thick and thin beauty of traditional calligraphy without the drastic angles of the edged pen. Partly it is due to the demands of the advertising and design world, where "calligraphy" in the traditional sense comes with a set of associations (pretty, precious, old, feminine, formal, etc.) that limit its reach.....

Craig Eliason's picture
Joined: 19 Mar 2004 - 1:44pm

Terrific contributions Iskra and Ieuan!