Jack Standbridge

What it means to learn calligraphy.

What it means to learn calligraphy. If you were looking for something about lettering, I’m afraid it’s not the subject this week. The difference between calligraphy and lettering is mysterious to some, but it is significant. Lettering, as with typography, is a different process entirely, though it can often produce a similar result. The modern letter forms that we use today, the ones you read in books, the ones you see on your computer screens, even the ones you write your shopping lists with can be traced back to calligraphy. Calligraphy is the way that information was stored for centuries, and during those centuries, we have had plenty of time to come up with something better. The funny thing is that despite the time we have had to improve upon the forms, we haven’t.

The fundamental root of calligraphy that we know today can be found in capitalis monumentalis, or Roman square capitals. The most famous example can be found in the Trajan column inscription, created some 2000 years ago, which has been a source of inspiration for scribes since.

So what is the significance? Well, for anyone who really wants to understand letter forms, it’s essential study. To look at the source of letters is to understand their construction. To understand the strokes of the brush, the twists of the nib, the order of execution informs everything we know about letters. Have you ever wondered why there are two types of lower case A? One is a single story letter, similar to a lower case D with the ascender chopped off. The other is a two story letter, which has an arm that curls round over its head. The reason is that these two styles stem from difference sources. The two story letter (which you likely see in this text, depending on your computer’s available typefaces) comes from Roman lower case letters, whereas the other is derived from Italic calligraphy. (Some sad type faces, unfortunately, simply have a poor man’s Italic which is made by twisting the Romans into Italic imitations.)

Knowing all this, a letterer would do themselves a disservice not to study calligraphy. But what does it mean to learn calligraphy? What do you need to understand the strokes, twists and anatomy of calligraphy?

Time.

Letter forms that have stood the test of time, that have been available to be changed for centuries yet have stayed the same, that have an undeniable timelessness are simultaneously simple and complex. They are simple in that they convey everything that they need to with utmost legibility. They are complex in that their construction holds such intricacies that seem invisible upon first examination, yet are essential to their successful execution. They are an excellent example of both form and function. With every session of study you can delve a little deeper and discover some of the silent secrets hidden within the works of long dead masters. I recently learnt that having spent over 30 years at the art, one of the calligraphers I admire greatly has returned to studying Romans 6 times, dedicating weeks at a time to the process, and each time teases more subtlety and knowledge from the ancient works.

Is it surprising, then, that it what is truly means to learn calligraphy is time? The time spent studying, the time spent practising, and the time spent contemplating, understanding and progressing.

If you’ve made it this far without much interest in calligraphy, however, and would like some news of lettering, here’s a snapshot of some of the recent daily doodles I do to keep the creative juices flowing: