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What Is Calligraphy

If you’re thinking about giving calligraphy a go, we’ve put together an all you need to know guide about what it is, the types of calligraphy you can try, how it’s used and its place in the modern world. Calligraphy is not just about learning a handwriting style, it’s about understanding an art form. Reading up on the background of this art will help provide you with an insight and appreciation of the intricacies associated with this beautiful style.

Firstly, we’ll start with the title question: What is Calligraphy? You’ll find a lot of different answers to this question and quite a few are flippant. The word calligraphy comes from the Greek words ‘beauty’ and ‘to write’, hence why you’ll see it referred to as beautiful writing. Calligraphy is beautiful writing but there’s more to it than that.

To think of calligraphy as simply just writing nicely is to misunderstand it. Calligraphy is an art by which you create and arrange symbols in a way that show harmony, rhythm, ancestry and integrity. Let’s look at what that means exactly:

  • Symbol: a symbol in this sense refers to an individual letter or character. Our words are made up of a series of symbols that correlate to a different sound that the human mouth can make. We’re going off on a slightly linguistic route but that’s essentially what our letters are and if that interests you, research the phonetic alphabet. The exceptions to this are numbers and foreign characters, where a symbol refers to a whole word rather than a sound.
  • Harmony: this refers to how all the visual elements relate to each other. From individual strokes that form part of a letter to any other ornamentation, it’s how each symbol, stroke, word etc work to create one visually pleasing piece of art. Whilst the untrained eye might only think of it as ‘pretty handwriting’, enthusiasts consider pieces of calligraphy to be works of art. We’re inclined to agree!
  • Rhythm: in this context, rhythm is referring to how the calligrapher repeats certain strokes or creates patterns within their work and how accurate this repetition is.
  • Ancestry: Calligraphy has a long and colourful history that stretches all round the globe which we will cover later on in this post. There are certain fonts, scripts, techniques and materials that have evolved over a long time. Ancestry refers to how a piece of calligraphy incorporates and represents the heritage of their work.
  • Integrity: in this instance, integrity refers to desirable designs and proportions between symbols, strokes and words.

These are concepts that will open up your understanding of calligraphy. Once you realise and pay attention to these concepts, you can also enjoy and appreciate it on a deeper level.

Calligraphy is done by hand. It’s the relationship between humans and how we can visually interpret and represent our languages. This is where its legitimacy as an art form comes into play. A good piece of calligraphy will incorporate your own unique creativity. Like Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock had their styles, you can express this through calligraphy as well. This is known as ‘creative fire’ and we will discuss it a bit further on.

Types of Calligraphy

We’re going to look at different types of calligraphy, this is important for understanding the ancestry of symbols which will up your calligraphy game.

  • Western Calligraphy: this branch of calligraphy is characterised by its geometric patterns and stricter rules. This is a heritage of calligraphy that will be most familiar to us. Think of old medieval texts and bibles. It originates from Latin script which eventually became the building blocks of all Western language. You can see examples of Western calligraphy in films such as Shrek, as it has also become synonymous with fairy-tales and the fantasy genre.
  • South-Asian Calligraphy: The south of Asia has one of the oldest traditions of calligraphy with its own distinctive style. They originate from the subcontinent of India, also incorporating areas such as Nepal. India is the biggest contributor to this particular heritage. Hinduism as a religion has been present for thousands of years. In the very beginnings of the religion, the stories and teachings were passed on by word of mouth and then eventually committed to writing. South-Asian calligraphy is unique in its methodology, using elements of the natural world such as bark and mud. It’s also related to Buddhism and can be found in Buddhist prayer wheels.
  • Islamic Calligraphy: Considered by many to be the most beautiful kind of calligraphy partly due to the immense respect and importance of calligraphy in the Islamic world. In the Muslim faith, calligraphy is regarded as the highest form of artistic expression because of its relationship with the religion. In Islam, calligraphy is the best way to connect to the spiritual world and so its development was prioritised.
  • East-Asian Calligraphy: originating from the Oriental region of Asia, think Korea, China, Japan, East-Asian calligraphy has been closely related to different ruling dynasties and also dedicated to preserving local tradition. Each ruling dynasty have their own typographical features and there is great deal of ancestry in East-Asian calligraphy. As their symbols often represent a word, they tend to be shorter pieces of work than other types of calligraphy.

Whilst you may not able to understand calligraphy that isn’t Western, you can definitely still appreciate it. The Eastern world have bestowed a lot more importance to calligraphy as a discipline and art form. Their languages also lend themselves to being expressed in different ways. There’s also a huge heritage of Eastern calligraphy where Western calligraphy has been stunted by long periods of cultural depravation or by technological advances.

What is Modern Calligraphy?

Modern calligraphy shouldn’t be hard for you to wrap your head around. It quite simply is calligraphy that isn’t traditional. Where traditional styles might have rules and certain methods you must adhere to, modern calligraphy is about breaking with convention and playing by your own rules.

Modern calligraphers aren’t monks in cloisters, they can experiment and get creative. You can combine elements from different scripts to create your own style. This is where the term ‘creative fire’ becomes more relevant. Calligraphy involves rhythm, integrity, harmony and ancestry but with more modern pieces, you’re also looking for creative fire.

Creative fire simply means the element of calligraphy that makes it identifiable with the creator. It’s how the calligrapher has demonstrated their own creativity and individuality in their work.

Modern calligraphy is more fun, accessible and with a wealth of tools and methods available through the power of the internet, has a great deal more possibilities and variations.

How Is Calligraphy Used Today?

It probably goes without saying, but despite the revival of calligraphy in the mid-19th Century with William Morris’ flat edge pen, the computer came along and made many things almost obsolete. With the widespread use of computers and phones, the need to write has dropped quite drastically.

A computer may be able to replicate most styles of calligraphy but alas, it does not have hands. A computer will never be able to create a genuine piece of calligraphy, so it still has a place in the world. It’s still linked to the classier things in life and you will most likely see it in day-to-day life on invitations, menus and such.

However, perhaps its main use is simply existing as a hobby for its calming and meditative purposes. It’s worth noting that although developed countries now have an average literacy rate of around 99%, the prevalence of pens and computers mean that most of us have not had any need for beautiful handwriting. It still remains an elite pursuit, but no longer in terms of money as it’s really not expensive to get going but rather there aren’t many people who have taken the time to master it, thus demonstrating some elite craftmanship.

Calligraphy is still appreciated in today’s world. As mentioned before, the ubiquitous nature of computers means that a well-done piece of genuine calligraphy often draws more appreciation. Although you can achieve a similar effect simply by choosing a font on your devices, it can’t be evaluated on the same level.