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.

History of Calligraphy

Reading up on the history of calligraphy will help your understanding of the ancestry of different symbols and scripts. Calligraphy has a long and colourful history that spreads around the world, so it’s hard to know exactly when and where it all began, as writing and language have been around for thousands of years.

We will begin our journey in Ancient Egypt. It’s important to note that thousands of years ago, the ability to read and write was a luxury so calligraphy was an elite pursuit. In Ancient Egypt, all writing was conducted by scribes and the literacy rate is believed to be below 1% of the population. Hieroglyphics have been found on papyrus scrolls or carved into tombs and pillars of palatial residencies. If you look at hieroglyphics you can see how it could be considered to be the start of calligraphy. The methods were very different but there is a case that these texts have a sense of rhythm, integrity and harmony.

However, it is often said that the first piece of calligraphy comes from China in 200 BC. This early Chinese calligraphy was usually done with ink and a brush. Some disagree with this and say that Islamic calligraphy found in the 10th Century is where it all began because of the Chinese empire’s insular tendencies. However, Chinese calligraphy laid down the roots of the tradition in Korea, Japan and Thailand.

Before we look at calligraphy in the Islamic tradition, we should look to the south of Asia as there was a distinctive style of calligraphy being developed there. Like a lot of Eastern calligraphy, it was closely related to religion in the region. In around 500 AD is when it started to take off with frequent visitors in the shape of missionaries, travellers, merchants and colonists. From the 16th Century onwards is when Sikhism then started to play a big role in the development of calligraphy in South Asia. Their holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib is often handwritten and given an almost luxurious finish.

Islamic calligraphy is also known as ‘Kufic’ and has a deep connection with the religion of Islam. This calligraphy was the only way to sufficiently honour the Qur’an. Calligraphy was esteemed as the highest form of art and as such was taken quite seriously in the Islamic tradition. Again, this is still a time when literacy rates were really low all over the world, calligraphy was still an elite pursuit and craft.

Now we travel westwards for the origins of the calligraphy that we are more familiar with. Whilst the ancient Greeks began creating the first writing systems of the western world, it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that we see calligraphy really begin to surface. The writing systems that were in place were simply functional instead of decorative. Through trading with the Middle East, the art and practice of calligraphy began to permeate through to Europe.

In Middle Ages Europe, it was largely only monks that were able to read and write. They created the gothic style of calligraphy. This is the style of calligraphy the western world will be able to recognise easily. It’s the kind of calligraphy that can be found in old bibles and tomes. A good contemporary example of calligraphy in the Middle Ages would be Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440 and this was disastrous news for the art of calligraphy and writing in general. Where books had been painstakingly written out by hand, the printing press could produce books on a much quicker and larger scale. Calligraphy began to lose its place in the western world but was still esteemed highly in Asia.

The Renaissance bought about the rebirth of calligraphy. Technological advances in writing and language had swept calligraphy to the side. This is why it’s important to note the low literacy rate as it would go some way to explain why calligraphy could fall by the wayside quite easily. It didn’t have an inexorable link to Western religions, where it did in Asia, and very few people had even seen it in the first place. The vast majority of Europeans were peasants and it was only after the advent of the printing press that literature had become more accessible to the people.

The Renaissance bought functional beauty back to literature. However, calligraphy was still facing challenges in the form of new pens and writing instruments that were being invented. Fountain and steel pens were limiting people’s ability to create calligraphy, but the artist William Morris created the flat edge pen which made it much easier for people to learn the craft. This pioneered a revival of the art form.

We’re really only scratching the surface of the history of calligraphy, it has a storied past that is told in countries all over the world. If this is something that interests you, there’s plenty more out there to learn. You can also look at different examples of this calligraphy and try and track the ancestry of symbols. For example, does the Kufic calligraphy of the 10th Century have its roots in Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics? And how closely related are Kufic and the Gothic style championed by European monks?

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.