Handmade books and Calligraphy –Beautiful writing!

A good friend wants to learn calligraphy –could I teach her?
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Yes, I say –I could give it a shot.
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Would I teach her?
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We’ll see
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Yes, she knew I was a calligrapher. It’s true –I am a calligrapher. In fact –for what it is worth– I may well be one of the best calligraphers around.
I know that sounds…rather…bigheaded, and –OK– maybe it is a little “over the top”, and yes, we are supposed to be modest about our own achievements and/or talents.
But, let me explain:
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Calligraphy is very much part of my books, very much part of the handmade books that I do at The Stone Street Press.
I do all of my books in calligraphy. [2009 marks the Thirtieth Anniversary of the SSP.]
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That means that when I complete the writing of the texts –whether transcribing, or translating, or creating my own original texts– I then enter the next stage, which is the determining of the final text, right down to doing this line by line.
What I want to end up with is a finalized copy of the text of the book, page by page.
To be absolutely sure of this, and to be sure that there are no errors along the way, I will make a “dummy” –an exact replica of what will be the finished book, with exactly the same number of pages in both.
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To ensure further error-free progress, I will cut up the text –often in the form of a computer printout– and paste it into the dummy, so that I have a line by line version of the final text.
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After that comes the calligraphy.
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Years ago, when I was starting back in 1980, I experimented with different pens –would I use Calligraphy Dip Pens, or Calligraphy Fountain Pens?
After some experimentation with the former, I realized that the fountain pens were the way to go. Not only would I not have to pause to dip my pen every few seconds, but the flow of ink would allow me to do achieve a flow of writing, not heavy and tending to blot at first, and then gradually run out of ink. Both quality and economy asserted themselves soon enough. (As in many other aspects of life, I have come to see that Art requires us to resolve these questions of quality and economy.)
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I chose a well-regarded English-made fountain pen called Platignum, with five different straight-edge nibs, ranging from Extra Broad to Extra Fine.
And I quickly came to favor the German black ink by Pelikan, which had an appealing intensity. Letters written in that black ink always seemed to carry the hint of a slight aura of mid-brown to them –perhaps it was only in my mind– that appealed to me.
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I was ready to calligraph the text of the book.
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I have since done some sixty books, about two a year. Some of the books –like my translation of the 9th C. Irish poem “Pangur Ban”, or my own “How to Make a Decent Cup of Tea”– were quite brief, just a few pages each.
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Others involved a lot more calligraphy. One –my historical biography of Irish saint Colum Cille (521-597)– is almost 80 pages long with about 30 lines per page. That is probably the most calligraphy I have done in a book.
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If I remember correctly, the calligraphy took me almost three months, working 8 to 10 hours a day.
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That’s a lot of calligraphy.
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Probably more than anything else, it is the doing of a lot of it that makes one a good calligrapher, assuming that certain other basics or givens are in place –a good eye, an aesthetic sense, good tools and materials, and a conducive workplace.
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An old friend worked as a calligrapher in the Royal College of Heraldry in London, turning out those elegant heraldic proclamations and those “Hear Ye” pronouncements.
There was a calligraphy exercise that he and his calligraphy mates were required to do every morning before they were allowed to set calligraphic pen to heraldic paper (or was it parchment) –The Thousand G Warm-up.
In English, the lower-case ‘g’ is regarded the most complex form of all 26 letters, and so it was probably the most demanding exercise.
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Warm-up. That was the right word. By the time you were finished you had worked out all the kinks and quirks and tensions that work against good calligraphy; all the internal stresses that affect the angle of our downstrokes, and add pressures with visible effects on the finished product, creating that unevenness that has a thousand manifestations in our script.
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No wonder handwriting analysis has played such a major part in the detective’s and psychologist’s “toolbag”.
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So –after our 1000G warmup, we are ready to do perfect (OK, near-perfect) calligraphy.
Just think –if that intense thousand-character practice is what makes for fine calligraphy, how much more will 80 pages x30 lines x40 characters per line = 96,000 characters (which is what my “Life of St. Colum Cille” book translated to) qualify one?
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That’s what lies behind my claim to have done more calligraphy than anyone else. I can’t be absolutely sure that that is the case, but I’m still waiting to hear of someone else who has.
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There are many aspects to calligraphy that I intend to go into in subsequent posts on the subject, which I trust you will find interesting. In thirty years one learns a lot, and I hope we will have some interesting discussions over the next several postings.
It is a study full of the most fascinating insights into the human character as well as into the history of literacy and education, and books. And did I mention “human frailty”.
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But let me end this post here with a funny story on this subject of becoming perfect, or near-perfect, in the art of calligraphy.
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In pre-recessionary days (the supposed good old days when the ink was flowing and paper was creamy) I used to travel to the west coast to see my friends Colleen and Eitan and to attend a well-known book fair to show my book-art, meet the people, and sell a few books.
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I always entered my most recently published new book in the prestigious Small Press Book Design Competition, and was honored to win two First Prize Book Fair Awards over those years.
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And so of course I entered my new “Life of St. Colum Cille” (–of the 96,000 calligraphed characters–) the year that it came out.
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Over the few days of the book fair, all entries would be examined by the panel of judges and a “winner” picked. One of the judges came round afterwards to the booths, to hand out the Awards.
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It was of course a very pleasant surprise to learn that the panel of judges –after “due consideration”, no doubt– had decided to award my “Colum Cille” first prize for best design.
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But it was a bit more complicated than that.
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As I immediately noticed, the prize they had awarded was for….”Best Letterpress Design”.
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“Letterpress”. Not “Calligraphy”.
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The judges thought my calligraphy was letterpress!
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I was bewildered; at a loss.
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And then immediately in a quandry: if the judges at the Book Fair didn’t know the difference between the two, I felt that I couldn’t embarrass them by pointing out their error to them. I would just have to keep mum.
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Some time after that I came to realize two things.
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One: That I never would be able to boast about my award –except here in my blog, of course, because you all are far too nice to say anything churlish to me about my churlishness.
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And two: That being considered “letterpress” was really quite a compliment, even if a rather back-handed one, about the “Thousand ‘G’ Perfection” that I had reached with my calligraphy!
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Of course, if they would have looked more closely at the calligraphy, they would have appreciated one of the real pleasures of the calligraphed page, which is that even though I try to make every ‘a’ look like every other ‘a’, and every ‘b’ like every other ‘b’, that I “fail” in the attempt. Every ‘a’ is in fact different to every other ‘a’ –as is every ‘b’, and so on; every letter is An Individual! Amazing! Utterly different from printing!
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Which is why every calligraphed page has a feeling of texture to it –a texture that our eyes appreciate as they read the text.
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Try it out.
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See if I am not right.
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[More about calligraphy and handmade books coming up in later posts]
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