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Calligraphy As an Art Form: The Rules of Calligraphy

This post is part 2 of 3 posts in a series. Be sure to check out part 1: Appreciation

The Rules of Calligraphy

In order to elevate it to the status of art, there should be composition — a planned and measured sense of order that takes into account the use of space on a page, harmony — a pleasing relationship between elements on the page including a relationship between the proportion of letters and spaces, rhythm — patterning and repetition that provides emphasis and draws the reader’s eye from one word to the next, and perhaps the most difficult to define aspect — individual style.

ANONYMOUS

Composition


“a planned and measured sense of order that takes into account the use of space on a page”


Initial ‘a’ by Alicia du Bois. Black lines are positive space. White background is negative space.

Composition is about the balance and proportion of positive and negative space. Overall, the composition should be visually pleasing. 

In art, positive space is the subject matter — the element(s) on the art surface. Negative space is the background and the blank space that shows through the positive space elements. 

For calligraphy, the positive space is the letters, and the negative space is the area around and between the letter strokes. 

Being conscious of the negative space when planning and writing calligraphy is essential. Negative space draws the eye into the subject matter areas and gives it room to evaluate what it sees. Conversely, too little negative space makes the letters look cramped. 

Calligraphy should be part of a balanced composition, not a constricted one. Even when letters are written right up next to each other, the spaces between the letters should be roughly equal to the spaces inside the letters for good visual balance.

Too much inconsistency in the spaces between and inside the letters is jarring to the eye and will cause a lack of focus as the eye bounces around, finding all of the places where the letters are different sizes from their neighbors. 

Examples of Composition in Calligraphy

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Elements of Good Composition

Harmony


a pleasing relationship between elements on the page including a relationship between the proportion of letters and spaces”


Harmony is a principle of art that describes the way visual elements interact with each other. No one item should compete with the other for attention. There are many types of things that can be harmonious or disharmonious in art, but not all of them apply to calligraphy. 

In calligraphy, harmony means that the relationship between the bulk of the words, individual characters, and even the space between each letter should look like it belongs next to its neighbors. 

In historical calligraphy, there are many examples of capitals that are purposefully out of scale or a different color compared to the surrounding letters. These capitals stand out and therefore draw the eye right to them.

Historical Scribes used this technique to start new paragraphs or sections of the manuscripts they wrote instead of using negative space.

Examples of the Use of Harmony in Calligraphy

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Harmoniousness in Calligraphy

Ancestry

Ancestry is not a true principle of art, however, it is important to calligraphy as an art form. 

All writing can trace its history back to its origin — a place and time where certain raw materials were available. These materials became tools that gave characteristic shape to the way letters were written.

Pens can take many forms depending on what materials they’re made of. Each type of pen creates its own set of effects and gives a distinctive shape to the letters. Using tools that are of the same materials as were used in history, or made from modern materials that mimic the authentic shapes is crucial to recreating the historical forms.

For example, many styles of writing that originated in Asia use a brush to create letter characters. Northern Europeans used the tips of feathers from native birds (quills) as writing instruments, and Southern European/Mediterranean people used pens cut from sturdy reeds that grew on the shores of the sea.

Calligraphy artists often emulate the letter shapes and styles of history and they will always add a little something of their own that changes the shapes just slightly. This is natural and expected.

Examples that Show Calligraphic Ancestry

The first example, Beinecke MS 315, is written in a script called “protogothic” which shows a transition between “Carolingian” and Gothic scripts. Carolingian has very rounded letter forms and protogothic is much more angular. After approximately 100 years, the second example, The Bronholm Psalter is a typical example of a Gothic hand called “Prescissa”.

Comparing the shapes of the letters ‘g’, ‘d’, ‘u’, and ‘o’, you can see the evolution of protogothic into prescissa.

Click on images to enlarge

Nods to Ancestry

Regional Variations and the Evolution of Letters

Just like languages, scripts have predecessors, dialects, and evolution.

As people moved around the world in history, they shared their style of writing and decorating pages with each other. 

Religious scribes often traveled with multiple books with the purpose of exchanging knowledge. 

It wasn’t uncommon for a scribe to travel to a somewhat distant monastery and stay for the length of time it took for them to copy out a manuscript (called an exemplar) to bring back home with them. 

imageEstoire del Saint Graal, France (Saint-Omer or Tournai?), c. 1315 – 1325, Royal MS 14 E III, f. 6v

Rhythm


patterning and repetition that provides emphasis and draws the reader’s eye from one word to the next”


Rhythm is a deliberate flow in calligraphic writing that creates feelings of pattern and emphasis within the eyes of the viewer.

The amount of time it takes to create a letter stroke can’t be too long or too short. If it takes too long, the straight parts of the letter will wobble slightly. If one writes too quickly, the strokes will be less precise and crisp — moving more toward handwriting. 

In another way, rhythm refers to the body movements — shoulder and arm vs. hand and wrist, and the smoothness of the pen on the writing surface. The inexperienced writer relies on hand movement rather than arm movement to create the letter strokes. Initiating movement from the shoulder while keeping the wrist and hand nearly still allows for smoother curves and straighter straight lines. 

Rhythm is a part of the process that we can only recognize by the results on the page. It’s body movement that requires a lot of practice to build up muscle memory and achieve consistency. 

The result of good rhythm is that the letters will be consistently well-formed — not running together or at differing heights. The eye moves along a line of rhythmic text smoothly. Rhythmic gestures produce fluid writing. 

Examples of Rhythm in Calligraphy

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Identifying Rhythmic Writing Patterns

Individual Style


and perhaps the most difficult to define aspect — individual style”


Individual style is the creative signature each artist brings to their work. An influence that only they can bring.

Creativity is that ephemeral motivation to try something different – something unexpected. It is a slightly different way of looking at the same thing with a unique perspective. It’s problem-solving, exploration, trial and error, and discovery.

Calligraphy as art tries to provoke an emotional reaction. The artist’s goals are to invoke a more profound meaning and communicate with the reader on the linguistic and creative levels. 

Calligraphy as art catches our attention and demands our focus. It tries to provoke an emotional reaction. The artist’s goals are to invoke a more profound meaning and communicate with the reader on both the linguistic and creative levels. 

Like any writing or any language, calligraphy is an ever-evolving art discipline rooted in the past and transforming slowly into the future. 

Examples of Individual Style in Calligraphy

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Expressions of Individual Style in Calligraphy

Read more in part 3: Calligraphy as an Art Form: Evaluating Calligraphy

Image Credits

PRINTING

CALLIGRAPHY AS ART

COMPOSITION

HARMONY

ANCESTRY

RHYTHM

INDIVIDUAL STYLE

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