Brush writing & class end

In the final meetings of Calligraphy class, students tried a different tool and a different language: using brushes dipped in sumi ink, they recreated Chinese characters. (This book by Edoardo Fazzioli provided our source material.)

Students said brush writing was among their favorite class projects. I suspect this is due to the freedom this tool gives: the brush responds to pressure variations, so it is much easier to create flowing, organic-looking lines as compared to a broad-edged pen. The unlined, large-format paper and our unfamiliarity with the characters allowed us all to loosen up and have fun.

Among our other final class projects, students created original stencils and painted them onto t-shirts:


This was fun, but a real production: for the amount of time, effort and expense involved (and with only one adult in the room), t-shirt printing proved very ambitious for the 7-11 year-old age group, but I think it could be a perfect project to do with parents at home.

Students used their lettering skills on advertisements and the brochure for the end-of-session show:


At the last class, I asked students to imagine themselves many years from now as 8th graders: what did they think they would remember about calligraphy? One response stood out: “to slow down and take your time to enjoy writing.” Well put!


Evolution in action

Unlike Athena, our 26-letter alphabet didn’t just spring into existence one day, beautiful, fierce and fully-formed: it is the result of thousands of years of human ingenuity and experimentation. The letters evolved.

IMG_8427.jpgPages from Christopher Jarman’s “Fun With Pens” (A&C Black Ltd., 1970).

Good-looking calligraphic letters don’t just spring onto the page right after you sit down to write them, either: they are the end result of steady practice. When you want to make something beautiful to give to a friend or to keep for yourself, you will need to form an idea of the thing before you touch your pen to the final nice paper. This requires getting warmed up, maybe experimenting with different hands, and several attempts on practice paper to get the words/names right before you make the final attempt.

Students performed this very evolution last week in calligraphy class. The result was many handsome-looking bookmarks:

Maria, Martin and Flora chose to write in Round hand (and note Martin’s drafts at upper left); Alice and the teacher chose the Blackletter hand.

Calligraphy for kids: first meeting

The first hour-long meeting of my 12-session Introduction to Calligraphy class for 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders met last week. As is usual in my work with children, the students exceeded my expectations both in what they already knew—someone defined calligraphy as “a different kind of writing, a more careful way to write”—and in how quickly they grasped the workings of the broad-edged pen, the calligrapher’s basic tool and the key to making the beautiful thick & thin strokes that define various calligraphic hands (styles). Italic, blackletter, uncial, and round hands can be seen here:

IMG_8203.jpgWe used double-pencils (two pencils tied together with rubber bands) held an a constant angle to make lines like the one illustrated here:
The double-pencils reinforced both the need to apply equal pressure to both sides of the edged tool, and the need to work at a sufficient (larger) size. IMG_8207.jpg
Students progressed from making basic warm-up marks, to elegant lines of patterns, then to the round alphabet.IMG_8191.jpg

IMG_8211.jpgAs a preview, I passed out two felt-tip calligraphy pens for students to test out.
This student has a good eye for layout on the page (something we didn’t discuss yet):
This student already analyzes her work (!):
At this age, students aren’t shy about saying what interests them. I will introduce several hands and applications early on into our meetings to let each student choose her own path of experimentation. Check back in a month or two to see the progress.

Writing matters

Last fall before the first meeting of Calligraphy class, a mother explained why her son was enrolled. “He wants to be a doctor when he grows up, but his handwriting is terrible! If you want to help people, I told him, what you write must be easy for others to read.” I suspect that many of the parents of the children with whom I work want their child to write competently and with care. Below I will outline two important reasons why writing remains relevant today.

Today’s parents receive a daily education in how digital media shapes people’s interests and goals. Yet many, like the mom quoted above, recognize that we still often face situations where it is quickest and easiest to think and communicate by hand. That remains the main purpose of handwriting, a human invention that reaches back thousands of years. One important moment in its history occurred during the Renaissance when, as the author Jan Adkins writes, “everyday handwriting gained greater importance. Communication was the current of rebirth, running from one mind to another between cities and countries.” Italian writing masters disseminated a slanted, current (running-together) script known today as Italic. Here it is in use at the San Francisco Public Library:

Blogx - italic example SFPL.jpg

Italic’s structure lends itself to being written quickly, and its letters, derived from natural hand movements, make it possible for young children to learn. For centuries the written Western alphabet has been taught systematically in public schools throughout Europe, and the Italic hand has often been the model. Today in the United States, it is rare that handwriting gets much formal treatment. No national standards exist for it beyond the first grade and the standard instruction that is offered is deficient—a subject for a future post. Lately, the de-prioritization of writing seems to have accelerated: some parents of elementary-age children recall that their own writing lessons spanned several grade levels, and that Writing was given roughly equivalent emphasis to Reading and Arithmetic (the so-called “3 R’s”). Whatever policymakers think, parents and teachers today continue to see a need for young students to be trained in how to write in a legible, controlled hand.

Beyond utility, a more important reason exists for learning to write well. It is more difficult to put into words. People enjoy making deliberate marks by hand on a deeper-than-thinking level. I glimpse this in the faces of the eight-to-ten-year-olds experimenting with the thick and thin marks made by a chisel-tipped pen dipped in ink, and with five-year-olds who smile proudly at the long line of zig-zag chalk lines that they have transformed into a snake. Scientists deem such enjoyment a “useful cognitive exercise.” In the rush to produce digitally-literate future workers (a push that is felt worldwide), we sever ourselves from both an ancient human tradition and a basic human need: to be understood, to communicate clearly in our own voice. Of course, this is a skill that emerges gradually, out of many years of sustained practice.

For an excellent introduction to the history of the Western alphabet, read “Letterbox: The Art and History of Letters” by Jan Adkins.

Sources of Inspiration

I first encountered calligraphy as a boy when I found a large book on the English artist William Morris on my mother’s bookshelf. It was full of beautiful pictures—Morris was a tireless designer and activist printer—but an image of an unfinished medieval-style manuscript page fascinated me beyond all the rest:


I wanted to pick that old piece of paper up, scrutinize its fine, careful writing and beautiful borders of colorful vegetation, and pick up a pen and brush to finish where the artist had left off.

I kept this memory in mind as I tried to spark (or deepen) an interest in calligraphy in a group of upper elementary students in Berkeley last fall. Over eleven one-hour meetings, the class practiced simple Roman capitals and small Italic letters, first in pencil and then with dip pens: the same materials that “real-life” calligraphers like Morris used more than one hundred years ago, and that calligraphers still use today. Initially the idea of 9 and 10 year-olds using indelible ink seemed risky, but I followed a colleague’s somewhat mystical advice to “assume that the students already know what to do.” This proved to be among the course’s best features: by and large students rose to the challenge of loading their own Brause 3mm pen nibs with black Higgins Eternal ink, and took care to clean their equipment with water, a rag and an old toothbrush at the end of each session. The students’ intuitive care for the writing tools was exciting to see. Such respect contributes to a writer gaining control over her pen, and not the other way around. No page of beautiful writing could ever be completed without it.