Articles – Alphabets
Table of contents
By Karen Poulsen
Review of a workshop given by New Mexico calligrapher Nancy Culmone, first published in L’Arabesque, Spring 1991.
Nancy started the day by asking each of us two questions. The first was why we were taking this workshop and what we expected to learn. Many expressed a desire to become more familiar with numbers because usually, after learning an alphabet, we hear “oh yes, and the numbers?” Numbers are often an important element and deserve more attention than that approach provides.
The second question was: “What is your favourite number?” Nancy pointed out that almost everyone chose a prime number, one which cannot be divided except by itself. Numbers have mathematical and mystic aspects as well as calligraphic considerations.
Although we call them numbers, NUMBER is the concept or symbol, whereas NUMERAL is the fire, the mark that represents the number. None of the historical hands were written with numerals. Numbers were written out (“eleven”), or in Roman numerals (“XI”). Arabic numerals were used for commercial purposes, for money transactions and were associated with cursive writing.
Historic numerals are not recognizable to us today. They originated as stick patterns, but since they were written with a fast hand they quickly evolved. Signs for numbers may even have been invented before letters. Even in our personal lives, many of us learn numbers before letters.
Old-style, non-lining numbers (see figure 2, below) are more historic, and were designed to be used with upper and lower case writing. Lining or ranging numbers (see figure 5, below) were created only within the last century and are a modern adaptation. (1)
We started working with old-style bookhand numbers, based on a round ‘O’. Nancy prefers to use the letter ‘O’ as a zero unless this creates confusion, in which case the zero can be narrower. Here is a sample of Nancy’s bookhand numbers:
Nancy suggests two exercises to practice numbers. The first is an ‘O necklace’, alternating zeros with each number. The second is to make a series of ‘O’ letters in dirty water, then overlay the numerals in ink to gain a sense of their shapes and proportions:
We then moved on to old-style italic numbers, and doing the same number exercises. Here again is a sample from Nancy:
As for aligning or ranging numbers, they are all the same height as capital letters, but the letter ‘O’ would be rounder than the zero:
We did Copperplate numbers with either a soft pencil or a Copperplate nib, and Nancy demonstrated using a Whopper Plate. (2)
Neuland and Uncial are tricky because of the compressed height of the numbers:
Our last exercise was to play with our favourite numbers using a large nib. Suggestions were to move the number around the page, turn the page, make number patterns, or overlap the number. We could try making different elements of different numbers, enjoying each separate mark, or different elements of the same number, scattered around the page.
We taped the results of this last exercise to the wall and appreciated the results. What a wonderful day we had, and how interesting numbers could be! Nancy is a terrific teacher, friendly and encouraging. She gives plenty of individual help as well as sharing loads of tips and special stories.
(1) Ranging numbers are also called lining figures. Non-lining, or non-ranging numbers are also old-style figures.
(2) A Whopper Plate pen is a kind of two-nib pen. Its production seems to be discontinued. For an image of the Whopper plate / Riesen-Spitzfeder: http://www.reinschrift.de/019c0f981c0855004/index.htm (text in German only)
By Marlene Elliott
Workshop summary originally printed in L’Arabesque, July 1986.
The Neuland alphabet was designed by Rudolph Koch (1874-1931), who worked as both a calligrapher and designer at the Klingspor Typ foundry in Germany. He also taught lettering at the Offenbach School of Art and Crafts.
Originally cut in wood, the Neuland alphabet is noted for its crisp, legible lines. As for all alphabets, the counter spaces are as important as the letterforms. We also had to keep in mind that Neuland letters bend only slightly, rather than curve.
We began writing letters using a C0 Speedball nib. The letter height is determined by the letter E, that is, 3 horizontal strokes with small interlinear spaces. (To complete the letter “E’, you simply have to connect the three strokes with a vertical line.)
It is important to start and end the strokes with a clean edge. You can exert pressure at the beginning and end of each stroke, creating a tapered effect in the middle (this is not easy to do!). Next, using a cut-off clarinet reed or piece of veneer wood, we created pleasing effects by contrasting dark and lighter shades of ink. (Editor’s note : A cheaper & easier to find alternative is to use a stick of balsa wood.)
We practiced with B4, B5 and B6 nibs without guidelines, creating a “bouncing” effect. For another exercise, we drew horizontal lines with a reed or brush and wrote on and between these lines. In direct contrast to the wide lettering, we used the side of the nib or reed to draw very thin strokes.
I found learning this alphabet very exciting and rewarding. Armed with these tips, we achieved spectacular results quickly.
INTRODUCTION TO ROMAN CAPITALS WITH JULIAN WATERS
By Karen Fullerton
This quite nicely detailed and illustrated article was written after a workshop given by renowned calligrapher Julian Waters; first published in L’Arabesque – December 1985.
On May 11th and 12th 1985, La Société was very fortunate to have Julian Waters come to Montreal to give a workshop on Roman Capitals. It was an exciting weekend as Julian, inspiring as a calligrapher, is also a great teacher.
We began with a basic study of the letterforms; Julian explained how each letter fits into an optical square (slightly narrower than the geometric) while also demonstrating the specifics that give the letters their proper weight and balance, i.e. the heights of the various crossbars, that C and G need their openings slightly splayed to give them strength, that the key to the bowl shapes (B, D, P, R & S) is tension — especially in D and S created by the curves being just rounded enough that we feel the air inside them — and more. Julian did all of his work on the wall on huge sheets of paper.
Julian went directly to spacing, outlining all the combinations of verticals, diagonals and curves and explaining the principles of positive and negative space. He stressed the importance of seeing the white space as “alive”, moving in and around the forms. This was made crystal clear by his demonstration using the letters T and Y, showing that while they need to be closer together because of the amount of white space, if allowed to touch they suddenly become too close; the flow of the white space has been blocked. Try it!
Then we went to work but as we began Julian said, a warning and a comfort, that the purpose of a workshop is really to see and absorb, not to achieve; we could study Roman Capitals for a lifetime and never stop learning. We began to monoline letters, using a felt pen or a Speedball B-nib, writing words or letter combinations, lines and lines of them to try for even spacing within each word, but also to see the overall effect or texture created on the page.
Saturday afternoon Julian used giant edged markers and went though the alphabet again, bringing to life the monoline forms we’d seen earlier. He demonstrated the subtleties in pen angle (about 30? with variations on the diagonals and some of the verticals) and pressure to create the thicks and thins (about half the width of thicks). The rest of the afternoon was spent practicing with comments and help from Julian. He wouldn’t give us any hard and fast rules on x-height, pen angles or even suggestions on the best way to hold pen and paper. Instead, he said we should work in whatever way “works” for us, that there are many ways to make Roman Capitals, so use a good model and learn, practice, memorize the forms and always see the letter before you write it.
On Sunday came the fancy work – serifs. Again Julian emphasized the “endless” range of possibilities but he did have a few very important rules. A serif should be a blossoming of the main stroke; we shouldn’t see where it starts because it actually starts at the center of the stroke. One must be consistent and make choices for the alphabet not for the letter, i.e. if you put a serif on the top of the A then do the same with the M and N. And lastly always enter and exit a letter in the same way — serifs should be slightly concave.
Julian demonstrated the different techniques one can use; using many strokes and drawing and filling in and, probably the harder and so most fun to watch, using fewer strokes but lots of pen twisting and pressure changes. And finally, he showed us how to achieve the slightly concave, beautiful verticals by double stroking, twisting the pen or by pressure alone.
The afternoon was spent in fun! Julian gave us a design problem — a previously designed poster with limited space left for the lettering. We all tried to find our own solution and practiced the capitals at the same time.
It was a wonderful two days. I left inspired not only by Julian Waters’ skill and artistry, but also by his sheer love of Roman Capitals which was felt throughout the weekend. One of the last things Julian said (although he was much more eloquent than I’m about to be) was that to really know any alphabet is to have the letters become part of your brain, to see them as shapes, not letters, to be able to draw them backwards or upside down, which of course, he then did!
WORKSHOP REVIEW – VERSALS – PETER THORNTON
By Didi Irwin
Review of a workshop Versals by US-based calligrapher Peter Thornton, first published in L’Arabesque – June 1989.
The first thing that hit us when we met Peter Thornton was his great sense of humour. This, coupled with his very contagious enthusiasm for the art of calligraphy, made for a fun-filled productive workshop. Although my friend Cynthia and I were surrounded by Montreal’s finest calligraphers, Peter never let our efforts seem inadequate or unimportant.
We began the workshop by sharpening a lead pencil with a knife, much as you would a quill. Keeping the lead long prevents you from pressing too hard when forming letters. The point can then be kept sharp by rubbing it on sandpaper.
Peter elaborated here on the history of illumination, and how the theory of “opposites” came into play. To see what alphabets go well together one should think of complements and contrasts, but not of conflicts. Italic versus Uncial, for example, go well together just as the colours grey and pink do. A colourful capital letter can be spotted immediately on the page; so when you use colour, try to use it in more than one spot on a page, like an echo. It substantiates itself then. The scribes used blue (by grinding lapis-lazuli), red, gold and green (a stable boy would pick little green crystals which had formed on the manure heaps and someone would then grind these). Some qualities to consider when choosing a contrast for a Gothic script:
Peter instructed us to start drawing our letters onto 5/8 inch ruled lines. The following points came up:
- If you’re not sure about how big to make a capital letter, use the one you’ve done and double it or just do a few different ones and use your aesthetic judgement.
- The serif must remain a “sudden” serif, don’t ease into it. The spirit of this alphabet is a dramatic change from thick to thin; it is not gradual or subtle at all.
For good models, look to the 12th century psalters.
- Try to keep the pencil quite vertical when you write.
- Space between letters should be ample.
- When doing round letters, always do the inside shape first:
1. draw a vertical line
2. estimate the optical centre
3. do a circle that overlaps the centre
4. join the outsides and you now have your inside shape. (Think of it as a running track.)
- If you want to make a round letter heavier, change the inside counter.
- Keep the thickest part of the letter above the optical centre; this makes the letter less droopy.
- When you’re on the left-hand side of the letter, look at the right-hand side of your nib, or vice-versa. This ensures an even transition from one stroke to another.
- Don’t let the top serif curve up on the top of Gs and Cs.
- Don’t let the tail of the R get too flourished, nor should you let it slither down. Think of it of it as a golden teardrop.
- The thicker the letter, the thinner the counter.
- To fill in versals, push down at the top and draw down from that blob of ink.
- Flourishes: to overcome the dread of scratching paper, just flourish away above the paper until you get a feel for it. There is a certain lightness of hand required in flourishing.
Peter does a lot of his work on black paper using Dr. Ph. Martin’s Bleed Proof White which he mixes with watercolour to create a very subtle colour. Peter likes to admit his message is a quiet one; we all agreed it is a beautiful one.
Peter gave a slide presentation of some of his work which culminated in a beautiful piece he was inspired to write while listening to Roy Orbison’s “A Love So Beautiful.” We listened to the song while watching the slides of the piece which has a gilded sun on the top and a little gold throughout. The piece flows just as the song does, and there was not a dry eye in the house.
The workshop ended with Peter briefly demonstrating his version of Modern Versals. His theory consists of not trying to make them look like stencilled letters; the mental thought being that it is a brush that is producing these and thus the edges remain very soft. These letters can also be flourished.
Peter had some of his fine work on display – I thought every piece was more beautiful than the previous one and I was in awe. It was a great workshop and Peter was a delightful teacher.
By Pat Poitras
Excerpts from a workshop review originally printed in L’Arabesque – January 1983.
On December 4th and 5th, 1982, fifteen enthusiastic calligraphers gathered at the Hampton YMCA for an intensive copperplate workshop given by Trudy Novack. [...]
Copperplate calligraphy consists basically of thick lines on the down stroke and thin lines on the upstroke. Additional flourishes complete this beautiful hand.
First developed by the French in the 17th century, it was originally known as Anglaise (English script). In the 18th and 19th centuries, the British perfected the technique of engraving copperplates, which were used on their presses for reproduction, hence the name of this alphabet: Copperplate.
As time passed, one variation of this alphabet lost its thick lines, and was named the Spencerian hand. This then evolved into the Palmer method of handwriting, which is the basic handwritten script taught in most elementary schools today. With the advent of the ballpoint pen, the alphabet lost much of its beauty; the new instrument speeded up the writing, but with an aesthetic sacrifice, since the delicate flourishes had to be written with a dip pen at a much slower pace.
Trudy [...] pointed out that when we refer to the 5% italic slant, it is the angle from the vertical line, whereas the 55% copperplate slant refers to the angle from the base line.
It was also noted that a few drops of gum arabic in the ink would permit it to flow out of the pen more evenly. An alternative to this would be to leave the cap off the bottle for several days.
The best materials for this writing style were Higgins Eternal Ink, Hammermill Bond Paper (1) and a no. 101 Hunt nib with an oblique penholder. Trudy had her trusty Brause nib (2), but recommended that we wait until we became a little more proficient, since it was very delicate and tended to catch the paper and break.
Just remember that it takes only 10% talent, 40% patience and 50% practice to be a super calligrapher. This was a direct quote from a Hermann Zapf workshop at the Rochester Institute in August 82.
(1) This paper is now difficult to find. We suggest the Clairefontaine Triomphe paper, or any good quality printer paper, such as the Xerox laser 24lb.
(2) We assume the writer meant the Brause 66EF nib.
By Sheila Usher
Originally published in L’Arabesque, December 1989. This article covered a great deal of topics; here we concentrated on tips to fine-tune the Italic alphabet.
Prior to Sheila Water’s workshop, we had to prepare a page or two of an alphabet we wanted improve, and most of us had opted for Italic.
Sheila said the Italic alphabet contains a lot of basic principles of calligraphy. “If you get good in one hand, it will rub off on all the rest.” Italic is much more difficult than other alphabets: “It is one of the most difficult hands to do well. There are far more variables going on than in other alphabets.”
Italic variables. Each person’s mental picture of an oval ‘o’ will be different; the slant can range from 0 to 20 degrees; the arch of the letters can go from rounded to pointed; branching can start from any point on the stem. The letters can be any width, from very narrow to very wide, but must be consistent in any one piece. The slant and branching must also be consistent in any one work.
Sheila told us the Italic alphabet is based on the letters ‘u’ and ‘n’, not the oval shape as most people think. She said we have to get rid of the mental image that Italic is round. We should think of the letter as having straight sides with a rounded top and bottom. All the letters based on ‘a’ and ‘n’ should have parallel sides.
Pen angle. When using a 45 degree pen angle, horizontal and vertical strokes will be of equal width. With a flatter pen angle, horizontal strokes will be thinner than down strokes. The 45 degree pen angle is a compromise between the angle needed for the letters and the angle needed for the joins. The narrower you write a branching alphabet like Italic, the steeper the pen angle must be in order for the branching to be delicate enough. To make a wider letter, you have to flatten the pen angle; the wider the letter, the flatter the pen angle.
Shape. The sides of the ‘p’ and ‘b’ are like an ‘n’; the bottom-right corner like an ‘o’; the bottom curve like a ‘c’. There should be no bucket on the end of a ‘p’ (tail curving back up); the fewer buckets you have on the tails of your letters, the better your letters will look.
“If you can get your ‘a’ right,” says Sheila, “you can get them all right; ‘a’ is probably the most crucial letter in the Italic alphabet.” It begins like an ‘o’ but continues like a ‘u’. It is better to base it on a ‘u’ than an ‘o’.
Letter Spacing. Spacing between letters and beside letters should be equal; this enables the eye to travel along a line effortlessly. A letter has to be modified to suit its surroundings. For instance, when ‘r’ is followed by ‘i’, ‘m’, ‘n’ or ‘y’, Sheila advised us to omit the entry serif from these letters, to close up the wide space under the ‘r’.
In order to be consistent, you have to anticipate when you are writing. While doing one stroke, you have to have the next one in your mind’s eye. You have to be at least one stroke ahead of what your hand is writing. Consistency and anticipation are of utmost importance when learning proper spacing.
By Jean-Luc Ferret
Review of a workshop first published in L’Arabesque, Summer 1993.
On the 16th of January, six people gathered at Yannick Durand’s to study her « French » version of « anglaise » (copperplate). Jokes did not stop there since it had been a day of intercommunication and good humour. We were also less numerous in a less formal setting than usual.
Those who still haven’t met Yannick must know she is an outstanding calligrapher who trained at the University of Toulouse in south of France and who has been working in Montreal for a year and a half. Her « continental » approach to calligraphy is therefore slightly different from that of the North Americans.
My first curiosity was to learn some of the calligraphic vocabulary in French. Here are some examples: « la chancellerie » = italic, « un crayonné » = a first light draft in pencil before inking (a flourish, for instance » ; « linéaire » = monoline. Finally, a pangram from overseas : « portez ce vieux whisky au juge blond qui fume ».
To execute the copperplate, Yannick holds her nib perpendicular to the horizontal line, not parallel to the angle of the lettre. This allows the paper to sit square in front of the scribe and the squaring of the « heads » & « feet ». — Other variations : in a round letter, the « fattest » part of the thick, downward stroke is slightly below center. The « head » of such verticals, such as g, j, p, q, and y are fine, not square. Ascenders and descenders are shorter. All variants allow for a more alive, spontaneous, hand-made look than most copperplate typographic founts which we would tend to imitate.
We then worked on the even more beautiful and decorative majuscules. Last, we studied all sorts of flourishes meant to adorn miniscules, along with « double stroke » letters (difficult !). Another thing new to me : shifting the angle of the nib to horizontal for certain strokes, including going over an existing thin stroke to « fatten » it. — This workshop reinforced my conviction that living in Quebec gives us the advantage of the confluence of two major cultural influences and allowing us to open ourselves to other people’s point of view and thus enriching ourselves. Thank you Yannick.