Everyone’s got to have a hobby and mine is Calligraphy. Like many people, I enjoy doodling but I’m not very gifted when it comes to drawing so I channel my energy into writing beautifully. I’m trying to develop this into a serious endeavour and this is a post describing how I do it.

My “gear”

I don’t remember how I got interested in this but the earliest calligraphy pen which I got was an Artline calligraphy marker. I must have had that before 1991 so that’s my “starting point”. They’re cheap and fun to use. I then bought a Sheaffer calligraphy fountain pen set which I still have but hardly use. I used to practise on and off but for the past few years, I’ve been seriously at it writing a page a day on the average. In 2010, I bought myself a set of Speedball nibs and a holder. I started writing with a dip pen and haven’t really looked back on fountain pens since then. The nib I use the most is a 2mm flat nib. In Speedball land, this is called a “C3” nib. It’s used for all the hands I can manage. Of late, I’ve been trying with wider nibs for larger work. I can’t handle the smaller ones yet withoug damaging the paper. I also have a number of flex nibs but lack the skill to write using a Spencerian or Copperplate hands. Someday perhaps. I managed to get my hands on one automatic pen which lets me mess with really large letters. It’s fun but I don’t use it very often. I have tried making bamboo pens but haven’t been very successful so I don’t use them. I also have a cup full of brushes which I practise with somewhat irregularly. A few flat ones to use with resist and to charge my pen when I write longer pieces and a few pointed ones including one rigger - this is particularly awesome when you’re trying to do fancy flourishes. I have a few cheap chisel edged felt tipped markers for quick and dirty stuff. I have 2 brush pens which I sometimes play with but they really require more skill to effectively use.

I carry around a Waterman expert fountain pen for daily use and a Platignum calligraphic fountain pen for doodling. My regular hand, like that of most “digital natives” is horrible but I still enjoy using the Waterman and don’t miss a chance to whip it out and scribble. I used to use Sheaffer Skrip ink but after my last bottle switched to Private reserve velvet black ink. It’s way darker and feels much better. For other colours, I make do with plain old poster colour or water colour since calligraphic gouache is next to impossible to find in India.

For calligraphy, I usually use 90gsm copier paper. It can handle some amount of soaking and is transparent enough to see rulings through. It’s not nice looking enough to do “finished” work but is great for practice. I use cartridge paper when I have to do stuff with paints and colour since it can handle water better. However, it’s rather thick and I don’t have a light table yet so ruling becomes a problem. I have a few other coloured papers which I use when I’m feeling fancy but the 90gsm bond is what I most use. I used to use a lighter 75gsm notebook to practice on and while they handle fountain pens reasonably well, they disintegrate with dip pens and clog the nibs. I bought some real calligraphic paper from an art store during my last trip to San Francisco but I’m too scared to waste it on real writing till I’m satisfied that I’m good enough to do so.

I’ve found Bhaskar art center in Chickpete and William Penn in Koramangala to have most of what I need especially the former. If you’re looking to find stuff, you should visit these places.

My setup

I don’t have a studio like real calligraphers do. I make do with a regular table and a chair with arms on which I rest a drawing board to get the angle right. I keep a sheet of paper stuck to the board on the right on which I drain off excess ink in my pen. I wrote a little Python script that generates PDFs with rulings of dimensions. This works better for me than manually ruling the page. It’s a tiresome job and one that really kills my interest. I’m sure that this violates some ancient rule but I’ve not been formally trained as calligrapher.

I use a wad of older paper taped together as a writing pad. It’s more comfortable than a real writing pad since it “gives” just a little under the nib and produces a nice effect. I hold the sheet on which I write to the ruling sheet using a bunch of paper clips.

My fonts

I’ve practised most with Edward Johnston’s foundational hand. It’s deliciously beautiful and not too hard to write. I also practise a standard uncial script. Of late, I’ve diversified a little into a little gothic. Italics and anything with a pointed nib still eludes me. I also don’t do flourishing very well.

My material

I enjoy reading poetry and most of the stuff I practise with are classical poems. I’m particularly partial to William Blake, S.T. Coleridge, Alfred Lord Tennyson and of course Shakespeare (especially the Sonnets).

My plans

I’m completely self taught never having met a real calligrapher in my life. This also means that I’ve never been judged by someone who knew what they were talking about. I’m not a big believer in autodidacticism especially in areas that are more subtle. I think a good teacher can really help a student along and imbues a certain deeper quality to the experience that can’t be had from a book. The “dead” in dead tree takes on a special meaning in this context. The cyberscribes page has a mailing list that runs “card exchange” events etc. which are nice to get a third party opinion for your work. I also managed to find a university that offers courses in calligraphy one of which I plan to take later this year.

I also want to actually make something and sell it this year or maybe early next year. I don’t plan to make this a career but when someone is willing to pay for the privilege of owning your work, it does say something about all the effort put into it.

Letters are symbols that turn matter into spirit. - Alphonse de Lamartine

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