New Year. New Hobby?

Welcome to 2010. It was a great Christmas and thus far a great new year.

Despite the fact I should really be working on my dissertation all day, every day in every bit of available free time for the next six months, I’ve decided to celebrate this year by taking a calligraphy class, something I’ve been wanting to do for at least the last twelve year.. Yesterday was the first of a series of seven calligraphy classes (three hours each).

gothic-texturaThe class isn’t ideal starting point as it’s on the Gothic Textura (14th-15th century) hand. Gothic Textura is a very angular, formal hand that’s difficult to read and slow to write. It’s lovely when done properly, but pretty unforgiving of errors in style or spacing. Had I been choosing, I would probably have opted for a pointed pen (copperplate) class. But this class is on the right day, at the right time and in a location I can easily reach by bus.

While any Gothic hand isn’t an ideal starting point, I do have some background in chisel nib, specifically Italic, lettering. After buying a cartridge-style lettering kit when I was 13, I practiced for hours and hours, took at least one course and got pretty good. My interested in lettering complemented an undergraduate focus on medieval history and literature and I spent days and hours quietly writing and copying in at the old Getty and Huntington. Unfortunately, I made a totally amateur mistake and decided to letter all the envelopes (inner and outer) for my first wedding. They looked lovely and people were impressed. However, there were more than two-hundred envelopes to letter. I wasn’t really fast enough to take on that sort of project and in order to finish them in time, I had to work six hours a night, every night for a month. What had been a fun and rewarding hobby became the worst grind of my life. For about five years after, I wanted nothing to do with lettering, even giving my pens and books away.

This changed in 1999, the first summer I spent with Paul in Edinburgh. There were a number of reasons for it, but the short version is Paul was working all day, I was spending a lot of time at the (alas now closed) James Thins, the Museum of Scotland and keeping a daily, sketch-filled journal. On a whim I bought a new calligraphy pen, a lovely Rotring ArtPen I still sometimes use, and started practicing Italic lettering again. At the same time, Paul and I visited the Museum of Scottish Education in Glasgow and I bought a basic dip pen.

copperplate1What I learned was that as much as I had learned to use a chiseled cartridge pen, I had no idea how to use a dip pen effectively, certainly not to do anything like 19th or early 20th century Copperplate script. In 2008, with the help of some library books, I taught myself how to use a dip pen for some basic Italic and Copperplate hands. Again, nothing very impressive but it was enough to realize that if I was ever going to get any better I needed some formal classes. (I’ve got samples of all of these, but the idea of posting it doesn’t really appeal much — maybe another time).

Enter yesterday and the Gothic Textura class. We spent the first half hour or so going over materials (dip pens only, C-0 nibs, inkwells, paper, drawing boards, rulers and the like). We’re all supposed to use identical materials, at least to start, including making a little paper sleeve to use to keep our rulers on our drawing board.

copperplate2Yesterday the instructor had us use walnut ink (lovely color — too bad I’d need to order it in crystal form in order to make more) because it’s transparent enough to show every stroke. For the next two hours I filled a giant sheet of paper with lines made at 0, 90, 45 and finally 30 degrees. It was amazingly engrossing.

Finally, in the last half hour of class I was allowed to move onto the basic strokes and letters. Normally we wouldn’t have done the alphabet so soon, but as next Monday is the MLK holiday, we’ll be practicing on our own for two weeks.

Did I mention I’m loving this? I suspect that’s coming through, at least a bit.

6 thoughts on “New Year. New Hobby?

  1. Casey Morgan

    There is something incredibly engrossing and even sexy about submitting to training, especially an ancient discipline like lettering. You no longer need direct yourself; you simply make your paper sleeve like the instructor says, draw the lines with the faith of a child, and in the fullness of time, your skill will grow. *sigh*

  2. Jigsaw Analogy

    I hadn’t realized we’d both focused on medieval history as undergrads!
    I learned calligraphy in high school because my other option was to take another typing class, and I figured calligraphy would ultimately do me more good than typing (had there been a computer class, I would have taken that, but I saw no reason to spend an hour a day typing on a manual typewriter, since I already knew how to type).
    Have fun with the class–it’s good to start the new year with a new hobby.

  3. Mija

    I hadn’t realized it either. Our paths cross in yet another place. 🙂 And thank you. I’m having a great time thus far. It’s already had one positive effect — I’ve cleaned up our room and created a little calligraphy space for myself. 🙂

  4. Mija

    As Casey said below, it’s very comforting to just practice something and believe I’m going to get better. But I think what makes it so easy to get lost is the impossibility of perfection.

  5. Mija

    Indeed. I find traditional art classes rather wonderful in that respect. And your term “submitting to training” is perfect. Such a way with words.


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