From Writing to the Art of Lettering

Photo Credit:
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As a writer, I have always been a bit obsessed with words. More than a writer, I frequently call myself a “word person.” If I were to take a stab at what my “love language” is, it would probably be Words of Affirmation. I say this with confidence because time and conversation have an exceptional amount of value, conversing about situations and feelings are very important, and I am someone who really enjoys writing letters and giving people positive words when they mean something important to me. When I write stories, I am more interested in the language that I use and crafting beautiful phrases than I am in the plot or in characters (that is a REALLY bad thing for a writer to admit to…).

In my job, I work as a writer and have learned to go beyond just what a word says and means but to also pay attention to how it looks on the page with various design elements, fonts, colors, leading and kerning thanks to the many talented designers with whom I work.

Recently, I have had the opportunity to go beyond even this and into the art of letters itself. I met a very nice calligraphy artist at my job a couple of weeks ago. He was one of those acquaintances who you always say hello to in the hallway but don’t ever actually know each others’ names or what you each do for a job. Well, that all changed one morning when P and I happened to arrive at the office at the same time. We recognized each other and said hello. As we walked from the parking garage and down the hallway towards our desks, I then, in my extroverted way, informed him that we always say hello to each other but I didn’t know his name or what he does at our company. He told me his name and that he was a calligrapher. I told him that I had always admired calligraphy and wanted to learn how to do it. Much to my surprise, he enthusiastically offered to teach me and a friend during lunches going forward.

During our first lesson, I learned how deep the history of writing actually goes. Sure, I’ve heard stories and had basic discussions back in college when I received a minor in Classics. We discussed writing a little bit when we looked at The Book of Kells. But I never really thought about the history of the Gothic style of writing or how the different styles traveled and connected to one another and how different groups of people adapted the writing to their own particular purposes.

Some of the lines I've been practicing
Some of the lines I’ve been practicing

When my friend and I sat down with P, we could see his enthusiasm for his work and his art. He is absolutely as in love with calligraphy and lettering today as he was when he started at our company about 30+ years ago. As we practiced our form with drawing straight lines, he regaled us with the history of lettering and writing (and he showed us how he could write with both hands AND he can even write backwards as if the images were projected in a mirror.)

Gothic Letters  (Image found on Google images)
Gothic Letters (Image found on Google images)

He began by talking about the Gothic and how the Germans began with this writing style and how it reflects the personality of a German person. He says Germans tend to be rigid and controlled (he claims German heritage so he felt justified in making this declaration) and that their writing style reflected this. As the writing spread, it moved to the Italians whom he described as being “effervescent.” He said that the Italians wrote faster than the Germans and that when you write more quickly, your writing begins to slant and then he asked what font that makes. I thought about it and answered: “Italics.” He then drew the connection from the word “italics” to Italian. I’m not sure why I had never made the connection before but I love learning about little quirks in history like that!

Image from The Book of Kells

He then talked about how the Irish took the lettering and adjusted it in their own way. They didn’t have capital letters and small letters. In their version of the script, the letters are all the same height. As he began writing in this form, I was reminded of the Book of Kells that I had learned about in college. One of my professors had projected images of the book for us during a discussion.

Vertical and horizontal line practice with some of P's letters thrown in.
Vertical and horizontal line practice with some of P’s letters thrown in.

In our class, we are beginning with writing the Gothic text (what could be more perfect for me as someone who loves Gothic literature anyway, right?!). We began with vertical lines and then moved on to horizontal lines. He showed us how we will eventually make the feet and how all those pieces work together to make each letter of the alphabet. We haven’t made any actual letters yet. But I know we’ll get there. It takes a lot of practice and I am as enthusiastic about learning the letters as I am about the history.

During our class, I became fascinated by how tightly each letter fits together. While I was watching P draw the letters, I was struck by how similar they are and how many components each letter shares. I’m not sure why I had never drawn this sort of connection previously. I know I had pondered the fact that some letters resemble each other, but I didn’t think about the mechanics and the history that would suggest the why of this.

It’s been interesting learning about the history of writing and also being forced to slow down and make very calculated and deliberate strokes. It’s actually quite difficult! All your life, you are taught to write fast so you can take notes while your teachers lecture. Your signature is a flourish when you write checks or sign contracts. You don’t think much about how your letters look (unless your handwriting is truly illegible or truly beautiful). But now, the way the letters look are as important as what words they make and what those words mean when they are strung together. And though I feel like I’m learning to write for the first time all over again, truly, for me, it feels like everything is going full circle.