How to avoid creating “visual chloroform” in calligraphy


When teaching calligraphy, I always take some of my calligraphy books along to let my students see what’s available. Although most of my books are quite old, and some are out of print, second-hand copies do crop up from time to time on Amazon Marketplace or on eBay, so the students appreciate being given the opportunity to ‘try before they buy.’

Sample pages from Layout and Design for Calligraphers

Sample pages from Layout and Design for Calligraphers

Last week I was browsing through my books at home, deciding which to choose for the class, when I rediscovered my absolute favourite calligraphy book of all time, Alan Furber’s Layout and Design for Calligraphers (see cover above).

As regular readers of this blog will know, I taught myself calligraphy from books back in the eighties. Books by Tom Gourdie and Margaret Shepherd were influential in teaching me how to create letters, but Alan Furber’s book made me realise that there was more to calligraphy than simple letter-making… it showed me how it was possible to make lettering interesting and exciting, avoiding “visual chloroform.”

Of all the calligraphy books I own, Layout and Design for Calligraphers taught me the most about applied calligraphy. As Alan Furber describes in the book’s preface, “The emphasis in this book is on layout, not letters.” I found it indispensable in teaching me how simple (not necessarily easy) the process is of arranging letters into visually harmonious relationships. Suddenly, I became aware of balance, contrast, dominance, and the importance of white space… design elements that had never occurred to me during my initial study of calligraphy.

For years, the book sat right next to my drawing board, convenient and easy to access. I referred to it on a daily basis, keen to integrate its instructions into every piece of calligraphy that I created. And it worked.

Based on how beneficial the book has been to my progress as a calligrapher, I believe that everyone who has an interest in calligraphy, whether beginner or more experienced, would benefit from owning a copy of Furber’s book. It is a slim volume, at only 64 pages, but every single (completely hand-lettered) page is designed to be a perfect example of how balance and white space are essential to the creation of eye-catching calligraphic compositions. And, although the book is aimed primarily at students of calligraphy, its graphic approach would prove equally useful to students of more general design.

While writing this post, I checked Amazon Marketplace in UK and found three copies of the book available for just 1p (plus £2.80 p&p). This is the bargain of a lifetime, and three people are going to get very lucky indeed if they move quickly enough.

Alan Furber's second book

Alan Furber’s second book

I also own Furber’s only other book, Using Calligraphy: Layout and Design Ideas. Although that volume is full of excellent ideas on how to improve calligraphic design, and is definitely worth seeking out, it doesn’t hold as special a place in my heart as its predecessor.

I hope I have turned a few incipient scribes onto Alan Furber’s two wonderful books. In my opinion, he is an unsung hero of calligraphy, and I cannot recommend his books highly enough.

One final tip… anyone who regularly purchases books from the main online suppliers, such as Amazon or The Book Depository, assuming them to be the cheapest, should instead try Book Butler ( in UK, but there are international variations). For any given book, Book Butler shows the availability from every possible supplier in a list with the least expensive at the top. This is definitely my search engine of choice when seeking out books online. Hopefully others will find it useful too.



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