Controlled imperfection in calligraphy

Imperfection is importantControlled imperfection.

I have no idea who coined that phrase, in terms of calligraphy, but to me it perfectly describes that mysterious element that gives calligraphic lettering its character.

I frequently mention the importance of controlled imperfection to my calligraphy students, explaining that there is little point in them striving for perfection because, as no less an artist than Salvador Dali once said, “Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.”

Despite Dali’s advice, it didn’t stop me from attempting to perfect my lettering a number of years ago. The credit crunch had just happened and, as a consequence, a lot of my corporate-based calligraphy work dried up considerably. Companies began to cut back on non-essential services and, for a little while, my calligraphy business became a casualty of the times.

In the interests of discipline, I spent much of my new-found spare time practicing calligraphy, trying to improve my lettering, something I had neglected for too long. Over the years I had become complacent, content with having, “just enough education to perform,” so here was an opportunity for this old dog to learn some new tricks.

Every day, I spent hours practicing my Italics. Eventually, every sloping vertical became parallel, as did every serif and diagonal. All of my ascenders and descenders became of equal length, and the body of each letter sat tight and precise within the boundaries of the x-height. I strove for absolute uniformity, with the naive notion that my calligraphy would improve as a result. I became so blinkered in my quest for perfection that I didn’t notice the resultant letters were not so much dancing rhythmically across the page, as marching rigidly, like soldiers on parade.

At the time, I thought this was a good thing. After all, I was achieving ultimate consistency… what a breakthrough. What I didn’t appreciate (and now, on reflection, I fail to see how I was so blind), was that my quest for perfection had sucked the life and soul out of my letters.

Like an author who writes and rewrites the same passage until the original spark of originality is snuffed out, my intense practicing had caused my letters to become characterless, lacking vibrancy. Yes, they looked professional enough, and were reasonably pleasing to the eye, but ultimately they had lost their individuality and their personality.

My folly became clear to me when, right on the heels of this misguided practicing spree, a bride-to-be came to collect her wedding invitations, onto which I had inscribed her guests’ names.

“Wow,” she said, inspecting my work, “you made a brilliant job of them.” Then, still assessing my calligraphy, she added, “In fact, they look so good that you would think they had been done on a computer!”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. The customer was obviously delighted with my work, so I knew her words were intended as a compliment, but I felt deflated. What calligrapher wants their hand-lettering likened to a computer font?

So I went back to the drawing board (literally), in an attempt to undo almost everything I had spent the previous few months honing. I began to gently curve my straight strokes, push the pen in unexpected directions, flout the laws of proportion, break rules and take risks. And, as a consequence, I began to enjoy my calligraphy more than ever.

Suddenly, I felt like I had cast off a straitjacket, and the effect was liberating. Rather than trying to achieve perfection in my lettering, I strived for controlled imperfection. And the effect this new approach had on my calligraphy was clear to see.

The philosopher Goethe is unlikely to have been considering calligraphy when he said, “Certain flaws are necessary for the whole – it would seem strange if old friends lacked certain quirks.” But, like Salvador Dali and Eric Cantona (see Cantona’s quote in my artwork at top of post), Goethe hit the nail right on the head with his astute observation on the need for imperfection in life.

In essence, we calligraphers should leave perfection to the perfectionists, choosing instead to introduce a few flaws and quirks into our lettering. And if we really want to improve our calligraphy, we should forget about the letters awhile and concentrate on improving the spaces between them.

But the art of spacing is another blog-post for another time. Until then, introduce some controlled imperfection into your lettering, stand back, and admire the immediate improvement!

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