Calligraphy? Computers can do that!

My early inspiration by Tom Barnard

Calligraphy (that proved inspirational to me) by Tom Barnard

Back in 1986, calligraphy was no more than a hobby to me. But even though I wasn’t particularly proficient, I had a passion for the craft, and had already decided that I wanted to be a full-time calligrapher.

That year, I remember walking into an art store in Glasgow, and there, unexpectedly demonstrating calligraphy in the centre of the store, was Tom Barnard. I was familiar with Barnard, since I owned Making Calligraphy Work For You, an Osmiroid book that he co-wrote with Christopher Jarman. But I had never expected to meet him, or any other “real” calligrapher, in the flesh.

I took the opportunity to chat to him, and mentioned how much I wanted to pursue his choice of career. He put down his pen, looked at me sympathetically, and said (and I remember his words so vividly), “I can count on the fingers of one hand how many calligraphers make a full-time wage from calligraphy in the UK.”

I’m sure he wasn’t trying to demoralise me, or put me off following my dream. I think his intention was to simply advise me that such a career path wouldn’t be an easy one (on reflection, true). And that I would never find myself in a high income bracket (also, true).

Tom-Barnard-2

SSI address beautifully written for me by Tom Barnard

Possibly to soften the blow of his candidness, Barnard wrote down the address of the Society of Scribes and Illuminators for me, so that I could enquire about lay membership. He also gave me a signed A4 page of calligraphy that he created right in front of my eyes (which I still possess, and have featured above). I remember he used an Osmiroid pen, loaded with green ink, and I was mesmerised by his effortless letter-making and flourishing. Rather than dampen my enthusiasm, he inspired me with his expertise. And despite his honest advice, I was more determined than ever to be a professional calligrapher, like him.

But turning my dream into a reality proved difficult, since very few people appeared to need/want the services of a novice calligrapher in the mid-eighties. And throughout those fruitless early weeks and months I became disheartened, and was constantly reminded of Barnard’s candid advice.

There appeared to be a stock response from almost everyone I approached in my quest for commissions. “Computers can do that,” I was told, again and again. Folk appeared to be bemused because I was actually choosing to write text by hand, rather than type it on a keyboard. They simply didn’t get it, and so I fought calligraphy’s corner. Again and again. Yet, despite my protestations, and my efforts at enlightening the disbelievers, I failed to change this widespread ignorance towards calligraphy. Only a discerning minority appreciated that hand-lettering, when well-done, is so much more impressive than sterile computer fonts.

Even when, decades later, I began to use my Apple iMac to create digital calligraphy, the computer was only a tool in the process. The computer didn’t create the actual calligraphy… I did, with my own fingers, using pen and ink! So in terms of creating calligraphy, in my opinion, computers still couldn’t “do that.” And I was convinced that would always be the case.

Then, a few days ago, my son sent me a video. As I watched it, I couldn’t help but smile knowingly. After almost three decades of telling anyone who would listen that computers cannot do calligraphy, suddenly it appeared that they can.

The video features a computerised machine that holds an ordinary pen like a human, and mimics various styles of handwriting and calligraphy. The machine even varies the size and shapes of characters for added realism, as you can see in the video below…

 

Pretty impressive, eh?

But despite the fact that I now have to grudgingly accept that computers CAN do calligraphy, there are quite a few missing ingredients, such as passion, personality, individuality and a little (controlled) imperfection. Calligraphy is so much more than simple letter-making.

Maybe if, someday, I hear that a computer has put down its pen to give honest advice to a keen young incipient scribe, I’ll step aside to make way for this brand new breed of calligraphers.

But, somehow, I think that day is a long way off.

Find out more about the computerised calligraphy-creating machines at Sploid.

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2 Responses to Calligraphy? Computers can do that!

  1. debordstudios says:

    Very interesting! This new technology begs the question: if it’s written by a machine, does it still feel like “personal touch”? There’s something beautiful in the little imperfections that make every thing you create unique, and a computer just can’t recreate that.

    • Thank you for taking the time to comment.
      I totally agree with your sentiments. When teaching my students, I always explain the importance of “controlled imperfection” in calligraphy, a topic I posted about in October 2013.
      Even though these calligraphic computers have been programmed to vary letter shapes and sizes, I doubt that they will ever recreate the warmth and personality evident in calligraphy that is imperfectly created by the human hand. I doubt that it will happen in my lifetime anyway.
      Duncan

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