Ingenious Impressions: The Coming of the Book exhibition

001-a-Untitled-1In a previous post, I reflected on my response to being told, “calligraphy?… computers can do that!”

A current major exhibition in Glasgow has made me consider how medieval scribes would have reacted to being told, “calligraphy?… a printing press can do that.”

The scribes surely cursed Johannes Gutenberg for perfecting the revolutionary technique of printing by moveable type, and for bringing an end to an era of hand-lettered manuscripts.

The exhibition, Ingenious Impressions: The Coming of the Book, explores how the invention of mechanical printing impacted on late medieval society. It charts the development of the early printed book in Europe, showing how printing revolutionised book making, and was instrumental in the emergence of the Renaissance. 001-a-Untitled-1

There are a number of key themes, including the transition from scribal to print culture, the design, decoration and illustration of the earliest printed books, and the technology and challenges of printing. There are also demonstrations on a replica 15th century printing press.

I assume that, with the advent of mechanical printing, the majority of scribes would have found their services gradually dispensed with in the mid 15th century. But it’s heartening to know that during the early years of printing, the same artists who provided illuminated decoration in manuscripts were employed to illustrate printed books, a space having been left on the pages for them to add illustrations by hand.

Eventually, as featured in the exhibition, woodcuts were used to provide illustration on the printed page so, despite being granted a reprieve, these talented artists inevitably followed the same fate as their fellow scribes.

This fascinating exhibition is being held in The Hunterian Art Gallery, within the University of Glasgow, and runs from 27 February till 21 June 2015. It is open daily, except Mondays. Admission is free. More information is available here.

There are various related events taking place throughout the term of the exhibition, but I was drawn to the title of one event in particular. Considering it is part of an exhibition about 15th century printing, Johnny Depp and Old Books: Incunabula in the Movies definitely caught my attention. If you are as curious as I am about the subject matter, maybe I’ll see you in The Hunterian on 27 May.

If you live in central Scotland, or are willing to travel, then I would definitely recommend visiting Ingenious Impressions: The Coming of the Book.

The exhibition had initially slipped under my radar, so I’m grateful to Phil, one of my intermediate calligraphy students, for bringing it to my attention. Thank you Phil… just one instance of the teacher learning from the student!


Sharing my collection of calligraphy books

There's Something About A BookEaster is almost upon us, and I’ve just realised that I haven’t posted anything new since last Autumn. Six months of silence, which is shameful. Such evidence would suggest that I’m not worthy of the title, “Blogger.” But I’m back now, better late than never, and determined to make amends for my inexcusable absence.

But what to write about?

My calligraphy bookshelf.

My calligraphy bookshelf.

In timely fashion, while I was considering various topics, I received a comment referring to a previous post that I wrote about The Demise of Calligraphy. In that post, I featured a photograph of a bookcase shelf, packed with my personal collection of calligraphy books.

The comment that I received was from Rachel, who requested a list of the books in the photo. So, I decided that, rather than respond directly to Rachel, I would list my collection of books in a post, adding my personal thoughts about a few of them along the way.

Yes… I know… there’s nothing more boring than a list. I do appreciate that… and I accept that I run the risk of sending you, dear reader, to sleep (or off to some list-free calligraphy blog). But hopefully my personal thoughts will help break up the bullet points, and alleviate the potential for yawns and drooping eyelids.

A plus for me is that writing this post gave me an excuse to create a new piece of related artwork, which I’ve featured above, or view it on Flickr.

So, here we go:

Calligraphy: Tools & Techniques for the Contemporary Practitioner… Gaye Godfrey-Nicholls (Amazon link)
9781906417833This is my most recent book purchase. I bought it because I admire Gaye Godfrey-Nicholls’ calligraphy, particularly her italics, which have had a great influence on my own lettering.
Her book covers both traditional and contemporary calligraphy (including digital). It features outstanding and varied examples of hand-lettering, and includes profiles of many calligraphers, some of whom are unfamiliar to me.
There are interesting chapters on pointed brush, flat brush, pointed pen and ruling pen. And I am particularly interested in the chapter on ‘Gestural’ calligraphy, a fairly modern approach to rhythmic letter-making that I am keen to learn more about.
The book is lengthy, (as is its title) at almost 300 pages, so very good value. And definitely a great buy for anyone seeking an effective all-rounder.
Whether or not you buy the book, you should visit Godfrey-Nicholls’ Inklings website, and prepare to be inspired. She is a seriously talented, and prolific, calligrapher.

More than Fine Writing… Child, Collins, Hechle and Jackson (Amazon link)
This book relates the story of Irene Wellington’s life, and features numerous examples of her awe-inspiring calligraphy. It is not an instruction manual, yet there is much to learn just by admiring the colour plates of her lettering, something I tend to do a lot of.
A few years ago, while I was reading the book, my wife noticed that I had been staring at the same colour plate for more than fifteen minutes. Curious, she asked me why. (Her question broke the spell, or else I may be staring at the page yet). The truth is, oblivious to the passing of time, I had been tracing pen strokes with my eyes, calculating pen angles, analysing the spacing, deconstructing the composition, appreciating the near-perfection of Irene Wellington’s lettering. But, conscious of how odd such an explanation would appear to my non-calligrapher wife, I lied. I told her that I had simply been daydreaming.
Yet, despite its potential for turning me into a disingenuous husband, this is a wonderful book, and I never tire of leafing through it.

Starting Calligraphy (Osmiroid)… Tom Barnard (Amazon link)
The Osmiroid Book of Calligraphy… Christopher Jarman (Amazon link)
Making Calligraphy Work for You (Osmiroid)… Tom Barnard & Christopher Jarman (Amazon link)
069521c6918569f5593263725451434d414f414151cDLFawsGL._SY300_These are ‘simple’ calligraphy books, and I mean that in the nicest possible way.
There is nothing fussy or complicated about their content or approach… just straightforward examples of professionally executed calligraphy, and practical ideas about how to put your calligraphy to work.
I still use wonderful Osmiroid calligraphy fountain pens and nibs, despite the company going out of business in the 1990s, so I have a soft spot for these three books, which bear the Osmiroid name.

Calligraphic Styles… Tom Gourdie (Amazon link)
Mastering Calligraphy… Tom Gourdie (Amazon link)
Calligraphy for the Beginner… Tom Gourdie (Amazon link)
6594519-M1446769780800811884Speaking of soft spots, these three books mean a lot to me. Mainly because I attended a calligraphy class back in 1987 that was taught by the late Tom Gourdie. As I explained in a previous post, that two week class changed my life.
I purchased my copy of Calligraphic Styles directly from Mr Gourdie in the classroom, and I am honoured that he signed and dated it for me in his fine Italics.
Calligraphy has moved on since these books were published, but if you are seeking instruction that is presented in a pure, honest, uncluttered format, then purchase any book by Tom Gourdie.

Calligraphy Projects… Margaret Shepherd (Amazon link)
Learning Calligraphy… Margaret Shepherd (Amazon link)
Borders for Calligraphy… Margaret Shepherd (Amazon link)
Capitals for Calligraphy… Margaret Shepherd (Amazon link)
61fpFt4ciSL._SL500_SY300_71A7P79QRWL51h-Zb7IV-L._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_5186l6LmdTL._SY300_Another four books that were influential when I was teaching myself calligraphy back in the early 80s.
Although Margaret Shepherd’s lettering styles differ greatly from Tom Gourdie’s, the two author’s books share a simplicity that I believe is advantageous to anyone setting out to learn calligraphy. Calligraphy Projects is a particularly useful book, in that it shows many ways in which calligraphy can be put to practical use. If you are learning calligraphy, but don’t know what to do with your new-found talent, Calligraphy Projects will certainly come in handy.

Layout and Design for Calligraphers… Alan Furber (Amazon link)
Using Calligraphy… Alan Furber (Amazon link)
alan-furber-151EyFaE76xL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Two books that I cannot recommend highly enough.
If you want to learn about calligraphic composition, layout and design, you should buy these two books… today!
I have already featured the books in a previous post, in which I wrote extensively about their merits, so I urge you to read that post rather than I repeat myself here.
All I want to add is, you should buy these two books today! (Did I say that already?)

Mastering the Art of Calligraphy… Janet Mehigan (Amazon link)
51Z+XT15X3L._SY300_If I was asked to recommend a single calligraphy book for the beginner, this is it.
I suggest to all of my calligraphy students that they should treat themselves to a copy, because it is an amazing all-rounder… professionally presented in full colour with clear instruction, practical projects, and a gallery of top-class calligraphy.
Required reading for every incipient scribe.

Digital Calligraphy… George Thomson (Amazon link)
Digital Calligraphy with Photoshop… George Thomson (Amazon link)
Digital-Calligraphy-978082301297851gt7UQ+7WL._SY300_Anyone who is competent at calligraphy, is computer literate, and has a scanner and a software package such as Adobe Elements or Adobe Photoshop, will find these two books invaluable.
They explain how to transfer calligraphy from ink and paper onto a PC or Mac, to be viewed on a monitor. Once the calligraphy is ‘digitised,’ the possibilities are endless. Resize and recolour lettering at the click of a mouse. Easily reposition lines of calligraphy to try various design solutions. Add a subtle shadow effect or glow (but be careful not to overdo the novelty aspect), then reproduce the completed design on an inkjet or laser printer.
These two books have proved to be invaluable to me. I learned so much from them, and almost all of the calligraphy artwork that I now produce is created in digital form, using techniques that I learned while following George Thomson’s instruction.
The books are not for everyone, particularly not for calligraphy purists or traditionalists, but would benefit anyone wishing to create contemporary calligraphy in a digital form.

Modern Mark Making… Lisa Engelbrecht (Amazon link)
modern-mark-making-from-classical-calligraphy-to-hip-hand-letteringSpeaking of contemporary calligraphy, this is a book that drags the craft into the 21st century.
Modern, bold, brash and vibrant, every time I leaf through its colourful pages, I’m compelled to get my pens out and start lettering.
One word of caution: whenever I teach calligraphy, I always begin with the Foundational alphabet. It’s the natural place to start, and every available calligraphy book will back me up on that… except Modern Mark Making.
Curiously, it starts with Italics, a very unusual choice. But the book is all about breaking rules, experimentation, taking risks, and above all… enjoying the art of letter-making.
So I think Lisa Engelbrecht can be excused for dismissing Foundational in favour of having fun.
If you like to do things differently, this is the book for you. For more information, see my previous post, My Favourite Calligraphy Book Of The Moment. The book has since been retitled, “Modern Calligraphy and Hand-Lettering.”

Parallel Pen Wizardry… Brenda Broadbent
ppwizardry_bookIf you own a set of Pilot Parallel Pens, do yourself a favour and buy a copy of this book. These pens are an amazing writing tool, particularly their potential for colour transition, and the book is their perfect companion, telling you everything you need to know about them.
Although it is a very slim volume, at only 26 pages, it is definitely worth owning.
On behalf of one of my calligraphy students, I recently tried to source the book in the UK, but without success. So calligraphers in the UK may need to order from a US supplier, such as John Neal. Despite the extra effort and extra postage costs that would entail, I would still recommend the book to all owners of Pilot Parallel Pens.


Although I have given the above books my special attention in this post, the following books in my collection have also played an important part in my progress as a calligrapher. These books may have been slightly less of an influence than those described above, but each of them is worthy of inclusion in any calligrapher’s book collection.

In no particular order, they are:

Calligraphy Step-by Step… Gaynor Goffe & Anna Ravenscroft
Calligraphy Masterclass… Peter Halliday
The Complete Beginners Guide to Calligraphy… Mary Noble
The Complete Guide to Calligraphy Techniques and Materials… Judy Martin
The Calligraphy Source Book… Miriam Stribley
Logo, Font & Lettering Bible… Leslie Cabarga
Simple Stroke Calligraphy… Marci Donley
Creating Letterforms… Rosemary Sassoon & Patricia Lovett
Lettering and Applied Calligraphy… Rosemary Sassoon
The Practical Guide to Calligraphy… Rosemary Sassoon
Contemporary Calligraphy… (no author) published in association with the SSI
The Art of Colour Calligraphy… Mary Noble & Adrian Waddington
Calligraphy Techniques… John Lancaster
A Manual of Calligraphy… Peter E Taylor
Colour Calligraphy… David Graham
The Calligrapher’s Project Book… Susanne Haines
A Pocket Guide to Calligraphy… Susanne Haines
How to Become a Professional Calligrapher… Stuart David
100 Great Calligraphy Tips…Judy Kastin
Out of the Ordinary: Calligraphy and Meditations… A Dove & C Caldwell
Proverbs… Timothy R Botts
Doorposts… Timothy R Botts
Calligraphy Made Easy… Gaynor Goffe
Written by Hand… Aubrey West
How To Write Like This… (no author) a Rexel publication
A Book of Scripts… Alfred Fairbank

And that’s it. For a list, it wasn’t so bad, was it? I’m hoping that at least some of you who started reading actually got this far. I thank you for your perseverance.

And I thank Rachel for her comment that inspired this post.

If anyone owns a worthy calligraphy book that I haven’t mentioned above, please leave details in the comments below. I’m always on the lookout for new sources of inspiration.

The Amazon links included above will allow you to read reviews about the books, but don’t forget to visit Calligraphity, the online calligraphy bookshop.

In the meantime, happy reading!

Finding calligraphic inspiration in unexpected places

The Joy of ScrapbookingYes… I know… you came here looking for information on calligraphy, and were greeted by the front cover of The Joy of Scrapbooking.

But despite what you’re thinking, I haven’t gone over to the dark side. I’m still a calligrapher, not a scrapbooker. And if you bear with me you’ll find that there’s method in my madness (and maybe a little madness in my method, but you can be the judge!).

I’ll get back to The Joys of Scrapbooking in a moment, but I’ll lead you there with a question that is regularly asked of me by my calligraphy students. “Do you need to be artistic to be good at calligraphy?”

I never hesitate in answering, “no.”

Of course, it is advantageous for an incipient scribe to be creative, imaginative, and naturally good at art. Calligraphy projects will definitely benefit if executed by someone possessing those qualities. But such qualities are not essential in the quest to become a competent calligrapher (in my opinion, the requirements are guidance, application, discipline, lots of practice and patience).

Despite my profession, I confess that I don’t regard myself as naturally creative or artistic. And although I’ve been producing original calligraphic artwork for the past twenty five years, ideas have never come easy. The problem is I have little, if any, imagination.

designMany years ago, as a school pupil in art class, I had no difficulty drawing a still life. If a vase of flowers was placed in front of me, I could produce a passable sketch in no time. But if I was asked to draw something from my imagination, without any props, I was incapable. If I couldn’t see it, then I couldn’t create it. And, all these years later, little has changed. My calligraphic creativity requires kick-starting from visible sources.

For decades, when seeking such inspiration for my artwork, I scanned my many calligraphy books for ideas. I didn’t copy or plagiarise other calligraphers’ work. I was simply looking for appropriate design layouts and colour schemes that inspired me. As soon as that initial spark fired up my creativity, my own talent and expertise took over and saw the job through to completion.

Searching through those calligraphy books worked for a while, but I eventually became so familiar with their illustrations that they no longer did the trick. I began to look for inspiration in design books with a typographic slant, since remaining within a lettering context seemed to be a natural progression. I was immediately inspired by the content of many excellent books including, Roger C Parker’s Looking Good In Print, Robin Williams’ Design Workshop, and Leslie Cabarga’s Logo, Font and Lettering Bible. But I didn’t appreciate how much I was limiting my progress by seeking inspiration only within the confines of the lettering arts.

That changed unexpectedly a few years ago when I found myself in a Glasgow bookstore, browsing books in the arts and crafts section. Having exhausted the calligraphy and typography books, and with time to kill, I began to idly leaf through books on crafts that held no interest for me… or so I thought.

I’m not sure what I expected to find when I opened a copy of The Joy of Scrapbooking, but it certainly wasn’t the treasure trove of original designs and amazing colour schemes that confronted me. I was transfixed. Up to that point I knew nothing about scrapbooking (I still know very little), but the more pages I turned, the more enthusiastic and inspired I became. The book was crammed with amazing examples of scrapbooked artwork that incorporated well-executed typography and occasional examples of hand-lettering. And I was knocked out by the original design layouts, varied colour combinations and wonderful textures. A bonus was the inclusion of tips on digital scrapbooking that I could easily apply to my digital calligraphy projects.

Before I knew it, I was at the checkout with my credit card in one hand, and The Joy of Scrapbooking – my new favourite reference book – in the other.

This unexpected discovery taught me to expand my horizons in terms of where I sought inspiration for my calligraphy, and I began to unearth further resources within non-calligraphic books. A fine example is Peter King & Company’s,1000 Greetings, which features inspirational designs in the form of “creative correspondence for all occasions.” I discovered the book by accident in my local library, which was a lucky break, since its illustrations have sparked my creativity on numerous occasions.

In my experience, it is natural and easy for calligraphers to play safe, and stay within the boundaries of the lettering arts when seeking calligraphic inspiration. Yet other crafts and disciplines have much to offer… it’s just a matter of making the effort to peer over the boundary fence once in a while to check what’s on the other side.

So, the next time you are in a bookstore, stride past the familiar calligraphy section and browse some random craft books instead… you never know what you might find. And, if all else fails, you can always buy a used copy of The Joy of Scrapbooking from Amazon for £1.89 plus p&p (at time of writing). It definitely worked for me.

If you are a calligrapher, and have been influenced, motivated, or inspired by non-calligraphic sources, I’d be delighted if you left a comment sharing your discoveries.

Glasgow Scribes

scribes logo

As regular readers of this blog will know, my early involvement with calligraphy was a lonely affair. Back in the eighties, there were no classes and no local calligraphy-related societies or groups that I could belong to. England did have a thriving calligraphy-based community, but somehow everything calligraphic stopped at Carlisle, never quite making it over the border into Scotland. The biggest problem for me was having no-one nearby with whom I could share my passion for calligraphy.

I joined The Society for Italic Handwriting, and became a lay member of The Society of Scribes and Illuminators, just to make me feel like I belonged to a larger community of calligraphers. But all I could look forward to were monthly newsletters and notifications of major calligraphy events and exhibitions that were happening in London and other big cities south of the border. Scotland was simply not on the calligraphic map.

Things began to change in the late eighties, and I like to think I did my wee bit for the cause by teaching one of the first calligraphy classes in Glasgow City Centre (something I’ve continued to do).

A number of years ago, I learned just how much things had changed when I discovered Glasgow Scribes, a group of passionate calligraphers who meet regularly in the centre of Glasgow to discuss all aspects of calligraphy, and who motivate and inspire each other in the process. I’ve even had the pleasure of having a few members of the group attend my evening classes.

Evelyn, one of the Scribes, describes the group like this…

“The Glasgow Scribes was founded in 1998 to allow calligraphers to meet informally, to share/develop skills and ideas and also to promote the art of calligraphy to others.  Members live within travel distance of Glasgow and have a wide range of calligraphy interests and experience.  The group meets in the Mitchell Library and/or Glasgow Caledonian University between September and May and is funded by an annual membership subscription.  Each year there is a programme of events chosen by members and which contains presentations, workshops, visits, annual exhibition, etc.  All visitors, and past and future members, are welcome to visit us to see if you like the group and its activities.”

I have had a sneak preview of the group’s 2013-2014 Programme of Events, and I’m impressed by the standard of the events, particularly the upcoming workshops by eminent calligraphers, Manny Ling and Janet Mehigan. And during September, Calligraphity, the Calligraphy Bookshop, will be in attendance with a large amount of calligraphy books for sale.

Any enthusiastic calligrapher in the Glasgow area who would like to meet up with like-minded folk should get in touch with Glasgow Scribes. Having met many of the members, and having viewed examples of their calligraphy at their annual exhibition, I can vouch for their friendliness, enthusiasm, and passion for calligraphy. The meetings are informal, all levels of ability are catered for, and everyone is made welcome (the one and only condition of being granted membership is that you love calligraphy).

You can find out more about Glasgow Scribes on their website.

To obtain a copy of the current events programme, or to get more information about the group, please email the Membership Coordinator at,  or telephone 07538-823723. Then you can arrange to drop into one of their meetings for an informal chat.

You might even be offered a cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit while you get involved in all things calligraphic. Sounds like heaven to me.

Jessica Hische – “Type Nerd”


I’m always on the lookout for new, quality, calligraphy books, and this morning I discovered a new book about lettering called Hand to Type which fits that bill perfectly. A small section of the book can be browsed at, and the examples of calligraphy and lettering look absolutely stunning.

On the same website I discovered the above short video about Jessica Hische, a young letterer and illustrator, whose personal thoughts on certain letters of the alphabet make for interesting viewing. If you have five minutes to spare, I can definitely recommend that you watch the video. contains other lettering-related videos, and its book section on typography contains many books that I would love to own.

I’m now saving my pennies so that I can add a copy of Hand to Type to my burgeoning collection of calligraphy books. The RRP on is £35.00, but Amazon presently offer it here for £24.57 with free UK delivery.

Browse Hand to Type at I’m sure you’ll be as smitten as I am.

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.


The Demise of Calligraphy (according to one Edinburgh Bookstore)

A proper calligraphy bookshelf!

While visiting Edinburgh a few days ago, I entered a large high street bookstore to check if there were any new calligraphy books on offer. In the Craft section I found a sign that stated, “Craft books displayed alphabetically,” so I searched along the spines in the general direction of “C”.

Books on Basket Weaving, Beads, Bookmarks, and Buttons were all present and correct. As were Candles, Ceramics, Collage, Crochet, and Cross Stitch. But there was an obvious omission.

I considered that the books on calligraphy must have been misplaced, so I went back to “A” and carefully worked my way through the entire Craft section, all the way from Applique to Wreaths, but there was not a single calligraphy book to be found, misplaced or otherwise.

I approached an assistant and asked him where I could find calligraphy books.

“In the Craft section,” he said.

“I just checked there, and there’s nothing,” I replied.

He tapped his computer’s keyboard and peered at the stock list on his monitor. He shook his head and I feared the worst.

“I’m afraid we don’t have any calligraphy books,” he said.

“No calligraphy books?”

“No, sir.”

“You don’t have a single calligraphy book?”

“To be honest, there’s not much demand for calligraphy books these days,” he said, and I almost gasped out loud in the face of such effrontery.

During the 25 years that I have been involved with calligraphy, I have become used to seeing the same old familiar titles on bookstore shelves. But never before have I drawn a complete blank. Despite the assistant’s comment, I simply refuse to accept that there is no demand for calligraphy books, and my current class of sixteen incipient scribes would surely back me up on this.

The experience has been bugging me for a few days now, and I’m close to penning a letter to the bookstore to point out the error of its ways. I’m even considering writing it in a fairly flamboyant fashion, just to prove that calligraphy is alive and well, and is no less deserving of representation in the Crafts section than Crochet or Cross Stitch.

The next time I’m in Edinburgh, I’ll make a point of checking out the Craft section again. Hopefully, the inclusion of a few calligraphy titles will have pushed the Buttons and the Candles books a wee bit further apart.

And, you never know, their availability might even spark a resurgence of interest in calligraphy in Edinburgh. A demand for calligraphy books must surely follow.


If your own local bookstore has an equally unenthusiastic attitude towards calligraphy (and calligraphers), I can recommend Calligraphity as the place to go for Calligraphy books online. You’ll be spoiled for choice!


Incidentally, the bookshelf illustrated at the top of this post is my own, and contains some of the many calligraphy books I have collected over the years.

Learning Calligraphy: my experience

I’ve always wanted to create artwork featuring the above quotation by Alexander Pope, so my post below about learning calligraphy presented me with the perfect opportunity. The words in the quotation are the first two lines of Pope’s “An Essay On Criticism,” but although he intended the word “writing” to be regarded in a journalistic context, I think the sentiments of the quotation relate just as well to “writing” calligraphically. They also relate well to the benefits of putting the time into learning calligraphy properly.

See a larger version of the artwork on Flickr.


My previous post about Margaret Shepherd made me think about my early experience of learning calligraphy, so I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on that topic…

I learned calligraphy the hard way, by teaching myself, and I would definitely discourage anyone who considers doing the same. There is only one way to learn calligraphy, and that is to attend a calligraphy class. One of the first things I tell students who attend my own classes is that they have done themselves a favour by signing up for formal tuition. Yes, it costs more than learning from a book, but it also saves an unbelievable amount of time and frustration. I don’t exaggerate when I say that, in the space of just ten two-hour classes, I teach my students more about calligraphy than I learned in years of slavishly copying examples from books.

An example of my earliest calligraphy.
I’m not sure what style I was intending here, but don’t laugh… we all have to start somewhere!

Just to be clear, I love calligraphy books… I have a bookcase full of them… but they are no substitute for formal tuition. Books are handy for reference, for guidance, and for inspiration. But in regard to tuition, they can only illustrate a process. Unlike a tutor, they can’t demonstrate or elaborate, they can’t answer questions, they can’t nip bad habits in the bud, and they can’t motivate you when you feel like throwing your pens in the bin and taking up crochet instead. If you want to learn calligraphy, by all means surround yourself with books. But use them in support of formal tuition, not in place of it. It’s the only way.

Back in the mid eighties, when I decided to learn calligraphy, there were no local calligraphy classes on offer. So I taught myself by copying alphabets from Margaret Shepherd’s Learning Calligraphy. The resulting letters (I use the term loosely) were neither decorative nor legible, simply because I dismissed the finer points of Ms Shepherd’s instruction as supplementary information. I was naive, intending to master calligraphy within the shortest time possible, so I took shortcuts. The result was that I didn’t appreciate the importance of spacing, I didn’t consider proportion, I didn’t know what an x-height was, my pen angle was inconsistent (occasionally non-existent), and I bypassed Foundational with all its benefits, diving straight into the Gothic alphabet simply because it looked like the fanciest form of ‘fancy writing.’

Another early attempt of mine.
Almost recognisable as Carolingian.

At that time, in my opinion, Gothic was synonymous with calligraphy. And, even now, that appears to be a widely held notion, because whenever I tell people that I’m a calligrapher, a common response is, “Oh, so you do that Old English stuff?” Actually, yes, I do, but my preference is always for Italic. (It has become my favourite calligraphic alphabet, even though I originally loathed Italic, simply because I couldn’t get to grips with it. And now I love it because I have got to grips with it. The key to progress is that simple!)

My first attempts at Italic produced jagged, sharp-cornered, triangular letters that resembled a succession of lightning streaks. My pen was not so much dancing across the page as zig-zagging.

But, oblivious to my calligraphic shortcomings, I continued to practice my jagged triangles. Then I practiced them some more. In fact, I practiced them until I became very good at being very bad at Italic. Then, with the realisation that I wasn’t making progress, I practiced some more. But despite all this practice, I just became better and better at being bad, and my latent talent for calligraphy remained stubbornly dormant.

My big break came in 1987, when I saw an ad for a two week course in calligraphy and handwriting being held in Stirling University, less than twenty miles from my home. The tutor was none other than Tom Gourdie MBE, although his name meant nothing to me at the time. This was the only calligraphy class I had ever seen advertised, and I remember it being very expensive in relation to my income at the time. But I knew that it might be my one and only opportunity to gain some formal tuition in calligraphy, so I signed up immediately.

Those two weeks of tuition genuinely changed my life. Thanks to Mr Gourdie’s expert tuition, whatever raw talent I possessed when I first walked through the doors of his classroom became fine-tuned within a very short period of time. He sat with each of the students in turn, giving us a few precious minutes of one-to-one tuition. I can’t explain just how much that experience helped me to progress. Suddenly, like a switch going on inside my head, everything made sense. I can only describe it as an epiphany. Consequently, I was able to undo most of the bad habits that had thwarted my progress, and that had made my lettering look distinctly amateurish. But I benefitted mostly from watching an expert create the strokes right there in front of me. It made me realise that there was no magic or special equipment involved. Mr Gourdie was writing on my paper. Using my pen. For the first time I felt confident, and thought, I can do this. It was a welcome breakthrough after the futility of following instructions in books throughout the previous two years.

One of my earliest calligraphic “works of art.”
Copied directly from a book, if I remember correctly.

My subsequent progress was so rapid that within a year of attending Mr Gourdie’s class, I began teaching evening classes in calligraphy at Glasgow College of Food Technology. Two decades later, I continue to teach in The City of Glasgow College and in Strathclyde University, and I love to share my knowledge of, and my passion for, calligraphy with incipient scribes. Having learned so much from Mr Gourdie’s teaching methods, I spend as much time as I can giving one-to-one tuition to each of my students. It’s amazing how quickly they master a stroke or letter after being shown, first-hand, how to create it. On their paper. Using their pen. And it gives me great pleasure to be able to flick the switch inside their heads, as Mr Gourdie did for me all those years ago.

Since the late-eighties, calligraphy has been my life. I work as a freelance calligrapher during the day, and I teach calligraphy classes in the evening (even my hobby is digital calligraphy, but I tend to keep that quiet lest I become regarded as an anorak). I am convinced that if I had continued trying to teach myself calligraphy, then I would have soon given up through frustration and lack of progress. It was inevitable. And I dread to imagine how less satisfying my life would be if it didn’t revolve around calligraphy.

Hopefully, I have made a good case for choosing to learn calligraphy in a classroom setting, rather than going down the self-taught route. But a number of years ago one of my calligraphy students recognised an additional benefit of attending a class that I hadn’t considered.

It was the first night of a new term, and the students were putting pen to paper for the first time. Looking around the room, I noticed one young chap who appeared to be distracted and perplexed. I assumed that he was having difficulty with his letter-making, so I caught his attention.

“Do you have a problem?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied, hitching a thumb in the direction of the attractive girl sitting at the next table. “She won’t give me her phone number.”

Not the type of problem I felt qualified to deal with, so I resisted the temptation to become their go-between. I don’t know if he ever did get her number, but the combination of romance and calligraphy would surely have led to beautifully written wedding invitations. And I don’t know of anyone who ever got a date while learning calligraphy at home, on their own!


If you would like to comment on your experiences – good or bad – of being a self-taught calligrapher, I’d love to hear from you.

Margaret Shepherd: my earliest influence


Sometimes unexpected things happen that simply knock you for six, and a few days ago such a thing happened to me. But before I explain, I’ll set the scene.

Back in 1985, when I first decided to learn calligraphy, there were no classes available, so I decided that I would teach myself from a book. It can’t be that difficult, I thought, having no idea what I was letting myself in for.

After buying a calligraphy pen, I went along to my local library and was directed to the “calligraphy section,” which consisted of a single book: Margaret Shepherd’s Learning Calligraphy. I Margaret Shepherd booksduly booked it out and, with no consideration for anyone else who was thinking of learning calligraphy courtesy of the local library, I selfishly borrowed the book continuously for the next two years.

Learning Calligraphy became my constant companion. Almost every day I practiced from its progressively dog-eared and ink-stained pages. I eventually returned it to the library and purchased my own copy, which is still in my possession (and which I, naturally, have kept pristine and ink-free as the photo above confirms).

I later created an arsenal of Margaret Shepherd books by purchasing, Capitals for Calligraphy, Borders for Calligraphy, and Calligraphy Projects for Pleasure and Profit, all of which played a huge part in my introduction to the craft. Calligraphy Projects, in particular, gave me my first ideas about how to use my hand-lettering constructively.

Unfortunately, I didn’t use the books efficiently. I was impatient, in a rush to master the alphabets, so I copied the letters without paying much attention to the instructions. Consequently, through no fault of Ms Shepherd, my progress was slow. I eventually attended a short, but life-changing, calligraphy course (more of which in my next post), which assisted me enormously, and helped me to get more from the books that I owned.

Despite my self-inflicted slow progress while learning from her books, I can wholeheartedly attribute everything I learned during those first two years to Margaret Shepherd. Even now, twenty-seven years after discovering Learning Calligraphy in the library, I show examples of her work to my calligraphy students, citing her as my original influence. Throughout almost three decades as a practicing calligrapher, I have considered her to be the person who kick-started my career in hand-lettering.

And now to the “unexpected thing” that happened to me…

A few days ago, this very blog received an emailed comment that was complimentary about a post that I had written. Although I was delighted with the positive feedback, I was distracted by the name of the person who had commented. It was familiar, making alarm bells ring in my head.

Margaret Shepherd must be a pretty common name, I thought, not daring to get too excited. I clicked on the associated website address and… sure enough… it was THAT Margaret Shepherd. It was a surreal moment, and I was absolutely gobsmacked.

I spent the rest of the day excitedly babbling to everyone I met that Margaret Shepherd had contacted me. My wife and son were delighted, of course, but random strangers seemed wary of my enthusiasm. I think they must have been feigning disinterest, because how could anyone fail to be moved by the fact that Margaret Shepherd had written to me?

I immediately wrote back to her, describing the impact that her books had on me while I was learning calligraphy. Embarrassingly, I probably gushed like a starstruck teenager, but she was kind enough to respond, and mentioned that she had looked at some of my work online. “Very nice Italic,” she wrote.

I’m back on solid ground now, but the kind words of Margaret Shepherd will keep me buoyant for weeks to come.


Margaret Shepherd is presently working on a book about American Calligraphy. Many of her calligraphy books can be purchased on Amazon here.

Visit her website and her blog.

Envelope addressed using Pilot Parallel Pens

In my everyday role as a “serious” calligrapher, when addressing envelopes for weddings and corporate events I use regular dip nibs and waterproof ink to achieve a restrained, classic look. But occasionally, when I’m “off-duty,” I pull out my Pilot Parallel Pens, simply to put some fun back into my envelope-addressing and birthday card creating (see here and here).

I recently sent my daughter a letter, and used my Parallel Pens to address the envelope in a fun way. She liked the effect so much that I decided to address another envelope, creating the same effect with the same pens, to feature here (see main image above).

It’s quite simple to achieve this effect, and a great opportunity to use your calligraphy skills to brighten up your intended recipient’s day. Who wouldn’t want to receive an envelope that looked like this?

Here’s how I achieved the effect…

I started off by pencilling a slightly curved line across the envelope from left to right (a quick movement… nothing too precise) to act as the baseline for the large lettering. Keep the pencilled line quite low on the envelope, starting about three-quarters way down on the left. If preferred, a parallel pencil line can be drawn above to create an x-height.

I used my 6.00mm Parallel Pen, loaded with green ink, to speedily write the words “Sherlock Holmes.” But before starting to write, and at frequent intervals while writing, I transferred red ink from my 3.8mm pen into the 6.00mm pen by touching the two nibs together. Hold the pen that you intend to write with upside down, and feed ink into its nib from above. The longer the nibs touch, the more ink will be transferred, and so the gradation between colours will be longer. Although I used red and green inks together, Pilot offer a pack of “Mixable Colour cartridges” which includes 12 assorted colours. Some produce amazing gradated effects when mixed… others produce the colour of mud! It’s really down to trial and error, so experiment with different colours. If you load four Parallel Pens with four different coloured cartridges, you can mix them in various permutations to produce extreme gradated effects.

Another brilliant function of a Parallel Pen is that by tipping the nib onto its corner, a monoline can be produced, which is excellent for handwriting, drawing, or for producing extended hairlines in calligraphic lettering (all the hairlines in “Sherlock Holmes” above were created spontaneously, and on the fly.

After lettering “Sherlock Holmes” in a compressed Italic to fit the envelope’s width, I simply dotted each letter using a silver monoline gel pen to add some highlights.

I lettered the remainder of the address in Italics using a Manuscript broad nib to provide contrast in lettering size. I wrote with black ink so as not to dilute the colourful effect of the top line, or lessen its effect as a focal point. For consistency, and to tie the two elements of the composition together, I looped the “k” in the small lettering to echo the loop in the large “l” above.

Why did I choose to address the envelope to “Sherlock Holmes,” you might ask.

Well, while googling for an appropriate generic address to write, I discovered that 221b Baker Street, London, is the (allegedly) most famous address in the world, surpassing even 10 Downing Street and the White House in popularity. That’s the rather uninspiring reason for my choosing that particular address. More interesting is the fact that although the address of The Sherlock Holmes Museum is 221b Baker Street, London, the building is actually located between 237 and 241 Baker Street. So, now you know!

The elusive Parallel Pen Wizardry book

If you already own a set of Parallel Pens, or intend to treat yourself to a set, you should definitely consider purchasing the book “Parallel Pen Wizardry,” by Brenda Broadbent, which is devoted exclusively to the pens. If you can track a copy down, that is. For some reason the book is not widely available in the UK, although it can be purchased from stockists in the US. At time of writing John Neal Bookseller in US has available copies here, although international postage may be costly. The book consists of just 25 pages, but contains a lot of useful information & examples, and is a good companion to the pens.

It’s much easier to find the actual pens, which can be purchased at most High Street art stores for around £12.00 each. With four different sizes of pen available (1.5, 2.4, 3.8, and 6.00mm) the full set works out quite expensive if purchased individually. A more economical way is to purchase a set of the three smallest sized pens Pilot Parallel Pen Set of 3"" at Amazon for just £19.95 + £1.99 p&p (at time of writing), then purchase the 6.00mm pen separately, if required.

One final note of warning. My first experience of Parallel Pens was very negative, as the ink bled and feathered to an extreme level. I gradually discovered that this was due, not to the Pilot cartridges or pens, but to the type of paper I was using. In my experience, Pilot Parallel pens are very particular about the type of medium onto which they will write sharply. Experiment with different papers. I have found that Navigator printer/copier paper works well for general practicing, and is not too expensive.

If you haven’t already done so, treat yourself to some Pilot Parallel Pens, and see how they put “FUN” back into your calligraphy.

And if you have any opinions about Pilot Parallel Pens (or addressing envelopes, or anything remotely calligraphic), I’d love you to leave a comment.

New nib sizes… 2.00mm, 3.00mm, 4.5mm and a hand-cut 1.00mm.


Tonight, a day after writing the above post, I discovered (purely by accident) some new additions to the Pilot Parallel Pen range. An online store called “Paper & Ink Arts” is offering a set of three Parallel Pens with nib sizes 2.00mm, 3.00mm and 4.5mm for $40.50 (American dollars). Remarkably, they are also offering an additional Parallel Pen with a hand-cut 1.00mm nib, for small lettering, which retails at $14.95 (American dollars).

About the 1.00mm nib, the website states, “NEW 1mm size – Just right for envelope work! We’ve had lots of requests for a smaller Parallel Pen and are happy to announce a 1mm pen, hand cut for us in the US by a master craftsman. Try this new size to give you more options with the terrific Parallel Pen design. (You will notice that your 1mm pen’s package was opened so that we could cut your nib and that we have marked your custom cut pen with its new size.) Comes with 1 red and 1 black cartridge and a bladder converter.”

Unfortunately, every single page on the “Paper & Ink Arts” online store has an identical URL, so it’s not possible to direct you straight to the relevant page. But you can access their website here, then type “Parallel Pens” into the search engine on the home page. On the resulting page, click “Parallel Pens.” On the next page, scroll down until you see the new nib sizes.

At present there doesn’t appear to be any UK stockists of these new nib sizes. But if, like me, you’re tempted to be the first kid on the block to own the new pens, it may be worth paying the international postage and waiting a week or two for them to arrive from the States. I’m sure they’ll be worth it (and just think of the kudos)!

Update: Thanks to Sergii, who commented that the 1.5, 2.4, 3.8, and 6.00mm pens are available for £8.99 each (at time of writing), including UK p&p at The Writing Desk.

%d bloggers like this: