Snow is such an amazement

SnowWell, the forecasters promised snow, and they didn’t disappoint. A four inch blanket of the white stuff settled on my garden overnight.

So this morning, before it was even light, I was all wrapped-up in my winter woollies and outside in the freezing cold, clearing my path and driveway with my brand new, just-out-of-the-wrapper, snow shovel. The neighbours surely thought I was mad, shovelling away in the pitch-blackness. But I had paid good money for the shovel, and I was determined to put it through its paces before the snow thawed of its own accord.

Completely hidden under a thick layer of snow, my wife’s car resembled an igloo on wheels. Since she would soon be leaving for work, I morphed into dutiful husband mode and unburied it for her. After ten minutes of effort, breathless and bent double with exertion, I watched her slide effortlessly into the driver’s seat, and turn the ignition.

The original photo.

The original photo.

“Thanks for scraping my car,” she said, matter of fact, as if I had removed a slight dusting of frost from her windscreen. The words ‘hero,’ and ‘unsung,’ sprang to mind. As she reversed out of the drive, she waved goodbye. Still breathless I tried, but failed, to summon the energy to wave back.

By the time the sun eventually rose, my home was a snow-free zone and I rewarded myself by walking to a nearby country park, where I hoped to snap some winter scenes on my iPhone. I arrived at the park early enough to discover that many of the snow-covered paths around the loch remained free of footsteps. I was delighted, as I think there is something really satisfying about being the first to tread a path through virgin snow.

As I walked, I noticed a little snow-covered bridge up ahead, under a canopy of trees, and realised immediately that it was the perfect image to which I could add a calligraphic quotation (I’m a sad person… I know). From experience, I know that taking photographs as backgrounds for my calligraphy is different from normal photography, in that it’s essential to incorporate a blank space in the composition to contain the calligraphy that will be added later. I knew instantly that a small area of untrodden snow in front of the bridge would work perfectly.

I used an amazing app called Waterlogue, that is installed on both my iPhone and iPad, to create a watercolour painting from my bridge photo. I have tried many similar apps to get a watercolour effect on my photos, but Waterlogue is by far the best. The results are spectacular, and I can highly recommend the app if, like me, you love watercolours but can’t paint to save yourself.

With the "Waterlogue" effect applied.

With the “Waterlogue” effect applied.

I then did a quick Google search for an appropriate quotation about snow. I loved the following quotation, by Carol Rifka Brunt:

“… there’s just something beautiful about walking on snow that nobody else has walked on. It makes you believe you’re special, even though you know you’re not,” 

The sentiments are perfect but, unfortunately, it was too long to comfortably fit into the allocated space.

Instead, I chose, “The very fact of snow is such an amazement,” by Roger Ebert. Short and sweet!

As a change from my usual Italic, I experimented by lettering the quote in a pointed pen style (even though I didn’t use a pointed calligraphy nib to produce the lettering). I’ve been teaching myself a variation of this style, commonly referred to as “modern calligraphy,” and I really enjoy the informality of the script.

After lettering the quotation, I scanned it into Adobe Photoshop, and inserted it onto a layer on top of my ‘watercolour’ image. I then experimented with the size of the lettering, and tinkered with its position until I was happy with the composition. Finally, I sampled a darkish blue from the background and used it to colour the calligraphy. The finished artwork is featured at the top of this post.

All in all, it has been a perfect morning. Walking in beautiful scenery, photography, calligraphy, Photoshopping, blogging, and road-testing my brand new snow shovel.

This might just be as good as it gets!


RIP Steve Jobs

A couple of years ago, my son, David, a graphic designer, finally convinced me to switch from my ageing Windows PC to an Apple iMac. For a long time I had held out, fiercely resisting David’s attempts to alter my old-fashioned ways, but he eventually wore me down. So, in September 2009, still unconvinced of the benefits of making such a radical switch, I hesitantly splashed out on a shiny new Apple iMac… and I never looked back.

Having endured countless years of problematic computing on my PC, my new iMac was like a breath of fresh air. It brought fun and efficiency back into my working life. It was intuitive, and simple, and a joy to use. It was everything that my Windows PC was not. I became a convert, (a “fan boy,” my son teases), and have since added an iPod Nano and an iPad 2 to my Apple arsenal.

So I was deeply saddened to hear of the death of Steve Jobs, the mastermind and visionary behind Apple. The genius who invented and developed these revolutionary products that have unexpectedly changed, and improved, my life.

I really liked Steve Jobs, even though I only knew him from watching his contribution to Apple’s occasional Keynote Presentations online. But there was something about the man… his passion, his charisma, his vision, that made me warm to him.

And I was fascinated by the fact that he championed the lettering arts. At his 2005 commencement address at Stanford (see YouTube video below), he mentioned his love for calligraphy, and spoke about its influence on him, stating, “If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do.”

In the same speech he said, “Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus, every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.” 

It’s heartening to know that calligraphy played a part, however small, in the creation of Steve Jobs’ Apple empire. In designing his products, he always balanced science with craft, technology with tradition. Each product was simultaneously functional and beautiful, the essential characteristics of a fine calligraphic script.

On the day after Jobs’ death, it is estimated that 8,000,000 people viewed his Stanford commencement address video online. If even a tiny fraction of those people become more curious about calligraphy through Jobs’ relationship with the craft, it may help to create renewed interest in hand-lettering. If so, a revival in calligraphy would be a fitting tribute to a man who literally changed the world with his technological vision.

Surprisingly, I only learned about Steve Jobs’ love of calligraphy in recent months. Maybe if I had been more aware of our shared passion for the craft back in 2009, I would have been more of a pushover for my son, David, in his attempts to lure me away from my Windows PC and into the world of Apple. I’m glad that he continued to chip away at me, despite my resistance.

So thank you, David, for your perseverance in persuading an old dog to learn new tricks.

And thank you, Steve Jobs, for the unbelievable magic you have brought to my life, and to the lives of so many others. The future will be a much poorer place without your vision and your inspiration.

Calligraphy iPad app

I’d be the first to admit that my Italics in the above screenshot are pretty poor. But if you consider that I created each letter by sliding my fingertip directly across my iPad’s screen, I think there’s an excuse for my sloppy serifs and inconsistent spacing. Despite my embarrassment, you can click the image to magnify my poor penmanship. Or should that be poor fingermanship?

I was able to create this digital calligraphy courtesy of a newly released iPad app called “Calligraphy Art,” now available on the iPad app store. It’s intended as a digital instruction guide to learning calligraphy, but it has a few shortcomings in that respect (although all is not lost, as I will explain.)

More of my fingertip lettering. I think my Gothic is a slight improvement on my Italics, although the decorative flourishes are not fluid, and need some more practice (click to enlarge).

Being a calligraphy tutor, I was quite excited to discover the app, and purchased it purely out of curiosity. Having tested it for a few hours (it is quite addictive) I would suggest that it is definitely not a substitute for a good calligraphy manual or formal tuition. Some of the instructions on how to create strokes are definitely wrong (eg. see the instructions for creating an Italic “a” in the screenshot above). And it refers to “Italics” as “Foundational Italics” which is a contradiction as far as I’m concerned (unless anyone out there can enlighten me). But the one thing it has in its favour…it is FUN!

By simply touching the screen, you can instantly vary nib thickness, stroke texture, pen angle and “ink” colour. You can also choose a pointed nib for adding hairlines. You can use an “eraser” to rub out small mistakes, undo your previous stroke, or wipe the screen clean with a single click. You can also choose from a variety of backgrounds, including vellum and parchment, then email your calligraphic masterpiece to yourself or anyone you might want to impress.

When working with a normal calligraphy pen on paper, I tend to manipulate the nib angle constantly… flattening and steepening the nib to get a desired effect, and tipping it onto its corner to produce spontaneous hairlines. Frustratingly, but understandably, the app’s nib angle is rigid… so if you start with a 45 degree angle, you’re pretty much stuck with it till the end. But not everyone will regard this shortcoming to be a hinderance.

Although I created passable letters using my fingertip (producing calligraphic letters by this method offers the same precision as threading a needle while wearing boxing gloves), I expect a stylus would produce better results. Before you purchase the app, however, keep in mind that it is unlikely to improve your calligraphy skills, since working with pen on paper is the absolutely only way to learn the craft. But as a simple fun tool for creating “fancy writing” on the go, it’s definitely worth the £1.99 asking price.

So, in conclusion, as a guide to learning calligraphy the app really can’t be taken too seriously. But there’s no denying that it’s a fantastic achievement despite its shortcomings. And during those idle moments when a calligraphy pen and paper aren’t available, it’s a much more therapeutic use of the iPad than a game of “Angry Birds.”

If you own an iPad, and enjoy creating calligraphy, you should treat yourself to this app now. As long as you don’t expect to be transformed into a master scribe overnight, I’m confident you won’t be disappointed in what it has to offer.

Find out more about the Calligraphy Art app, including videos of the app in action, at the official Calligraphy Art blog.

Or download the app from the app store here for £1.99 (at time of writing).

Comments welcome.

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