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!


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!

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.


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.

%d bloggers like this: