Calligraphy? Computers can do that!

My early inspiration by Tom Barnard

Calligraphy (that proved inspirational to me) by Tom Barnard

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

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

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

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


SSI address beautifully written for me by Tom Barnard

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

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

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

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

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

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


Pretty impressive, eh?

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

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

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

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


Halloween… I’m having so much fun, it’s scary!

A Man Goes Riding By

Who needs kids around them in order to have fun at Halloween?

Certainly not me. Despite my two children being grown up and no longer needing to be entertained in spooky fashion, I still like to make an effort… just for me!

I’ve already bought my pumpkin, which sits proud on the kitchen worktop, waiting to be carved. The story goes that we Scots make our lanterns out of turnips. Hah! Don’t you believe it. Have you ever tried to scoop the brick-hard centre out of a turnip? No, nor have I. So I’ll stick to carving a hollow pumpkin, with the added bonus of snacking on the roasted seeds afterwards.

With only a week to go, I decided to get myself into a Halloween mood by creating a piece of calligraphic artwork (see image above or on Flickr) to celebrate the imminent arrival of “All Hallows’ Eve.”

Some of the original lettering that I incorporated into the artwork.

This is some of my original lettering which I split into separate short lines within Photoshop.

Rather than go down the typical haunted house and witches on broomsticks route, I wanted the artwork to be more moody than spooky. That’s why I used the poem, Windy Nights, by Robert Louis Stevenson. It’s not strictly a Halloween-type poem, so doesn’t mention ghouls and ghosts and things that go bump in the night, but I felt the words would lend themselves to a dark and atmospheric treatment.

As with most of my artwork, I created the background in Adobe Photoshop by stacking a number of variously textured layers. The moon started off as a simple small white circle to which I applied a blur filter and a very large outer glow. I used Photoshop’s lasso tool to cut the horse and rider out of a colour photograph, then darkened it to create a silhouette. I wrote all the calligraphic lettering using black ink. After scanning the lettering into Photoshop, I split, coloured, resized and repositioned it until I was happy with the overall composition.

I didn’t use the second verse of Stevenson’s poem, so for anyone who is interested, here is the poem in its entirety…

By Robert Louis Stevenson

Whenever the moon and stars are set,
Whenever the wind is high,
All night long in the dark and wet,
A man goes riding by.
Late in the night when the fires are out,
Why does he gallop and gallop about?

Whenever the trees are crying aloud,
And ships are tossed at sea,
By, on the highway, low and loud,
By at the gallop goes he.
By at the gallop he goes, and then
By he comes back at the gallop again.


Whatever you decide to do on Halloween, I hope you have fun.

Me? I’ll be carving my pumpkin, dookin’ for apples (another old Scottish tradition), then settling down in front of the telly with lots of candy to watch Garfield’s Halloween Adventure.

I might even do all of the above while dressed as Batman.

As I said, who needs kids around them to have fun at Halloween?


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.

%d bloggers like this: