On the one hand there are the scribbles we write from time to time, the shopping lists, the directions and the notes we make whilst on the phone. And on the other, we have the more common way of putting down words, the keyboards, keypads and touch screens that today we use to record our weightier thoughts and broadcast our dazzling social lives. So what is the dark, arcane art that is straddled by these extremes? Handwriting, of course! Obviously I can’t be bothered to handwrite this article, and believe me, getting my optical character recognition system to scan my everyday writing would be a total non-starter. But that’s not really the kind of handwriting I’m referring to anyway. I mean the beautiful, carefully drawn characters in the realm of the calligrapher.
Calligraphy has a habit of coming back with a vengeance every time technology creates a new way of avoiding putting pen to paper. Sure, we can all see the advantages of being able to rattle off a letter on the computer, making corrections and editing as we go. We might even play around with the fonts to really show how un-Times New Roman we are. But the point of calligraphy is not to replace electronic wordage – or handwriting for that matter. It’s an art in itself. Fine writing, done well, can have impact far beyond anything achievable by computer. Even though a calligraphic computerized font might have a superficially classic look to it, it lacks something only humans can create: imperfection. We can sense imperfection even where we see perfection; it’s the human creative input, the interpretation, that betrays the mark of an artist crafting a fine piece of work.
However, the thick and thin strokes that characterize fine calligraphy is accomplished by adjusting the inclination of the brush. The result is bold characters that are distinct rather than smooth flowing, which is the case in Western, Islamic and Persian calligraphic styles. For those taken by Islamic calligraphy, the traditional implement is the qalam, which is a pen made of dried reed. Amongst the most popular styles is Mosque calligraphy, which is that more closely associated with the writing seen in Mosques throughout the Islamic world. Persian calligraphy, meanwhile, is closely linked to Islamic calligraphy, appearing to most as being one of the same. However, it is an older form of writing, predating Islam by several hundred years.
While the nib and brush are hugely important to the calligrapher, so too is the paper, ink and, indeed, ceremony involved in practicing the art form. For example, in Eastern calligraphy, the paper is laid flat on a low table, at which the calligrapher sits with legs crossed. The paper is kept flat with the use of paperweights, with the ink and ink stone beside the paper. The ink used is water based as it must be less viscous than the oil based ink used in printing. However, the consistency of the ink can be adapted to suit the desired style. In some cases, it is colored, with Islamic and Persian calligraphers often opting for reddish shades.