Calligraphy as Art and Meditation: A New Approach

In Calligraphy as Art and Meditation I offer a new paradigm for learning Western calligraphy. It emerged from a deep desire to create living letterform: calligraphy that infuses form with energy, movement, and feeling. My previous book, Finding the Flow: A Calligraphic Journey, resulted from a search for these qualities. However, I soon realized I’d only partially achieved my goal. Flow could not simply be injected into letters. How then could I merge flow with letterform? Given flow’s physical dimension, I began to conceive calligraphy holistically: as mind, body, and feeling interacting with verbal meaning. This enlarged perspective opened the gate to approaching calligraphy as art and meditation. My new goal was to find an encompassing paradigm for teaching this.

After six years of probing, I had a breakthrough: a tool-centered approach. Here, a tool is used as an extension of the calligrapher’s wholeness: head, hand, and heart. To introduce this as a felt experience, exercises using the “Prototool” — your index finger – connect you directly to the basic calligraphic act: directional movement through surface contact. This experience reveals the important role tool hold plays in translating a calligraphic intention into actual performance. It prepares you to investigate calligraphy through its tools. The familiar pencil awakens your body-mind to rhythmical, gestural movement; the Conte crayon sensitizes you to surface contact; and two-point tools pave the way for success with the edged pen. Through invented “training” alphabets, you combine these tool lessons with alphabet design, ductus, and dynamics (flow technique). In this merger of form and flow I hope you will discover a new, comprehensive template for creating vital letterform.

Today’s calligraphy must, I believe, also be a wholehearted response to our time. How, then, might it help students leading a fast-paced, stress-filled life find both a refuge and a way to experience the joy of creativity? I remembered that Zen Buddhists practice calligraphy to help calm the mind. I realized that meditation itself had many values/skills which might be helpful to calligraphic practitioners. From the beginning, Calligraphy as Art and Meditation uses the conscious breath to help you relax and enjoy the sensuous act of stroke making. Attention to process intensifies this moment-by-moment experience. Patience and kindness become antidotes to frustration and self-judgment. Calligraphy practiced as meditation invites you to slow down, grow your confidence, and enhance your well-being.

To develop calligraphy as an expressive art, you begin with the fundamentals of alphabet design, composition, and spacing. You investigate “calligraphic plasticity”: shortening, lengthening, and/or redirecting a stroke in response to letters preceding/following it. (Calligraphy is not type!) You awaken “calligraphic empathy”: the ability to translate verbal meaning into graphic elements. You cultivate felt, gestural movements through stroke techniques such as “bowing” (as if playing a violin). I warmly encourage you to enter these unexplored regions, to experience their untapped potential (and yours!) through structured exercises and guided play.

And historical scripts? Naturally, these are an integral part of calligraphic instruction. However, I think it’s time to reconsider their role. First, the edged pen that produces most of them is too sophisticated for most beginners. Only near the close of my book, in the last two of my eleven training alphabets, do I offer Italic inventions for learning to operate and understand this tool’s potential. For me, historical alphabets are first symbols of a period’s history/values (important for their allusive power); and second, formal vocabularies available as a rich source for creative inspiration.

I welcome any response you wish to make!

Calligraphy as a Vital Tradition

The beneficiary of a tradition, whether an individual or a society, has the charge of keeping it alive. As Western calligraphers, we have inherited a writing tradition of Roman alphabet styles. They exhibit rich responses to their cultural contexts: of empire (Roman capitals and Carolingian), of religion (Uncial and Gothic), and of the Renaissance’s passion for antiquity (Humanist)…not to mention the exigencies of speed (Chancery Cursive). How will we respond to our time?

I’ll use the past as my starting point. With the invention of type, the centuries-old protean energy of the edged pen was replaced by a pointed nib. This handwriting tool and its styles answered the needs of a newly literate class. But not until the industrial revolution was the artisan replaced by the machine. An outcry against the shoddy products and dehumanizing effect of mechanical production led to the Arts and Crafts Movement. As a group of artists and craftspeople, they valued the hand and the human wholeness it represented. Imbued with this spirit, Edward Johnston restored the craft of letter making, returning to the edged pen and its historical manuscript forms. In step with his time, Johnston’s approach went beyond tool and style, as expressed in his words: “Our aim should be to give letters life that men themselves may have more life.”

Indeed, these words were my guiding star as I wrote Calligraphy as Art and Meditation: A New Approach. By their light, I recognized the Asian calligraphic values of movement and rhythm as fertile guides. And through the Eastern practice of meditation, which values calmness, awareness, and patience, I also found support for slowing down. At a slower pace, I discovered, calligraphers could better connect with the fundamental sensory facets of touch and movement. In this way, we could also more fully enjoy the process of creating letters.

Since publishing my book, though, I’ve learned that my new approach may not resonate with students and teachers schooled in Johnston’s approach. Appreciating this, I’d now like to offer my book as a source of useful techniques and practices to further the learning/teaching of historical alphabets and the contemporary exploration of letterform. My hope is that my calligraphic techniques may enhance your enjoyment and skill in the unique art of “giving letters life.”

The first, “Partnering,” develops your relationship to the tool through mentally pairing the fingers (index and thumb) with nib corners (right and left). This helps you stay in contact and make sharp strokes, and provides a foundation for my exercises with nib turning and partial-edge. Partnering makes the “dance of the pen” a reality!

The second, “Edge shifting,” develops your ability to graduate a stroke—to change its thickness—by skillful use of nib edges: the thin (width of the metal) and the full (width of the edge). This technique benefits strokes made with nib angle held steady or turned.

Using the Conte crayon, you’ll discover techniques for sensitizing yourself to pressure/drag (“Stroke technique”) and making ‘felt’ strokes (“Bowing,” as bowing a violin). And “Graphopoeia” explores strokes as gestural expression—connecting visual to textual meaning.

Tool hold and body position are valued means to skillful stroke/letter making. Warmup exercises allow you to integrate these important basics, to get comfortable with tool and ink before turning your attention to letterform. We also coordinate the breath with movement—supporting downstrokes with an exhale and upstrokes with an inhale—to better relax, focus, and attune ourselves.

Lastly, my book offers in-depth analyses of alphabet design and spacing.

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