The year that was, and the year that will be.

TS Eliot

2015 was a pretty full-on year for me, calligraphically and otherwise. I learned how to make shell gold, I studied flat-brush lettering, I had a chance to study with Gemma Black; I had some tight deadlines and some high-pressure events, and all that on top of some seriously chaotic non-calligraphy happenings …

In this quiet time between Christmas and New Year I’m looking back on the year that was and thinking: wow, how did I survive?

The important thing is that I did, and that 2016, only one day old, is already shaping up to be the best year yet. I don’t make New Years’ resolutions, generally, but I do have some quiet goals. I want to spend more time studying, less time messing around; I want to really come to grips with Italic; I want to finish more pieces, and leave fewer half-done projects abandoned in my studio. And I want to remember to be grateful, all the time, for the opportunities I have been and continue to be given.

And maybe even post more here. ;) I’ve learned so much in the last twelve months – I just need to take the time to sit down and put it into words!

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Oblique holders: what are they, why use them, and where to buy them?

So, the question I get asked the most often while I’m working is, “Why are you using that funny pen?” Often shortly followed by “… and where can I get one?”

An oblique holder
An oblique holder

This is an oblique penholder, or most of one. The important bit here is the brass flange that holds the nib at an offset angle to the paper. And the reason behind it is: science.

Well, physics, mostly. Nibs used in pointed pen calligraphy are, as the name might suggest, very pointy. Effectively, you’re dragging two sharp points down a piece of paper, and the ink is creating a film between them that makes your pen stroke wider or narrower, depending on how much pressure you use (and therefore how far apart the two points of the nib – the tines – are).

Does that make sense? Here is a short video of me writing, sped up about twelve times, that might help. It would probably help more if it were a little slower, but I think you’ll get the idea.

So, the pressure you put on the nib determines the width of your stroke. But if you’re putting heavy pressure on a very sharp nib, you can only drag the nib in one direction – downwards. You just plain can’t push it upwards while you’re putting pressure on it – imagine pushing the tip of a push-pin into a sheet of paper, and then trying to drag it upwards. Doesn’t work. You can drag it slightly sideways, though. But if you do that, one of the two tines will be gliding smoothly, and one will hop and skip and scritch, and you’ll wind up with one smooth side and one jagged side of the stroke. You’ve got to be pulling the nib so that pressure is even on both tines.

Figure 1 in the link here illustrates what I mean – thanks, Dr Joe!

(In fact, that entire fact sheet is basically what I’m blogging about here!)

But – copperplate is written usually at around a 55° slant angle. So you actually need to drag the nib sideways-ish to get that.

This is where the oblique penholder comes in. It is built to hold the nib at a much steeper angle, so that you can write like a normal human being instead of having to move your right arm way across to the left of your paper and then try to turn your elbow inside out just to get that elusive slant.

A note: there are some extremely talented calligraphers who don’t think it’s necessary at all. There are some extremely talented calligraphers who do. Threads about this can get pretty hot. For my part, I’m definitely on Team Oblique; I acknowledge you can get just as good results without it, but it will be a lot more difficult. And who’s got time for unnecessary pain?

Alert: if you’re a leftie, you probably do NOT need one. Lefties are already coming at the paper from basically the perfect slant angle, no twisting required. You can purchase a left-handed oblique but I wouldn’t do that until you’ve tried a straight pen and worked out whether you actually need one – ie, whether the angle is uncomfortable for you personally or not.

So … if you do want one … where to get them?

The short answer is: with the current popularity of calligraphy, it’s getting pretty tricky. For something that was obscure and difficult to find ten years ago, they have really taken off. Custom oblique penmaker Brian Smith of Unique Obliques usually posts five to eight pens in his Etsy at a time, a few times a week; invariably they sell out within sixty seconds of posting. Sixty SECONDS!

However, you can still usually get a non-custom one from either of my two favourite online retailers: Paper Ink Arts, or John Neal Bookseller.

There are a lot of options and there’s a lot to choose from. Don’t panic! Here’s what you’re looking for:

– a brass flange (so, not the US$1.90 Speedball holder, unless you’re really not committed and you just want to try it out. Plastic isn’t adjustable to your hand, won’t accept different sized nibs, can’t be fixed with pliers, and keeps you at one angle of nib-to-paper forcibly. Not recommended!)

– a slightly thicker grip, if you’re planning on writing with it a lot (like, say, for calligraphy practice, oh wait that’s all of us). The narrower the pen, the less comfortable it’s likely to be for long periods of time.

– a flange that fits your preferred nib. If you don’t have a preferred nib, then a flange that fits a wide variety of nibs so you can work out what your preferred nib is. The flange on the Hourglass Adjustable Oblique (and the same one on the PIA Adjustable Oblique Holder, although the grip on the PIA Adjustable is quite narrow) will fit anything up to and including a crowquill, but can be tricky to adjust if your nib isn’t sitting quite right in it. The simpler flanges on the Century holders will fit many nibs by default and every nib if you take a pair of round-nose pliers to them – except a crowquill.

– personal preference here: a slanted foot. (The “foot” of the penholder is the part closest to the paper, from which springs the flange.) If it has been cut at an angle, it’s a lot easier to dip your pen in a wide-mouth – or a narrow-mouth – jar of ink without getting splashes from here to there; it takes a small amount of weight off; and I just plain like the look of it more. The holder in my picture above doesn’t have a slanted foot, and is still one of my favourites (it’s rainbow! and so light! made by Heather and Chris Held!) but this one, custom-made for me by Luis, does (and it’s one of my favourites! it’s glossy! and so light!).

– personal preference again: a removable flange. I have some holders without removable flanges, and they’re beautiful, but I’m worried they’ll rust or get clogged with ink or snap off, and that would render the pen useless. The flange is just a folded piece of brass, ultimately. If you can slide it in and out of the holder, like with the Century Obliques, you’ll have a much easier time replacing nibs whenever it’s time, bending it to fit whenever you need to, and ultimately, much easier to replace the flange itself. To be fair, I’ve had my nonremovable holders for many years of battle now and none of them have needed a flange replacement – but there’s always a first time…

– something you love. I get unreasonably attached to my holders. Like the Luis penholder linked in the slanted-foot paragraph above. Tell me that isn’t the most beautiful pen you ever saw, I dare you. Or my Ashley Bush Ink holder – twice the size, much thicker grip, super comfortable on those sore-wrist days, came with a spare flange for smaller and for larger nibs, complete with the greatest customer service I’ve ever had the pleasure of dealing with (Ash is just a delight!). Or my Jake Weidmann penholder, adjusted for me by Jake at a workshop, a bit heavier and stronger and writes like a dream. Or … I guess what I’m saying here is I get perfectly reasonably attached to my tools. They’re functional, yes, but they’re also pieces of art. Creating art with art made for you by another artist – what’s better than that?

And finally: how many holders do you need?

Look … probably just one.

But that depends on your definition of need.

Don’t judge me.

Ted Baker and onsite calligraphy!

So, usually I’m quite cagey online about my client work; I won’t post anything to social media until after the event or relevant date has passed, and even then only with the permission of the client.  It’s just better that way; why risk accidentally spoiling the surprise for a first-anniversary-present, or accidentally announcing to the internet that such-and-such will be at x place at y time and their home will be empty? The odds of anything terrible happening are astronomically low, but I’d rather be safe than sorry.

However, this particular client said “Yes, please!” to social media, and I’m having a heap of fun doing the work, so I’m pretty excited to share this!

ChocolatesTed Baker London has teamed up with Koko Black to create a signature caramel chocolate bar for the brand, and while the promotion is running they have calligraphers in-store to personalise each chocolate for eligible customers.

What that means is: some seriously fancy chocolates.

There are a few challenges inherent in writing on wrapped chocolate bars.  For one, pointed pen calligraphy relies on pressure and release, and you can imagine it’s a bit tricky to wield a sharp pointed nib against a chocolate bar!  Another: it’s not remotely a flat, smooth surface to work on; it’s hard enough using an ordinary pen on something lumpy, let alone a flex nib.

I asked Ted to send me a sample beforehand so that I could work out my options, and they very kindly did so.  I had been thinking that brush pen was the only way to go, and laid in a few extra Zig Stella pens with that in mind. But when the sample arrived, it turned out that the paper is juuuuust smooth enough to make it work if I use a very flexible nib, go very slowly, and keep a very steady hand.

I ended up bringing the brush pens just in case, but as you can see in the picture, I’m managing a loose modern copperplate over the chocolate without much trouble.  I’m using a Japanese gold sumi ink (this one, with added gum arabic as a binder) which gives a slightly raised effect and doesn’t take very long to dry.  And it’s all working very well.  The staff at Ted Baker are absolutely delightful and everyone’s fascinated by my oblique penholder – I’ve been asked a lot of questions about it.  I’m having a fantastic time, and I’m looking forward to the next two sittings next weekend.  I really hope the trend for onsite calligraphy catches on in Melbourne – I’d love to do more of this!

Alphabet: The Story of Writing, Donald Jackson

Donald Jackson is one of my Big Calligraphy Heroes – that man is an inspiration. This video is one that my first calligraphy teacher showed us, way back in Calligraphy 101. I remember that class being after I had stayed up all night working on my portfolio for the semester, so I was a liiiiittle bit sleepy, but I was still really into this movie!

The first two parts are here: Alphabet: The Story of Writing, parts 1 and 2.

Part 1 is about the origin of the alphabet, up to and including the Roman Empire. Part 2 starts with illuminated manuscripts and Carolingian, and includes some really useful information about how to prepare and cut your own quill pens. Quills are amazing to write with, but don’t let the great DJ fool you – they’re really hard to cut, if you’re not used to it! And at the end, the section on illumination is also really useful. I work with gold leaf as often as I get the chance to, and although I’ve read about one million books, it’s the images from this movie that stuck with me the most. Also … it’s just beautiful to watch.

And the second two: Alphabet: The Story of Writing, parts 3 and 4

Part 3 starts of going further into the process of illumination, including how to remove mistakes – and how to spot them in medieval manuscripts. Pretty cool. Then a quick diversion to the development of Gothic and of Italic before reaching (dun dun DUNN) the invention of the printing press. And of engraving; all my etiquette books even from the 1950s talk about engraving wedding invitations, and this movie is a really cool look at how it’s done. I wish I had an engraver and a print shop at my command! Part 4 is about the rise of the steel pen and the fountain pen, definitely interesting to the modern calligrapher.

It is the calligrapher who will shape the letters of the future, says the narrator. And in a way, she’s right; the variety of modern fonts is attributed to Steve Jobs taking that calligraphy class at university. (But I bet if he didn’t, someone else would have. Humans are just really into writing. We wouldn’t have tolerated 1980s computer fonts for long.)

This movie was made in 1980 … so it’s a little older than I am. But it’s not like calligraphy techniques have changed in thirty years, not enormously. I use a more modern version of gesso which is a little more forgiving of humidity and a lot easier to acquire (I just buy it in jars, no lead, plaster and fish glue for me!) and I totally blame that for my gilding not turning out like Donald Jackson’s. It’s absolutely the medium, right? Not the skill of the gilder at all … nope, couldn’t be.

You do kind of have to pretend you’re watching it in, oh, say 2000? Sometime when 240p was the highest imaginable resolution and nobody minded the odd VCR flicker. I don’t think a high-res version of this movie even exists. But it’s a valuable resource, if you’re interested in calligraphy. (And if anyone does know where I could buy it in 1080p, let me know!)

Calligraphy and Lettering ’14 by Ged Palmer

Calligraphy & Lettering ’14 from Ged Palmer on Vimeo.

I only wish my every day in the studio was as elegant and beautiful as this! I do use a lot of the same tools and techniques, if that counts … perhaps I need to hire a professional filmmaker to stand over my shoulder too?

I know I’ve neglected this blog shamefully. You can always follow what I’m up to on a daily basis over at my instagram, “moyagraphy”, if that’s easier … or my ‘professional’ blog at Calligraphy by Moya? I’m not really sure why I have two blogs either. I started with the idea that the professional one would be more showing off what I do, while this one is more talking about how I do it – so hopefully this one would be more interesting to calligraphers, and the other to people looking for calligraphy.

It is a lofty ideal, but I’m not sure keeping up two blogs is ideal when I really prefer to be at my desk with pen and ink in hand. Or all over hand, or occasionally all over everything.

In any case, we will see how it goes!

A calligraphy emergency could strike ANYWHERE. Be prepared!

I’m not saying I pack my calligraphy travel kit before I pack my clothes when I’m going away … but I’m not not saying it. I think my priorities are perfectly in order, don’t you?

Anyway, there was some recent discussion of what we take with us when we travel and how, so, here it is – the kit I take with me whenever I’m likely to have some downtime in a pleasant place. 

It miiiight be a little excessive, but I stand by my decisions.

(I mean, it is also the kit I take with me to classes locally, which is why it’s so thorough. Usually when I go to a local class or to somewhere that doesn’t involve flying I’ll take liquid ink as well. And if I’m going somewhere I know I’ll be very busy, I’ll pare it right down. But this is the standard.)

Here we go.  The blue bag is a rubbish little thing I bought years ago from a kid’s stationery store (Smiggle, if you have those over there!) but it’s actually the perfect size and shape and I love it. I haven’t found anything better to upgrade to in all that time.

Back section:

Travel kit - back sectionPictures should click through, if you really need to see close ups … maybe I should have washed the bag first … maybe.  (Inkstains are part of the chaaaaaarm!) 

So, closer view: 

Pens

My three most-frequently-used Parallel Pens: 4.5mm (specially cut down), 3.8mm and 2.4mm.  I have the 6mm and the 1.5mm also but I don’t use them anywhere near as often (and I don’t really like the 1.5mm; there’s not much difference between thicks and thins. If I’m working that small I just use a William Mitchell nib). For travelling I wash the barrels out (thoroughly!) and load them with cartridges. At home I’ll sometimes eyedropper-fill them with whatever ink I prefer at the moment, but I don’t trust the barrel seal in an aeroplane.

Broad pens – I don’t like forever taking nibs in and out, especially if I’m working with a few different sizes at once, so it just makes sense to have a bunch, right? I think I have here most of the Speedball C-series and one lonely William Mitchell.

Two empty holders, one oblique and one straight. Just in case.

An oblique holder with a very fine nib – Esterbrook 356 or 355, I think? – and one with my beloved Leonardt EF Principal. I might need either! SHHH. I just don’t like to be very far away from them …

Hot foil pen!

Finally, my hot foil pen and a packet of foils! This is my favourite new toy and I’ll have to do a review post on it soon, since there’s not much information out there.  It’s not really gilding and it’s not really writing with gold, but it’s definitely the closest thing to gilding you can manage in a travel kit – and it’s an awful lot of fun. That’s a rainbow foil on the top, but there’s blue, red, green, silver and gold in the package, too – so many options!  

Now the front section:

Front section

I cram a lot into a small space. 

Brushes and tools

 

Let’s see.  So, an assortment of stirring sticks and spoons (I like those little airplane spoons and always try to save them!); an assortment of brushes.  Mostly 1, 0, and 00 watercolour brushes of varying grades, for painting and mixing, although I can see I’ve got one long one in there for brush lettering.  No flat brushes this time, oddly.  A pipette – always useful.

More specialised tools next.  My ruling pen – just a very cheap eBay one, but it’s more useful than i would have thought.  I like lettering with it;  I LOVE ruling with it.  For some reason I never realised how useful it could be to have an adjustable-width monoline pen you can fill with any kind of paint or ink and rule a perfectly straight line with!

Speaking of which:  my fluid writer.  It’s a monoline pen you can fill with any kind of paint or ink … but you can draw with it rather than rule straight lines.  It’s also incredibly useful for adding tiny dots – handy when illuminating capitals or decorating acanthus leaves.

An automatic pen (number 3.5, I think?)  I don’t know why I love it so much, but I just do. It’s a lot more forgiving and flexible than a parallel pen, and you can really load it with anything – including masking fluid or gold size – and still get a perfect line.

An automatic pencil – always need a pencil!  One 0.01 micron pen and two Copic fineliners (0.05 and 0.01, I think). 

Other side

And tucked in the other side, all my little bits and pieces.  Top to bottom, more or less:

Finetec gold.  You ALWAYS need gold. This is just a refill pan, which you can get separately – much more portable!  

It’s sitting on top of a couple of sheets of blotting paper. Next to that, in the plastic tub, a kneaded eraser. Next to that, another little tub full of walnut crystals – these are my favourite ink to travel with, because you just add a sprinkle of these to a tiny bit of water at the other end! 

Next, a package of mixed-colour Parallel Pen refills.  I don’t think much of the ink and it has a tendency to feather on nearly everything, but it’s great for layout work and the colour-changing is just plain fun.

A brush rest (well, a pen rest for me more often than brushes). This one I’ve had for a thousand years or so; I’m not even sure where it came from. It’s much fancier than most of my pen rests, which I usually make on the spot just by folding up a bit of paper and snipping a V into them … 

Two little empty tubs, for ink.  I’ve found about a quarter of an aeroplane-spoon of walnut crystals is the right amount for a tub this tiny, and I’m not likely to use much more than that unless I’m doing something serious. 

In the middle there, a stick of ink and a little tiny grindstone, in case I need black. I bought the stick in an art store in Kansas once upon a time and I’m very fond of it, even though it’s quite low-quality ink as far as stick ink goes.  Stick ink is great for travelling as well as being the best ink to practice with even at home for my money – it just takes a little patience, which I often don’t have … 

A travel toothbrush (with a few blunter pointed nibs shoved in the case for off-hand flourishing practice) for cleaning nibs after use;  a tiny travel toothpaste for cleaning nibs before use. I’m not really sure why there’s two toothpastes in there at the moment. Maybe, like bobby pins, they breed in the dark? Maybe there’ll be three next time I open it!

Blu-tac – blu-tac that I mostly use to plant my tiny plastic tubs of ink into, to make sure I don’t knock them over with a casual flying hand because they’re so little and light.

A little glassine envelope of spare pointed nibs, and a little Leonardt tin of spare broad nibs.  I usually have at least one spare of all my favourites, and usually more … I like to be prepared, what can I say? (I was, indeed, a Boy Scout!  — well, I was a Scout, anyway. Well, a Cub; I don’t think I made it to Scouts.) 

And that last pink thing is a tiny magnifying glass the size of a credit card.

It all packs up very neatly into the little blue case, which goes in my handbag. I’ve only ever once had airport security ask questions – they just looked through it curiously before putting it back in. Of course a scalpel and a craft knife are not part of the kit when I’m flying!  When I’m taking it to and from local workshops, I slip those in, but so far I’ve always remembered to take them out before flying.

The other thing that’s usually in there and isn’t today (not sure why) is a carpenter’s pencil – the flat type.  Those are great for practicing, because you can sharpen them to any width you like, and you can practice anywhere with a pencil.  I’ll have to remember to put them back in.

 

And that has been my travel kit.  I have to take it with me – can you imagine if someone needed calligraphy and – gasp! – I didn’t have my kit? A calligraphy emergency can strike at any time, kids! You need to be careful!

(Of course there are plenty of calligraphers out there who can work magic with anything – I’ve seen people make beautiful art with a ballpoint pen – but I’m just not that good.)

(Yet.) 

 

You know, I like to tell people that you don’t need anything special to learn calligraphy except for a nib, a holder and some ink.  And then I look at the amount of Calligraphy Stuff I seem to have amassed, and I suspect that I might be a little mistaken about that first part. Just a touch.

Why Write? Penmanship for the 21st century — Jake Weidmann

Master Penman Jake Weidmann, on American penmanship throughout the ages, and on technology and handwriting as complementary skills.

I think it’s worth a watch. Of course no one calligrapher (Master or not) has the same view on the world as any other, but I think most of us – especially now – share a few basic ideas.

I’d love to see a similar discussion on the history of British penmanship, and even – dare I ask – a history of handwriting and of calligraphy in Australia. One day!

(I was lucky enough to take a three-day class from Jake Weidmann in 2013; I think I learned more in those three days than I had in the preceding three years. That guy is skilled.)

Have no fear of perfection … you will never reach it.

This week (and last week, and the week before …) I’ve been practicing copperplate, and also some variations on copperplate like this messy, sketchy one. I think I’ve finally worked my way past my fear of ‘breaking the rules’ when it comes to messy scripts … but I still have a deep love for the beauty of traditional script.

Contemporary Pointed Pen with Margaret Schmidt

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I really should work out a better way to photograph lettering. I think that half the joy of calligraphy is the texture of the paper, the shine of the ink – things that can’t be reproduced (or at least, not easily) by digital art or even prints. The above ‘Congratulations’ is a pale gold (the Finetec, again, from John Neal Booksellers – I just really love it) on a smooth black card.

The lettering style is a modern version of copperplate with a bit more bounce and movement. I tend to struggle with modern pointed pen because it’s so much freer than the traditional forms – and I’ve never been particularly good at improvisation. Not that I’m particularly good when I’m following the rules, but when there are rules, it’s much easier to know how to fix it. When all you can come up with is “that just seems wrong, somehow …” things get tricky.

So, of course, I took a class today* on contemporary pointed pen, and on how to break the rules.

*”Today” being the first of June … but since I’m scheduling blog updates only around once a week, not “today” the day that you’re reading this. ;)

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Margaret taught us several excellent scripts, all of which I imagine you will see in upcoming posts as I work my way through them. This second picture is a pointed pen Italic script that’s quite condensed and has some really cute touches – I think it could be really useful on invitations in particular. Another weapon to add to my arsenal!

(The lyrics, of course, are from Wicked, which I was lucky enough to see at the end of May and which is probably still in my head two weeks into the future …)

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