I am one of the millions of people who are making cursive the endangered species of writing. As The New York Times observed over a year ago, for many Americans especially those currently in school, cursive is less than common, it can be a downright mysterious. Let’s face it, more and more we like to print. And if cursive is dwindling in popularity, then calligraphy (a style of highly decorative handwriting with many flourishes) is truly a lost art.
I walked into a calligraphy lesson with the lovely and talented Mindy Barber not realizing how much of an art calligraphy actually is. Mindy has always loved handwriting and had a calligraphy set as a child. She taught herself some techniques, and then, as an adult, built upon that foundation through lessons with accomplished calligraphers, including a “Master Penman” (how’s that for a title?). Mindy now practices for her own enjoyment, and also creates beautiful wedding invitations and envelopes for family, friends and those lucky enough to fit into her busy schedule (she has a wildly successful full-time career as well). Her calligraphy has appeared in Town & Country Weddings and the wedding website The Knot.
First Mindy introduced me to all the tools we would use during our afternoon of practicing calligraphy, including the pen holder; the long cylinder that a calligrapher holds in their hand (and that the rest of us would likely think was the actual pen). On the tip of the holder is the pen, which is removable and holds the ink until it is pressed to paper and the ink is released from the tip of the pen, or the nib. For our lesson we used an oblique pen, which Mindy said would allow me to better see the letters I was writing.
Mindy patiently explained the two basics of calligraphy: thick and thin lines. The downstrokes should be thick and the upstrokes thin. Lines are made thick by pressing down hard with the nib. A lighter touch will result in thinner lines. Sounds simple enough, right? Weeeeellllll, easier said that done.
Before we got started, Mindy’s wisely suggested we warm up. Just like stretching before a run, this would get us ready for our activity…or at least it was supposed to. We started by drawing circles over and over again; this would form the basis for many letters and their embellishments. Mindy’s circles were perfectly circular. Mine were irregular and lopsided. This exercise proved to be my first hint that this was not going to be as easy as I first thought. Then, as if ripped from the aforementioned Times article, I had to review cursive letters after I forgot how to form an “f” and struggled with a “b.”
My light-bulb moment came when Mindy explained that many master penmen consider calligraphy an art form; in this vein we would be drawing letters, not writing them. This made me feel much better about struggling with an act that I do every day of my life. If calligraphy is an art, then it’s only logical that it requires instruction, talent and a great deal of practice. I watched Mindy elegantly move her pen across the paper. She briefly picked it up off the paper over parts of certain letters that serve as contact points of multiple pen strokes (like the middle of an “f”) so that there would not be a blob of extra ink to mar the letter. This is just one example of the subtle skill needed to draw beautiful letters. Mindy has been practicing for years, making me feel silly to think I would be able to succeed after just one lesson.
But luckily I did not succeed at all, so I didn’t have to ruminate on that for long. Proof can be found in my alphabet, doodles, wobbly circles and name below.
And here’s Mindy’s beautiful version of her name (notice the thickness and thinness of the pen strokes):
While I may not have gained a great deal of calligraphy skill during my afternoon with Mindy, I did gain a new and powerful appreciation for the art of calligraphy and for calligraphers, like my dear friend. Like a painting hanging in a museum, calligraphy should be appreciated as the art that it is. So next time you receive a wedding invitation in the mail, after you rip it open, take a moment to pause and appreciate the effort and skill that it took to draw such beautiful letters. I know I will.
Many thanks to my friend, Mindy Barber, not only for taking the time to try to teach me the art of calligraphy, but also for creating the beautiful header at the top of this post. Her patience and good humor are always appreciated. I was not compensated in any way for this post.