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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Calligraphy Projects - Pictures!

As you might remember from a post a long ways back, I've always wanted to get into calligraphy. Well, part of the reason I've been MIA for the last couple of weeks is that my beautiful older sister recently made her first vows as a sister of St. Benedict's Center in Still River, MA. What exactly do you give your sister on such an occasion? It was the equivalent of her wedding day; as a Bride of Christ, she wore our mother's wedding dress and veil and a wreath of white roses. Believe it or not, Brides of Christ don't have a gift registry at Macy's. My mother, wise lady that she is, asked if I might be able to draw a few verses from a Psalm that could be nicely framed and given to my Sister Sister on her big day. As is usually the case when I get going on something, I started out very excited, and then got very quickly discouraged and had almost resolved to just print out the darn thing in a fancy font. Luckily, getting the proper pens and tools for everything partway through the project made it much much easier. Allow me to say, then, you can do it too! Here's a little photo journal for you of various steps along the way. Enjoy, and get crackin.

I started out by copying the shapes of the letters of other calligraphy that I had seen and liked. Of course, working with a mechanical pencil and lined legal pad is hardly the proper way to go, but I figured I'd start cheap and work my way into the pricier materials as I figured out what I was doing:


I wanted some sort of symbolic motif worked into the capital letters, hence the grape vines. As it turned out, in the end I found something I liked better. This is why we practice, right? Eventually, I moved onto uni-ball black pens and printer paper and I continued to experiment with the shapes of letters. I'm still not satisfied with the final outcome of some of them, but it makes for pretty scratch paper:


I wasn't sure initially which colors I wanted to incorporate, especially as I hadn't done any shopping for appropriate pens and markers, and was only working with what I had in my pencil cup. Green seemed like a natural choice (growth, new life, springtime, my assigned color at work and so the color pen I have most of), and in looking at images of old manuscripts it seemed pretty consistent that red and black were the colors of choice. So, ultimately I decided to use black for the majority of the text, and use red for key phrases. At this point, I was still on printer paper, and still tracing the outlines of the letters and filling them in with a pen. It was tedious.



It was about this time that one of my out-laws over at Like Mother Like Daughter (Pippo and newborn little Mary are my niece and nephew; the Captain is my older brother) had her first gorgeous little girl, Evangeline Rose. Needing to mix things up a bit and work with some different text, I went on the hunt for some appropriate scripture passages for the new baby. I melded various not-so-racy verses from several chapters of the Song of Songs, putting together a passage that wasn't too long, and seemed like the right thing for a little girl to grow up hearing. Then, of course, I had to figure out the colors and motifs appropriate for that passage.

The last line speaks of the sun and the moon, comparing the "she" in question to the beauty of each, so I knew I wanted to work in a sun and a moon. I google image searched variations on "medieval sun and moon" and "illuminated manuscript sun and moon" and came up with a hybrid melding of the two that I like pretty well. This first draft of the passage is done with highlighter (that's that garish yellow - you know, what I had in my pencil cup) on the back of a piece of lined scrap paper from my desk. I drew over the lines with a heavy dark pen so I could see them through the paper - I can't do this properly without guidelines! I traced the outline for the sun around the bottom of the mug on my desk. Not sure if I should leave the moon blue or color it over with silver, I left it half and half so I could decide on it later.

Next, I finally got myself some proper utensils. A word on those: Michael's was the natural choice for me, but I'm sure, if you want to get serious about this, probably going to a proper art supplies store is a better bet. Not feeling adequately confident enough to handle calligraphy pens with free flowing ink, I went the beginner's route and got calligraphy markers. I liked them because they came in a pack and so were the more economical way to go, and also because they had two tips to each pen. I didn't like them because the nibs of the markers, especially the black as it was the most often used, wore down and became imprecise far too quickly. That being said, I do recommend them if you're starting to learn:

I also got Faber-Castell pens in silver and gold. They don't have calligraphy tips, but they do lend that metallic sheen that I wanted in imitation of the gold-leaf that the real old manuscripts used. Having acquired the proper writing utensils, I got out a piece of my Crane & Co. stationary to see how the pens and markers would react on thicker, grainier paper. I guess I also hoped that it would maybe even possibly be a final draft.


Guess what? It wasn't a final draft. For one thing, though it doesn't show up so much here, the sun came out looking kind of green, and also way too heavy. I didn't like the "O"s at the beginnings of the sentences, there wasn't enough room on the page to write all of what I wanted to, the last sentence wasn't a question but I ended it with a question mark anyway, and the question mark didn't even look like a question mark. Back to the drawing board.

Re-estimating how much space I would need to fit in all of the text, I took out another piece of stationary, measured out the lines, and voila! It came together. There were definitely still a few little mistakes, but that's to be expected. The next step was to find a border that meant something, and one that I liked. Ultimately, I decided on a take-off of something I found in one of my all-time favorite books (found in a used book store near Dallas several years ago):

Allow me to forewarn you that the author expects you to make pigments out of bits of egg, paint on vellum, and purchase gold leaf for your projects. If you have the funding for such endeavors, more power to you. That being said, I've learned more than I ever would have known about illuminated manuscripts by flipping through this book. Also, it's just really pretty. So, looking for something meaningful to add a little decorative border, I stumbled across these: 


I ended up going with a variation of the border suggested on the far right. I liked the idea of incorporating the "good works strawberries" because they were pretty and symbolic, and I liked the blue and gold twisty curlies (I'm sure there's a real name for that) because they weren't too tricky and because blue and gold are good reminders of Mary. So, this was the final product for Evangeline Rose:

I added the fleur-de-lis in the corners to bring out the Marian imagery more -- unfortunately, I think they came out looking a little like the squat dancing flowers in Fantasia. Oh well. We'll work on that. I also got distracted here and there in the border and forgot to alternate. All things told, though, I was pretty happy with it, and hoped that The Artist would overlook the various mistakes. 

Back to Sister's present. It was time to get to work with card stock. This was also from Michael's:


Once I had measured out the guidelines in light pencil, made a few (okay, a lot of) mistakes, and trashed a few attempts, I finished what I hoped would be a respectable draft. I had updated my initial "H" along the way, opting for imitating one that I found online somewhere that I'd really liked. Here are the last few lines of the one I had thought might be it:


Notice anything funny on that bottom line in red? Also, did you notice how the "h" is missing from "daughter" and from every single "brought"? No, that is not antiquated spelling. That's me not paying attention. And then I was having a conversation with my roommates as I was finishing it up, hence distraction-induced repeats on the last line. Oh sigh. It was just as well, as I hadn't figured out borders for it yet and needed some room to experiment:

As you can see below, I couldn't decide. I still liked the idea of the grape vines, but I didn't like the colors I had to work with, and the pens weren't built for drawing grapevines, so they came out looking kindergartenish. There's a line in the passage about "golden borders" so I thought about the little bunches of three golden flowers, to match the decoration of the initial "H" and give a hint of the Trinity. No good. Little red flowers? They came out looking like misshapen poinsettias. I did really like the poppies (that came out of the same book as the strawberries idea). They had straight stems rather than curly ones, adding a little variety to what I had been working with. I knew that the red and the black would work, as it would match the text so well. They even symbolized peace. Guess what else they symbolized? Death. Hm. Maybe not so good.


As it turned out when it came time to find a frame for it, the border would have been covered up by the matting anyway, so I didn't end up needing to worry about it. Phew. I went with the blue matting and the gold frame for what I hope by now should be clear reasons (golden borders, protection of Our Lady).



As you might imagine, by the end of this, when I knew what I was doing, I was having a lot of fun with it. So, I have two suggestions for you. First, start learning yourself - it really was only the space of a few weeks or a month to get this far. Or, if you prefer not to learn it, but would like something like this, let me know! I'd be glad to have a reason to keep practicing.


  1. Wow, Sister LM's gift looks beautiful!! And thanks again for the lovely gift to little Evangeline - I'm sure she will treasure it! We're lucky that you thought of us in the midst of your creative high!

  2. I am a calligrapher and I started because I saw a college classmate's beautiful calligraphy script 30 year ago. I bought myself a set of pens and kept practicing, making cards and framed gifts for friends and family. The more I did, the better I got. I, of course, studied others calligraphy and developed my own scripts. Some tips I would like to give you: 1)Don't get too fancy or elaborate in the body of the text. It has to be legible and too many serifs, descenders and ascenders make that difficult. An occasional swoop (maybe one or two per line is good). 2)It is also helpful to make up your own grids to put under your paper - it helps with spacing letters uniformly and keeping them straight. 3)I always pencil in my text lightly in plain script to make sure I have enough room and to make adjustments to spacing, especially between lines. What I enjoy most about calligraphy is decorating the page - the first letter and borders. I often have the concept for that before the calligraphy. Keep at it! I think you are well on your way to a beautiful hobby.

    1. Thanks so much for the tips, Katherine - I will certainly keep them in mind. And I'd love to see some of your work, if you're willing to indulge me. Do you have any pictures?

  3. So I was scrolling around the blog, and noticed the post about the toilet limerick. I was thinking you could do it in calligraphy. Now wouldn't that be nice.

    1. Ooooh, you could do the borders with sort of a checkered design to suggest plush toilet paper! Or have little dancing bears to evoke the Charmin commercials of yore! Or arrange the words in the shape of a toilet, like Herbert used to do!!! So many possibilities.....

    2. The both of you are just terrible. Be careful what you wish for. Also, I think I just heard Herbert somersaulting in his coffin. As if the poor man didn't have enough to put up with already.

    3. Well hey, at least he's still spry for an older fellow.