March 22, 2016

The tools of the calligrapher

Palmstone.com_tools2As a working calligrapher I use a wide variety of writing tools on a daily basis. These range from brushes to reeds to metal-nibbed pens. Rather than write a detailed description of all the hundreds of types of pens available, I will give a quick overview of the major categories of pens, starting with the most simple. By simple I mean most ancient and handmade, rather than products of the industrial revolution. These tools are not always simple to cut and shape correctly, nor to use to make beautiful calligraphy. Patience and practice (practice, practice, practice) is the key to learning calligraphy, regardless of the tool.

Reed Pens (qalam, قلم) and their predecessors, the pointed stylus, are probably the oldest pens. Before that, humans no doubt made marks with their fingers, hands and the burnt ends of sticks. The stylus was used to press marks into clay (e.g., cuneiform tablets). A sharp stylus can scratch letters into dried palm leaves and pigment rubbed into the engraved line, creating the millions of pages of the palm leaf books of ancient and classical India. The reed pen, dipped in any type of pigment or ink, makes marks on papyrus, silk, other types of fabric and eventually onto paper. The reed pen was a major writing tool for classical Greek, Latin and Phonecian–and is the classical tool for writing Hebrew and Arabic calligraphy. The qalam is the first tool I used when learning to write calligraphy. This was in Iran, and the ability to write a passable line of poetry in Persian Nasta’liq was a requirement for passing elementary school. Our teacher would walk through the classroom, make a fresh cut on our reed pens and write a line of poetry at the top of the notebook paper on each of our desks. With reed dip pens and permanent black ink we all made a horrific mess! The difference between myself and my classmates is that after passing the exam they never touched a pen again.

Brushes are another ancient writing tool. Made from the hair of different types of animals (and now also of synthetic fibres), calligraphy brushes must be made by an expert brush maker to really be of service. I use primarily Chinese brushes, and once in a while a flat sign-painters brush. There are brushes of all varieties of hair, sizes and shapes. What brush to use depends on what type of mark (and what size mark) you wish to make.

Quills are another tool which is sensitive to the movements of the calligrapher’s hand and arm. The flight feathers of birds (goose, turkey, and other large birds) are hardened by exposing them to heat and then cut into either a flat edge for broad-nibbed calligraphy styles, or into a point for styles such as Spencerian and Copperplate.

With the advent of manufacturing and the Industrial Revolution, new forms of the older pens were developed. Calligraphers continue to use these tools, and indeed engineers and calligraphers continue to experiment and improve upon the designs. Metal quills of all sorts are manufactured. The different types are designed for different applications and calligraphers have very strong preferences (as well as dislikes) of the different models available. There is not quite as much disagreement about broad nib (flat or chisel-shaped metal nibs) pens designed for such styles as italics, black letter, book hand, roman, etc. In general these nibs fit into wooden or plastic pen holders and often have some type of built-in or removable metal reservoir to hold some ink. The primary difference between the different models is the degree of stiffness or flex in the metal. Which nib to use is largely a matter of personal preference. There are also nibs designed to hold a larger volume of ink so that larger format lettering can be done; and, nibs with multiple writing points, or cuts or slits, so that two, three or more parallel lines can be made with each stroke.

The commonality of all of the writing tools described so far is that the implement holds only a small amount of ink. The reed or brush or quill or pen must constantly be dipped into ink (or ink placed into the reservoir with a dropper or brush). The innovation to solve this problem that placed writing implements on the fashion map was the fountain pen. Technical ingenuity, elegance and craft made the fountain pen (along with the pocket watch and later the wrist watch) the iPhones of their day. Sporting the proper fountain pen is still a mark of distinction among certain subsets of people today. By and large, however, calligraphers view the fountain pen with a utilitarian perspective. In order to achieve a flow of ink from a filled reservoir or cartridge into the nib of the pen, it is almost always the case that the nib is far stiffer and less flexible than in a dip pen. Convenience and portability thus have a cost in a less responsive pen.

Additional modern developments in calligraphic writing implements include calligraphic fountain pens with interchangeable nibs, markers, the airbrush, spray paint, synthetic brushes, and so on. There are some other exciting new developments. There are versions of the traditional ruling pen (formerly a drafting tool) that have been widened to create an exciting writing implement that is like a cross between a pen and a brush. A pen developed in Turkey designed to be used like a reed pen (e.g., for writing Arabic script) utilizes a synthetic, very absorbent, fibre so that a larger amount of ink can be held within the writing tip.

Some of the writing implements described are shown in the photo below. These are the mostly well-worn tools I use every day as a professional calligrapher, arranged in a travelling writing box from 19th century India which features multiple compartments and closes up as a convenient–if somewhat heavy by modern standards–box (purchased from a high up shelf in Doma’s old shop in Mussoorie, India, way back in 1978).