Thursday, July 20, 2017

Thou art

Song of Solomon: timeless love poetry in contemporary calligraphy.

Detail from "O my Dove"
This design, shown below, plays a visual pun on the headline.  I've always thought that a furled lily looked like a sleeping dove, and here was the chance to use it in both roles.  

About translation:        Many people consider the 1612 King James Version their authority for poetic scripture.  Others enjoy reading more contemporary interpretations such as the Revised Standard Version from 1948.   The texts that I have consulted for my calligraphy series actually range from as long ago as the 1382 Wycliffe Bible and as recent as the 1996 Bloch translation. 

This passage started out so eloquently-- "O my dove, that art in the cleft of the rock"--that changing the verb to either "are" or "is" seemed clunky.  To sustain this lyrical mood, I chose to keep the archaic "thy" rather than use the more prosaic "your."  When you can't decide such questions, read the words aloud; then listen to what your inner ear tells you.    

Monday, July 17, 2017

Tucking letters into clefts and crevices

Song of Solomon: timeless love poetry in contemporary calligraphy.

Edward Johnston declared that the purpose of calligraphy was "To make good letters and arrange them well."  The second part is almost more important than the first.  In this design, I had to make dozens of small tweaks to help the eye read smoothly and to reinforce the meaning.   
This poetry seemed to divide into two thoughts; calling to the beloved one, "my dove," who is hidden; and begging to see her lovely face and hear her sweet voice.  I lettered one sentence in simple Bookhand and the other in Italic, in triangles that fit into a rectangle.  Making the larger letters fit the space got easier when re-reading the text inspired me to make some small words fit into the "secret crevices of the cliff." I thought that "of the" and "in the" could appropriately be shoehorned into small spaces.   
 Graphic custom has trained readers to read from top down and large letters first, so I trusted that starting at upper right would cue them not to read the lower left area with them.  But just in case, I made sure the two sets of lines did not line up

Even though I lettered the two blocks of text in two different styles and sizes, I felt there was still a chance that the reader might read straight across and get confused.  Choosing two different ink colors added one more safeguard.    

If you spend some time to arrange your letters well, you can ensure clarity for your reader.   

Friday, July 14, 2017

Putting ink on the page without a pen

Song of Solomon: timeless love poetry from the Bible, in contemporary calligraphy. 

The flames in the green circle above
were formed with the ink dropper.    
The Bible verses in the previous post describe a young woman's intensely smoldering love.  The images suggest embers, ashes, and fragrant smoke, which can all be portrayed with words lettered in pen and ink.  But going further, you can make some very dramatic ink strokes without using your pen at all.   Just use the ink bottle's dropper stopper. 

You will need to lay the paper flat to dry thoroughly, perhaps for days.  When you eventually frame the page, add spacers so the glass doesn't stick to the ink.  

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

How design and text evolve together

Song of Solomon: timeless love poetry in contemporary calligraphy.  
[A footnote to the design of July 6, above] 
Pencil drafts
Some designs just need more time  to ripen than others.  This one mellowed for 25 years, while I thought about what I should do next. It wasn't just the layout, where the diagonals funneled down to a balance point that somehow took away their energy; the words themselves, from the King James translation, seemed too static as well, conveying the general idea but using some very formal terms.  It felt like I was hearing the someone read the poetry behind a wall.  
Final version, discussed July 6
I knew I had to give both the words and the layout more animation.  I went looking for a softer, more natural, more amorous translation: 

  • My own preference led me to choose "likened" because it seemed more eloquent than  "compared."  
  • Wouldn't any woman be more flattered by "mare of Pharaoh's chariot" than a "whole company of horses." ?!
  • And braided "ribbons of finest gold" seem more interesting to the mind's eye than simply "borders."  I echoed those braids in the capital O's Celtic interlacings.  
  • I did not modernize "thee" and "thou" and "thy" for this design.  They help to place it in the context of its era, so that the metaphor of the mare makes sense.  

Once the text itself made sense to me, all I had to do with the design was trim down the swashes, slightly curve the diagonal lines, and play up the resemblance between the silhouettes of horse and woman.  
Lesson: Save those thumbnail sketches!  This design needed years to become clear to me.  Don't give up after your first try, if you liked the initial idea.   

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Light and shadow can add sparkle to your letters

Song of Solomon: timeless love poetry in a contemporary calligraphy.  

Early in my acquaintance with calligraphy, my goal was to lay down a heavy, uniform stroke of ink on the page.  My teacher soon cured me of that!  "Calligraphy is not silkscreen; the texture of the paper should show through the ink."  He encouraged me to see that calligraphy was similar to music; when a soprano starts to sing, you still want to hear the orchestra behind her.  And her voice will vary from strong to soft, just as ink can vary from dense to translucent.   
The letters in "My beloved is mine" (in the post Light and Shadow, July 1, 2017) display this subtle, coveted calligraphic quality called sparkle.  You start with a firm downward pressure.  Then as your pen moves through the middle of the stroke, you ease up the pressure, to make the flow of ink paler.*  Then you gradually increase the pressure again.  
The finished letter stroke will be darker and wider at the ends, paler and slimmer through the middle.  And it all takes place in half a second.  You will benefit from practicing, to achieve the same tone for every down stroke that follows.   

Watch for it when you look at calligraphy.  And try it yourself.  Your page really will sparkle.  

*This effect is easier to achieve with water-based ink.  It's still something of a high-wire act, as the tone of the ink will change when you hesitate or speed up, revealing any failure of nerve.  And the light pressure may leave one edge a little ragged, like the uncorrected y or b above.  But you can always go in and touch it up.  It will keep you from the calligrapher's temptation--overwriting a stroke to get it right.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Resemblances, from text to picture and back

Song of Solomon: timeless love poetry in a contemporary calligraphy.  

The human eye, whenever it sees an unfamiliar line, instinctively searches for a resemblance to something familiar. Here, in Song of Solomon I: 9 - 11, I found a line that has more than one identity.  

In what strikes some readers like an odd compliment, the young man compares his beloved to a horse.  (It made perfect sense to me, as I have always loved horses.)  To celebrate this beauty, I shaped a pen stroke that could evoke both a horse and a woman.  Then I built my design around the poet's metaphors: the gems can decorate both the woman's necklace and the horse's bridle; the Celtic knotwork of the capital O is inspired by the finest gold that "we braid for thee;" and the rich brown ink itself can allude to the mare's coat and the leather of her bridle.  

It was hard to keep the curved line layout from getting curly—I was always straightening it out, trying to make it rigorous and taut rather than wavy and princessy.  It helped if I visualized the arch of a horse's neck, and the stiff curve of its tail.     
In rendering the Song of Songs into calligraphy, I aim to have my designs help the reader understand the text more clearly.  

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Light and Shadow

Timeless love poetry from the Bible, in contemporary calligraphy.   

This design is based on a simple declaration of love that reappears throughout the Song of Solomon; each lover belongs to the other, equally. Different translations offer different phrasing; I chose one that lets the speaker be either a he or she, in love with either a him or her, rather than restricting it to only a young woman in love with a young man.   

The verse that follows this declaration adds a passage about how the lovers will meet when the shadows lengthen and the air is cool.  At first I pictured this as lighted area surrounded by a soft shadow, so I set the large text inside a gray border, and wove the smaller letters between the main words in gray ink.  It felt done.  

AND THEN... Calligraphy designs usually resolve themselves into one definitive version.  But after I thought about this one for a few weeks, I tried a slightly different take, where the lines that describe the slanting light, are set at a slant themselves.  

In the redesign, I also changed the background of the miniature vignette, to show the mountains that the gazelles might have come from.  I like them both.