Exploring the uses of handwritten letterform, gesture and space

graphic design
book arts
COMING SOON! New class offered through the School of Illustration at Academy of Art University for Fall 2017. It will be called ILL345 - Logo, Font, and Typography for Illustrators. More information coming soon.

I documented in detail the student experience and process in the advanced calligraphy class. The article was published in Alphabet, the journal of the Friends of Calligraphy in Fall of 2014.
FA153 - Calligraphy and Letterform - offered online and on campus through the Fine Arts Department in Fall 2017
Introduction to the major historical hands, use of traditional and non-traditional tools, and experimental design with letterform as graphic image.
FA253 - Advanced Calligraphy - offered online in Fall 2017
Introduction to an exciting method for organizing the visual field using the seed grid and an invented alphabet; layering, color and gesture; refinement of layout and composition.
In 2002 I began developing two calligraphy classes that I teach online year round at Academy of Art University in San Francisco. We are now celebrating 12 years online. This year the classes will be offered through the School of Illustration, having migrated from the Graphic Design Department.

The beginning class is Calligraphy & Letterform, covering the historical hands and history of writing in 15 modules, with an introduction to writing in layers, gestural writing, tool making, and brush stroke. We focus on the "why" of writing as well as the "how to".

I developed Advanced Calligraphy in 2005 using Andre Gürtler's excellent text "Experiments with Letterform and Calligraphy" supplemented with my own videos, demos, slideshows, assignments and explanations. The outcomes are related to the book arts as well as the painterly arts, and are appropriate for all students of fine arts, printmaking, letterform and graphic design. The course focuses on enabling the student to gain a thorough understanding of the visual field through a specific creative process.

Here are two examples of student work:

Left, by Rebecca Cook, right by Maria Barrera.
These are the result of an assignment in which the student studies spacing, organizing the visual field with gestural brush renderings of "letterform segments" or symbols, layered and balanced as a non-legible written form (strokes applied left to right, in successive rows) while exploring the possibilities of color and spatial depth.

On Teaching Calligraphy: Ann Miller, 2011

The subject of the best way to teach calligraphy to beginning students has come up often, and it has set some gears working.

There are several places for the instructor to start. 1) Starting with pencil and making circles, ovals, and lines, and working with flow and motion. 2) Selecting a text and tracing and copying letters until they look like the original model. 3) Learning alphabets and copying the letters onto ruled or graph paper. 4) Establishing a precise grid for each hand and micromanaging the learning process while exploring and fully embedding design principles.

The arguments range from letting the spirit free to express itself in the spontaneous structure and creation of the letters and words—often with uneven success or the manipulation of so-called happy accidents—to absolutely "getting it right" as those before you have done, using every technical means known to the lettering industry and its history, assuring perfect spacing, letter formation, and replication of the model hand.

There is a widespread mistrust of using guidelines and geometric principles in the construction of letters, perhaps due to the overwhelming nature of understanding the many hands that form the foundation of our writing systems. But using a grid for structure of letters is no less important than using sound structural elements in architecture.

I see the lettering grid as more of a jungle gym than a prison. The letters swing through it and play in it. There is leeway, but you don't know how to see possibilities until you establish the basics. I feel that beginners need to know the lay of the land. But sometimes it's appropriate to teach differently, use different approaches depending on the student.

Making art of any kind is about organizing visual elements. Anytime something becomes visual it is governed by the laws of optics and balance (virtual physics) and as much by what is not there as what is there. The spaces and solids create the whole. In order to transmit a sense of space, or illusion, there must be a way for the artist to understand and organize something complex; this is impossible to achieve on the fly, with consistent success, without a basic foundation. Weak art can be seen beyond and through. It doesn't communicate with impact. It doesn't convince and is often just repetitive. You can’t grasp it well enough to feel it with your eyes. The challenge to artists is to create that which contains the infinite while touching the finite. In order to do that, there must be a way of organizing that is based on sound principles. Learning to divide the page, learning the nomenclature of design so that ideas can be communicated and challenged, and learning what scribes have understood for centuries, is important because it allows us to realize how we fit in the timeline as we pick up the pen and make our forms.

Students want to know how to get their works to look not only good, but authentic and genuine, so they will feel a sense of accomplishment and begin to see how the visual rhythms and contrasts are built on the page and how they reflect their own individual sense of touch and vision. Beginners need to have a definite place to hang their letters so that they can understand that even without the guideline, that letter is in a specific place with known and intended coordinates. Optics don't lie; the effects are subtle and dynamic, and exciting to discover. But the learning is quicker if the student starts by understanding the design process and the grid, so that progress can continue to the next phase with a solid foundation and points to talk through. It's not usually helpful to say "do your thing."

In my beginner's class I teach the grid, which helps everyone compare "apples to apples". At the same time the first part of the class contains other freeform exercises in flow, touch, pressure and release, loops, spirals, arcs, intervals, and spontaneous directional work that use the part of the brain that doesn't deal with measurements, pen scales, pen angles, and basic layout grid.

In the advanced class the students start by imagining there is a grid in the visual field, and placing simple pencil marks using judgment while "seeing" that grid on the page and getting control over intervals, shapes, and design. From that point the full field of creative possibilities begins naturally to open up, but with a solid foundation already in place that can be relied upon if one were asked to justify or explain the method, or be commissioned to produce a manuscript book, or make any of the millions of projects that require the combination of measurement and skill and expressive strength.

In short, establishing control over the character of the letters, pen strokes, pressure/release, sense of touch, sensitivity to all aspects of the process and all the elements of design is how to enjoy calligraphy to its fullest. "Write your way through history." This is common advice, to learn all the hands correctly before you invent your own.

People may all be drawn to calligraphy for its obvious attraction, but some individuals are natural born dancers and builders, and it's no problem to get them to follow the rules and at the same time begin dancing with the pen. Others will love dancing with the pen but have no sense of how a ruler is used. These will struggle but in the end will find the middle ground if they stick with it. That leaves those who love to measure everything, are musical, appreciate geometry, like to follow instructions, and are happy just making awesome copies of what has gone before us. This last group, when introduced to the cola pen for the first time, or dipping a batch of bound toothpicks or a bunch of rubber bands in ink to make a mark, will be amazed at the beauty of the stroke that still contains the structure they appreciate. This opens a whole world of possibility. The idea is to go back and forth between the worlds of design, lettering, painting, drawing, single stroke, built-up letters, cursive forms, and whatever else your pleasure is, until you can instantly call them up and blend them into a whole that puts the pieces back together in your own authentic way.

Anyhow, that's my reasoning on it, and why I enjoy teaching it. Some things are definite, others are pure magic and mystery. But we have to know which is which.

©2011 - Ann Miller

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