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A Beginner’s Guide to Calligraphy: History, Lessons & More

Calligraphy is a form of visual art related to writing — technically, the use of lettering by hand with a brush, pen, or broad tip instrument, giving form to writing in an artful and expressive fashion. The word itself comes from the words “kalli” (beautiful) and “graphia” (writing). Modern calligraphy can be seen in formal documents everywhere, from wedding invitations and logo design to religious art, memorials, maps, art reproductions, and government documents. In the West, calligraphy is an aesthetic skill and an art form. Calligraphy also plays an important and integral part of many cultures, most notably in East Asia. 

Calligraphy History

Western calligraphy has its roots in the Latin writing system, which emerged circa 3,000 BC. The Romans typically wrote on long rolls of papyrus using reed or quill pens. Later, Christian churches developed writing through the copying of Biblical texts and other manuscripts, which were produced in the hundreds of thousands during the Middle Ages. The advent of print in the 15th century and beyond had a lasting impact on the volume of illuminated manuscripts and handwriting, but calligraphy itself enjoyed a modern revival near the end of the 19th century when Edward Johnston (a British craftsman) began teaching calligraphy courses in London. Johnston’s work was responsible for the revival of modern penmanship, which was later taken up by Graily Hewitt in the twentieth century at the Central School of Arts and Design. 

In East Asian cultures, the history of calligraphy is even more rich and complex. For example, some of the oldest calligraphy in the East is found on Chinese jiǎgǔwén, or shell bone scripts; literally characters carved on tortoise plastrons and ox scapulae. In 220 BC, the Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang imposed a “character unification” system of calligraphy, composed of over 3300 standardized characters. Chinese calligraphy centers on the “Four Treasures of the Study,” which describes the brush, ink, ink stone, and paper used in the Chinese tradition. The oldest existing brushes in Chinese calligraphic history date back to 202 BC. 

For more on the history of calligraphy, see:

Types of Calligraphy

Calligraphy takes many forms throughout many cultures but is most often tied to religious expression, not just in the Biblical manuscripts of the West, but in Eastern expressions such as Tibetan prayer wheels, mosque walls in Arabic, and the letters of the Dalai Lama. 

Traditionally, Western calligraphy most often uses a brush or flat-balled or round-nibbed pen, water-based ink, parchment or paper, and tools such as templates, knives and light boxes for producing strict, uniform patterns. Many Biblical manuscripts offer typical examples of this type of calligraphy. Modern calligraphy is also frequently used in Western graphic design — everything from movie credits to art reproductions — and digital permutations of the form such as calligraphic and script fonts offer alternatives to traditional handwriting. 

Eastern calligraphy tends to be more improvisational and less rigid, with a wider variety of ink brushes, ink densities, and paper quality. Chinese calligraphy often employs the use of ink stones, paperweights, and desk pads. India has a rich and varied calligraphic history, often using surfaces such as birch bark, copper, palm leaves, and clay for their calligraphy. Islamic calligraphy is closely tied to the Muslim religion, as the form is considered the language of the spiritual world. 

Learning Calligraphy

Learning calligraphy is not the same as learning handwriting — the tools are much more specialized, and the options are as diverse as the tradition itself. What tools you need will depend on what kind of calligraphy you plan to produce — hard-edged and structural, or artistic and improvisational? Do you want to make your own wedding invitations, or pen a beautifully hand-written letter? Will your calligraphy be more functional or decorative? 

Whatever your choice, you will first need a brush or fountain pen. Pens and brushes are available online or at office supply stores, along with ink cartridges. Enterprising calligraphers could even make their own feather pens using duck feathers. Steel-pointed pens tend to work best for bold, hard edges or detailed work, while ink brushes will be better for improvised, expressive calligraphy. 

Paper also makes a big difference in the quality of calligraphy, although beginners may want to start with plain notebook paper instead of expensive parchment, rice paper, or watercolor paper. As your skill and enthusiasm increases, you may even find yourself using vellum or your own hand-made paper. 

Calligraphy for Kids

Teaching calligraphy to children doesn’t have to involve boring history lessons or special tools. Kids can easily learn calligraphic methods using only markers or pencils and learn about other cultures while they master a new artistic skill. The Internet offers a wealth of resources on penmanship and artistic calligraphy, as well as free lessons and resources on creating beautiful calligraphic art projects. 

About the Author:
Clare Tames is a self-employed freelance graphic designer, formidable cook, an avid reader. She has written on contemporary and classical art in various print publications and is just now beginning a writing career online. She works out of her home office in California, where her two children attend high school.