At its core, writing is a form of communication. But with the art of calligraphy (from Greek, “kallos” and “graphe” for “beautiful writing”) the message is infused with a new life. The synergy between separate elements – the writing instrument, ink, paper and the mind – turns signs of communication into an artistic expression and a record of the writer’s spirit.
We partnered up with two master calligraphers, Seb Lester and Mitsuru Nagata, to discuss Western and East Asian calligraphy traditions.
“We have this wonderful tradition in
the West that goes back at least 2000
years and I find it incredibly inspiring.”
THE ORIGINS OF CALLIGRAPHY
It is the writing tool determines the look of calligraphy. The origins of the European alphabet can be traced back to the Roman empire and the stoned-carved Latin letterforms featuring a serif - a slight projection finishing off a letter.
This distinctive aesthetic pervaded throughout hand-written Medieval manuscripts, printing press and can be found even in digital graphics today. “We have this wonderful tradition in the West that goes back at least 2000 years and I find it incredibly inspiring,” says Seb Lester, an English designer and calligraphy artist. "I think European calligraphy has this incredible wealth of variety. It’s a lifetime study.”
East Asian calligraphy also originated in bone or shell inscriptions, but it is the brush that ultimately defined its visual expression. Loaded with dark ink and led by the calligrapher’s wrist, the dance of a soft brush creates harmonious and balanced characters imbued with nature, poetry and history. "We have many examples from great masters, and by copying and practising the same calligraphy I am transported from the 21st century to a thousand years ago – it’s a journey in time,” - says Barcelona-based Japanese calligrapher Mitsuru Nagata. “It’s a very important part of Japanese history."
“Perfection doesn’t exist, there is no
end - the most important thing is the
THE AESTHETICS OF CALLIGRAPHY
The coherent and harmonious composition of Mitsuru’s character is formed with the set of individual strokes as well as the empty spaces between them. However, the exact depth, thickness and position of each element is not fixed and is at the complete free will of the calligrapher. To Mitsuru, the goal is not important “because perfection doesn’t exist, there is no end - the most important thing is the continuous motion.”
By contrast, although a Western calligrapher also controls the line with the angle of the pen and the pressure applied, each letterform is defined by a geometric “ideal”. "I’m really interested in symmetry and how it relates to harmony and, therefore, beauty,” shares Seb. This emphasis on the structure can be found in European styles that emerged since the Roman era: Medieval blackletter, Carolingian Italic and Celtic uncials.
“Calligraphy taught me to
concentrate, appreciate the time and
get to know myself.”
THE PHILOSOPHY OF CALLIGRAPHY
Calligraphy is a visualisation of focus and mindfulness. “When I was 9 years old,” says Mitsuru, “like every child, I found it hard to stay still. But calligraphy taught me to concentrate, appreciate the time and get to know myself.” In East Asian tradition, a calligrapher is expected to have put a great deal of time and effort into cultivating inner qualities and transmitting them in brushstrokes that are not viewed as achieving the perfection of a form, but rather a record of a moment. “The character you write is like a mirror of yourself at the time of writing. Through my calligraphy I aim to express the moment I am in,” says Mitsuru.
According to Seb, calligraphy gives the tone of voice to the written words, accentuating the meaning of a poem or a phrase. "I try to draw from the past, but create something that is of our time, has a beauty of its own and resonates with people from all walks from life." Despite the different final result, the focus on the vitality of the moment is what drives Seb’s work, too. "I am a big believer in happy accidents that come through play-work. Too much discipline makes the design too boring, but with too much freedom it becomes just squiggles, so it’s about finding that sweet spot in the creative process,” says the calligrapher.
"I try to draw from the past, but
create something that is of our time,
has a beauty of its own and resonates
with people from all walks from life."
Despite the obvious differences in medium and style, the unique histories of both Western and East Asian calligraphy continue to inspire both contemporary masters and amateur writers to keep the tradition flourishing today.