Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Art of Calligraphy by David Harris

The Art of Calligraphy: 
a Practical Guide to the Skills and Techniques
by David Harris
Out of Print - ISBN-13: 978-1564588494 - Search Online for a PDF copy.
This is my favorite calligraphy book. It somehow manages to be both concise and detailed, beautiful and functional, informative and entertaining. It combines a stunning visual layout and images of period examples with a unique ductus for a large number of scripts, all while including a surprising amount of history. I particularly like that Harris provides both calligraphic family tree that maps the development of different scripts over time and a quick reference chart that compares all the scripts in the book on one page.

Sadly, this book is out of print and becoming harder to find. I attempted to contact both the author and publisher last year to ask if they have plans for a second edition or reprint, and received no response. If you wish a physical copy, act quickly. You can still find gently used copies for sale at reasonable prices for the time being. Otherwise, there are questionably-legal ways of getting a digital copy online. If you get yourself a free copy this way, and the book does become available again, please buy it to support the author.

If you are just starting calligraphy and are looking for information on how to start using a calligraphy pen for the first time, you will likely be a little frustrated with Harris. While he does have a short section discussing tools, there's nothing on how to use them. This book assumes to assume you already know how to use a calligraphy pen. If I could talk Harris and the publisher into developing a second edition, I would ask them to add a chapter on writing slope setup and how to use and become proficient with a calligraphy pen.

That all said, this is still my go-to calligraphy book for inspiration and when I need a refresher on how to form specific letters or scripts.
Alexandre's Rating:
Images of Period Examples
Historic & Paleographic Knowledge
Ductus/Instructions on Historic Scripts
Accessibility to Novice Calligraphers
Techniques for Left-Handed Calligraphers

Here's my detailed, chapter-by-chapter review of the book.


The two page introduction includes three visual glossaries: one labeling the parts and features of some example letters, another breaking down letter height measurement in nib widths; and an example letter ductus, explaining how to read it. Harris explains in the text on these pages how his scripts are models he built from period scripts, while actual period examples contain "endless variations" and should be studied by any serious calligrapher to gain further insight. I very much agree with this approach.

The Development of Western Script

The first four pages of this six page chapter take the reader on a whirlwind tour of the written language, starting at 1200 BCE in Phoenicia. A paragraph on each provides a little background on Imperial Capitals, Insular and National, Caroline and Early Gothic, Gothic, Bastard, Italian and Humanist, Post-Renaissance, and Modern calligraphy. The final two pages of this chapter are filled with a visual Script Timeline that shows how the various scripts are related over time in a family tree sort of format.

Getting Started

This two page chapter does for tools what the introduction does for the letters and page. Diagrammed images of tools and materials are provided, including captioned pictures of the process for cutting a reed or quill pen. Sadly, this is probably the most lacking part of the book, especially for a novice calligrapher. Sadly, there is nothing on setting up your writing area, how to hold the pen, how to get the pen to write well, or other exercises for the new calligrapher.

The Scripts

Except for a few pages at the end, the rest of the book is dedicated to the scripts themselves. In general, each chapter is organized the same way. Each script has two to four pages detailing:
  • a history of the script; 
  • beautiful images of examples of the script captioned with were and when they are from, most are from period sources, but a few modern interpretations are shown as well; 
  • an image of a single letter detailed with notes about the important features.
The last two pages of each script chapter contain the instructions for how to pen the script. The left side of the first page details the basic elements, including pen angle, letter slant, minim height, ascender and descender height, special pen techniques used, serifs, or other specific details about the script. The remaining space is used to present the ductus. Unlike most books, Harris uses colored translucent inks allowing the reader to easily see how and where the strokes overlap. Each letter is shown separately, often with notes around specific letters or strokes. Sadly, most of Harris' ductus do not contain instructions on how to create the long-s.

Since the format of each of the script chapters is the same, there's not a lot more to add except a list of the scripts covered.
  • Rustic Capitals
  • Square Capitals
  • Uncial & Artificial Uncial - Harris made the choice to combine these two hands into a single chapter. While the shapes of the letters are generally the same, pen angles and details differ. The ductus page shows both side by side, but only includes notes and the colored inks for the Artificial Uncial.
  • Insular Majuscule
  • Insular Minuscule
  • Caroline Minuscule
  • Foundational Hand - Not a period hand, Foundational was developed in 1909 by Edward Johnston based on the Caroline Minuscule used in the Ramsey Psalter almost 1,000 years earlier. Foundational is slightly easier to write, having a more vertical letter slant and simpler serifs. If you are new to calligraphy this is a great hand to start with. Once you are comfortable, you can easily transition to Caroline Minuscule.
  • Early Gothic
  • Textura Quadrata
  • Textura Prescisus
  • Gothic Capitals & Versals
  • Lombardic Capitals
  • Bastard Secretary
  • B√Ętarde
  • Fraktur & Schwabacher
  • Bastard Capitals
  • Cadels
  • Rotunda
  • Rotunda Capitals
  • Humanist Minuscule
  • Italic
  • Humanist & Italic Capitals
  • Italic Swash Capitals
  • Copperplate - The second the out of period hands in the book.
  • Copperplate Capitals
  • Imperial Capitals

Script Reference Chart

This two page spread is a chart with a row for each script in the book and a column displaying each letter. A one sentence note is provided for each script to refresh the reader about where and when it is from.


Another two page spread provides definitions for just over 100 terms related to calligraphy.

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