Calligraphy: Share the Craft, Preserve the Trade

Blog Post from theflourishforum.comThere is an interesting distinction between the senses in the ability to judge quality. Though tastes are vastly different, most people will know a good gourmet meal when they eat one or recognize an out-of-tune song when they hear it. But when it comes to the visual arts, there is a much wider, more subjective range, of what constitutes quality. We can see art but our thought processes and collective experiences combine to interpret the judgment of what we see.

With calligraphy, photography, and many other visual arts, there are two common things which make the business a little more vague: the ease of its accessibility in both producing and offering it as a business, and the seeming inability for many viewers to discern quality work. We can certainly look at some art and know instantly it is “good.” But there are many people who still scratch their head at artwork that hangs in galleries around the world which don’t really look like they took much skill but have broad appeal and are often highly valued. This can be seen in a variety of visual arts, including photography and calligraphy.

I have held a camera in my hand for about the same time I have held a calligraphy pen. Through high school and college, I spent hours in the darkroom developing my own prints and spent countless dollars on film and developing. Prior to launching my calligraphy business, I was already earning income as a photographer. I was one of the first calligraphers with a website and one of the first photographers in my area to “go digital.” The invention of the digital camera walked hand-in-hand with the rise of the internet. Thus a whole new group of people who didn’t have the desire, time, or money to learn the intricacies of a manual camera, developing film, and/or printing photographs could now become photographers.

What we saw with that was a huge range in the quality of work being produced. Those of us who had already been at it for years and knew the difference between an F-stop, ISO, and shutter speed thought, ‘they’ll never stay in business because they can’t offer the quality we can.’

Two interesting things happened. First, some people who had never picked up a camera before became amazing photographers producing some enviable work virtually over night. But second, and more so, we learned many customers could not or did not discern what made a quality portrait. We watched in earnest as our business dwindled as every mother with a camera opened up shop down the street. Fast forward fifteen years later and many good quality, professional photographers are now out of business. Sure, there is still a market for photographers and always will be, but it is a much smaller one as brides and grooms have friends take wedding photos with their phones, moms can now shoot their own children’s portraits with a digital camera, and most other school or major events are overwhelmed with amateur paparazzi.

Following a few years behind, and previously much more unknown, calligraphy is now experiencing a similar internet heyday as more and more enthusiasts pick up a pen. This is great in terms of the love of our craft and sharing that love with others, but perhaps not so good in terms of being able to make a living as a professional calligrapher. Apart from its accessibility, in comparison to other work-from-home trades, the practice of calligraphy takes very little supplies or money to get started. This makes it very appealing to the enormous group of young adults looking for ways to earn income in a challenging job market or while juggling the demands of raising children. And with the creation of “modern” calligraphy, nor is much time necessary in terms of learning the techniques either.

Like with any artist trade, there will always be varying levels of skill, talent, and experience. For the most part — of course there are always exceptions — time, money, and dedication spent on the craft will follow the adage of ‘you reap what you sow.’ However, as the past few years have shown us, with modern calligraphy, (as it was for photography) this isn’t always true. There are some extremely successful modern calligraphers who still make some more traditional scribes sit and scratch their head as they wonder why. (And kudos to them for whatever media, marketing brilliance, or sheer creative genius allowed them to use their skill successfully in a whole new way!)

Additionally, the internet has not only accelerated the spread of calligraphy but also made learning it easier. Over the decades previous to the world wide web, the exposure to calligraphy was few and far between, and instructional books and classes were minimal. Today, eager scribes-to-be can see literally thousands of examples and videos allowing a much swifter learning curve. I’ve watched in awe as some artists on Instagram have learned and perfected Engrosser’s script in just over a year; something that took me years to learn and two decades later I’m still trying to improve.

As we see the rapidly changing environment, easier-to-use nibs, a plethora of paper choices, and  accessibility to learning options, new people are picking up the pen daily. This is both exciting and frightening. It’s exciting to finally have people even know what calligraphy is, let alone share your passion for it. It’s scary because the market for calligraphy was small to begin with and we all know what happens to trends — they die a quick death after everyone becomes entirely sick of it. History has shown us traditional calligraphy will always stand the test of time. The question is, will modern calligraphy drag the entire art form down with it when (or if) it becomes passé.

It’s clear there is a calligraphy trend happening or more definitively, a new calligraphy era driven by modern styles. And with good reason. It’s energetic, fresh, and people resonate with its less formal appeal. It makes a once formidable looking craft in terms of learning, more approachable, just as digital cameras did for photography.

Since I love and practice both traditional and modern calligraphy, one of the things I desired to do with Flourish was bridge the gap between modern and traditional calligraphers. I believed us to all be the same in our love and pursuit of lettering. But as time goes forward, one distinction has become very clear. Whether they create more traditional styles like Copperplate, Gothic, or Italic, and/or other contemporary styles of pointed pen, generally traditional calligraphers study the craft, the history, the tools, multiple styles, and moreover, are dedicated students and stewards of the trade. Small industry circles equated to careful, thoughtful action within the community in terms of teaching or business. Many have spent decades learning and practicing before ever considering starting a business or teaching others.

Modern calligraphers are more apt to practice one style of their own pointed pen script, spend minimal time studying letter forms (as modern calligraphy has no one form), and feel ready to start a business or teach others soon after picking up a pen. Overall, I’m painting with a narrow brush and there can be exceptions to both, however, this has been my and others, general observations over the past few years. Not to say there aren’t those who are dedicated students or contemplative in regards to business, there definitely are. Thankfully, the craft of fine calligraphy will be carried forward by the growing segment of newcomers who bridged the gap by starting with modern calligraphy and then decided they wanted to go deeper and learn traditional styles.

The distinction though, also means something else; perhaps something more significant than just the sharing of a love of letters. The craft and trade of traditional calligraphy takes years, if not decades to learn, hone, and share. The basics of modern calligraphy can be learned in a couple of hours and in turn is often sold and taught in rapid succession.

So does it matter? Some would say no as we always need to adapt and change with the times, and like it or not, this is how it works in our world today. I would argue it matters a great deal. It isn’t about the differences between us, it’s about the quality of work we produce and share with others. It’s how what we do effects not just us, but an entire industry. As a calligrapher, I have always felt a great responsibility to do my best to help preserve the integrity of both the craft and the trade. I do not wish to drive a wedge between calligraphers and I would never discourage anyone from pursuing their dreams. Nor do I think one must study for years before deciding they want to start a calligraphy business.

However, I hope people will take an honest look at their work, solicit constructive and forthright feedback from other professionals, and ask themselves if they can offer a quality service and product which upholds the value of not just the market, but the trade as well.

I endeavor to continue to be a good steward so the practice and art of calligraphy will withstand the trend, be more about love of letters than love of money, and continue on as a meaningful expression of words. And I hope those who take up this craft, whether as a traditional or modern calligrapher, will do the same. While it may not matter to some, it will matter most to those who have made their living as a modern day scribe, those who have dedicated a lifetime to its study, and those who truly love not just the look of any given script, but the tradition and beauty of the craft itself.



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27 Responses to Calligraphy: Share the Craft, Preserve the Trade

  1. Mary Lou Johnson August 20, 2015 at 4:19 pm #

    I could not agree more that the art and craft of hand lettering needs to be honored for the time involved in mastery of each style. A couple of hours with pointed pen is a beginning, a journey of discovery and accomplishment; not the point of commercial endeavors.

    Mary Lou

    • Erica August 20, 2015 at 4:25 pm #

      I like how you expressed that Mary Lou! Well said! Thank you!

  2. Dori Melton August 20, 2015 at 4:37 pm #

    I agree. I practice calligraphy for the joy of it and do not have plans to monetize it any time soon. However I get asked all the time if I do want to make money at it or people often comment about how much money they think I could earn from it. And I have even turned down work because I don’t want to put out an inferior product or I don’t want to endure hand cramps from addressing hundreds of envelopes. So I think it is also good to include in the conversation the fact that there is a certain amount of pressure in today’s world to always monetize our talents. I know some people really do think I’m missing out on a good opportunity to make money. That pressure can make those who start out with good intentions to learn and develop skills question themselves. I know I have had to almost fight against it. And I am quite resolute that this is my art form and I do it for no other reason than my own fulfillment. So I can imagine how tempting it is for others to have what can feel like a barrage of urging to make money from our society. They likely think they may as well jump on this bandwagon now before it rolls by.

    • Erica August 20, 2015 at 4:52 pm #

      Great point Dori! And you are so right. What is also interesting is there are often times when I would rather just sit and practice for the fun of it rather than “have to do” calligraphy for my job. One would think you improve while doing calligraphy work but if you are busy, there is little time to study and actually work on your hands. Also, the potential techniques and styles to learn are limitless so you may miss out on learning new things because you are always tied to doing whatever the client requires. It’s both the best thing in the world to be able to earn income at something you love but also disheartening when it turns from a love to a chore. Thank you for your comment!

  3. Ann Pasquier August 20, 2015 at 4:54 pm #

    Well said, Erica. In consideration of classical forms (Spencerian, Copperplate, Gothic, Italic, Uncial, etc.), it takes years of study to develop the eye necessary to distinguish between the best of classical forms and those that are not. With all the exposure on the internet of the best and worst and all of the in-betweens, it is important to emphasize whenever possible that serious students should refer to the best of exemplars either through access to good books or good instructors. Even then, one would have to have a list of “the best” since there are many instructors and books that are not of the highest quality. I like that you distinguish between those who quickly learn a “modern” hand versus those who have seriously studied traditional calligraphic hands (including pointed pen, broad edge and/or brush).

    • Erica August 20, 2015 at 5:42 pm #

      Yes Ann! Another important point. We routinely recommend IAMPETH and other quality instruction on Flourish. But I like your idea and will put together a list of the instruction that is truly outstanding and true to the given hand, as a post on Flourish. Thank you for your comment! 😉

  4. C.C. Sadler August 20, 2015 at 7:25 pm #

    This post is amazing. It is exactly what I have been struggling with / mulling over in the last year. I love how you tried so hard to be objective and clear about skill levels. That is exactly what I would have done! (If I had the ability to put these thoughts into words!) There was a valuable and important discussion about this at The Passionate Pen a few weeks ago. Your post is a great companion to our discussion there.

    • Erica August 21, 2015 at 12:18 am #

      Thank you C.C.! I appreciate your message! :-)

  5. Linda Mirth August 21, 2015 at 1:02 am #

    Erica, so well said and I hope, very widely read!

    • Erica August 21, 2015 at 10:25 am #

      Thanks Linda! :-)

  6. Gail August 21, 2015 at 12:41 pm #

    Hi Erica.

    This is a really interesting post. Ever-changing technology has been responsible for the waning of many forms of classical artistic expression including writing, photography, live music recording and film production. It has also been responsible for impacting the businesses and industries associated with these forms.

    While acknowledging this, I do not believe, as you suggest, we need to fear that “modern calligraphy will drag the entire art form down when (or if) it becomes passé .”

    “Modern” calligraphy, that loopy, playful, new-kid-on-the-block lettering adorning your own home page is simply the latest craze and subset of the art form we are all so passionate about. If a person learns it, and feels personally qualified to launch a business, and if there are clients out there who “subjectively” like the style, so be it. I’m guessing that throughout the history of calligraphy, whenever a new script style developed, there were different opinions as to its potential value and longevity.

    I know you understandably do not want to alienate “modern” calligraphers who enjoy your blog, but at the same time you do seem concerned about them. There is nothing frightening about new people picking up the pen daily. As you have correctly noted, this upsurge is due to the Internet. But your suggestion that these “modern” calligraphers are impacting business endeavors of professional calligraphers overlooks the major, and permanent villain – modern technology – a.k.a. desktop publishing (which hit hard at traditional professional photographers as well). The number of invitations, certificates, addressed envelopes and other documents that are now spec’d and reproduced digitally has had a much greater impact on the business of calligraphy than any influx of “modern” calligraphers. (And new “modern” calligraphy fonts are being introduced all the time to compete with their human counterparts!)

    The Internet may provide a swifter learning curve, especially to become adept at “modern” calligraphy, but you will never convince me that anyone can “perfect” Engrosser’s Script in just over a year. I personally do not believe that any handwritten script can be perfect, EVER, no matter how masterful the penman. That’s part of the beauty, the challenge, the essence, the addiction, the journey and the commitment to the art.

    Like the other readers who have responded to this blog thus far, I am in total agreement that we all must be conscientious stewards of calligraphy as an enduring expression of the artistry of letters. But we also must remember at one time we were all “eager-to-be” scribes. Some, like myself, are still only wannabe’s. Whether professional scribes or enthusiastic hobbyists, we understand that it would take more than a lifetime to write as near-perfectly as we would aspire. But it doesn’t stop us, stroke by stoke, from trying. Hopefully our example, and thought-provoking blog entries like yours, will serve to engage, guide, and inspire eager-to-be scribes to remain eager . . . eager for a lifetime journey.

    • Erica August 21, 2015 at 2:47 pm #

      Hi Gail,
      Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Yes, modern calligraphy adorns my homepage and much of my work as I consider myself both a traditional and modern calligrapher.

      I hesitated at the use of the word “perfected” as I know so many people are hung up on that word as “nothing can be perfect.” I disagree with that. The definition of perfected is, “to make accurate in every detail, excellent, conforming to the ideal.” If we can never judge something in these terms, what is the point. I would not call them out but I can quickly think of at least two women whose Engrosser’s script is some of the best, or perhaps the best, I have ever seen after just over a year of picking up the pen. However, “convincing” anyone is impossible as perfect is a subjective measure. 😉

      As one of our members pointed out on the forum, modern calligraphy (in its best form) will at some point become one of our “traditional” hands. And I do believe this to be true. However, I think most people would agree “latest crazes” become tomorrow’s “so yesterday” or “I’m so sick of it.” This happens with products, fashions, design elements, and yes, art styles.

      And so, yes, I am absolutely concerned about modern calligraphy and modern calligraphers [more directly: those who start a business before they are ready, those who offer sub-par quality, and those who teach to the masses about how much money they will make before they have even taught them how to do calligraphy] having an impact on the calligraphic industry. This was the whole point of the post. And modern calligraphy fonts are also a concern as just a few months ago, someone created a modern font which duplicated my personal style. These can and do impact our business. It’s not at all about “new people picking up the pen daily,” but about what they do from there.

      I think I, as many would attest, remember what it is like to be an “eager-to-be” scribe. It’s what Flourish is all about. I’ve spent the past two years, countless dollars, and even more hours dedicated to helping those eager to learn. We talk about it every day on the forum and welcome 20 -30 eager new members a day. Along with that, I felt the need to address what I see happening in the larger calligraphic community. This post is not meant to discourage anyone from calligraphy, but to encourage a direction which preserves it.

      I appreciate your comment!

  7. Gail August 22, 2015 at 12:13 pm #

    Hi again Erica.

    Not to change the subject, but maybe you could give me direction within this forum about how one should practice. I have studied copperplate and italic and a bit of Spencerian. I practice a lot, (like at least 5 days a week, 1+ hours – I love it) but I don’t know how to divide up my practice time to pay attention to one script or another. Since I am not a working calligrapher, it’s not like I have real projects – I make cards instead of purchasing them (and of course in the eyes of the recipients my work is so nice, but I know it should be nicer). How does one make up a practice schedule to simultaneously make progress in more than one script? Perhaps there is already a stream on the forum that addresses this, or where I could start a new discussion. (BTW, I have not even thought about learning “modern” calligraphy yet – I really want to enjoy and understand the traditional hands first)

    • Erica August 25, 2015 at 1:22 pm #

      Hi Gail,
      This is a great question! We have talked about it quite a bit in the forum. My own experience has been to concentrate on just one script at a time as it reinforces my muscle memory. When I start combining spencerian and copperplate, if I go back to either one, I have to refresh my memory on proper form.
      Here are some of the topics on practicing in the forum:
      A System for Intelligent Practice
      Self Learning a New Script
      Ten Tips to Self-Critique and Improve Your Work
      Making Practice Fun
      I hope that helps! I’m sure new members would love a new discussion on this as well!

    • Ernie Tan September 12, 2015 at 4:56 am #

      LOL Gail. This happened to me too. My friends and families always complement my works, which I always think, ‘This disgusting writing…..gahhhh!!!’ I really admire your focus in ONLY learning the traditional script, Gail. Bravo!

      • Gail September 15, 2015 at 9:47 am #

        Well, Ernie, to be perfectly “transparent” about my focus, sometimes I do lose it – and when that happens, I might “mess around” with other scripts as well, but I don’t feel ready to truly study them yet.

        I love your approach to teaching piano – your students learn the proper technique through the classics, yet are provided with some contemporary or fun pieces. Since this is all done under your tutelage, their skills are applied with understanding and purpose.

        I think what the thread in this forum has been considering is the importance of learning and deeply understanding traditional calligraphy to preserve and (perhaps) to protect it from misrepresentation, and to ensure its future.

        Analogously, this is what you do with your piano students, one note at a time. It’s a fine comparison for us to apply to our calligraphy practice! Thanks for including me in the conversation!

  8. Ernie Tan September 12, 2015 at 4:53 am #

    I agree with you, Erica. As a piano tutor, I have found that it is impossible to teach a pure classical pieces to my students. Nowadays, technology has changed our way of living. Everyone wants to be be good at something as instantly as they possible. Which we know, it is impossible to learn a high quality art (or any other field) like music and calligraphy in a short time.

    What I do as a piano tutor is giving 2-3 classical pieces and 1 pop music to my students. So their technique and understanding in playing piano are developed, and at the same time, they can mess around with the pop music.

    This is my approach towards calligraphy too. I must practice traditional calligraphy more than modern calligraphy. Sometimes practicing basic strokes and perfecting every single letters are frustrating. Messing around with modern script is kind of fun. But, always focus in growing my ability in writing the traditional copperplate.

    This article is very beautifully written, Erica. And I am so glad that you have created a beautiful community through Flourish Forum.

    God bless you.


    • Erica September 14, 2015 at 9:40 am #

      Hi Ernie,
      Thank you for your comment! That is very interesting about the piano lessons but I can definitely see the correlation! You make excellent points about learning and the frustration level and how modern calligraphy can be fun and less taxing. I think that is very true. Thanks so much!

  9. Krulligt October 17, 2015 at 1:14 am #

    Great read!

    I look and appreciate calligraphy the same way I do any fine art. And I’m sure I’m not alone.

    True students of the craft around the world will always be able to produce timeless pieces. Internet has only made it easier for people with the same passion to connect.

    • Erica October 21, 2015 at 3:31 pm #

      Thank you for your comment! I appreciate your perspective!

    • Gail October 21, 2015 at 6:01 pm #

      Well said!

      • Erica November 1, 2015 at 8:40 pm #

        Thanks Gail! :-)

  10. Stephen P Brown November 8, 2015 at 9:02 am #

    It does matter a great deal! Music began experiencing the same transition in the 50s, and it is still happening. I enjoy a lot of modern technologically generated music these days, but it doesn’t mean the creator or the performer understands the tools, techniques or context of their short-lived work. Plus, nowadays, it is hard to tell what is human-produced communication and what is electronic reproduction. Anyone can press play on an mp3 player and sing along. Generating sound vibrations by scraping horse tail hair across strings on a body of natural wood takes a lifetime to perfect and cannot be matched in experiential quality… if the listener can be bothered to discern the difference.

    • Erica November 8, 2015 at 12:59 pm #

      Thank you Stephen. Interesting comparison!

  11. Kathy McCreedy December 27, 2015 at 1:31 pm #

    Hi Erica,
    I realize I’m late to the party, but I really appreciate this post.
    I ponder this topic daily, and try not to resent the illegible “modern calligraphy” I see all over the internet. I completely understand both sides of this issue, and wonder if some of my resentment is because quality calligraphy did not come easily for me, and still at times, eludes me!
    I can appreciate beautiful letters, no matter the hand, whether it is modern or traditional. What I cannot appreciate is lettering or calligraphy that I have to struggle to decipher! And I’m even more annoyed when that illegible writing is on products that are for sale, with tons of compliments given in comments online.
    It just goes to show there’s something for everyone, I guess!
    I just keep hoping there will always be a market for skilled, old-school calligraphers who produce beatiful letters, and who know more than just one hand. I’m pretty sure there will be, but it still goes to your question about dilution of the craft and what the lay person comes to accept as quality work.
    Perhaps then, part of our job is to educate the public about what is and what isn’t beautiful calligraphy.
    I doubt we will be able to answer this question, but will have to do what we humans do best… ADAPT to change! In the meantime, the topic is a hot one and I think it could be debated for a long time.
    Thank you for bringing up the issue with such sensitivity.

    • Erica December 27, 2015 at 5:56 pm #

      Hi Kathy,
      Thank you for your very thoughtful comment. I agree and I hope you are right. Time will tell if modern calligraphy goes the way of chevron patterns and comic sans font. But I do think skilled, well-executed calligraphy will stand the test of time. I think the recent surge in interest in Gothic is evidence of that. Thanks again for commenting.


  1. Traditional Before Modern | dearsicilia - January 28, 2016

    […] I joined the Flourish Forum looking to learn more about modern calligraphy, but by the forum’s mere topic division I was educated about the many different kinds of calligraphy. For me, traditional calligraphy was copperplate, mainly, and modern calligraphy is all those new things I saw on the internet. And then I read this blog post. […]

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