There 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.