Author Topic: Mistakes, Perfection, and WabiSabi  (Read 1050 times)

Offline K-2

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Mistakes, Perfection, and WabiSabi
« on: April 01, 2023, 06:22:34 PM »
@Chessie - @jeanwilson @Zivio @Erica McPhee all offer great advice. I personally do the bit where I just write directly over the error (if it's small, like a letter), and then scrape away or paint over the part that isn't the letter I want. Or I turn a blot or spat into a decorative element.

So this is more of a philosophical response to the thread. Sometimes you just make mistakes.

Sometimes I think the best way forward is to just get over yourself.  Errors are part of manuscript culture. The famously beautiful Book of Kells actually has a lot of errors (some got "corrected" in various ways, but many did not). The number of errors actually leads scholars to think it was made for ceremonial/display purposes, rather than for actual reading. It just had to look good; it didn't have to be correct.

The piece of Chinese calligraphy widely considered to be the greatest ever has errors - a Tang Dynasty copy of Wang Xizhi’s Lantingji Xu by Feng Chengsu (馮承素). Look at the 4th column from the left - Feng just blotted out the mistake and kept going:
https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-asia/imperial-china/beginners-guide-imperial-china/a/chinese-calligraphy-an-introduction

The scribes of the modern Saint John's Bible also made the best of things:

See Figure 1: "Bee Error Treatment"
https://www.transpositions.co.uk/review-the-saint-johns-bible-and-its-tradition-illuminating-beauty-in-the-twenty-first-century/

Or the "Lemur Error Treatment"
https://explorationvacation.net/saint-johns-bible-minnesota/

I never fancy myself a better calligrapher than the scribes of the Book of Kells or the Saint John's Bible, so if I make a mistake, I don't freak out about it - as Jean says, it's an opportunity to learn something, to solve problems. Maybe the "error" will make the page even more beautiful. I don't know anyone who thinks that St. John's Book of Wisdom would be better without the Bee Error treatment!

Offline Zivio

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Re: Mistakes, Perfection, and WabiSabi
« Reply #1 on: April 01, 2023, 07:45:53 PM »
@Chessie - @jeanwilson @

... So this is more of a philosophical response to the thread. Sometimes you just make mistakes ...

@K-2  OK, you've opened the door to, perhaps, a bit of off-topic ramblings, but I don't think so. If "perfection in calligraphy" requires a new Flourish Forum stand-alone topic, I'm certain @Erica McPhee can/will make this happen. By the way, I very much appreciate her administrative skills for keeping this online resource as organized and valuable as possible!

I love the links you shared ... so interesting! The philosophic side of so-called errors brings up a lot of things for me:

(1)  Perfectionism has been a huge personal issue, in my case presenting as pathology. Won't go deeply into this, only to say that it wasn't a healthy way to live.

(2)  The Japanese wabi-sabi aesthetic. I've learned, at times, to actually appreciate the signs of ordinary wear that have "spoiled" the brand new appearance of tools and other things that I use in daily life.

(3)  Kintsugi - the "Japanese art of putting broken pottery pieces back together with gold — a metaphor for embracing your flaws and imperfections." (ref: broken pottery pieces back together with gold — a metaphor for embracing your flaws and imperfections.

(4)  The Navajo art of deliberate imperfection:  "The Navajos also believe that only God is perfect and that humans cannot achieve the same perfect level. So they make sure to leave little imperfection in anything they create. Usually, one has to look very close to find the imperfection, so it does not detract from the beauty of the item. It might be a loose piece of yarn, or a different colored bead."  (ref: https://www.amusingplanet.com/2017/08/the-art-of-deliberate-imperfection.html)

I mention the above, not that I've studied any of it in great detail, but because they are a refreshing change to many baked-in attitudes I carry regarding art, music and other personal endeavors.  Life goes better for me when I release the hold on attempting perfection.  But life gets more wonderful when the very imperfections may be appreciated as beauty in their own right!

When I first became a Flourish Forum member I had been learning handwriting for less than a year. I started way below ground zero and could barely make two "e's" anywhere the same, not to mention write a legible sentence (see below.)  To be honest, I was daunted by the examples of others' work here which I saw as complete perfection through my inexperienced eyes. Script exemplars similarly made me feel like I may never achieve my goals. But since then, I've been able to see many more examples of writing that I consider imperfectly beautiful! And I've since discovered that exemplars in the manuals of old were edited and touched up, etc. For me, there is something of the human soul behind handwriting that does not look like it has been computer-generated. In the world of digital music software, there is even what is called a "humanize" feature/setting whereby programmed music may be slightly modified from being "rhythm perfect" so it more closely approaches the sound of somebody actually playing.

I have much to say about this and fear I haven't communicated it ... uh, perfectly. I think what I'm trying to say is that there is an embracing of imperfection in many human traditions/cultures, and it seems a much healthier response to the inevitability of our foibles. But I'd be happy to hear more on this subject and also any corrections to my understanding of the various cultural things I'd included above.



« Last Edit: April 02, 2023, 01:38:42 AM by Zivio »
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Offline Erica McPhee

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Re: Mistakes, Perfection, and WabiSabi
« Reply #2 on: April 02, 2023, 01:27:14 AM »
I have my own thoughts on this but want to say, I don’t think anyone is handing over work to a client with visible imperfections or mistakes (at least I hope not). So I think it’s important to distinguish between work for ourselves and work for a client.

In regards to perfection. I know all too well the “clinical” side of perfectionist tendencies having dealt with them my entire life. I was the kid in art class that would pray the teacher gave me the piece of art paper that wasn’t wrinkled or marked. Or that I would get one of the new, pristine textbooks, not a used one. I have learned to let go of that and embrace “vintage, imperfect, and love-worn” as an aesthetic.

However… I also think if I didn’t strive for perfection, I would never be the calligrapher I am today. I’m not saying I’m perfect. I’m saying I strive for perfection. I don’t accept mediocrity from myself. Which yes, does mean, I am rarely satisfied with the work I produce. But that is what keeps me going.
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Offline K-2

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Re: Mistakes, Perfection, and WabiSabi
« Reply #3 on: April 02, 2023, 02:52:54 PM »
Thanks for starting a new thread on this, @Erica McPhee - and apologies for sending the other one down a tangent.

I want to push back a little tiny bit on the idea that we're not giving clients work with visible errors - because well, I do! This is probably where pointed pen and broad-edge specialists differ (IMH pointed pen is so much more exacting because you can't hide the errors). But I want to give a counterpoint to the perfectionist impulse (Hi, @Zivio - I know all about the type of perfectionist paralysis you refer to from working with my graduate students). And of course, I can be pretty hard on myself when I know I can do better, but I usually reserve that for when I'm specifically trying to learn something or improve (like in the Inkvent or Inktober drawings that I lacerate myself over), rather than delivering a piece for hire, which by definition, I know is good enough to get paid for - and which I'm not trying to push my artistic boundaries on.

My area is pretty niche - most of my calligraphy clients want re-creations of medieval and renaissance manuscripts. I mean, sure of course - I don't sell them an envelope with an error; I can redo the text on that A4 or A3 size sheet; but, I am telling you that when I've put upward of 10 hours into an elaborate project (broadside or multi-folio codex), I'm not turning back when I misspell a word or spill some ink.

Sometimes nobody but me will know it's "misspelled," because the text is in Latin or some other medieval vernacular (and there were no standardized spellings in medieval vernaculars anyway). Sometimes I fix it with a "scrape and cover". Sometimes I drip, splatter or smudge, and then embellish over it. I've never actually finished a large-scale project without some sort of error. In fact, the one time I came super close to a "perfect" piece, the client was kind of disappointed - they wanted it to look more "medieval" so I had to take it back and rough it up a bit. I actually added an ink splatter!

I'll note that scraping parchment (made from real actual animal skin) is much easier than scraping paper, even the best paper. And also that when you're working on real parchment there is no way you are not actually going to use that piece, no matter how much of a mistake you made. Just like in the actual middle ages, the materials are so expensive that you don't throw them away. @Chessie - your original question referred to the "nice paper is really expensive, and I don't want to waste it" dilemma. And since you're a blackletter artist like me, I'm officially giving you a dispensation to behave like a medieval scribe and just make the best of the imperfections.

Making and correcting mistakes is actually a trope in medieval art!  Take a look at these miniatures in this blogpost about the gripes medieval scribes had:
http://www.booktryst.com/2012/03/medieval-scribes-gripe-about-writing.html
Notice how most of them have two pen-looking things in their hands? The one in their right hand is the pen; the one in the left is the knife to scrape the mistakes.

So, I am pretty confidently the opposite of a perfectionist. What do we call such a person? There's a French term that I think gets it exactly: débrouillard (a resourceful person who can act independently or cope with any development.) If you work in a restaurant kitchen, this is one of the highest compliments or terms of respect; the débrouillard is the MVP of the kitchen; the duck's feet paddling furiously under the water, so the clients only see the bird effortlessly gliding across the surface.

Those absolute heroes that made the Book of Kells: débrouillards. They delivered to their client an absolutely gorgeous piece of art with a pretty garbage text of the gospels. Seriously, compared to the accomplishment of the art, the text itself is almost comically bad. Missing letters, words, whole passages, words out of order, etc. Legends.

The typesetters of Shakespeare's First Folio in 1623: débrouillards. They set the type, printed a proof, noted the mistakes to fix them, and then put the proof with all its errors right into one of the copies and sold it; then they did the next page. Which is why actually every single extant copy of the First Folio is unique - they didn't discard any of the proofs - they just bound them into the finished books. The paper was the most expensive element, and they couldn't afford to waste any. Absolute Gangsters.

Maybe because I'm also a teacher and because I worked in many a restaurant kitchen when I was young - I drill it into my students: Done is better than perfect! Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good! Be the débrouillard.

Here's a piece I did a couple years ago (broadsheet/A2 sized on Bristol Board - posted with permission). Two mistakes! - Do they detract from the beauty of it? The client was very happy!

Offline Zivio

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Re: Mistakes, Perfection, and WabiSabi
« Reply #4 on: April 02, 2023, 07:41:33 PM »
...  There's a French term that I think gets it exactly: débrouillard (a resourceful person who can act independently or cope with any development.) ...

Logophile that I am, thank you for introducing me to this term!  It also will forever be connected in my mind with that paddling duck metaphor. Love it!


I’m really enjoying this topic and comments!  @Erica McPhee and @K-2 make excellent points and embellishments (flourishes?) on the topic, and I always get a lot out of the supplemental/historical links. There is truly no binary right/wrong to the subject at hand, and I simply enjoy hearing and communicating about life and opinions from other people’s perspectives.

I’d mentioned earlier understanding the difference between handwriting for communication purposes and presentation-level calligraphy – the standard is certainly different for the two. The underlying purpose for each form is very different. Errata in a written letter that are simply lined out and corrected, or missing words or letters written above or beside where they should have gone serve the purpose of effective communication. For me they don’t detract from the beauty of the form.

There is a human warmth that I sense from a handwritten letter regardless of the level of skill with which it has been written. I’d love to get over my own perfection paralysis to the point of being comfortable writing without guidesheets or ruled paper. I’ve seen examples of letters so written ( @Starlee's Instagram ) that don’t have perfectly straight horizontal lines that are just gorgeous! I’ll attribute this to "the eye of the beholder," but in some ways it’s as though I can sense the confidence of the author and their comfort with who they are shining though!  I’d heard early in life that people who like themselves, feel good about themselves, are comfortable with themselves are very attractive.

I like the freedom that comes from embracing the fallibility of our human natures.

...  In fact, the one time I came super close to a "perfect" piece, the client was kind of disappointed - they wanted it to look more "medieval" so I had to take it back and rough it up a bit. I actually added an ink splatter! ...

Atta way!
« Last Edit: April 15, 2023, 06:05:27 AM by Zivio »
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Offline Zivio

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Re: Mistakes, Perfection, and WabiSabi
« Reply #5 on: April 02, 2023, 08:08:01 PM »
My sister once told me a joke about Civil War reenactors ...

 “Farbs” or "polyester soldiers" is a term they use for reenactors who spend relatively little of their time or money maintaining authenticity with regard to uniforms, accessories, or even period behavior.  “Hardcore” means the polar opposite.

A club of reenactors was expecting a new member to show up to their event. They hadn’t met him before and didn’t know was that he was an amputee.  When he ambulated slowly, on crutches, into their camp, one of the members goggled wide-eyed at him and admiringly and enviously cheered, “Whoa!  HARDCORE!”


... Here's a piece I did a couple years ago (broadsheet/A2 sized on Bristol Board - posted with permission). Two mistakes!

@K-2  What an impressively gorgeous piece!   “Whoa!  HARDCORE!” 
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Offline Erica McPhee

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Re: Mistakes, Perfection, and WabiSabi
« Reply #6 on: April 03, 2023, 10:16:02 AM »
 @K-2 wrote: “Making and correcting mistakes is actually a trope in medieval art!”

I should have qualified my previous comment! :) The nature of the work for clients definitely needs to be distinguished here. While corrective embellishments of medieval works are an expected part of that type of work, it would never fly for any of my clients such as wedding invitations or a greeting card design for Hallmark or even a modern quote for framing. So I think it’s important to make the distinction.

I once did a 36x24 watercolor & uncial family tree for a client … twice.  :-\

We are lucky here, though, to have your counterbalance @K-2. I learned early on to admit my mistakes… still working on the embracing part.  ;D
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Offline Zivio

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Re: Mistakes, Perfection, and WabiSabi
« Reply #7 on: April 03, 2023, 01:18:08 PM »
I was hesitant to add anything more to this topic – I have scarce qualifications compared to the experiences of the adepts who have already weighed in.  But then it hit me that I am an experienced beginner!  What I mean by this oxymoron is that a greater proportion of my total study time has been as a raw beginner than for those who are years and years further along.  I like to think that the recency of my start date also keeps memories of the beginner’s feelings and struggles unclouded.

Having personally learned so much from the Flourish Forum I felt remiss not to voice a few other thoughts in case they might be an encouragement to other beginners encountering this topic down the line.  In the dialog so far, I’m sensing that besides making a distinction in the types of work being created, the term perfection itself is being clarified. In my view, it’s important to distinguish between what we mean by perfection and mistakes.  I just now looked to see that @Erica McPhee had done a great job titling this topic by including both terms! I think there would likely be agreement that nothing we ever create will be perfect, and there’s definitely a comfort in recognizing and being okay with that. But mistakes?
 
It was easier for me to accept that my early efforts would be imperfect and imprecise. The problem came when I saw every single letter and stroke as mistakes. @K-2 aptly used the unfortunate phrase “lacerate myself.” Yeah, that’s what I did/do. But learning a manual art is much harder to do well with deep cuts in fingers … or soul. I suspect that this is endemic to the community of calligraphers. After all, learning the art requires a huge attention to details.

So, for any other beginners struggling with their work “not being good enough” moving from the negative connotation of “mistake” to the neutral, or more accepting “imperfect” may be helpful. Here’s how it worked for me. David DiGiovanni describes the concept of “resolution” here:  https://writewithyourarm.com/lessons/most-important-thing/   By resolution he means the ability to perceive what is “good.” He describes how one’s resolution gets tuned more and more finely with experience and that “as you learn more about penmanship, what you once thought looks ‘good’ will not look as good to you.”  Now, I don’t care for his use of the term “mistakes” at this link, but everything he shared here has been true for my practice.

But here’s the odd thing – one might think that improved resolution/perception would lead to a negative downward spiral of seeing one’s own work looking worse and worse, but for me it led to an opposite revelation.  What I’d previously seen as perfection in other experienced calligraphers’ works, even those of master penmen of old, I could now see as imperfect – but still beautiful. A major turning point was having taken my very first online class with a master penman. The live demonstration of penning various letters wasn’t intended to be perfect, and I saw for the first time that even artists of this level will not have exemplar perfect renderings! From there I also began following various calligraphers, of various skill levels, on Instagram. It was so reassuring to me that everyone struggles, and often struggle with the same strokes of letter issues. And then I discovered some historical examples of master penmen who had literally cut and pasted scraps of paper over exemplars they’d created in order to “perfect” them!  This is what everyone goes through, and if anything, even the very best will have compassion for those less experienced enthusiasts.
« Last Edit: April 03, 2023, 09:35:37 PM by Zivio »
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Offline InkyFingers

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Re: Mistakes, Perfection, and WabiSabi
« Reply #8 on: April 03, 2023, 11:52:46 PM »
If you ask Kenneth the calligrapher, all mistakes are erased and all works are fine tuned with Photoshop to perfection.

The era of mistakes are all forgotten.

Just kidding…

Offline Erica McPhee

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Re: Mistakes, Perfection, and WabiSabi
« Reply #9 on: April 04, 2023, 11:55:55 AM »
@Zivio These are such excellent observations and so well explained. Really keen contribution to the conversation…I’m glad you overcame the hesitation to post!  :)

@InkyFingers LOL!  ;D There is a tiny bit of truth to that though. As @Zivio mentioned, the MasterPenman used to glue corrections over mistakes or work they weren’t satisfied with. But if you are doing work for reproduction now…all that “paste-up” gets done in Photoshop or ProCreate.

It’s why I say ProCreate is like “cheating.” Although I say that in jest, the calligraphy is not the same as “hand done.” I love ProCreate and use it frequently. But I cringe when I see calligraphy instructors using it for exemplars (and not stating it is ProCreate). Anyone doing calligraphy by hand will never get their work to look like that. ProCreate removes some of the “line uncertainty” or nuances of hand done calligraphy. The imperfections of the hand are smoothed away by the software. It’s similar to the engraved work we see in the old calligraphy texts and newsletters. Try as we might to emulate it by hand, it is near impossible. Same for work that has been vectorized. So there… Maybe I do embrace imperfection in this way.  ;D
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Offline Zivio

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Re: Mistakes, Perfection, and WabiSabi
« Reply #10 on: April 04, 2023, 12:24:48 PM »
@Zivio… But I cringe when I see calligraphy instructors using it for exemplars (and not stating it is ProCreate). Anyone doing calligraphy by hand will never get their work to look like that. ProCreate removes some of the “line uncertainty” or nuances of hand done calligraphy. The imperfections of the hand are smoothed away by the software...

@Erica McPhee  Having only recently learned what ProCreate is (thank you very much, Flourish Forum!) I appreciate your additional comments about it. I did not know that the software actually did line smoothing and have been in utter awe of various creators’ exemplary (see what I did there?) work! I appreciate your implied warning to any instructor using it for teaching without disclosing the fact of it. Per my previous comments, beginners already have enough psychic/inner battles to fight without unrealistic expectations joining the marauders … at least I did.

I guess I’m becoming a bit of a purist* when it comes to personal calligraphic aesthetics — my awe reactions now get triggered more and more by real ink on real paper.  The handwritten letters you and @AnasaziWrites vouchsafed to me did much to spoil my sensibilities in this way! Thank you both again for your kindness; I sincerely treasure these gifts. Though you apologized for your “rough”, out of practice Spencerian, in my heart it is a little masterpiece!   

* But very much guarding myself against becoming a snob. We all will have differences in the things that attract us or we gravitate to — “eye of the beholder” and all. Personally, I try always to keep my mind open to the aesthetics that don’t particularly appeal to me as much. I try to make a habit of looking behind the canvas, as it were, at the hours of practice, energy, and primarily the intention of the artist who, like me, just wants to bring some little bit of beauty into the world. This removes all of our differences.

~Karl
« Last Edit: April 04, 2023, 07:44:19 PM by Zivio »
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Offline Mary_M

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Re: Mistakes, Perfection, and WabiSabi
« Reply #11 on: April 04, 2023, 02:10:52 PM »
Great discussion! I’m a hobbyist calligrapher and also make Ukrainian eggs (pysanky). Although I’m not producing for clients, I’m hard on myself. I tend to be hypercritical of my work.  When I took Dreaming in Script with David Grimes, he always gently corrected us if we used the word perfection. 
I love handcrafted items and antiques and the imperfections that come with them. When my own mistakes are too ugly, obvious or unfixable, I get great satisfaction out of my recycling bin/garbage can.

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Re: Mistakes, Perfection, and WabiSabi
« Reply #12 on: April 04, 2023, 08:49:36 PM »
I'm still learning how to use this forum so I'm not exactly sure how to quote someone, but I wanted to highlight this quote by Erica: "However… I also think if I didn’t strive for perfection, I would never be the calligrapher I am today. I’m not saying I’m perfect. I’m saying I strive for perfection. I don’t accept mediocrity from myself. Which yes, does mean, I am rarely satisfied with the work I produce. But that is what keeps me going."

I've never related to a comment about perfectionism in calligraphy more in my life! Thank you for sharing this Erica, and for everyone who shared their thoughts.
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Offline jeanwilson

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Re: Mistakes, Perfection, and WabiSabi
« Reply #13 on: April 05, 2023, 09:29:33 AM »
Every single one of my rock star teachers admonished their students to be PRECISE - and leave perfection out of the conversation.

There is a good example of this in the invitation to the coronation in England. I remember when the invitation to William and Kate's wedding came out - it was a font - and either here on FF or on CyberScribes - there was conversation about how sad it was that they used a font -- at the time, I didn't care one way or the other. People are free to do what they please.

So, when the invitation to the coronation popped up -- I was interested to see if they had chosen a more calligraphic font or if is was actual calligraphy. On first glance it looked to me like it was definitely hand written - but to be sure, I had to find examples where it is precise - but not perfect. There are several examples - but a very obvious one is the bb in Abbey at the bottom. The left b is so much smaller than the one on the right. Personally - I think it looks better to have these kinds of variations.

Another example - the letter spacing on Westminster is soooo wide compared to other words -- but if it was tight - then those two lines at the bottom would be too close to the same in length. The whole composition looks better with that last line being a little longer. Someone who just aimed for the *perfection* of a font - would make the letters and spacing *perfect* - but the composition would be IMHO be soul-less.

Here is a link that shows the invitation and also gives all kinds of details:

https://www.veranda.com/luxury-lifestyle/a43511962/coronation-invitation-for-king-charles-and-queen-consort-camilla/

To be clear -- this is just where I am on the bell curve -- Some of my best friends are perfectionists -- and they are happy where they are -- and we all get along just fine. Students should be aware that they can choose between perfection and precision. Most of us who teach like to offer alternatives to the perfectionism that can rob people of the joy of puttering about.
« Last Edit: April 06, 2023, 08:51:18 AM by jeanwilson »

Offline AnasaziWrites

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Re: Mistakes, Perfection, and WabiSabi
« Reply #14 on: April 06, 2023, 11:00:00 AM »
The scribes of the modern Saint John's Bible also made the best of things:

See Figure 1: "Bee Error Treatment"
https://www.transpositions.co.uk/review-the-saint-johns-bible-and-its-tradition-illuminating-beauty-in-the-twenty-first-century/

So creative. That took quite a bit of work and made the page more interesting. Masterful.