Calligraphy - Digital vs. Traditional

I’ve been posting a lot of work on social media recently that has been created on an iPad Pro using an Apple Pencil and some of the apps available on this platform. I thought it might be helpful to share my experiences using the iPad Pro as a calligraphy tool and, more broadly, as an art and design tool.

I should first define calligraphy, because there continues to be a lack of understanding about what calligraphy is. The word ‘calligraphy’ comes from two Greek words, ‘kallos’, meaning beauty and ‘graphein’ meaning writing. Therefore calligraphy is ‘beautiful writing’. This is very different from ‘lettering’ and ‘typography’. Lettering involves drawing letters rather than writing them. Typography is the art of arranging typefaces to make written language legible and engaging.

At the time of writing (January, 2017) traditional calligraphy tools are much better for calligraphy than calligraphic software in most respects. Digital tools, generally speaking, can’t currently capture the nuances and subtleties found in most sophisticated calligraphic letterforms. It would be detrimental for anyone to learn calligraphy on an iPad. You would be depriving yourself of so much insight and understanding, and your work would suffer.

To give one example, the most basic of techniques used in broad nib and brush calligraphy is pen manipulation, evident in styles like Italic, Roman Capitals and Blackletter. Pen manipulation often involves changing the angle of the pen while a stroke is being executed to create aesthetically pleasing and functional features in letterforms. You can’t currently do this on an iPad with an Apple Pencil. Unless Apple release a broad nib Pencil, and nobody should hold their breath, there is currently no natural, intuitive solution. You can’t tape two Apple Pencils together to mimic a broad nib pen like you can with two pencils. Using pen pressure, or a separate slider to manipulate the pen angle during a pen stroke, would not be an intuitive solution. Therefore the best you can hope to do on an iPad Pro is approximate broad nib pen calligraphy.

Pointed pen and brush calligraphy styles on an iPad, Copperplate for example, fare better because pressure sensitivity can be utilised. However the tools in the existing apps often don’t behave naturally, despite the huge array of settings available. There is also a sameness present in most digital pointed pen and brush calligraphy online at the present time. A lot of this stems from presets and features which are designed to ‘correct’ curves, but in doing so make everything look the same. Sameness is exactly the opposite quality that any calligrapher or lettering artist should aspire to. You need your work to stand out. To achieve this your work needs individuality, a personality, strong concepts expressed strikingly and distinctly. In my experience artists and designers often have to react against presets and tools in apps to foster individuality.

Writing on an iPad with an Apple Pencil feels very different to pen and ink. The Apple Pencil slides across the iPad's sleek surface which doesn’t feel as natural or as satisfying to me as using a pen and paper. There are undeniable benefits to being able to undo mistakes effortlessly, and recharge the Apple Pencil, rather than order new calligraphy supplies. However, it is a big trade-off because of the loss of the tactile qualities of pen and paper. As a performance online, digital calligraphy doesn't look or feel as soulful as pen and ink, it doesn’t evoke the same feelings in the artist or the onlooker. Pen and paper can also often be a welcome respite from staring at a screen all day.

So why am I using an iPad Pro as much as I am using traditional tools for calligraphy online and offline at the moment?

There are three reasons:

1. New digital tools are fascinating. The iPad is undeniably an amazing piece of kit and I feel that I owe it to myself to explore the potential of any powerful new device. I haven't suddenly switched entirely to digital tools and I don't suddenly dislike traditional tools now, far from it. I use both digital and traditional tools every day; I just can't post everything at once. My posts on social media have always reflected, amongst other things, what I am learning about and find most stimulating. I need to keep ahead of the curve in terms of technology. Even the most traditionalist calligrapher would struggle to deny the iPad is a lot of fun. Digital tools are undeniably seductive; they bring a lot of powerful features to play.

2. Digital calligraphy is relatively uncharted territory. The fact that digital calligraphy is in its infancy is exciting because I believe there is the potential to do work unlike anything that has preceded it. Some of this work will be bad and some of it will be good, but the point is I believe it can be 'new' in some sense of the word. I don’t accept the idea that everything is recycled and that there are no new ideas. There are certainly almost no new ideas, but that’s a different assertion. Some of the best calligraphy in the future will come from artists and designers who are quick to adopt new technology and don’t use apps as developers intended, but find ways to turn things on their heads. The best results will be achieved by collaborating with developers, requesting features and beta testing.

3. Digital tools do offer new functionality and can improve productivity. Where the iPad truly excels is in doing quickly what would be much more labour intensive with traditional tools. I find apps that aid the design of symmetrical shapes and patterns through automation, like iOrnament and Amaziograph, enthralling. Programmers, often with mathematics or physics backgrounds, don’t think like artists and this can create non-linear functionality. The results might just be novel, or gimmicky, but they are often compelling one way or another. Sometimes they are extremely useful.

The work that I commit to paper, in the form of limited edition prints and original pieces, is the work I am most proud of. But even trying to make profoundly good work is very difficult. The further I raise the bar the harder it gets to produce results I am happy with. I thought about my Jerusalem print for over a year before I even started working on it. So why would I limit myself to traditional or digital apparatus in pursuit of my goals? I need to work with the best tools at my disposal, whether they be traditional or digital, to have any hope of success. I love the rich history of western calligraphy, it greatly informs my work, but I’m not a romantic or a traditionalist. I don’t wish to be constrained by history. I agree with Donald Jackson, the Queen of England’s Calligrapher for nearly 50 years, when he states that he believes medieval scribes would have used computers as part of their process if they had access to them. They weren’t masochists, they used the best tools and technology they had at the time. I’m simply continuing in this tradition and spirit.

Calligraphy is not the paraphernalia used to create it, it never has been. Calligraphy is the process of writing beautiful letterforms. That’s the essence of what calligraphy is, and it's what I’m most interested in. It is the Latin alphabet, and its illustrious evolution that is most precious to me. It’s the letterforms themselves that speak to me, that move me. The theme of most of my serious work is beauty. For me, beauty comes from developing a profound understanding of four elements - harmony, contrast, vitality and dissonance. The tools used are just a means to an end. I feel that technology and tools should, for the most part, be transparent. Calligraphy needs to evolve and adapt to survive. I personally feel that is happening in wonderful and encouraging ways at the moment. I see the increased adoption of digital tools as part of that process. Some knowledge and skills may be lost, but new knowledge and skills will replace them. There will be resistance as there always is when technology evolves, but I remain uncharacteristically optimistic about the future.

To summarise, I would never want to limit myself to just paper or just pixels. I love both, it's not a competition between the two. Their respective strengths can harmonise to create art and design that can reach new heights. It is important not to fear technology, or to become enamoured with it. All tools have their limitations. Calligraphers throughout history have always drawn from the best tools and technology available to them at the time. That tool has been a stylus, a reed pen, a goose quill, a steel nib. Today I believe the best way forward for an artist or designer working with letterforms is a hybrid approach, combining traditional and digital tools. And so I draw the best from both worlds, and that is what I will continue to do.


You might also be interested in my article, 'How to Get Started in Calligraphy'. Limited edition prints are available from my shop.