Fine Lines

I always thought my fancy writing -- like the wiggly letters I drew in crayon on homemade Mother's Day cards and birthday messages -- was lovely. Recently, though, I was humbled.

Sitting at a dining room table in Plantation with four calligraphers, I was thinking, "How difficult can this be?" as they showed me an array of writing styles. Calligraphy is rooted in revered, centuries-old techniques, but I figured my childhood greeting-card experience would suffice. It was time for a showdown.

The women, members of the South Florida Calligraphy Guild, happily complied, setting up a slanted drawing board and a saucer of black ink on the dining room table. Barbara Brandt of Margate applied ink to a special pen tip with a paintbrush. With her eyes focused on the paper and her hand steady, she produced a neat, clean "n" with modest little tails, called serifs. All-important is the angle of the pen, which determines just how thick or thin the lines are.

"So, the pen does all the work," I thought. But then Brandt handed me the tool, and I was reminded of a hammerhead shark. The metal tip -- called a nib -- is not pointed, but rectangular.

I tried an "n" anyway, realizing that I'd forgotten to sketch out a size guide. Before her demonstration, Brandt had drawn a ladder of five nib widths to determine the letter's proper height, which is based on the pen used and the particular writing style.

As a result my first line looked like a fat, sloppy stroke made with a paintbrush. A subsequent "n" was neater, but it didn't impress the pros. Wrong proportion, wrong pen angle, too shaggy, they told me politely.

In calligraphy the bodies of letters are usually clean and strong. Balance and proportion -- not random wiggles and curves -- make the writing beautiful. Flourishes, which sometimes look like twirling ribbons, are often placed at the beginning or end stroke of a letter.

Calligraphy, by the way, isn't just for wedding invitations. For one assignment Brandt had to devise a way to put graceful, evenly spaced writing on bumpy, oval pigskins. "You have to try holding the football still while you write," she says. "I think I held it between my knees."

Brandt has even applied calligraphy to furniture. On top of one cabinet, she created a series of square frames, inside of which she etched a variety of writing styles. Inside some of the frames are crisp, solid letters, while others are more casual and freeform.

Gloria Eckart of Plantation is the author of a book titled, "A Quilt For Alex." On the pages, which feature sketches and fabric scraps, she used calligraphy to tell the story of how she sewed a quilt for her baby grandson.

Some people may ask, "Why not let a computer do the work?" They may even tell a calligrapher that his or her writing looks as if it were done by a machine. But no machine displays the expressiveness of a real, live calligrapher, according to the women.

And perfection is not what calligraphers strive for, says Brenda Casey of Plantation, a former high-school English teacher. "We are looking for life and beauty."

"All a computer is, is fancy type," Brandt adds. "It has no personality. It's nice, but it's not exciting."

Also, you can't run a football or a cabinet through a printer.

-- Patti Roth

The next meeting of the South Florida Calligraphy Guild will take place July 11 at 10 a.m. at the Hallandale Branch Library, 300 S. Federal Hwy., Hallandale. The meeting is open to the public. For more information call 954-583-2490.

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Patti Roth