Understanding the art of hand lettering

In scrolling and skimming, we forget that each letter of the alphabet is a work of art. This designer’s journey into penmanship brings that back into focus.


Text and visuals: Abhijith Dev

For me, typing on a keyboard is an afterthought.

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I was 6-years-old when I first lay my grubby hands on a fountain pen. It was a gift. I remember vividly how amazed I was that this pen could make strokes thicker that anything I was already used to, making my still-forming handwriting look richer. It was so gentle. It wrote like a charm.

As I recall, lettering by hand and typography have been with me for the longest time. The very subtle-yet-powerful craft attracted me, and continuously drew me in with its demand for skill and adroitness.

In 2016, I was invited by a design college in Bengaluru to speak about typography and hand-lettering. It was at this juncture that, as I was preparing to make the technical details of the subject come through interestingly in a lecture, I challenged myself through one core question: How does one find authenticity in typography when living in a world where hand-lettering templates are easily accessible through a deluge of apps and social media platforms? 

Research led me to studying beautiful historical scripts like Rotunda, Roman and Courthand, which then led me to a few modern scripts like Copperplate and Spencerian. I have been fascinated by these ever since. Speaking with a few artists across the globe, exposed me to invaluable scrapbooks to begin with, and then to more resources like Modern Business Penmanship by E.C Mills and the New Spencerian Compendium by Plat Roger Spencer.

With my experience in pointed pen calligraphy as my launchpad, I leapt into the world of ink to paper. I started afresh with the beautiful scripts of Spencerian, Copperplate and Business Penmanship in a more technical and fundamental manner.

The thing about tools

But oblique holders— the ‘tools’ used for hand-lettering — aren’t easily available in India. To have to ship them from abroad meant that I had no way of experiencing the tool before buying it.

I sifted through many: Some came in beautiful packaging and had a good finish when I held them in my hands. They were great to work with, till I knew better. I tried different nibs, papers, and various combinations of the two in order to get a decent flow when writing but failed horribly. One was an ergonomic holder, which turned out to be a disaster despite the ergonomic promise. Even the smallest learnings that I had acquired were difficult to perform with this holder.

It was in this moment that I decided to craft a holder myself.

To begin with, I sourced some soft wood. Then, I chamfered the edges to make a cylinder, working slowly to be sure not to shave off too much. Once I had a basic shape, I started to recognise the intended contact points of the holder in my wrist. At this juncture, I realized that it was important to first correct the way I hold my pen. Only then would I be able to carve the point of grip on the wood. That would lead me to design the rest of the pen staff.

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I started taking notice of friction points and sculpted and shaved until a point that the holder felt comfortable in my wrist. The right balance and weight distribution of the holder was also something I had to keep in mind.

As I experimented with the various tools I crafted, I started being amazed by how minor adjustments of angles and acknowledgement of axis in the process can affect great changes – after all form follows function.

It is through this process of crafting my oblique holder from scratch, that I started approaching penmanship very differently.  

Processing penmanship

It’s been close to two years since I started researching how interested people can find different ways to approach and practice penmanship. Writing by hand promotes an internal interconnectedness that is beyond words – it is very individualistic.  

It is through penmanship that I can approach concepts like ‘slow living’, which are such buzzwords in common conversations on lifestyle changes now. The flow, the rhythm, and balance required in the writing—and even just observing how a line and a dot communicate— all open up your mind to slow down, think clearer and appreciate how beauty starts to unfold.

You have to learn how to move, and everything else is gestalt.

Movements internal to your physical being too, like breathing – and efficiently at that – require a purity of presence in that moment of time that it is almost like hearing through your eyes; and to hear it is to see with your ears.

 

Abhijith Dev is a creative technology design professional who loves plain text and bikes. Apart from being focused on behavioural sciences for design, he is a leather craftsman, urban farmer and penman. Get in touch with him for resources and beautifully handcrafted oblique holders here.

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