Working as a calligrapher in Singapore, I often receive compliments on how beautiful my writing is, or how beautiful my ‘final piece’ is. The fact that there appears to be a distinction between "writing piece" and "final piece" always makes me ponder.
As calligraphers, we know that we have to spend hours upon hours practicing, which may come across as humdrum. I can attest to this with the pile of practice sheets sitting on my desk, filled with horrible shapes and letter forms. When I do complete a piece of writing (without elaborate flourishing or illustrations) which I am satisfied with, I would call it a "final piece". I would have focused solely on the calligraphy aspect of the piece, ensuring every letter form is uniform and accurate. I would deem such a piece of writing complete.
Yet, there are many others who would say that a "final piece" has to include other elements beyond "just calligraphy".
Calligraphy usually does not only refer to the aspect of writing. More often than not, embellishments such as gilding (the use of gold leaf) or ornamental flourishing may accompany a calligraphy text. Historically, scribes / monks would adorn gospel texts with all sorts of miniatures (small paintings) and illuminations. Some famous examples are the "Book of Kells", the "Lindisfarne Gospels", and "Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry". In today's context, we often see the inclusion of watercolour or floral illustration to adorn calligraphy writing.
Perhaps the completeness of a calligraphy piece also depends on other factors such as artistic decoration?
This is supported by the question which usually follows the compliments: "How did you even come up with this design?"
At this stage in my calligraphy journey, I find myself constantly learning and being inspired by others, be it the fellow scribes in SC who throw ideas and opinions around in our group chats, or even students who attend my workshops. I too spend hours trawling Pinterest for inspiration and ideas.
This may seem weird but I keep an "ideas journal" in which I pen down any ideas which may pop into my head after being inspired by something. On some days, the ideas I come up with are downright horrible and on other days, I feel like I am the visionary "chosen one" of the calligraphy world. But here's the cool part: When I look through my past journal entries, I sometimes find an idea which I can easily materialize even though it felt impossible back then when I wrote it down.
I was recently asked to design and commission a display for a shop front. Being used to writing on A3 / A4 pieces of paper, this threw me way out of my comfort zone. What's more, the shop owner, Lowee, had requested the medium to be wood. Dip pens don't work too well with wood.
I first procured a 47" x 81" wooden board and decided to go with a light coloured wood so that I could use dark ink for contrast. Based on Lowee's philosophy and personality, I decided to stick to a traditional hand for legibility, but sign off with a more modern hand. Not being able to use a dip pen / ink, I had to learn how to use a sign-painter's brush and how to mix gouache so as to achieve a consistency which was not too transparent yet able to work with the brush.
Instead of opting for my usual floral illustrations, we decided to add another dimension to the piece by hanging a dried-floral garland.
Ultimately, the beauty of the writing was brought out by everything else that accompanied it – the wood grain and colour, the texture of gouache written with a brush, the dried flowers, the scale of the piece, the alignment... I could go on.
I sought to add a playful touch to this piece by adding unconventional elements to the piece. Yet none of these ideas were conceived entirely by my brain. I had sought inspiration from multiple sources, kept these ideas in a journal, and combined them in a way which brought out the beauty of the calligraphy text.
There is a lot to learn from others – be it florists, painters, builders, or engravers. While I love learning about calligraphy with the amazing partners I have, it was the community of artists / people who specialize in different areas that gave me the idea for this piece. In some way, their own ideas found a way into my work.
So take a moment to think – are you restricting yourself by trying to gain inspiration only from other calligraphers? Love,