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Book Review: Modern Calligraphy by Molly Suber Thorpe

I recently began learning calligraphy, and thankfully, Modern Calligraphy by Molly Suber Thorpe has helped me tremendously in learning the ropes. (I would have been fumbling around lost without some guidance)

Basically, this book comprises of 5 chapters.

Chapter 1 – Supplies & Set-up

Chapter 1 begins with an introduction to the essential tools needed to get started with calligraphy writing at a basic level, and how to use these tools.

Readers will be given an overview of the following:

a. how pointed nibs work (the emphasis is on pointed nibs throughout this book);

b. straight and oblique nib-holders;

c. the types of ink ideal for calligraphy (waterproof and non-waterproof inks) and which to avoid;

d. artist pencils; and

e. how to use Gum Arabic to facilitate ink-flow.

This chapter also covers the different types of paper recommended for the various forms of writing, such as Bristol paper/board, watercolour paper, sketch/drawing paper, printer paper, craft paper, vellum and tracing paper. You will also learn which types of papers tend to cause problems, and what paper to use if you wish for your writings to last a long time.

Chapter 1 ends with some useful tips on how to prepare your nibs for use (as many won’t work properly right off the production line).

Chapter 2 – Learning to Write: Letters, then Words, then Sentences

Chapter 2 teaches you how to write calligraphy – including the correct sitting posture when writing, appropriate position to hold your pen, angle to manoeuvre the nib, and how to move and position your arm and wrist to achieve organic letterforms and flourishes effect (Molly brings you through these step by step, with detailed explanation and some illustrations).

This Chapter also covers at length the additional writing techniques for those who are left-handed, and how to overcome challenges usually faced by left-handed writers. (Molly categorises left-handed writers into two categories – namely, underwriters and over writers).

Molly provides readers with some examples on how to draw the shapes, curves, upstrokes and down-strokes of the various alphabets – from A to Z as well as numerical figures. Readers will also learn how to connect letterforms within words and create interesting interactions between words within sentences.

Chapter 2 ends with some useful tips on how to write in a straight line.

Chapter 3 – Intermediate Tools & Techniques

Chapter 3 begins with some insight of additional tools essential to hone your calligraphy writing skills to the next level – including the type of containers ideal for mixing and storing paint (if you wish to write calligraphy with paint instead of ink) and why soapstone pencils are a better option than graphite when writing on dark surfaces.

For those adventurous enough to wish to write in a different medium or simply just to add creativity, this is the Chapter for you.

Molly gives you tips on how to get started writing calligraphy with watercolour, such as comparison between watercolour tubes versus watercolour pans, how to mix watercolour and the techniques of writing with watercolour. There is a practice exercise with explanation and illustration to guide you in writing with watercolours.

Subsequently, this chapter also gives you an introduction to gouache – its qualities and how it’s different from ink or watercolours, and tips on how to mix and blend gouache as well as techniques of writing with gouache.

Additionally, you will also learn how to create ink and watercolour washes as background to your calligraphy writings if you wish to add more vibrant colours to your overall work. (There is a practice exercise with detailed explanation on how to create ink and watercolour washes)

Molly also shares with you how to create and connect contrasting strokes for an ultimately aesthetic appearance, as well as how to do light writing on dark paper and writing on non-linear layouts.

Chapter 3 ends with tips on how to get it right the first time (if you happen to be jittery about making mistakes in your calligraphy writing).

Chapter 4 – Pushing the Envelope: Postal Art

In this short chapter Molly shares with you the various ways you can put your calligraphy writing skills to use on envelopes, as well as the appropriate etiquette to addressing guests of varying social status.

Chapter 5 – Do-It-Yourself Projects

This final chapter begins with some lessons (with 4 phases) on the basics of digitizing calligraphy, which is very helpful if you intend to use your final design for letterpress, digital printing, rubber stamps, or even as illustrations online.

Chapter 5 adopts a much more practical and hands-on approach than the previous chapters.

Chapter 5 encompasses 20 projects, varying from beginner, intermediate to advanced levels. Molly shares with you an indication of the budget you may expect to spend on each project (ranging from as low as US$5 to US$70, which isn’t going to break the bank) as well as the estimated time you may expect to spend completing each project.

There's also detailed explanation (in phases) with step-by-step pictures on how to go about with each project.

Recommended Inks

The appendix includes some recommended inks, as follows:

And several more......


For its relatively inexpensive price, usefulness and overall value added, I would highly recommend this book to all calligraphy fans.


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