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Calligraphic Beginnings: How it all began

SWS Blog

The Scribal Workshop Blog


Calligraphic Beginnings: How it all began

Lucas Tucker

I was born an ugly child. Not so much that women ran away screaming and hid their faces, but my mother wasn't going to win any Gerber baby contests, if you know what I mean. I learned to walk, talk, read, and write like any child should. My writing, however, was something that WOULD make women run away screaming. And by writing I mean penmanship, handwriting, chicken scratch. It was the kind of chicken scratch that chickens made fun of because it was too sloppy. I mean even the messy chickens.

Messy Chickens

Messy Chickens

It wasn't that I LIKED bad handwriting, or thought everyone else was crazy because they couldn't read it.

Honestly, I couldn't read it either.

I am a calligrapher and illuminator, a scribe if you will. I was first introduced to calligraphy when I was in fifth grade at 10-11 years old. My mother was my 5th grade teacher at a private school at the time and she decided that we were all going to try some calligraphy for art, or something like that. She bought calligraphy markers and the whole class played with them for a while and then went on to other things. I didn't. I didn't like the calligraphy markers because their tips couldn't make narrow enough lines. The calligraphy book showed that I should be able to make something prettier and not the chunky lines I kept getting with the markers. I promptly took my saved allowance and spent $10 on a Schaeffer calligraphy fountain pen. (I brought in about $2 a week at that point in my life).

I took the pen with me everywhere, lost it, found it again, wrote with it some more. I practiced my italic letter forms during sermons at church in the margins of the bulletins. I was by no means good at it, I just really, REALLY like it. My normal handwriting was still worthless, but I now had calligraphy... whatever that meant.

I would become distracted by other pursuits, but would always come back to my calligraphy whenever I found my pens.

I progressed to dip pens and bottled ink, and my calligraphy improved, however it wasn't until college that a floodgate broke.

As would be expected, given my passion for calligraphy... I majored in chemistry.

Ok, so maybe that wouldn't be expected, but if you knew how much I liked science and fireworks you would understand. My academic major fulfilled my analytical side, but my artistic side still needed an outlet and calligraphy seemed to be it (it was either that or basket weaving which seemed a little TOO normal for me).

I made my first batch of iron gall ink when our oak tree became covered in oak galls, it worked fine, except it was a bit more brown than black. I used to spend time sitting at my desk doing calligraphy by candlelight because it made me feel like I was a monk in the scriptorium in Lindisfarne (I told you basket weaving wasn't for me...) I started my first illuminated manuscript on cheap paper with my brownish iron gall ink using a steel-nib dip pen. It wasn't exactly a great historically accurate portrayal of illuminated mansucripts. I actually still have it somewhere...ah, here it is.

I told you it was bad. I mean, seriously, a 30 degree pen angle for insular? What was I thinking.

I told you it was bad. I mean, seriously, a 30 degree pen angle for insular? What was I thinking.

I've never finished it, as I realized that it was, too big, the wrong line spacing, the wrong materials, etc., etc., to be even remotely historic. I abandoned this project and continued my calligraphy by doing poems and bible verses for family members and friends.

Once I left home for real college it got worse (I was at community college before), I bought some real papyrus from Egypt (Ah, ebay...) and started duplicating ancient Greek texts. This sufficed for about a year, but I had started to yearn to try real parchment.

Known by some as vellum others as parchment (I'll go into this at a later date), it is made by dehairing, thinning, and stretching animal hides to produce a very fine, lightly toothed writing surface. It is the ultimate in writing surfaces. There is a serious problem, however, in using it as my medium. It costs upwards of $40...per square foot, and, at the time, I could only find it purchasable by the whole skin.

The opportunity (read as "justification") to purchase parchment presented itself in the form of a Shakespeare class. We were given a project option and I decided to make a patent bestowing the duchy of Hereford upon Henry Bolingbrook. It was a relevant project, and I had my reasons (like using real parchment...). I used my handmade iron gall ink, still too brown and not enough black, I made egg tempera using dry poster paints (yep, I wasn't good at this) and gilded with imitation gold leaf. Once I was done with it I was supremely proud of it.

Henry Bolingbrook, Duke of Hereford, in all it's middle English glory

Henry Bolingbrook, Duke of Hereford, in all it's middle English glory

I now keep this around to remind myself of all of the mistakes I made and how much is historically wrong with it.  I have learned much since then and continue to improve.  I now use historic pigments, make much better inks and paints, and my hand has improved.

I've since completed an illuminated insular manuscript of Jonah in Latin.

I still can't read my own cursive handwriting. Almost no-one can read my print. But my calligraphy is pretty.


Scribe and Chemist,

Lucas Tucker