Tuesday, January 15, 2008

When in doubt, use bamboo

[This is the second in a series of extremely nerdy posts about calligraphy. Here's the first post in the series.]

There are many ways to skin a cat, and there are many different tools you can use for calligraphy. You can use a brush, an automatic pen, a felt-tip pen, a dip pen, or a pen fashioned from bamboo or even a carrot. If you can make marks with it, you can do calligraphy with it.

When I was a teenager, bamboo dip pens were my favorite. Rather than going to the store for bamboo, I pilfered my mother's tomato stakes (thin pieces of bamboo) and fashioned them into pens using an X-Acto knife. They work quite well, though my mother wasn't too happy when spring rolled around and she was faced with floppy tomato seedlings.

Here is my current arsenal of calligraphy supplies. During art school, my mother collected quite a few calligraphy nibs. She gave them to me when I wouldn't leave her tomato stakes alone.

Inheriting this amazing selection of nibs was one of the times I realized that sometimes, old things are better than new. You see, calligraphy nibs are made of steel, and they take time to break in properly so they leave smooth marks and don't dig into the paper. Thanks to my mother's futile attempts at mastering calligraphy in art school, these nibs were pre-seasoned and broken in beautifully - not perfectly, since I'm a leftie and I wear in the nib a little bit differently, but still leaps and bounds ahead of the jagged pieces of metal you'd buy new.

In the background of that picture, in the white box, is gouache - my medium of choice. It's basically opaque watercolor paints in a tube I can thin and mix as I wish. Gouache works well with dip pens. On the right is a box of calligraphy inks, which I rarely use. They often have iridescent flecks or a gritty texture I don't care for. Plus I like custom-mixing colors. Not shown: plain old watercolors, India ink, masking fluid, or Japanese-style ink I grind myself.

A close-up of my drawing implements. Leftmost is an automatic pen with an gold-plated nib. Automatic pens aren't my favorite because they don't offer the control of dip pens, but this pen is pretty good. The gold plate is like butter compared to steel, which is a good thing.

Next up is a bamboo pen (not homemade, but I doctored the tip).

Third is a poster pen - a dip pen with a very wide nib. You can't do particularly sharp lettering with the poster pen, but at least it's big.

Last, inherited from my mother along with the arsenal of nibs, is the thing you stick nibs into. The body of the pen, if you will. This is a nice one, but in the past I've gotten by shoving nibs into the end of a piece of bamboo.

If this post had a take-home message, it would be: "It's important to have the right tools for the job. But if you don't, use bamboo."

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