Turning One’s Pen To Versals: a Workshop with Gemma Black

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Gemma Black’s enthusiasm for Versals was immediately contagious.  Our journey together was marked by her passionate love for words and discovery, joyful confidence in our ability to grow, and depth of historical knowledge. Our time together was packed with inspiration, practice, and exercises to stretch every personality out of our comfort zones and into deeper learning.

Verso is a Latin word that means to turn. The word Versals may have come from the vellum being turned to view ornamental and prominent letters, since in a bound book the recto was the right side of the page, but when turned, became the verso. We spent time admiring beautiful specimens of versals from the Winchester Bible and other historical books, deciphering some of the creative ligatures and placement of letters inside of other open spaces in letters. While some were not easily legible, they were definitely a feast for the eyes!

We started with key exercises to learn all the basic letter forms and proper angles of the pen nib. After working on straight and diagonal lines, compound curves and the moon shapes that make up the letter O, we practiced manipulating the pen to draw letters.  We gained familiarity with Versals by using tracing paper, learning the proper sequence and height of the Versals, and copying some exemplars.  After scribing an entire alphabet of Versals, we were asked to share a 5-9 word quote that was meaningful to us; the quote would become a vital part of many of the exercises to follow. To start with, each of us scribed our quote in Versals in a simple layout of one or two words per line.

Next, Gemma introduced us to the Versals of David Jones (1895-1974) a prolific British painter and poet whose use of Versals was marked by originality, variety and playfulness. After delving into his style, we rewrote our quote, using the letterforms of David Jones as an inspirational springboard.  

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To further practice, we chose four-letter words and and created simple square shapes, rotating the page for each letter. Then we went back to our quote and using the same concept, positioned the words to form a square-like shape.  

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Switching gears, we moved into expressive gestural movements, first just moving the pen, then creating letters using “mind and heart” without referring to an exemplar.  Each individual was asked to form letters that felt right to their unique experience and style, and to move with fluidity and freedom. Using a compass, we penciled a circle and created a gestural Versal alphabet, holding our breath in hopefulness that the spacing would allow us to fit all 26 letters.  If not, the trick was to end in Z, regardless of what letters we were forced to leave out!  

Gemma’s upbeat positivity and expert guidance facilitated an environment for us to learn from one another, as showing our work was done throughout the workshop. She also added nuggets of wisdom that we tucked away, such as drawing ruler marks on the guard sheet to avoid having to draw pencil lines on the final piece, investing in a hyper razor to scrape away unfortunate ink blots, and reveling in the history of the ampersand!

Historical Scripts and Strokes: Pre-Copperplate Italic with Gemma Black

alphabet – Gemma Black

alphabet – Gemma Black

History is our clearest guide for good lettering in our modern era.

In this fascinating class with artist Gemma Black from Tasmania, students were led down the path of fully understanding and internalizing the details, nuances, and characteristics of pre-copperplate hands.

We traced and carefully studied the old masters, training our hands to flow, dip, and turn with the subtleties of the strokes and scripts.

Gemma skillfully opened our eyes to the use of historical scripts to inform our work and then led us down a path of creative exploration as we used our imaginations in other new ways to createworks using those scripts.

It is always a pleasure to learn from a teacher who oozes confidence and self-assurance in the knowledge of what is being taught.

Gemma’s rich and exceptional career made us very lucky recipients of knowledge, style, and grace in all things calligraphy.

“Looking Back to Looking Forward: Calligraphy - Its History, Its Mystery, Its Wonder”: a Program Presented by Gemma Black.

Gemma Black, gifted calligrapher, artist, and engaging speaker, presented the first program of the 2017-2018 season to an eager roomful of members of the Colleagues of Calligraphy on September 15. In “Looking Back to Looking Forward” Gemma illuminated the fascinating history of calligraphy and other writing systems, from the early Egyptians to the 21st century. Gemma hails from Tasmania, Australia, where she’s taught calligraphy, paper making, and other artistic endeavors for 25 years. Her outstanding work testifies to her being an Honoured Fellow and Fellow of the prestigious Calligraphy & Lettering Arts Society in England.

 Gemma began with the earliest, perfunctory uses of writing systems, commerce: when you’re selling your ox, a simple impression in clay is all that’s needed to document the transaction. She showed examples of Egyptian hieroglyphs, one of the earliest pictograms for communication, and cuneiform writing, consisting of triangular wedge marks in clay tablets. I had never heard of Boustrophedon (“as the ox plows”) writing from ancient Greece, where not only the direction of writing changes (left-to-right, right-to-left, on alternating lines), but sometimes the letterforms are mirror images on alternating lines. 

boustrophedon

boustrophedon

Fascinating! Of course she progressed to discussing the famous Trajan column of Rome, explaining that the inscribed letterforms are the pinnacle of Roman writing, our “prime specimen” for study.

The remainder of her overview of the early writing systems described the evolution of writing in Christian religious texts; this is calligraphy as we know it today. The Lindisfarne Gospel preceded the Book of Kells, if only by a couple of years (698-700 AD). Lindisfarne was the work of one monk, Eadfrith, documented by its intact colophon.  

Lindisfarne Gospel

Lindisfarne Gospel

But the Book of Kells was more cosmopolitan, and scribes wasted no space: she described folio 34r, the historiated Chi Rho and some of the symbolism there. She verified that, in fact, it is an X, not a P, as common misperception has it. Eliciting much laughter from the audience, she showed her photos of a 10th century psalter and hymnal, which was, in her words, “smaller than an iPad, larger than an iPhone.” She explained how archivists now actually encourage fingers touching old vellum documents, since cotton gloves tended to get caught on pages, bending them and causing the ink to flake off. Oils from human skin softens the vellum, making it less brittle.

 
The Chi Rho of the Book of Kells

The Chi Rho of the Book of Kells

 

The second half of her talk covered the 20th & 21st centuries. Her first example was the typeface for the London Underground, designed by Edward Johnston (1872-1944). We were amused by photos of Johnson’s great posture when writing/designing—with or without a cat on his lap!

London Underground work – Edward Johnston

London Underground work – Edward Johnston

Edward Johnston

Edward Johnston

Gemma continued with David Jones (1895-1974) known for giving away his calligraphy, rather than selling it. She talked excitedly about  the work of Irene Wellington (1904-1984), who created the lettering for Queen Elizabeth II’s accession to the throne & coronation address. Recounting her own visit to Buckingham Palace to view the original vellums Irene created, she was unexpectedly offered a chance to see the changing of the guard, from inside the palace. She jumped at the opportunity, of course, but not before she was informed that “the most beautiful, expensive pants [she had] ever owned” were not sufficient, and she had to run out to Marks & Spencer to buy a day dress!

She continued her whirlwind, worldwide tour of many calligraphers, with special nods to Gaynor Goffe and Dennis Brown, friends & mentors to her, and Sharon Zeugin with her grackle writing, showing how artists use local influences in their calligraphy.

Lastly, Gemma described some of her own splendid work, showing the breadth of her talents. She related a story of how she did the cover for the book “Revelations of Divine Love”—but that the book designer took liberties with the layout, rotating her artwork; the result was a difficult to read book title.

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Another work of hers was the phrase “Civility costs nothing and buys everything.” She showed a video to demonstrate her creation of “La Serenissima,” a nickname for Venice, as it was once known as the Most Serene Republic of Venice. Gemma is a MacLaren, having Scottish, English, Irish, & Australian Aboriginal ancestry, so she showed us the magnificent MacLaren Coat of Arms she created. Always the teacher, she also showed us her students’ work in Fraktur.

art by Gemma Black

art by Gemma Black

art by Gemma Black

art by Gemma Black

art by Gemma Black

art by Gemma Black

Gemma was particularly proud of three recent works of hers (2008-2013): The Apologies: the “Apology to Australia’s Indigenous Peoples,” the “Apology to the Forgotten Australians & Former Child Migrants,” and the “National Apology for Forced Adoption.” Each exquisite work is an apology from the government of Australia for failed former policies. They are on display in hermetically sealed cases at Parliament House in Canberra.

After this tour of so many wonderful pieces, she surprised the audience with a slide of a simple postcard. But it was no ordinary postcard. It was a postcard sent many years ago, titled “Greetings from the Calligraphy Connection, Minnesota!” and included a poem about calligraphy on the back. After some audience reminiscences about the event, Gemma extolled the great calligraphic talent we have here in Minnesota. We, in turn, were honored to have benefited from her erudition.

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