October 2016 Workshop Review: Julian Waters Blackletter Variations

Great teachers of calligraphy convey more than letterforms; their wise philosophies accompany them, enduring long past the last day of class.  One of these great teachers, Julian Waters, provided a thoroughly enjoyable workshop to members of the Colleagues of Calligraphy in October.  After a captivating journey through Julian Waters’ sourcebook on Blackletter Variations, our pens were poised as we awaited instruction on the techniques to form individual letters. Yet he judiciously reminded us not to get bogged down with whether “you’ve gotten the letter ‘right’ or not.” Instead, he suggested we observe the way the ink and white space work together.  

“The white space is just as important as the black lines,” he stressed, encouraging us to train our eyes to consider the shapes between the letters as important as the letters themselves. Rather than working fervently to achieve the non-existent perfect letter, we learned to watch the overall pattern emerge. His mantra was “Think Before Ink!” and he advised us to not look at the pen, but to keep an eye on where the stroke was going to end. Not surprisingly, this mental technique of visualizing has to be developed.

 “I am always looking at the white space,” he explained. “It’s important to plan where you are going to end the stroke. It’s a good idea to study the alphabet sheet. Then put the sheet aside and look at what you are doing. Then, look back at the sheet. Give yourself a chance to fail.” 

Holding the paper upside down is an effective method of discerning where adjustments need to be made; this makes it easier to see where two straight lines are too close and need more breathing room, or where a letter has extended too far, leaving an ungainly amount of open space. 

We started with exercises using large pens to create heavy lines, then thin upstrokes with the corner of the pen. The goal was to achieve good spacing habits, and learn to modify letters to fit closely together for a consistent pattern. We moved on to block letters, adding straight, then rounded serifs, but keeping them the same on the tops and bottoms of the letters. Gradually, we added more complex themes, such as using both flats and diagonals in the same letter. We viewed a rich variety of Textura and Fraktur samples, building new skills with each exercise.  

The Textura style we started with was rectilinear, and we advanced to the more “pointed, curved and organic Fraktur.” Julian compared the Textura to arched Roman minuscules, and Fraktur to branched Italic. Fraktur incorporates branching
strokes, and thin hairlines, and tends to have a more ornate and playful look than Textura. Julian introduced the class to the teachings of Johann Neudӧrffer the Elder from Fraktur’s beginnings in the early 1500’s. Strong verticals are essential for the beauty of this style, along with the same uniform spacing of Textura.  We critiqued our work, and Julian spent time helping us individually as well.   

The myriad spacing conundrums we encountered yield an analogy to our lives outside the classroom. It’s natural to focus on the indelible “ink lines” - the activities, the accomplishments, the tasks that make up our days. We need reminders that the spaces in between are just as vital, an integral part of the pattern that emerges. For legibility, beauty and consistency, we need breathing room in our letters, as well as in our lives. The quiet spaces allow room in our crowded lives for contemplation and rest, for kindness and humility. And as Julian Waters assured us: “Anything worth learning is complicated!”