In the upcoming issue of Letter Arts Review (28:4), which is now at the printer, I’ve included an article on the use of exemplars in teaching calligraphy. I interviewed a wide range of teachers and found a surprising variety of approaches. Some question whether we should hand out exemplars at all.

In my most recent calligraphy class at Pratt I decided to make a new set of exemplars. Instead of the classic alphabet marked up with stroke orders and directions, I decided to write a few lines of text in each script. These exemplars were made in one afternoon. Apart from a little cut-and-paste work, the writing was presented exactly as written, without retouching. After each quotation, I added a few extra words so that every letter was represented.

The texts are by Walt Whitman, Frank O’Hara, and the contemporary New York poet, Emanuel Xavier. Because I didn’t get copyright permissions, I didn’t publish these in my article.


I found it funny that not one student remarked on my choices of text.

21. December 2014 by Christopher Calderhead
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Seen on the street in front of the studio:


And on 21st street in Astoria, there is what must have once been a Midas Muffler shop:


The same name is transliterated into the Urdu version of the Arabic alphabet in the front window:


19. December 2014 by Christopher Calderhead
Categories: Graphic Design, Lettering, Questions of design | Comments Off

Poster for Dutch Kills Theater Company



I made this for Dutch Kills as a way they could give a small gift to their financial patrons. It will be a limited print-on-demand edition.

19. December 2014 by Christopher Calderhead
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For a small theater company.

19. December 2014 by Christopher Calderhead
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19. December 2014 by Christopher Calderhead
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My friends Tamara Reynolds and Zora O’Neill asked me to do a cover for their new e-book, F-ing Delicious. We had a good afternoon shooting every variation we could. Here’s an outtake.

19. December 2014 by Christopher Calderhead
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The New York Times is managed by ironists

I’m always amused by the way the Sunday Times is organized. They fold the most incongruous sections together.

The Automobiles section wraps the Metropolitan section—the vehicle that destroyed our cities enveloping the celebration of urban life. And the Styles section—that monument to shallowness—is wrapped around the Sunday Review.



19. December 2014 by Christopher Calderhead
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Summer studio, late afternoon


Remembered on a cold December day.

19. December 2014 by Christopher Calderhead
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Piece for Kalligraphia

Here’s the piece I entered in the Kalligraphia show currently on show at the San Francisco Public Library. It’s small—just 4×6 inches. Written with a ballpoint pen. It shows up bigger here than it is actual size. Click to enlarge even more.

30. June 2012 by Christopher Calderhead
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Air force symbols: student work

My summer Design Procedures class just ended at Pratt. In summer, the class meets twice a week, and the class size is small, so it feels very different from the regular term. The assignments are the same, however.

One of my favorite assignments is an exercise for learning the basics of creating vector-based art. The students have to draw air force symbols, both contemporary and historical. (Above: United Arab Emirates, Angola, Germany 1916-17, and Canada). They base their renderings on photo reference files, some of which are not perfect—by design. Having to interpret a less-than-accurate drawing and make it into a geometrically precise rendering is part of the exercise. The beauty of these air force symbols is that they are based on very simple geometries. There’s no fudge factor here. We do renderings of about 25 different symbols, starting with the simple roundel of the RAF, and progressing to more complex designs.

The Iron Cross is the trickiest. You have to construct large concentric circles outside the figure, then copy these and get all your alignments perfectly right.

We use the Pathfinder function to slice and splice parts of these basic figures together to make the basic forms, then copy and rotate the these to achieve the final rendering.

After we’ve worked with these relatively simple symbols, the students have to make a rendering of a DC-3 airplane and apply gradients to suggest the play of light on a three-dimensional metal object.

Then I ask them to create a symbol for the Brooklyn Air Force, apply it to their DC-3, and create a poster. Thomas Colligan came up with a nice poster for his final effort:

26. June 2012 by Christopher Calderhead
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The rhetoric of cardboard

This was originally written as my next editor’s letter for Letter Arts Review. I decided not to use it in LAR, but nothing should go to waste…

No matter what one’s political opinion of the Occupy Wall Street movement, it is undeniable that the demonstrations have had an impact on the way Americans talk about the state of the country and our economy. The term “the 99%” has entered our collective vocabulary, and for the first time since the Great Depression many Americans have actually begun to question the role of capitalism in shaping our financial affairs. Whether this success reflects wise strategy on the part of the Occupiers, or simply the fact that they have tapped into a widely shared spirit of discontent, there is no doubt that the visual spectacle of the protests has created a powerful populist image that millions of people have responded to.

Some of the most striking visuals of the Occupy movement have been among the most humble: hand-made signs made of recycled cardboard boxes.

I am guessing that he choice of the cardboard box was not entirely intentional. There were some simple reasons why it was adopted at the earliest protests. For one thing, the New York City Police Department forbids the use of sticks to support protest signs—sticks could be used as weapons against the cops’ batons. Early on in the protest, the NYPD began enforcing the no-stick rule, so the signs had to be held directly in the hands of the protesters. Another factor in the choice of cardboard may simply have been practical. As the encampment at Zuccotti Park took shape, sympathizers from around the country began ordering food for the Occupiers from local pizzerias, providing not only sustenance, but a ready source of used pizza boxes that could be transformed into signs.

Whatever the causes for the choice, the simple cardboard sign has become a fixture at Occupy events. As a way of projecting the goals of the movement, the choice is pitch-perfect. No material could better communicate Occupy’s message that the 99% have been dispossessed. Corrugated cardboard is cheap, ubiquitous, and disposable. It used by the homeless for bedding and shelter. We use it up and toss it away.

The contrast between these populist signs and the slick products of commercial design could not be more obvious. These cheap handmade messages are worlds away from the carefully crafted, mass-produced images of traditional political campaigns. One protester was photographed in Boston in October carrying a placard that read, “I can’t afford my own politician, so I made this sign.” The message is perfectly echoed by its medium. It’s not low budget. It’s no budget. And in its humility, it expresses clearly the idea that our politics are controlled by the image-makers, the media, and the plutocrats who manage them, while ordinary people struggle to have a voice.

That’s the rhetoric of cardboard. It’s a defiant statement by people who feel they’ve been dispossessed and excluded. But it’s also hopeful. As one protester’s sign read in October: “My cardboard can beat your billboard.”

02. June 2012 by Christopher Calderhead
Categories: Graphic Design, Lettering, News, Questions of design | Comments Off

We made the New York Times

The World Encyclopedia of Calligraphy was reviewed today in the New York Times Book Review by Steven Heller: “There is more to writing in tongues than meets the eye, and the authors explain the origins and nuances of writing in, say, Indic scripts or Cyrillic majuscules and minuscules in a voice that is thoroughly accessible and enjoyable.”

Here’s the link.

26. February 2012 by Christopher Calderhead
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Student work

This past term I taught calligraphy at Pratt. Calligraphy is an elective for Juniors and Seniors. The final project is to make an installation out in the environment and photograph it.

Jack Liakas cut the words “as seen on tv” out of black foam core and mounted it on a screen in Manhattan. The letters dance with color as the message on the screen changes.

James Winner used a quotation by Nelson Mandela. He photographed this on his roof, with a distant view of Manhattan—the hill he wants to climb.

I think the challenge of teaching calligraphy in an art school is to tie it into the broader practices of art, typography, and graphic design. Broadly speaking, I want to simply introduce students to the practice of making letters by hand. But I also want them to learn some of the history of our letterforms, and see how our writing system was shaped by the pen before it became relatively fixed when printing took over from the hand. And I want students to make connections between calligraphy and typography, as well as think about how letterform, text, and composition can make an artistic statement.

This term I was forcefully reminded how our culture has changed. Twenty years ago, when I was teaching calligraphy at the New School in Manhattan, it was enough to hand out an exemplar and set the students to writing. Learning styles (and attention spans) were different then, and students would be challenged to master the use of the tool. They would practice and enjoy the struggle of learning to make each stroke correctly and begin developing rhythm.

The computer and the internet have changed all that. For one thing, back then, it was hard to find visual reference—the exemplar I handed out was often the only sample my students would see. Now, of course, while I’m lecturing, students will look up images on their phones. So there’s a vast amount of visual input.

Rather than lament this, I feel the need to ride with the new sensibility. I designed the course as a broad “taster” of calligraphy styles and techniques. So while we spent most of the term on a humanist roman script, I also introduced different tools and techniques. Instead of going into depth with one script and developing strong muscle memory and rhythm, we explored some of the range of calligraphic practice.

I will probably revamp the course entirely the next time I teach it; I felt torn this time between my old approach and the new.

But I was pleased with the final projects (the three here are just a selection).

The piece to the left is by Sabrina Sanberg.

24. December 2011 by Christopher Calderhead
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Drawings in progress

Two drawings in progress in the studio. These were exhibited at the National Arts Club in November.

Title: In the City  Year: 2011
Dimensions:  W26 x H20 inches
Tools: soft pencils, kneaded rubber eraser
Paper: Rives BFK
The text, which describes happenings around me in the city, is written in boustrophedon style—an ancient technique in which each line of text is written in the opposite direction, like an ox plowing a field.

Title: Paesanos
Dimensions:  W20 x H26 inches
Tools: soft pencils, kneaded rubber eraser
Paper: Rives BFK
Many of the people in my life grew up in foreign countries. And because I am interested in different alphabets and writing systems, I like playing with writing their names in their native scripts.

24. December 2011 by Christopher Calderhead
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The World Encyclopedia of Calligraphy!

My new book—compiled and edited with Holly Cohen—has finally been printed. Holly and I received our advance copies about a week ago. It should be in the bookstores by Christmas, and you can already pre-order through John Neal Bookseller and through Barnes & Noble or Amazon.

The book is the World Encyclopedia of Calligraphy. It’s a compendium of calligraphy from all around the globe. The book is intended as a guide to actually writing the major world scripts, so the heart of the book is a series of exemplars by experts in each script. We cover Roman scripts, Greek and Cyrillic, Hebrew, Arabic, Indic scripts, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, just to name some of the most important samples. The book also explains the use of quills, brushes, reeds, and metal pens, and gives some historical background to each of the traditions described.

This was a monumental undertaking—five years in the making. Holly and I are grateful to all the many artists who contributed their work. Seeing it in print has been amazing—big, colorful photographs, beautifully reproduced. And large-scale exemplars with stroke order and direction and details of letter construction. Lots of examples of finished work, both contemporary and historical, give a rich portrait of how calligraphy can be used.

Here are some sample spreads from the book:

From the Roman chapter, a sample of Carolingian.

From the Greek and Cyrillic chapter, a study of Cyrillic uncials.

From the chapter on Indic scripts, two historical manuscripts with a study of the Brahmi script that gave rise to writing systems from the Himalayas to Southeast Asia.

From the chapter on the Edged Pen, diagrams illustrating pen angle and a vintage box of pens.

From the chapter on the East Asian Brush, a step-by-step photo essay showing the complexities of making simple strokes with a brush.

In the Chinese chapter, Jim Zhang supplied a series of samples that show how ten representative characters are written in different styles.

This is just a taster. It’s tempting to show more! Holy and I are very grateful to our editor at Sterling Books, Barbara Berger, who shepherded this project through the many stages of production.

10. October 2011 by Christopher Calderhead
Categories: Calligraphy, Graphic Design, Lettering, World Calligraphy book | 3 comments

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