Adventures in Brayer Calligraphy

I was a bit reluctant to take up an inking roller to do some "roller calligraphy" last spring while on a tour through Europe with other type and printing geeks called Travels In Typography.

Most of the calligraphy I've done was way back in college when I was studying graphic design, and very little since then. I'm just not that into it, which may seem strange coming from a type designer, but to me they are completely different things. Being good at one doesn't necessarily make you good at the other; sometimes quite the opposite, I think.

Anyway, back to the tour. When we visited Mainz, Germany, home of Johannes Gutenberg, father of movable type, we had the pleasure of meeting Gundela Kleinholdermann, who is a volunteer at the Gutenberg Museum's Druckladen (print shop). Her specialty is what she calls roller calligraphy. Instead of the usual brush or pen, she uses inking rollers, the kind you use to ink a letterpress proofing press.

Inking rollers come in all widths, but what they have in common is that only a narrow strip of ink across the width of the roller touches the paper at any one time, not unlike the edge of a broad-nib calligraphy pen. But instead of inking plates or type, Gundela makes letters. And she's amazingly good at it. With some of the examples she showed us, it was hard to believe they were made with such an unlikely tool.

The technique involves manipulating the roller as you move it across the paper, turning it, dragging it and--this is the tricky part--lifting one end of the roller to get a tapered effect. You can also touch the paper without rolling to create a line. There are no rules, just whatever works. You can tell that Gundela has been practicing and experimenting with this for a long time. She's a virtuoso roller calligrapher.

After showing us the basic techniques, we got a chance to try it ourselves. As I said, I was a bit reluctant at first, but it started coming back to me. For someone who was "not into" calligraphy, I really had a lot of fun with it.

I'm really glad that printing museums like the Gutenberg and Hamilton Wood Type continue to offer instruction in traditional printing and lettering techniques. It really helps inform my work as a type designer. If you haven't been to either of these places jump in the car or get on a plane and check them out. They provide a great link to the past while letting you create something new.

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