calligraphy lettering Thoughts on lettering

O my Giotto

How often do you draw an O? How often in this age of keyboards do you pick up a pen, pencil or brush and draw an O? How often do you give thought to the creation of an O? Here are some of mine. Now, these are not necessarily an O – yes it is a circle but an O is more than that. An O has style and grace, and is not a pure mathematical or geometrical ‘form’. Nevertheless…without more ado here is my [rather primitive] selection

O large
Freehand O drawn with bamboo pen

Why this interest in O? It comes from having picked up Vasari’s Lives of the Artists [Penguin Classics, 1965 (reprinted 1976), trans. George Bull] who describes the artist Giotto picking up his brush when asked for a sample to give to the Pope. This is the relevant section – ‘The courtier told Giotto for a drawing which he could send to his holiness. At this Giotto, who was a very courteous man, took a sheet of paper and a brush dipped in red, closed his arm to his side, so as to make a sort of compass of it, and then with a twist of his hand drew such a perfect circle that it was a marvel to see. Then, with a smile, he said to the courtier: ‘There’s your drawing.’ As if he were being ridiculed, the courtier replied: “Is this the only drawing I’m to have?’ ‘It’s more than enough,’ answered Giotto.” [p.64.]

O with pen
O with the bamboo pen, made by John Skelton

Well, the Pope saw the O and was mightily impressed and Giotto got the commission. Vasari continues: ‘And when the story became generally known, it gave rise to the saying which is still used to describe stupid people: ‘You are more simple that Giotto’s O.’ This is a splendid witticism, not only because of the circumstances which gave rise to it but also because of the pun it contains, the Tuscan word tondo meaning both a perfect circle and also a slow-witted simpleton.’ [p.65.]

As an encore, here is an O from the Rev. Catich’s The Art of the Serif:

Letter O Trajan
Art of the Serif by Catich

Isn’t that so beautiful? How about we all take time out to draw some O’s?


Signwriting: revival everywhere

Back in June I posted a brief item about signwriting based on a photo of a couple of guys I noticed hard at work in my  town here in Australia (see here)Gilpin signwriting

I was delighted last night to catch on the local news a brief item about the work of a signwriter down in Newcastle, Australia by the name of Brett Piva. Check out this documentary movie. (You may also like to check out some of my past blogs on the subject.)

The reason give for the renewed interest in signwriting? It’s a reaction against: the non-creativity  of laser/vinyl printing etc; the desire to see the human touch and spirit; the  movement against conformity and sameness everywhere. This feeds into any kind of lettering – be in stone or on paper.

I’m greatly encouraged. Indeed Edward Catich, were he alive today, would have been delighted, since he  started off as a Chicago signwriter before he pursued research on Roman inscriptions that led to his marvellous and, still relevant, The Origin of the Serif.

Note – the illustration is taken from Lewery, A.J. (1989). Signwritten Art. David and Charles, London and shows the work of a Cumbrian (UK) tradesman.

Elements of Lettering

Elements of Lettering – 1

Here are some thoughts on how to approach hand lettering, taken from a guide I produced  for my students. This is the first page in a series, which will demonstrate basic techniques. Please subscribe to the feed to be alerted to updates on the site.


Contemporary stone lettering is generally based on, and adapted from, a script used by the Romans and known as Trajan.

It is believed this letterform was first painted on to the surface of the stone with a brush. Image taken from The ORigin of the Serif by Edward CatichThe same craftsman, or another, would then have carved the painted inscription with a mallet and chisel.

Today, letter carvers first draw the inscription on paper and only after having resolved problems with letter shape and spacing will then transfer the design to stone.

It is important to be able to draw a letter with pencil on paper at full size to understand the dynamics and proportions of each letter.

Note – the line illustration is taken from The Origin of the Serif, by Edward Catich, 2nd edition, 1991. This is the primary source for those wanting to know more about the traditional Roman letter form.

The other illustration is my own.