Calligraphy: Definition & Styles

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever hand-written a letter or addressed an envelope with pretty script? Then, maybe you'd like to try creating a work of calligraphy. In this lesson, learn what calligraphy is and explore some different styles.

What is Calligraphy?

Calligraphy is the art of writing by hand. For thousands of years, people in many countries have created calligraphy using a brush and ink or special ink pens. Whatever the tools, the emphasis is on the beauty and appearance of the writing, including expressiveness and quality of line. Today, it's regarded as an art form. Many types of calligraphy have been developed over centuries with variations in different geographic regions of the world. For example, calligraphy has long been important in the Middle East and parts of Asia, as well as in Europe. While we can't explore all types of calligraphy, let's look at three major styles to give you examples of calligraphy's use and development.

Chinese Calligraphy

Chinese calligraphy evolved thousands of years ago and included many symbols rather than individual letters. Over time, six major script styles were developed, including clerical script (beginning circa 200 BC), which was used on official documents and emphasized strong, downward strokes; running script (ca. 200 BC), a bit more flowing, with condensed strokes and a high degree of legibility or ease of reading; and cursive script (ca. 220 AD), with a simple, continuous line. The latter is beautiful but not easy to read. Running script is among those used most commonly today.

Example of Chinese calligraphy by artist Huang Tingjian, circa 1090. Variation of a running script
Chinese calligraphy

In all cases, Chinese calligraphy is created with specific strokes using a brush, ink sticks, and an ink stone. The dry sticks are rubbed against the stone and the resulting powder turned into ink by adding water. Chinese calligraphy is regarded as an important cultural art form which requires training and years to master.

Arabic Calligraphy

In the 7th and 8th centuries, the religion of Islam spread in the Arab world. It forbid portraying human images in religious structures and texts, and this led to the development of elaborate decorative Arabic calligraphy, which could be found in written documents but also on tiles and artwork. Arabic calligraphy is especially beautiful and decorative. When writing, the Arabic calligrapher uses a special pen called a galam that results in a thick down stroke and a thin upstroke. It's a distinctive appearance, very different from Chinese calligraphy. While variations exist regionally throughout the Near East and Middle East, historically there were two basic styles, Arabic cursive, which was used for everyday writing and decoration, and Kufic, which was used for religious and official purposes.

Example of Arabic calligraphy, by artist Abdullah Muhassib, circa 1895
Example of Arabic calligraphy

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