Guild of Book Workers Newsletter
Number 106
June 1996


Bill Hildebrandt. Calligraphic Flourishing: A New Approach to an Ancient Art.
David R. Godine Publisher, po Box 9103, Lincoln, MA 01773. 1995. xi, 115 pp, illustrated. $15.95 (wrappers). isbn 1-56792-028-4.

Reviewed by Sophia K. Jordan, Department of Preservation, University of Notre Dame.

There are many books on calligraphy. Workbooks and guidebooks are abundant and teach the novice, or the accomplished calligrapher, by having them imitate letter forms or study embellishments. Few of these books, however, discuss flourishing, much less in any detail. Hildebrandt offers a detailed conceptualization of flourishes, unraveling their mystery and cataloguing their symmetry. This unassuming paperback does not provide what many have come to expect in calligraphy books, e.g., illustrations of manuscripts and practice patterns, but it is well formulated and a joy in its structural simplicity. Hildebrandt's Calligraphic Flourishing: A New Approach to an Ancient Art analyzes the structure of flourishes and offers something like a grammar for their formation.

Hildebrandt makes two claims about the status of the current literature on calligraphy in his preface. First, he says, thorough analysis of flourishings is rare; second, there is even less discussion of the dynamics and kinesthetics of moving the pen. He is correct. Hildebrandt argues that proper pen dynamics are important in all aspects of calligraphy, but essential for flourishing, and he notes that his work fills a gap: "A good deal of the material in this book is novel and different, especially the emphasis on pen dynamics, the methods of analysis and evaluation of flourishes, and the material on cadels" (p. xi). Quite true.

The first chapter is the weakest. Hildebrandt begins with a definition of flourishes from the Reader's Digest Great Encyclopedia Dictionary. The history of scripts is complicated and, while Hildebrandt's work is not intended to be a scholarly treatise, he might better have referred to the authoritative texts he cites in his bibliography. Or dispensed with definition altogether.

Hildebrandt then classifies flourishes as text embellishments; ornaments (strokes, serifs, sequences, and interruptions); as curvilinear or angular (the latter being known as cadels); and by the technique used in rendering them (drawn and filled, freely written). His discussion of tools and materials offers nothing new, and after abandoning a cursory treatment, Hildebrandt talks about the history of flourishes. This is disappointing, however, because beyond general observations about a general desire to decorate, his historical presentation suffers from vagueness and generalities. Indeed, he fails to provide any sense of the time span involved in the evolution of the scripts and of flourishing. Despite the detailed treatment of cadels which follows, Hildebrandt fails even to reference flamel's contribution to their invention. In this regard, many other books provide a better historical overview.

Hildebrandt's choice in using his and other calligrapher's renderings of historical scripts rather than plates or photocopies of the original is also dubious, something most obvious in his section on history. Hildebrandt's incomplete and vague citations, both in the text and in the bibliography, are also annoying, and while the chapter as a whole lacks the precision and meticulous attention to detail apparent in later chapters, his classification of flourishes-a grammar-is an enormous accomplishment.

The chapter on dynamics is excellent, with a level of detail not found in other books. Hildebrandt analyzes three movements: finger writing; forearm writing; and the two combined. He rightly notes, "Beginners usually form their letters by resting the hand and the forearm on the writing surface and flexing the first two fingers and thumb, which also hold the pen. Unless the student is instructed differently, this will seem to be the easiest way to achieve the control needed to duplicate the model letter. And unless shown the problems that finger writing can cause, most students will continue..." (p. 8).

Hildebrandt cites four reasons why finger writing is at a disadvantage: the results are never smooth enough; there is too much halting and jerking; using fingers limits the length of the stroke and causes the angle of the pen staff to vary with respect to the plane of the paper; and finger writing has very little mass and can easily be bumped. These problems are all too familiar to many of us. Hildebrandt has diagnosed the ailment precisely, and he proposes an equally precise remedy.

The basic idea behind forearm writing is to separate the job of holding the pen, pressing it against the paper, and tracing the letter shape, so that each of these functions is performed with a different set of muscles: the fingers are used to grip the pen; the wrist is locked; and the forearm muscles are used to press the pen against the paper and to vary the force to form thicks and thins. Thus the pen traces the contour of the letterform by moving the forearm and hand, without flexing the fingers, a motion controlled by back muscles (the shoulder girdle).

In chapter three, Hildebrandt provides an alphabet of flourishes consisting of nine basic elements. All flourishes, he contends, can be categorized by the structural similarities of their basic elements along with variations generated by altering any one of the following functions: direction (clockwise/counter-clockwise and vertical/horizontal); length; breadth; contrasts (thin and thick, gentle and sharp), and opposition (symmetry and asymmetry). Hildebrandt proceeds to detail each of the basic strokes and the possible variations.

The next several elements in his alphabet-really more a grammar than an alphabet-relate the appearance of flourish with regard to scale, repeating and non-repeating chains, multiple stokes, and classification of technique. In Hildebrandt's alphabet, flourishes truly explode in the realm of the non-repeating chains. Hildebrandt offers us his first significant contribution, his "Flourish Generator", which gives the calligrapher a grammar by which to improvise, build, design, and analyze flourishes systematically. Hildebrandt is correct when he says, "With any form of creativity, this requires fluency on the part of the creator. Fluency comes from having learned as many basic and complex forms as possible and having them at your fingertips" (p. 24-25). In chapter four, Hildebrandt continues the theme of what makes a good flourish by discussing control of white space, hot spots, scale, ambiguity, smoothness, visual interest, and fluency.

With an alphabet and a grammar well conceived and presented, Hildebrandt meticulously builds and analyzes complex patterns in chapter five, presenting clear and crisp description of the mechanics of building borders, mirror images, symmetry about one axis or line, about a point, and about two axes or lines at right angles to one another. Other more common topics, such as cartouches and frames, embellishing texts, take-off points from letter strokes, and entry and exit points, are also discussed. Hildebrandt shows his true talent: breaking down what seems infinitely complex into simple parts. This precision continues in his description of appended flourishes in chapter six. As in all calligraphy, he says, it is not just the appearance of the stroke itself that matters, but also its location and spacing with respect to other strokes. Hildebrandt describes five ways of appending strokes: continuation; paralleling; opposition; dash and diamond; and darts, dots, and fishtails.

The first six chapters focused on the grammar of curvilinear flourishes. In chapter seven, Hildebrandt begins his detailed grammar of the cadel, noting that the term comes from the French "cadeaux" but offering little history. His definition approximates the one offered by Marc Drogin in his Medieval Calligraphy: Its History and Technique (1980). Hildebrandt describes a flourish as being made-up primarily of relatively straight sections, joined by angular or square corners rather than curves or circles.

Leaving it at that, he provides a thoughtful translation of cadel equivalents from the grammar of curvilinear flourishes. This is a critically important step in his pedagogy because it allows the calligrapher to move from one familiar system of rules to another. The richness of his definition becomes obvious by the end of the chapter. Despite a wealth of variations, a cadel's essence remains fixed: "Let us define a true cadel as one which can be traced completely, from one end to the other with a single line without retracing any part, where the trace may cross itself only once at any crossing point, and where the trace may cross any line in the pattern that it touches. A false cadel does not satisfy this single line requirement" (p. 61).

Like curvilinear flourishes, cadels have their own grammar of variations. The first and simplest variation comes by altering the stroke of a cadel either by compression or curvature. The remaining variations are seen in his catalog of cadel families, where variations of each family are based on the repeated sequences which build complex cadels. "Most relatively simple looking cadel figures can be expanded into families of increasing complexity, where each new member generated depends on the structure of the original, or parent, and the application of a unique sequence of moves"-the move sequence used to generate successive members of the family "is the heart of the family tree" (p. 62). Family resemblances are marked by noting the patterns of variations, which in turn occur in attributes of number, orientation, rotation, mirroring, and by combining cadel and curvilinear techniques. Once the cadel formula is understood, other variations to the grammar create a different syntax, e.g., enlarging, or adding loops, curved or angular, and closing or opening.

Chapter eight could not have been anything other than a "cadeloque"-a catalogue of cadels. "This catalogue documents some of the mathematical qualities of cadels and is a handy table of standard forms" (p. 65). Call it mathematical table or grammar, there is no doubt that reducing flourishes to their constituent parts will make any calligrapher conceptually fluent in cadels.

There is little doubt that Calligraphic Flourishings fills a gap in the literature and presents a conceptual breakthrough in constructing flourishes. This reviewer learned much about pattern generation and feels more confident in her own ability to create legitimate flourishes. We are indebted to Hildebrandt for unraveling the intricate and repeating possibilities of flourishings. Other readers of his book will, I trust, have a conceptual journey as delightful as my own.