Arabic Calligraphy (The Basics to Get Started)

The Paper.

calligraphyCalligraphy paper must have a smooth and glossy surface that allows the pen to glide smoothly over it. The various Xerox bold, coated, gloss, digital printing papers works very well. For practice, glossy magazine pages, especially from news magazines, make an excellent alternative to the aforementioned printing paper. Draw light pencil lines on the paper to align your work. As your calligraphic skill increases, you will want to move on to using the fine, glazed calligraphy paper available in art stores.

The Ink.

Beginners may use any black, water-based ink, such as Parker’s Quink. Pour some ink into a clean inkwell (any small bottle with a tight lid) containing a rolled-up piece of fine cotton cloth. This cloth will absorb the ink, and the calligrapher uses the cotton roll to control the amount of ink on the pen’s nib. The water in the ink will evaporate over time and must be replaced by adding more water or more ink into the inkwell. You may eventually want to try using a waterproof India ink to achieve strong, dark lines.

The Pen.

Available are the carved bamboo (or dried reed) pens (qalams), metal pen nibs with a holder, and calligraphy sets that include a pen with a refillable ink cartridge.

Reed pens or qalams. In Arabic calligraphy, the size of the writing is dictated by the width of the nib of the qalam, a narrow nib for fine writing and wider nibs for larger writing. This is because of the very exact rules governing the sizes and proportions of the individual letters for a given style of script (Thuluth, Naskh, Riqa, etc). These values relate the size of the letters (and parts of letters) to rhomboid dots or nuqta, with each of the four sides of the nuqta equal to the width of the nib that made it. The nuqta, of course, is an integral part of many letters in most calligraphy styles. If one wishes to write a passage in larger or smaller letters, one must change the size of the qalam’s nib or change to the appropriately-sized metal pen nib.

reed pens2We recommend that the beginner begin his study of Arabic calligraphy using the reed pen, the qalam. The student can buy a qalam of the desired width (2-3 mm is a good choice to begin with) or get some dried reeds (the part at the base of the stem is sturdiest and best for qalam use) or appropriately-sized mature bamboo and carve his own qalams with a variety of nib widths. The carving process is not difficult, but takes some practice to become proficient. YouTube has several excellent programs for the beginner depicting how to carve a qalam and how to prepare a nib of the proper size for smooth, flowing writing.

Metal nib pens. Steel nib pens are in common use today by Arabic calligraphers. They are available in many sizes and consist of a steel nib inserted into a wooden or plastic holder. A much finer nib (for much finer lines) is possible than can be made for a qalam. Also, when writing a longer text, the steel nib will keep regularity in the lines from the beginning to the end of the text, while the nib of the qalam will tend to wear while writing a long text causing later-appearing letters to be irregular.

Preparing the metal nib. A newly-bought metal nib is completely flat. It is prepared for writing by sanding a comfortable angle onto it. Once prepared, a nib can last for months if cleaned after every use and kept free of dried ink which stretches the nib halves out of shape.

Insert the nib into its holder and hold the pen at the angle for writing. Press a finger or the thumb against the nib between the hole and the tip to keep the two teeth from separating while sanding. Holding the nib down against fine sandpaper mounted on a flat surface, move the nib to the left and right several times. Since the nib is flat and you wish to put an angle on it, you will initially be sanding only the left side of the bottom half of the nib. As you continue, the nib will acquire an angle and the entire bottom (both teeth) of the nib will be sanded. The nib should now be angled instead of straight, as it was originally.

Now examine the nib with the hollowed side facing away. There is a slit down the side which separates the two teeth. The slit should be slightly off center to the right so that the right tooth (with the point) is thinner than the left tooth. If the slit is directly down the center of the nib, sand the right side from left to right on the edge of the sanding block. Sand until the right tooth (with the point) is slightly thinner than the left tooth. This will allow the ink to flow freely to the point of the pen when it is used alone for delicate strokes not requiring the entire nib width.

Gently write ‘alif’, ‘ba’, ‘wau’, ‘nun’, and a large ‘ya’, several times on the sandpaper. If you sense any resistance to the writing, write them again and again until you can write them smoothly.

Test the pen with ink on paper. If a letter cannot be written smoothly, write them again on sandpaper. Repeat the process until satisfied.

Calligraphy Sets. In Europe and North America the pens found in calligraphy sets are generally the pens most available to the beginning calligrapher. The sets often have one pen with a refillable ink cartridge and several nibs of various sizes. Check the angle of the nibs (35 – 40 degrees) and test how they write in Arabic. Write on sandpaper to adjust the nibs to your specifications as for the metal nibs, above.

Other Essentials.

Holding the Pen. Write holding the pen between your thumb and the fleshy part of your middle finger. The index finger sits gently on top and acts as a guide. Aim for a grip which is firm, but not tense. Write resting the heel of your hand on the page. Make the strokes by expanding and contracting your fingers rather than by moving your whole arm.Practice rotating the pen between your finger and thumb as you write. This rotation is essential to the delicacy and elasticity of your letters. When a letter requires that you change the angle of your pen, make this change by rotating or rolling the pen between your fingers, not by changing the angle of your entire hand. Don’t worry if you feel awkward at first; the movements will soon become second nature. ‘Sabr’ (perseverance) is a great Islamic virtue.

Sitting. Many contemporary calligraphers sit at a desk and chair rather than using the traditional sitting position. But most would still agree that the beginner is best off sitting on the floor as novice calligraphers have sat for centuries. In the traditional sitting position, you sit with your left leg tucked under you and your right leg bent, acting as your table. Your weight is distributed between your left shin and right foot. Your back is straight against a wall or other supporting

right setting

surface. Keep at least twelve inches between your face and the page as you write. This distance enables you to judge the balance of your letters in relation to each other and to the whole page.

The best surface for writing Arabic calligraphy is fairly flexible. Try clipping your calligraphy onto a magazine or a

couple of newspaper sections folded in half. Hold the paper with your left hand against your right thigh close to the knee, and write with your right hand. When using a magazine or newspaper as a writing support, keep the open side (the side you flip through) facing up towards your knee and the closed (folded) side facing down.

Try to breathe in before each stroke; hold your breath during the stroke; and exhale after completing the stroke. If your legs fall asleep and your back aches, just stand up and walk around every ten minutes or so. Writing for even a brief period each day will make this position feel natural in a matter of weeks.

Tips and Suggestions.

If you are having trouble forming a letter, try to memorize the shape of the negative spaces between the strokes rather than the shape of the stroke itself. For example, the white space inside the head of the ‘ain’ looks something like an eye.

The beauty of the letters will be most apparent when your lines are thin where they are supposed to be thin and thick where they are supposed to be thick. Aim for consistency and regularity. Thus, not only should every ‘nun’ you write look like every other ‘nun’, but also the curve of the ‘nun’ should look like the curve of every ‘sin’, ‘sad’, ‘qaf’, ‘lam’, and ‘ya’. Balance is essential. Keep referring to the model, and don’t forget to rotate the qalam between your fingers. This motion gives your script fluidity.

Once you commit yourself to learning calligraphy, what you see is as important as what you write. Try to spend time looking at examples of fine calligraphy in your chosen script. As the shapes sink into your consciousness, your hand will respond naturally. Do not look at poor calligraphy. Especially at the beginner’s stage, it can significantly harm your writing.