Letterform Analysis: The Symmetry of Curves

In this article I would like to discuss an aspect of script writing that qualifies as both fundamental and advanced concepts, namely the symmetry of curves. Those who have seen my workshop presentations know the emphasis I place on the concept of curvature in Engrosser's script. I recall listening to Master Penman Michael Sull discuss the importance of understanding curvature in a past seminar on drawing acanthus leaves. This served as the impetus for my examining curvature and its implications in Engrosser's script. An intensive study of the script of past masters such as EA Lupfer, CV Howe and of course my personal hero from that era WA Baird led to a deeper understanding of letterforms. I will confine my discussion to the lower case letterforms to limit the length of this article. Keep in mind similar principles can be applied to upper case letterforms.

When you look at a high quality specimen of Engrosser's your eye instantly perceives a graceful symmetry that seems to defy description. The letterforms exhibit a remarkable uniformity of slant angle and wonderful contrast between hairlines and shades. However, there is more to this harmony than is first perceived. I began to realize that while the script of the masters exhibited the usual similarity of letterforms such as the o, a, e, c, etc., in reality the overall letterforms were more similar than I had originally realized. Closer scrutiny reveals that other letterforms such as l, b, v, u, in fact, all the lowercase forms exhibited nearly identical curvature.


It is important to keep in mind everything I discussed about the all-important oval in previous installments of this series. As I will demonstrate, the 'secret' can be found at the base of the letters. If we consider the word 'dotted' (Figure 1A), written by EA Lupfer and taken from The Zanerian Manual. The word is composed of apparently different letterforms: d, o, t and e. If we focus our attention on the lower portion of the letters (Figure 1B) we notice that the apparently different letters are nearly indistinguishable! When I discovered this for the first time I nearly fell off my chair. In fact, I consider this to be the second most important finding in my studies. The first was of course the influence of the oval on letterforms.

We must now consider the imaginary ovals that form the individual letters of Lupfer's word. In Figure 1C, we see that the source of the uniform symmetry is the imaginary oval that forms the letters. It is interesting to note that while the spacing varies slightly due to the 'o-t' connector transition, the overall harmony is maintained. Of course, all these forms are 'dead on' the slant angle. Furthermore, all connectors approach this slant angle. The combination of elements I just described translates into the uniform curvature of the letterforms. Specifically, the shade to hairline transitions at the base of each letter are symmetrical. It is particularly interesting to note how the component parts of the lower case d, the oval and the ascender-shaded line, are also identical at their base. To further illustrate this concept, I penned the word 'aged' (Figure 2A) and performed a similar analysis on the bottom portion of the word (Figure 2B). The symmetry is maintained even though the vertical descender stroke of the 'g' divides the form into two parts.


How was this remarkable symmetry achieved by the past masters? The answers are quite simple. First, they had access to the best instruction/instructors at schools such as The Gem City Business College and of course The Zanerian College. There are only a handful of these graduates today including Master Penmen Bill Lilly, Joseph Kowalski, Stephen Ziller and Chris Costaras. These men studied under the legendary penmanship teacher EA Lupfer. They had access to inks such as Arnold's and Korean stick ink as well as legendary nibs such as Gillott's Principality, 303, 604EF and the Zanerian FineWriter. Both the inks and nibs mentioned have taken on reputations of mythic proportions. Finally, they studied from quality exemplars. Such exemplars are still available today in The Zanerian Manual, The Universal Penman and online at http://www.zanerian.com to name a few sources. As I have stated in the past, using poor to mediocre exemplars can only result in perfecting mediocre letterforms. Aim high and your efforts will be rewarded.