Gabrielle Toner-Hennen – A Women & Her Calligraphy

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Gabrielle Toner-Hennen has a passion for calligraphy, a centuries-old visual art form. Karen Farrell spoke to Gabrielle about her love of fine hand writing …

What do you love about living in the Manning-Great Lakes?

This is a great place to retire, with fresh air, beaches and things to do with more reflection, a slower pace, less stress and opportunities for a more relaxed lifestyle.

Although we have only been here for a little over two years, my huband and I have met some really lovely people and we are involved in activities, which helps to keep us young.

How long have you been creating calligraphy artworks, and how did your interest in calligraphy come about?

I began learning the art of Calligraphy about 20 years ago, when I wanted to add a relaxing interest into my life. It takes a few years to gain confidence to put pen to paper and create something that is worthwhile for a public exhibition. I used to create works and put them under the bed, and then one day I decided to frame some for an exhibition in Sydney.

I was overwhelmed by the result. This gave me confidence to raise the bar a bit. I won some prizes in the Royal Easter Show. That, too, was exciting and encouraging.

Handwriting has always been of interest to me, and I used to win prizes in primary school. My father had a beautiful copperplate hand and I would watch him when he wrote words, then I‘d trace over his work – but mine never looked so beautiful. I also had a teacher, Sister Jane, who taught us a type of writing that was fairly basic and used for writing on children’s school certificates and to address envelopes. Since learning calligraphy, I have learnt many new skills together with the history of Western Calligraphy, and I continue to learn more about the beautiful art.

Calligraphy has been around for centuries, and all books, especially Bibles and Book of Prayers, were hand written and illuminated by the monks in their dim, damp scriptoriums.

Calligraphy, a word which first derived from the Greek words kallos (‘beauty’) and graph (‘writing’) is a visual art form … what skills must a calligrapher have to excel at the craft?

I guess before we have the skills, there has to be the desire to develop the skills and then to put the passion into them.

There are many skills that are important. Learning the size, shape, slope, interletter spacing and interline space. Proportion and the use of space are important.

There are many styles of calligraphy (some are traditional and some contemporary). We try to match the piece of work that we create to the style, so that a certain feeling can be conveyed.

Aside from calligraphic pens, do you also use quills to create your artworks? 

We use a wide range of pens (these are the old fashioned dip pens that have a flat, angled or pointed edge, and these are helpful in executing the chosen style) brushes, reeds, balsa wood, cardboard, and pens made from Coca Cola tins!

Whatever I can put into my hands that will write or make a mark … it can become obsessive at times! I have used a quill for fine work, but goose quills are hard to obtain here in Australia.

How lightly do you need to press the pen (or quill) to paper?

It’s really a matter of how gently we hold the pen. We need our hand to glide gently over the paper or canvas, or we may need to use the whole arm movement for freedom. In some styles of writing, we may need to press the nib so that the letters have emphasis – such as when writing copperplate, the down stroke is heavy and the up stroke is light, with the nib just touching the paper.

Is it true that a calligrapher should not share their pen, as over time it becomes moulded to the writing style of its user?

I think we all have our favourite nib and handles. Because we use dip nibs, it is disappointing when our favourite one becomes blunt and we have to get a new one. We have to care for our nibs, especially because they are steel and go rusty, so after each session I carefully clean and dry them. They are different to a fountain pen.

What sort of ink do you use?

There are many inks available on the market, and I am pretty fussy about which ink I use. I use a Sumi. Chinese ink for is blackness and consistency. Sometimes I mix Chinese/Japanese ink sticks on an ink stone for extra fine ink, and I’m able to decide on the thickness of the ink. I also use Gouache, watercolour paints, acrylic inks, powder paints, pastels, and I also try other mediums for the best results. For illumination work, I use 23 carat leaf gold.

And paper?

When planning and creating ideas, I use bond paper. This enables me to judge layout and where I will put the emphasis and contrast in the work. This requires drawing lines for uniformity and slope. This is where design problems can be observed and corrected. The final work is then carefully written on high quality paper. The paper is expensive, as it is cotton based and comes from overseas. This paper is stretched and can withstand any painting or backgrounds suitable for the subject. I use coloured Canson paper.

When I save up, I’ll buy some vellum and do a very special piece as the monks of old. There is a lot of preparation when creating a piece of work. It is not as if you can sit at a computer and type it up and copy. The works are original and hand written with passion and love.

Why is handwriting in calligraphy so romantic … could it be that it’s because it’s a centuries-old art form?

When I was overseas a few years ago, I went into a museum, where the vellum choir books that were done hundreds of years ago were on display. The illumination and calligraphy were absolutely magnificent. The leaf gold was as pristine as it would have been when created. I was moved to tears and stood in wonder and awe.

We may never return to that era. I think we have even lost the art of writing on an envelope, even much less writing a letter. I remember when I sent out my handmade Christmas cards last year; I took the trouble to write on the envelope and to do a small artistic decoration in the left hand corner, and so many of my friends thanked me and told me how beautiful they were. Calligraphy is an art form that hopefully will make a mark in our modern era of computers, iPads and iPhones.

I don’t know that it is romantic, but rather it’s part of our human history that is making its way into modern times using modern methods based on what has gone before. When I do calligraphy, I am transported into a spiritual space, and I am grateful for this gift of creativity.

This story was published in issue 66 of the Manning-Great Lakes Focus

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