Kit, Thou Mockith Me

kit, thou mockith meWe are truly honored to bring an old friend back to the blog today. Remember Hope, our kid tester? The last time we saw her, she was testing ice cream makers. Then she made it to finals for National History Day, started high school, joined marching band, and designed a kick butt hands-on history program for her community library – you know, keeping busy. But this summer, I lured her back to the offices to test a calligraphy kit by ARTSCHOOL, which retails for around $30. Take it away Hope!

calligraphy kit by artschool

Hey everybody! I’m glad to be back reviewing cool crafty products for Pop Goes the Page. I guess I’m your “teen-tester” now!  With that being said, I was enthusiastic to test this calligraphy kit by ARTSCHOOL. The box was aesthetically pleasing, with a fold-over magnet fastener and a modern color palette of gray, teal, black, and white. The box also doubled nicely as reusable storage for the kit items because it wasn’t flimsy cardboard.

inside of calligraphy kitThe kit includes: 1 instruction book, practice paper, 3 cartridge pens (xtra fine, medium, and xtra bold), 5 ink cartridges (red, green, purple, blue, and black), 1 classic dipping pen with metal nib, 1 small bottle of black ink, 4 tubes of gouache (red, white, blue, orange), 1 paint brush, 4 gift tags, 4 bottle tags, and 8 note cards with envelopes. After reading the extensive list of supplies included in the kit, I searched the exterior of the box, the interior of the box, the instruction manual, and pretty much everywhere else for a suggested age range for the product…

Now, if you’ve read some of the other product reviews featured on Pop Goes the Page, you know by now that most products that have age ranges are not estimated very carefully, and a product suggested for ages 8+ gives a 14 year old and 2 full-grown adults trouble (like this. And, uh…this).  But I couldn’t even find an age range suggested for this kit. Personally, I find that more troubling than an inaccurate age range because as a customer purchasing the product, you don’t have even the faintest inkling (did you catch that calligraphy joke?) of how difficult the projects included will be. At least an inaccurate age range still is able to tell you, even roughly, that the product is intended for children, or teens, etc.

I’ve done a bit of calligraphy in the past because I received a book and pen set as a gift, so this wasn’t my first calligraphy rodeo. I mean, that was probably three-ish years ago, so I needed a refresher, but there were a few things I thought I might have kept with me. Just like riding a bike, right? So I thought, Sounds like fun! And hey, maybe this instruction booklet will be helpful in rekindling my minimal calligraphy talent! Ah, well, “the best laid plans of mice and men…” truly applies here.

booklet exteriorUpon opening the instruction booklet, which was titled Calligraphy the Easy Way by Diane Foisy, I was pleasantly surprised to find a ten page history on calligraphy’s origins, purpose, and more recently, its decline, and those who are attempting to keep the art form alive.

booklet interiorWith the ending of that section, in bold letters, it said “History has shown us that calligraphy will prevail.” I’m not sure about you, but to me that sounded a bit sinister, a bit secret society-ish. There was nothing exactly wrong with the statement itself; it just felt a bit chilling for a craft kit instruction booklet.

Following this seemingly superstitious statement, there was a page titled “Equipment: Basic Materials” that did not specifically mention the items in the kit, though there was a photo that showed the gouache in the center of a palette. I flipped through the whole booklet; there is not a single place where it tells you how to use the items specifically in the kit, except for a set of instructions telling you how to load each kind of pen included. Also, the cartridge pens were very hard to load, and it almost hurt to pop the seal on the cartridge so that the ink could flow.

difficult ink cartridgeOn that page, it also mentioned directions for using a “classic stylus”… nowhere else in the kit is this mentioned. Perhaps it is referring to the “classic dipping pen,” but if so, that was not made clear.

dipping pen in ink

To be honest, though using the dipping pen was more difficult, it was much more fun to use. It felt like a portal to the past, and you could imagine famous writers doing exactly what you were doing; Dickens, Tolstoy, Wells, Poe…

There was a page in the booklet with photographs detailing the cleaning of your pens after each use that I thought was a nice touch. Right after the page about pen care and cleaning, the booklet dove straight into “The Basics.” This was a 4-page section on the basic lines of calligraphy that are used to make all of the letters. However, there were no pictures of someone actually holding a pen so that you were able to gain an understanding of how to angle the pen for optimal ink flow. The directions simply made the callous suggestion “…if the ink does not flow, correct the angle until you have the stroke like the sample shown. You will develop a feel for when the ink flows well.”

Excusez-moi! What does “correct the angle” mean, exactly? To me, this felt like the pretentious calligrapher’s way of saying, “Sorry that you’re new at this, but you’ll figure it out eventually.” I did not feel properly instructed by this instruction booklet; I felt slighted for my comical lack of talent.

kit practiceNeedless to say, I was not very adept at creating even these simple lines. When I was making these lines on the practice paper provided, the ink went right through the paper. When it did not go through the paper, it bled on the surface of the paper, so it did not make clean lines like those pictured in the booklet.

Finally, I just decided to move on to trying to make actual letters in what the booklet called the “Chancery Style” of calligraphy. Overall, it was much more satisfying to make slightly misshapen versions of the letters pictured instead of creating row after row of little dashes.  However, again there were no pictures of someone actually writing the letters; there were simply arrows with numbers silently instructing you how to shape the letters.

Considering the minimal amount of instruction provided concerning how to make the letters, I felt like I was doing a decent job. Please don’t misunderstand me- I am certainly no expert (as is evidenced by these misshapen letters). But it was certainly more satisfying to make complete letters instead of what felt like, what must’ve been, hundreds of dashes, row after row, never succeeding.

letteringThe last section of the instruction booklet was titled “Projects”, and mostly pictured completed versions of the tags, note cards, and bottle labels included in the kit with long descriptions of the pictures. It was pretty much the biography of a thank-you note card, the origin story of a gift tag, and the memoir of a wine bottle label.

I think I would have appreciated it more if these had been the actual histories instead of the author narrating every pen stroke it took to design the aforementioned items. Despite this, the photographs included were helpful in inspiring my creations, including, a note card, a tag, and a wine bottle label (along with the honest statement, “I have no idea what I’m doing!” pictured at the beginning of this post).

calligraphy thank you cardThe booklet ended with a brief piece about the history of illumination, a type of medieval calligraphy done mostly by monks, and a few pages of flower templates that the author encouraged you to copy and use in your own designs.

There was never a mention of using the gouache and paintbrush. Not once. This was puzzling and frustrating because I was interested in getting to work with gouache (hybrid between watercolors and acrylic paint).

gouche, i hardly knew yeBy the end of this kit, by hands were speckled with ink, and I felt like that more than just my fingers had been immersed in the messy history of calligraphy. (The ink came off of my hands after 6-10 hand washes.)

inky handsI was so excited to use this product to make something beautiful with calligraphy, but instead I felt inadequate and mocked by the instruction manual. I should’ve been the one mocking the inadequate instruction manual. Since it was called (and I quote) an “instruction book,” I felt that I should have been instructed, not loosely guided by numbers and arrows. On the plus side, I gained a new appreciation for Charles Dickens’ incredibly long novels because he had to write them with one of these pens!

PROS: Nice packaging, good array of supplies, fun concept.
CONS: Lacking detailed instructions and sympathy for the learner.

After reviewing the pros and cons, I rate this product:
A sigh out of five. Which I’d categorize as a 2 out of 5.

Beautiful to Behold

faraz kahnThis year, I invited Arabic calligrapher Faraz Khan to Cotsen Critix, our literary group for kids ages 9-12. Faraz is an immensely talented artist, with a mission to bring the beauty of the illustrated word to all. His hands-on workshop introduced the kids to the basics of Arabic calligraphy, provided a little bit of history, and finished with the creation of unique pieces for the group (including each child’s name!). The Cotsen Critix were completely entranced by this unique literary art form. Faraz also lectures to adults – you can see images from a recent workshop at the University of Oklahoma on his blog.

Please tell us a little about yourself!

I am a local resident artist and a teacher at the Arts Council of Princeton, New Jersey. I also work as an environmental specialist trying to protect and preserve wildlife habitats such as freshwater wetlands, streams corridors and riparian zones in the State of New Jersey. I love to hike and learn about the environment and ecosystems.

FarazKhanArt-fabiayyi-414x500Aside from the environmental field, art is my other passion. I paint and try to create work that is based on abstract design and Arabic calligraphy. I have taught calligraphy seminars at Princeton University and am excited about teaching a full 3 credit Arabic Calligraphy and History summer course at Rutgers University. I also plan to open an art studio in downtown Princeton to share and educate people about discovering different fields of Islamic art.

FarazkhanArt-alhamdo-ink-422x500What role does calligraphy play in the Arabic world?

Arabic calligraphy is a very fluid script that catches the viewers’ attention. There is a rich history of calligraphy development and artistic expressions in the Arab and Muslim world. Arabic calligraphy is used as a decoration in communication, sacred Quranic text, architecture, art installations, etc.

When did you first start learning calligraphy, and why did it intrigue you?

It was about five years ago when I wrote a paper for my liberal arts class – “How to Decipher 6 Standard Styles of Arabic Calligraphy.” When I would visit my Muslim friends and family, I would always find these beautiful calligraphy work hung on their walls. I would always ask to understand the meaning, name of calligrapher, style, place of origin. I learned that most people did not know the answers to my questions. Hence, when the chance came to study calligraphy I was really intrigued by the possibility of learning, practicing, and explaining it to others.

Farazkhanart-Allah-mod-592x500What tools and techniques do you use to create your art?

Traditional calligraphers would use a bamboo stick or reed pen dipped in ink to write calligraphy. Modern artists have taken this art to a whole new level with paint brushes, graffiti markers, flash light with the use of slow shutter speed camera techniques, and many other tools.

light calligraphy - loveWhat are the essential things you try to teach children in your calligraphy workshops?

Children are special. They have such amazing pure hearts and I always learn from their simple, fun approach to life. I myself have two amazing boys, Ziyad and Zayn and they are unbelievable amount of joy and happiness.

In my classes, I simply want children to develop a love for learning. Art is about connecting beauty inside our hearts, to the beauty in the world. I would like them to be on a mission to not only decorate their classrooms with beautiful artworks but to further develop beautiful speech, writing, personality to inspire us.

FarazKhanArt-heart-pink-398x500How have children reacted to your workshops and the artwork you were creating?

Children are amazing interpreters of art. I would draw the letter or a word in Arabic calligraphy and I can read an instant reaction on their faces. I love how imaginative children can be with Arabic calligraphy. When I do calligraphy some children find birds or ribbons or waves or a musical note in my artwork while I only intended to beautify Arabic calligraphy and not draw anything else.

Faraz Khan Art Studio - happinessAre there other works of art that inspire you?

There are so many wonderful works of Western and Islamic art and it is hard for me to name one or two. However as an American Muslim, Muhamad Zakariya’s Eid Greetings US postal stamp has a special meaning to me. I am so proud to be part of a grassroots effort to create and educate people about Islamic art.


The Eid Stamp by Muhamad Zakariya. United States Postal Service, 2001

Name one thing about the art of calligraphy that surprised you.

Arabic calligraphy is written right to left but I knew that for a long time. However, last year one of my students told me that she was dyslexic and had a tough time reading and writing English until fourth or fifth grade. Once she was introduced to Arabic writing in elementary school, and while her class struggled, she picked up reading and writing Arabic within a week. It was amazing to hear how diversifying our curriculum and methodologies could impact the life of our citizens.

shukran @douglas

Works of art reproduced with permission of the artist.

Letter Art

letter artInspire alpha-centric creativity with this simple project! This dandy “Letter Art” gallery was created by Cotsen Critix, our literary group for kids ages 9-12. First, I asked each kid (plus 2 Princeton undergraduates and myself) to select a plain paper mache uppercase letter. I used these 8″ ones, purchased from our local Paper Source store (uppercase letters are $3.95, lower case are $3.75).

undecorated letter NWe took the letters home, decorated them, and brought them to the group’s next session, where they were proudly photographed and put on display. After that, we launched into a workshop with a Japanese calligrapher, who introduced us to an entirely different approach to the art of the letter.

calligraphyBelow are larger images of the individual letters, beginning with one that was inspired by the drinking straws and rosettes on this Cinderella dress (as library VIPs, Cotsen Critix got a sneak peek at the dress before the big event).

Also, if you’re wondering… yes, the backwards R in a box is wired for electricity. The angle of the box, the letter R, and the striped T in the illuminated background all combine to spell “ART.” There’s also a backwards Z. Apologies for reversing that honorable letter of the alphabet, but I couldn’t resist capturing the side with the cotton ball storm cloud and Sharpie highlighter lightning bolt!

letter Xletter Hletter Aletter Wletter Iletter K_1letter Rletter Zletter Kletter E_2letter R_2letter Mletter Eletter R_3letter Nletter Z_2