Given the interest raised by my art foraging, I am setting up a course! I say “course” but it’s really a day out, finding and trying out natural materials we might use to make marks on paper. For instance, can a carved twig be as good as a reed pen, and if so which wood works best? Can we find durable sources of ink or paint in our local environment? (Spoiler: yes.) What else can we use with a bit of ingenuity and much experimenting?
The day will be only loosely structured, starting around 11 but open-ended. We will forage respectfully and with no expectations, as nature is in constant change and I really can’t predict what we will find. But during breaks I will share some useful theory (for instance the difference between ink, dye and paint), practical advice and easy recipes for you to try at home. I will bring a small mortar as well as knives and whatever else could be useful to test materials in the field (some will have to be taken home for that as we can’t boil things on the spot).
It’s possible a bit of food foraging will slip in there. Nature decides.
The (first?) outing will take place on saturday August 4, in the general Epping Forest area (exact location TBD) and is limited to 12 people. I will send an email closer to the date with full details, including what to bring. Do, however, be prepared for a day out that will involve a picnic lunch and may include such things as mud, nettles, and having to go behind a tree.
Still excited? Great, so am I! Sign up below (the cost is a modest £15) and/or email me if you have any questions:
This is a in-depth look at the design process and reasoning behind a recent project involving Square Kufic, that I hope will be interesting and even helpful to some.
This was a collaboration with Thibaut Degenne, a talented furniture designer and maker based in London, who also learned traditional mosaics in Jordan. Thibaut was bringing the two traditions together into a design concept, starting with a prototype side table. He asked me to have a look at his Square Kufic inscription before he rendered it as a mosaic.
The text is an Arab proverb: ربّ صدفة خير من الف ميعاد (“A chance encounter may benefit more than a thousand trysts.”) This was the original composition:
I should specify that this was composed by his Jordanian partner, a native Arabic speaker but with no background in Kufic. It is a classic example of thinking in round script and imposing a square style over it, rather than thinking in the style of Square Kufic proper. (To be fair, this is what any Arabic speaker not schooled in the script would do.)
As a result, the composition was unsuitable in nearly every respect, as shown below. The crosses show faulty spacing (in this style, spacing and line must be absolutely even), the dashes distprtions, and the yellow pattern used as filler must be discounted, so that all of that space above and below is also problematic.
The use of a third colour, in addition to black and white, is not in itself unacceptable, but it would be an additional layer: it cannot be a filler to make up for bad spacing. The black and white must be able to stand alone without it, which is not the case here. Moreover, there is no rationale behind this pattern: in places it is pseudo script, in others it mirrors the text, and in others it’s just filling blank spaces, and even that not systematically.
We agreed I had better redesign the script, taking into account the following restrictions:
The third colour needed to be integrated. In this case, this meant it would have to be a border.
I had to stick as close as possible to the existing measurements of the table. Because the composition corresponds to the elevation, and is a square, any increase or decrease in the length of the line would affect not only the width of the table but also its height, which is a serious alteration.
The size of the mosaic tiles was also set. I had the option of using smaller tiles, but that might be more of a complication than a help.
The depth of the script needed to be as small as possible (including a blank row above and below), because it would determine the thickness of the wood, and the danger here was to make it too bulky and heavy.
With length, depth and unit size relatively set, the grid I had to work with was pretty much defined, with only a little wiggle room. Such restrictions, however, are an intrinsic part of the art of Square Kufic, which was never designed with the freedom of a blank canvas but had to fill a certain area of wall, with tiles or bricks of a certain size. It was therefore an enjoyable challenge to see what could be done in these conditions.
Several possibilities came up, depending on what to prioritize: legibility, narrowness, or good design?
1a. Prioritizing legibility
This is usually completely irrelevant, as SK is not about conveying information, and most of the best historical examples are patently impossible to read, with the text laid out in a spiral so that absurd contortions would be required in order to decipher it. However, people who commission this style today always request a certain degree of legibility, so I try for that as well. This first option, then, was a better rendering of the original design:
Legibility: high, thanks to preserving the pointing and not forcing the letters into a band.
Depth: 9 units (narrower than original)
Design: poor. This is low-grade Kufic, and the border is still a barely disguised filler .
1b. Same, with concessions to design
Legibility: medium, as the letters are still unconstrained, but pointing is eliminated.
Depth: 9 units
Design: slightly better, as the removal of pointing allows ascenders and descenders to create a more pleasing rhythm with the border.
2a. Prioritizing design
Legibility: low, as the letters are constrained to form a perfect band, and pointing is eliminated.
Depth: 11 units (equal to original)
Design: Very good, proper Kufic practice.
2b. Same, with concessions to legibility
Legibility: medium, as pointing is restored to the constrained letters. The dotted border was an idea to integrate the pointing seamlessly.
Design: Good, only a slight compromise to traditional practice.
3. Prioritizing narrowness
Legibility: very poor, as letters are seriously constrained and there’s no pointing.
Depth: 9 units but could be as narrow as 5 if the border was removed.
Design: Correct but not much visual interest; the only real point of this option would be how narrow it is.
We discussed it and the end result was a variation of 2b, with a continuous rather than dotted border. This made it less distracting, and having the occasional dot break the line, in a regular pattern around the frame, adds life to the rigidity of pure Kufic. The dots also make it reasonably legible to most Arabic speakers.
I assembled the text in a composition that preserved the original arrangement (with blank corners) but interlacing the border:
Thibaut modified it to create a continuous band. This required a small modification at the corners, so he came back to me to double-check that detail.
His modification looked great but it amputated the final dâl of the sentence in order to place the dot, which wasn’t acceptable. Happily, it required very little to be corrected: leave the dâl alone and instead move the dot, either to the corner of the inner border or under the bâ, as shown in my redlined sketch below. I recommended the former solution, to preserve our system of keeping all the dots outside the text band.
This finalized the design. A few months later, I had the pleasure to watch Thibaut putting the mosaic in place, and not long after to “meet” the fully finished table! I hope it gets the attention it deserves and that we can work on more such projects in the future.
The small patch of woodland where I usually gather oak galls is known as Hollow Pond, and as the name indicates, there be a pond with a large population of water birds including large geese and swans. In the springtime the banks are strewn with molted feathers, including large remiges, used to make quill pens. I started picking up the biggest and cleanest that I would come upon, without any particular plan, as I didn’t think they could have anything to do with Arabic calligraphy.
But it so happens my friend Allison, a fellow artist, is primarily a Hebrew scribe, and we periodically meet up to exchange on art and nature. I found out that even though Hebrew requires strokes very similar to Kufic (and other Arabic styles), she uses quill pens. While in the Middle-East, the Jewish scribal tradition uses reed pens just like Islamic calligraphy (indeed Islamic scribes adopted the reed from the earlier scribes), the European tradition requires quills for the simple reason that the right reeds don’t grow here. This interesting fact got my attention. Quills can’t achieve the same breadth as reed pens, but they are much sharper, much better for delicate work, and of course they are local and completely eco-friendly.
Long story short, we had a work session where she showed me how to cut quills, after soaking the feathers overnight to soften them.
It took a couple of feathers for me to get the hang of it (happily there’s plenty of room for multiple attempts on any given quill), and mine don’t have the beautiful curves that a practiced hand can cut, but they write just fine!
Here’s my practice sheet (the first Ayin, top left, is Allison’s, the rest are my attempts to emulate it). The ink is actually black but very shiny, so this photo is not showing it well. I am pleased though, and now have a purpose for picking up feathers. It really tickles me to be able to make both ink and writing implement from “waste” picked up in the same place, a short walk from home.
The proper name is “oak galls ” or “gall nuts”, but tree pearls describes very well what they are: a tiny (harmless) wasp lays its eggs inside the bark of oak trees, and the tree in reaction generates a ball of solid, tannin-rich wood around the intruder. These start showing up in summer and for thousands of years have been one of the best-known sources of making ink. This was still the case up to WW2, so it’s remarkable that they’ve been so completely forgotten.
All of the galls above came from a single, unhappy oak no taller than I am (unhappy because it grew beside a busy road and was never going to be healthy, which probably made it more vulnerable. Also, it was too small to put out acorns, and I think that’s a factor because a large oak busy growing acorns has little energy to spare to make gall nuts). I spotted them while they were still green, and returned to harvest them weeks later, when they would have browned and a hole appeared, signaling that the wasp had hatched safely! In case I pick up an unhatched one, I leave the lot in a bowl by the window for a few weeks, so any hatchlings can escape. They are very cute and well-mannered, so their brief presence in my kitchen doesn’t bother me at all.
When I was ready to make some ink, I pounded all my galls roughly, just to break them up a bit, and then placed them in water to soak for at least a week. A faster way of working is to grind them to dust and then boil them, but why consume energy if there’s no rush? This is an exercise in sustainability. After only two hours the water already looked like this:
A week or so of daily stirring later, I strained out the solids and ended up with a pure tannin solution. This has uses of its own, so I set some aside, and prepared to turn the rest into calligraphy ink.
One might ask, since this is about the tannin, can’t the same result be attained with acorns? Apparently, acorns can achieve a good result, but the tannin is more concentrated in the galls. Also and more importantly, acorns are the oak’s progeny as well as food for a multitude of forest creatures. It’s not right to seize that for our own purposes when the galls are sitting there useless to beast or tree once the wasp has hatched. If left alone, they don’t fall off but slowly decompose on the branch. Even a handful of galls will yield enough ink to last any calligrapher until the next season.
The next step in making the ink is adding an iron mordant, which instantly turns the solution a deep black. Then, for it to be a usable ink, I added gum arabic (pounded from the crystals below and dissolved in warm water).
Now I’m experimenting with different amounts of it, and also with adding a little honey to make it even thicker. Too much gum arabic can make the ink flaky when it dries, but this hasn’t happened so far, probably because I’m working on paper, which absorbs the ink. The real test would be vellum, which was the original surface for this ink, and I have a scrap somewhere so now’s a good time to unearth it.
I don’t usually bring up my nature-oriented lifestyle on this website (plastic-free etc) but my hiking and foraging for wild foods are now converging with my art practice: I have started drifting towards foraging for colours. Just as I was formulating this intention for myself, I made a serendipitous first find: chunks of red rock disturbed by a construction site, on the way to my favourite woodland walk.
I brought them home, ground them into sand, and proceeded to wash and extract the pigment… So much pigment I am still working at it, the earth hasn’t released it all!
This lovely earthy orange, below, is the hue I can expect from painting with this pigment (I named it Theydon Red). I can use it with any painting medium I like, which will be natural mediums: watercolour, gouache, egg tempera… Oil too of course, but it’s not one I use.
There is such a strong sense of place in making art with the very soil of a place you love, processed with care, it makes store-bought pigment rather boring and impersonal…
Before and after the process: rocks vs. pure pigment.
Earth colors such as these, which are iron-based, are easy to extract, and they are reliable and permanent. More tricky and much less predictable are plant colours, which I am now busy with. More soon…
Welcoming in the month of May means the return of the wedding season, as a few recent requests brought to my attention! For those of you looking for a special gift with a personal touch, I have two offers for smaller budgets:
For £250: An original painting of the names of the newlyweds, in watercolour with gold leaf, in a circular arrangement or square kufic composition (see example of each below; the design will naturally look different every time). Send me the names, colour options and your preference (round or square), and I’ll do the rest.
Size: 30 to 40 cm square.
Ready in: 2 weeks.
For £150: A signed art print (archival giclée) of an existing piece, with gold added by hand to capture some of the jewel quality of the original. Far more precious than a simple reproduction!
Size: 40 cm square or smaller.
Ready in: 1-2 weeks.
(Please note that not all my works lend themselves to this, so give me a few options and I’ll advise.)
These offers and prices will run till the end of August. Both options can be shipped. Please drop me a line with your request 🙂
March 22, 29, April 5, 12, 19, 26 (Wednesdays 18:00 – 20:00)
Final Project Sunday 30 April, 14:00 – 18:00
6 Weeks + 4 hours final project = 16 Hours
Course Fee: £210
In this non-traditional calligraphy course, we will not use reed pens and repetitive copying. Instead, we will return to the original source of Arabic calligraphy, the Kufi family of styles, and study it with a modern design approach. Kufi was the first Arabic script to be consciously made beautiful, an unlike the later round scripts with their strict rules, it can be constantly reinvented and is not tied to any given tool or medium. Students, then, can benefit from the same creative freedom that the earliest calligraphers enjoyed, and find their own approach to the art of Arabic calligraphy.
We will learn the essence of the letters and how it expresses itself in different styles; spacing, proportions and the uniquely Arabic concept of kashida; compositional approaches including the highly specialized Square Kufic. Each of these design notions will be accompanied by a practical exercise to anchor the theory and allow students to learn from each other. The course will culminate in a final project where the student chooses a word or phrase and creates their own composition for it. Examples of final projects are shown above.
This is a one-day taster workshop where we will return to the very earliest, and long abandoned, style of manuscript Kufi. I will talk in some depth about the origins of the script, its particular qualities and its spiritual purpose. We will then learn to write key letters with the reed pen, also going over their deeper meaning. The session is meant to be immersive and meditative rather than results-oriented, with participants encouraged to work at their own pace. From there a full course may take shape for anyone who wishes to complete a technical training in this style.
You are invited to join us at an interesting time of the year. The Winter Solstice marks the darkest point of the year, but it is also the moment when Day is reborn and Night begins to recede again. For this exhibition timed to end on the Solstice itself, three artists have come together to explore the relationship of Light and Darkness in their respective practices.
Dates: The show will run from 8 to 21 December, open daily from 12 to 7 pm. Private View: Tuesday 8th December, 6 – 9pm Solstice Event: Monday 21st December, 6 – 9pm Location: The Crypt Gallery, St Pancras Parish Church, Euston Road, London NW1 2BA (across Euston Station, entrance on Duke’s Road) Entrance is free to all, no booking required! About the artists:
Joumana Medlej left her native Beirut in 2013 to settle in London. She works with the nearly forgotten Kufic script, acquired through many years of working with a master. Leaving old forms behind, she pushes the geometry of the script and makes novel use of materials to reinvent Arabic calligraphy in every piece. Joumana’s work is in private and public collections in the UK and Middle-East. www.majnouna.com
Alan Craxford has lived in London since 1967. He is best known for his signature hand-engraved jewelry which is widely exhibited in the UK and internationally. Four years ago, during the long recovery following an operation, he began to experiment with scalpel and paper. This enabled a whole new direction where light and shadow, colour and pattern can be worked together in a unique way, both meaningful and beautiful.
Lynette Howells-Moore is originally from Melbourne, Australia, and now lives near Chester. Her training in Fine Art Painting is wide ranging, and her paintings encompass a wide variety of mediums: the ancient technique of egg tempera painting and gilding, oil painting as practiced by the Renaissance Masters, and the more modern mediums of watercolour, pastel and pencil. She has works in private collections worldwide.
I have had a very exciting month. Life has given me a large and luminous new space to work in, the largest I’ve ever had at my disposal, and as a result my work has exploded. I have 3-4 large pieces in the making at any given time, and small studies all over the place. Up on the wall, above, are planning sketches for pieces in progress… Lots in the works!
I also look forward to hosting some courses and open studio events here. There is no internet access, which is a highly recommended state of affairs. On the other hand, Borough Market is nearby (heaven on earth for a foodie), which is a whole other level of distraction.
To go with this new era, I made some changes to my website. I had been puzzling over what to do for some time, wanting to give the calligraphy its own space without removing everything else, and also wanting to make the contents directly accessible, as opposed to having to click through a splash page first. In the end, I resuscitated Cedarseed.com to host all my more personal or past endeavours, while Majnouna.com is now solely devoted to khatt. A simple click from the main menu flips you from one to the other, so they are still connected, literally two sides of one coin, but it makes it much easier to direct press and clients to the calligraphy.
We are 4 women creatives, 4 winds blowing between the Levant and London, 4 directions of Arabic calligraphy which we invite you to discover in:
The Secret Garden of Alif
An open house and open heart event offering affordable art*, mutual encounters, scarves, live creation, pillows, homemade Mideastern treats – all amidst the whispers of Alif.
*For this event only, we are all discounting our work.
Sunday 27 July, 11:00-19:00
Joumana Medlej was trained in graphic design but always craved more meaningful expressions of creativity. She learned the essence of Kufi, the first Arabic script to be consciously made beautiful, through years of close collaboration with master calligrapher Samir Sayegh. He impressed upon her how to breathe new life into a traditional art, not merely copying or reviving its old forms but finding a contemporary language for it. Joumana is specially interested in the unique relationship between Kufi and geometry, both sacred arts. Her work seeks to uncover hidden order, how the words choose to reveal themselves, and evoke the magic that comes through when form and meaning are one.
Greta Khoury developed a fascination for Islamic calligraphy and the poetry of forms while designing graphic identities and typefaces.
She embarked on a journey to discover the history of the art and explore ways to bring its spirit into contemporary design practice. She encountered along the way many inspiring masters who each in their own way have taught her that forms are carriers of very ancient messages where sounds become words, words become forms and forms become constant reminders of the wonders of life.
Dia Batal‘s art/design work is a result of her interest in creating pieces that respond to her identity in content and aesthetics. It is the outcome of an admiration of Arabic calligraphy, language and the traditional art of working with text. She borrows from that, and finds ways of creating limited edition pieces in a contemporary language. The work she does is often context specific and enables audience and user to physically engage with it. Dia uses a free style Arabic ‘type’ that she’s developed to create an object, and tell its story, while looking at the possible transformations of the text, in relation to its meaning, the space it occupies, and function of that object itself. …
Noor Saab was fascinated by abstract orderly geometric patterns from a young age, and found herself naturally drawn into the world of Kufic script and arabesque patterns. Growing up in Beirut and then moving to London, her work is an expression of a strong oriental identity engaging with a plethora of western influences, constantly embracing the coexistence of opposites… the old and the new, the conservative and the rebel, the traditional and the modern. Come discover her debut collection of scarves – Salam, in a bold and vibrant tribute to peace.
Please pass the word on. We look forward to welcoming you!
I have had the most transformative week, a true revelation, learning to make colors from natural raw materials under the guidance of David Cranswick. Here’s a flying tour of the genesis of true artist pigments.
The alchemist’s lab
This cozy space was home for 5 full days to 1 teacher, 4 students, 1 gecko and a bunch of large snakes (really).
The three copper stones we’re starting with: malachite, chrysocolla
and azurite, alongside lapis lazuli (lower right).
Grinding the stone to a powder.
Wash and repeat.
Much later, the dried powder is ground with a medium to make watercolor, egg tempera or oil paint.
Homemade malachite watercolor
The product of sulphur meeting mercury, exploding with such strength it generates these rocks. What’s not to love?
Grinding this is going to be a little more difficult…
Adding lye to extract the color…
Time to strain the dye.
This is ready to dye cloth with. But to use it in paint we have to turn this into a solid…
Here comes the alum!
12 hours later… Time to strain again, butthis time we want to keep the solid.
So we proceed as if making strained cheese..
Many more hours later, this is what it will look like.
Much grinding later, we finally have paint.
The legendary red of carpets, now ready to be painted with.
This one will surprise you.
Now clearly violet…
Almost black tomorrow (left).
A whole other process, this is an ink and always in solution.
Testing with different proportions of gum arabic. This ink is nearly clear when brushed, then darkens dramatically on the paper.
The resin is ready, and so is… the sugar.
Add hot water to make the oldest binding agent in the world.
Ochre yellow, an earth color.
Add gum arabic…
… and start grinding.
Repeating with burnt sienna…
Passing the yolk from hand to hand till it’s ready.
The delicate part…
Testing with egg tempera.
Grinding yellow ochre again, this time with linseed oil, produces this beautiful consistency, like soft butter.
Now to tube it.
Lead white is quite a bit tougher to grind…
This spectacular color, minium, is obtained by heating lead white. That’s all. Just magical.
Final result of 5 days of intense work: This beautiful natural palette and so much inspiration.
I’ve been talking about it for ages, and it’s finally happening. Please share this link far and wide, the exhibit is up for a month and a half in a really lovely venue (with a bar!) and that’s plenty of time to catch it. I’d also like to add that during the month of July, we’re coinciding with a spectacular exhibit by my calligraphy mentor Samir Sayegh, just next door in the Beiteddine palace. Arabic calligraphy is the theme for this summer, don’t miss it!
Yesterday my fellow calligraphy artists, Ziad Talhouk, Everitte Barbee, and myself drove up to Beiteddine to take a look at the venue where we are holding our exhibit this summer. The invitation and all details will be posted as soon as I have them, but I can already say the opening will be on the 14th of July, so book yourselves! The exhibit will go on till the end of August, plenty of time to enjoy it and this truly unique location: the Beiteddine branch of the Art Lounge is a late 19th-century silk plant.You can see it from a mile away while approaching form the other side of the valley, and recognize it at once from the chimney and tall windows that characterize structures dedicated to raising silkworms and harvesting the silk.
I could give you an entire course on silk production right here, given we made a book on the subject, but I won’t digress – let me just say that one floor would be filled with white mulberry branches being devoured by silkworms, the chimney is for the furnace used to boil the cocoons, and the other floor would be busy with women unraveling the silk threads.
The inside, cleaned and whitewashed afresh by the Art Lounge. A bit messy for the moment, but soon to be rearranged for a purely calligraphic exhibit.
A bar puts the “lounge” in Art Lounge, and makes exhibits an opportunity to hang around and chill, not just look and leave. Plus the inside is cool no matter the temperature outside!
We won’t be using the second floor, but I had to take photos – look at that roof!
Not only is the space gorgeous, we’re incredibly happy that this beautiful remnant of Lebanon’s once famous silk production has been saved and revived by art. Many like it still dot the landscape, but they weren’t so lucky, most are dilapidated or doomed to be demolished.