How I came to know ‘Le Geste’. (French mark making)

Calligraphy pen
envelope with sketch of writing tools
Some of the tools you can use to practice ‘Le Geste’

This piece first appeared on Medium as an answer on an article by Scott Torrance. But since then I don’t fit anymore into the business model of Medium. As many others, I’m moving the stories to my website. Lesson learned: never build on borrowed land.

Le Geste

Body language is universal. We all use it intuitively, in our own way without giving it any further thought. Most of the time. That body language, those manners, are as personal as handwriting. But is handwriting still regarded that way now that most of us produce texts on keyboards? And is being sleight of hand, if we may translate the ‘perfect moves’ by calligraphers as a mere nimbleness of fingers, today as impressive as it used to be? Let’s look at why this French expression of ‘Le Geste’ is in fact the description of your undeniable signature and why you should cherish it in times of live scribing, graphic facilitation and sketchnoting

Calligraphic moves that could be described as ‘le geste’ in French

What was, in ink.

1955, artist Pierre Alechinsky takes a plane to Japan with a small film crew to learn about calligraphy. He is in awe for what he finds and will return with a documentary that will introduce the concept of — drawing and writing at the same time — to the western world.

1960, Henri Michaux experiments with mescaline while producing a kind of écriture automatique. He paints when he wants to escape from writing, and vice versa. Around the same time the Cobra group takes form with artists like Karel Appel, Asger Jorn and the lesser known Belgian artist and co-founder of the group Christian Dotremont. His logogrammes are the most famous and fabulous gestes. Paul Klee says that: “A drawing is a line going for a walk.” And since writing letters equals drawing, … It is indisputable the most inspirational period of the past century for today’s writers and artists interested in what le geste really means. Study how and why they hold their brush and you will certainly be inspired.

Funny names

In French ‘Pattes de mouche’ means small and quirky handwriting as if it was written by flies. (sketchbook excerpt)

Although the phenomenon of le geste is not exclusive to the French-speaking population of the world, it is nevertheless in the French nomenclature that we find a lot more exotic and mystical descriptions of writing that have found their way into the world and even into the English vocabulary. I picked a few of my favorites from the Roget’s Thesaurus:

  • nom de plume
  • coupe de plume
  • pattes de mouche
  • écriture automatique

Le style est l’homme même.*

One reason for this idiosyncratic interest of the French in everything handwritten has certainly to do with their early introduction to Asian writing forms through their colonies in Indochina, a region in Southeast Asia roughly east of India and south of China. The meeting of two philosophies of how to approach the physical act of writing must have been fruitful, and creative.

*free translation: Your style defines you

In Indochine even the billboards were magnificent exercises in typography and brush script.

The importance of process

Just imagine. Gutenberg may have invented the printing press (around 1448) but he only combined what already had been discovered. For example: look at any gothic script penned 300 years before his printed Bible and you will see that it cramped every letter in the same amount of space. You can hardly call it handwriting what those monks produced. They were copying machines. It would be more correct to say that Gutenberg’s true accomplishment was that he spread literacy through mass production.

But back to the future, to 1887, when that Frenchman in Cambodia, with his metal trunk full of printed books in his study, meets a local scribe with a brush and ink vessel in his hands who tells him that writing and drawing are: “like a flower with stamen and pistil at the same time”.

Their process and idea of writing by hand couldn’t be further apart. But the Asian scribe was right and reminds us: every letter, every sign, is in fact a drawing. The French adopted this way of thinking and it even influenced philosophers like Louis Deschamps and Roland Barthes who haven written extensively about their geste & écriture.

Fountain pen, brush, ballpoint, anything will do.

I can relate with the Frenchman and his printed books. The first time I had a ‘close encounter’ with le geste was rather embarrassing. When I was still a very young and eagerly practicing calligrapher I met an asian scribe myself. We made a trade: I would write his name in a dozen different western styles and he would write mine in Chinese. I got my fountain pens and broad nib steel pens out and worked several days and nights to get that Gothic Littera Bastarda just right. There was fine ground pigment and virtuosity in every stroke. What a stress! After all, I was competing with a scribe coming from a culture where people have ink in their veins!

And when the day came to exchange our work, what did he have? A ballpoint drawing! Not one brushstroke! My disappointment was complete.
But in fact he had done me a favour. Because he didn’t have his brushes with him (we met in Belgium) he had translated my name into an ancient design for seal carving or zhuanke in Chinese. This is extremely difficult to do and requires years of study. Early designs go back to the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC to 1046 BC). I learned that for example the difference in the thickness of lines in the frame are part of the script, and thus my name. Pure awesomeness. My disappointment turned into admiration.

My name as a zhuanke or carved seal. Original document in ballpoint. Click to enlarge.

I had learned about le geste in my own writings who were, in the end, just lifeless copies of old models. I had learned that the thick/thin relation in calligraphic lines are not just there for show, but for a reason. Since then the appearance of my handwriting has changed completely.

Le geste was no longer about making curls only.

sketch of a writing desk with tools