Are columns always straight?

Columns at the British LibraryColumns have been used for thousands of years to make impressive porches over significant buildings, or to record something important, such as Trajan’s or Nelson’s Columns, and the impression is that if they weren’t straight we would notice. However, if you look really carefully at columns, such as these from the British Museum, you’ll see that they have a very slight bulge just below half way.


Temple of Vesta, Rome


Parthenon in Athens







This is, of course, not new. This shape for columns was also used for those on the Parthenon in Athens (left). The columns on the beautiful Temple of Vesta in Rome (right), have a similar slight bulging just below half way. It is more difficult to make this out, though, with the railings in the foreground and the metal supports to the columns.

Pantheon in Rome


More obvious perhaps are the columns at the front of the Pantheon in Rome, the temple to all gods. Let your eye focus on the black space between the columns and it may be easier to make this out.



This shaping is called entasis, and is defined as the slight convexity of the column shaft which is introduced to correct the visual illusion of concavity. If the brain believed what the eye was telling it, without entasis the building would look as if it could not be supported by the columns.

lettering by Michael HarveyNow the space between the columns is the ‘counter space’, and this shape is thus slightly concave, going in just above halfway down. This is the shape that most good letterers use in their downstrokes. In drawn letters, this is quite easy to see as here. In this alphabet by Michael Harvey the swelling on the downstroke of the outlined letter B is quite obvious, so, too, is the increased width at the base of the outline stroke on the downstroke of the letter N. However, this shape to the downstrokes can also be seen quite clearly in the smaller letters in the black alphabet.


Letter F in British Library manuscript



This letter-shape was also used in mediaeval manuscripts. The downstroke (or minim as used by academics) of the Lombardic Capital letter F here in this British Library manuscript shows distinct signs of swelling at the top and bottom of the double stroke. (Note, too, the slight discolouration of the vermilion pigment at the top and on the right-hand stroke.)



Peter Thornton calligraphyIn Calligraphy, when using a broad-edged nib to make just one downstroke rather than those above which use two or more strokes, the technique is called ‘pressure-release-pressure’. So there is pressure on the pen to start the downstroke, this is then slightly released just above half way between the guidelines for x-height, and then pressure is applied again nearer the base guideline. British calligrapher Peter Thornton, now living in the US, is one of the best practitioners of this technique (see above right). It is, though, one that can be learned and applied after practice, and it does make a great deal of difference to how letters look. If you’ve not tried it before, then why not get out your pen and have a go?