Common Calligraphy Issues

Here are a few points those new to calligraphy seem to struggle with. I know that learning calligraphy is a slow and intensive process. Please be patient with yourself, make sure you’re taking breaks, and ask for help. If there’s something getting to you that isn’t answered here, let me know.

  • Nib, Ink, and Paper
  • Hand Pain
  • Ink Spills and Smudges
  • Ink Feathering
  • Crooked Letters

Nib Won’t Cooperate

This answer was taken directly from a question someone asked me on Instagram:

“When your nib won’t cooperate, how do you know what the problem is and how do you fix it?”

My teacher Carol DuBosch said in the last workshop I took with her that there are 3 things to consider — nib, ink, and paper. The first thing that I check out is whether or not my nib is old or damaged, which would prevent proper ink flow. If it’s a new nib, the protective coating needs to be gently washed off using a mild soap or your saliva. Sometimes it’s the paper; there may be a coating on it that resists moisture, which can be frustrating! Or the paper’s too thin and doesn’t hold ink well, so it bleeds. Sometimes it’s the interaction between nib and paper. Carol showed us to gently sand our broad edge nibs to get them to grip the paper slightly. Lastly, the liquid you’re trying to write with may need help with the consistency. A lot of times when I’ve tried to write with watercolor wash, it’s just been too thin, so I added more pigment. Some inks that come bottled are too thick to write with right out of the bottle, so they need to be watered down a bit. Troubleshoot between nib, ink, and paper, and let me know how it goes!

Hand Pain

There are a few reasons this pops up in a calligraphy practice. The main reason is the practitioner has an excessively tight grip on the writing instrument. This is habitual, since many times when we start calligraphy, we retain the same grip as if we were writing with a regular pen. Be patient with yourself while adjusting to a lighter grip — it took a long time for you to develop that firm one! A few ways to lighten up are to:

  • As you write, practice removing your index finger from the writing instrument; just let it hover out there. This will show your hand that it can still control the pen or pencil without applying all that pressure.
  • Take a pencil, eraser side down, in your non-writing hand. Place the eraser about an inch above where you are writing. This will hold the paper steady and transfer some of the stress from your writing hand to the other hand.
  • Make sure your nib is flexible enough. If you’re working with a firm pointed nib, it’s going to take a lot of pressure for the tines to open, and your hand is gonna feel that after a bit. Switch to something more pliable, but make sure you can still have control of it.
  • Make sure you’re sitting up straight and that the surface of the table is far enough away from your head and shoulders that your shoulder doesn’t crumple up toward your ears. This will allow freedom in your writing arm and in your hand, so that you have access to all that range of motion rather than trying to articulate every movement from the hands and fingers.
  • Take a break!! Any motion eventually hurts the body if you repeat it for an extended period of time! My teacher Paul Antonio recommends getting up every 30 to 40 minutes.

Smudges and Ink Spills

These kind of go hand in hand, and they still happen to experienced calligraphers and artists. Here are a few ways to minimize these issues:

  • Maintain a neat and clean work environment where you have enough space to spread out, but still have access to all your tools. This may be your kitchen table after the kids go to bed or you could set up shop at the library after school.
  • Put some ink from your larger container into a smaller one with a tight fitting lid for a few reasons. If the ink does spill, it won’t be as much. Also, the less area you have to dip your pen into, the less likely it is to get on the shaft of the pen, and thus your fingers as you write.
  • Clean your pen and nib regularly as you write, both to avoid unintentional smudges and to keep the nib performing and making the shapes you want it to make as you work.
  • An inkwell helps to avoid spills, and if you have some tape, you can always make a tape roll and stick the bottom of the container to your work surface.

Ink Feathering

The bane of any good practice gone bad. As you go along it’ll be easier for you to determine what paper will work well with your intentions, but before you sit down to do anything serious or involved, test your ink on a scratch piece of the paper you mean to use and let it dry completely. Very thin papers or basic copy paper are not suitable for working with a dip pen and ink. Some markers even bleed terribly on these papers. In the past, I’ve sprayed fixative on paper that bled a bit to prevent the ink seeping deeply into the paper, but for the sake of practice and beginning, I would choose something like a Rhodia Blank pad or Canson Marker Paper Pad. They take ink well and you can still see the guidelines through them.

Crooked Letters

Speaking of guidelines . . . I think I used to think of them as lame training wheels and eventually I wouldn’t need them after I got proficient in my script. Now I think of them as major architectural support for my work. There is a difference between how you think the script is supposed be written, how the script is actually written, and how you’re writing it. Guidelines help bridge the gap in between these variables, and your study of the script and what you’re actually doing while writing it will strengthen the integrity of your script. Nothing is more distracting in a script than a letter — or a few — that are out of place compared to the rest. This is because it disrupts the consistent spaces between the letters in the body of work. To avoid this, you really have to make a commitment as you’re practicing the strokesnot the letters — to be consistent with hitting the guidelines accurately. When you do this, not only are you training your hand to write the script properly, but you are also training your mind and eye to see the script as it should be written. For more about guidelines, check out Tips for Guidelines and Why You Need Them.

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