What I Wish I’d Known When Starting Calligraphy

There are some things I learned from experience and from preference, and there are some things that deterred me from even wanting to sit down to write. I wrote this with the hope that it will remove some resistance in your calligraphy practice and increase your comfort and success!

In this post, I touch on:

  • Posture
  • Loosening up the Pen Grip
  • Taking Breaks
  • Study and Practice

I am happy to answer any questions and clarify information for you. Just leave a comment or use the contact link at the top of the browser.

How to Sit Properly

My favorite working environment was late at night in silence, curled up in my chair, feet tucked under me, hunched over my work. And then my hand would start to ache and do things I didn’t ask it to do. So I’d put the pen down and go to get up and my ankles were stiff and after a while my knees were also unhappy. I’d get pain in my shoulders at the trapezius muscles from trying to hold my body weight over my work and move my arm to write at the same time.

Cool, so how should I sit??

You must sit in a chair or on a stool with your feet flat on the floor. This is difficult for me to this day because as a child I developed the habit of crossing my legs! Plus, I have always enjoyed sitting with my feet tucked up under me. Sitting with the feet flat on the floor allows for an evenness in the pelvis and a grounding in the legs. This is the foundation of your work. When you have a steady foundation like this, you give your torso — the sides of the body, the lungs, the shoulders and the arms — the freedom and balance to move and develop their own strength and grace.

The seat of the chair should be at a height at which your elbows just graze the top of the table. Need a boost? Add a folded blanket or towel. I do.

Develop an awareness of your low back and your shoulders. The low back should be neutral, not curving in a lot (mine is prone to this) or tucked under and moving back. See what yours is doing right now. Sit with your feet flat on the floor and place the back of your hand on your low back. Play with curving it in and out until you find a neutral spot where the low back is flat, curving in just slightly. This stability will translate into the sides of the body and the midsection, allowing these muscles to support the shoulders. The shoulders love to curve forward. We have gravity to thank for that. So, again, with your feet flat on the floor, low back placed ideally for you, place your hand on your upper chest by your collar bones. Take a deep breath, pushing your lungs up into your hand without changing the position of your back. More. More. More. Good. As you exhale, let your shoulders relax down your back. Feel what this feels like and take your hand away. Feel the space around your neck? Since gravity pulls us down and we don’t get to use our abdominal muscles to hold us up, the large muscle between your shoulder and your neck starts to take over for movement of the arms. Practicing this exercise (it takes hundreds of tries, be patient) will allow your body to hold itself up and allow the shoulder to move your arm without discomfort and stress. When you’re not uncomfortable and stressed, your letters will definitely show it.

As you work, hinge at your hips to be above the table. As you write across the page, bring the paper closer to you so that you aren’t chasing the paper across the desk, sacrificing all the good posture work you did above.

Holding the Pen

Misconception #1: Calligraphy is handwriting.                                                       Misconception #2: Hold the pen the same way you would hold it if you were writing normally.

Enough said. Just kidding. Calligraphy follows sets of specific guidelines to keep the script regular, measured, and specific. It is a series of shapes written with various tools to form words and text. Calligraphy is also used to express and evoke emotion and thought in a body or work of text. It is written with extreme care, planning, and above all, discipline and practice. Handwriting expresses the unique energy and style of a person.

Holding the Pen Wrong

My hand used to hurt from holding onto the pen for dear life and I could not figure out how to make long, elegant, confident strokes. The heel of my hand was planted firmly on the table as I wrote and I only used my fingers to move the pen, as I do when holding a pen for normal day to day writing.

Because of the arm and finger movements and tool manipulation required by calligraphy, the tool can’t be held the way we normally hold a pen in order to achieve the shapes some scripts (styles of calligraphic writing) demand.

You Need to Adjust Your Hold If:

  • The tips of any of your fingers are touching your palm
  • The tips of your fingers change color at all or flatten as you write
  • You feel any tension or pain in your hand while writing

Please be patient with yourself as you make the following adjustments and understand that you will need to practice and continue to make the effort. Having discipline here will offer you the freedom to write comfortably for longer periods of time and open the door to other calligraphy for you.

Here we go again. How do I hold the pen?

Loosely. As a start. Use your non-writing hand to place the tool in your writing hand and just hold it. Don’t squeeze it. Holding the pen with tension in the hand can only lead to more tension, pain, and possible damage to the hand. If you’ve ever injured your hand, you know how valuable it is. The muscular strength you use while writing in calligraphy will come from your shoulder, upper arm and your wrist. The control and manipulation will come from the fingers.

Have the inner wrist where it bends on the table. Just for a second, press your forearm down into the table. Feel the muscle there? That muscle will govern some movements and turns, keeping the wrist straight and stable.

Hold the pen itself further up the handle. The tips of the ring and little fingers should rest on the table to guide you and give you stability. That high?? Yes. Move the tool around. Check out how much more range of motion the fingers have than with a handwriting pen hold. The hand’s only job is to hold the pen. The pressure you’ll apply to the pen comes from the wrist.

3 Ways to Lighten Up Your Grip:

  1. Take your index finger off of the pen as you write. It’ll relieve tension and get you used to relying on other parts of your hand and arm for writing. You’ll see how much you can still accomplish without it. I learned this from Joi Hunt and it helped me.
  2. Hold a crumpled up tissue or paper towel in your palm as you write. It’ll make you aware of the space in your palm and how hard you might be squeezing your hand into a fist. Alternately, hold the paper towel in your non-writing hand and squeeze it. It’ll transfer some of the squeezing out of your writing hand.
  3. Switch to a really flexible nib. You absolutely can’t put excessive pressure on it because by design, when you do, ink just pools out of the nib. You’ll see how light of a touch you need to work with a nib and ink. This made a radical difference to me. Just try not to waste too much ink here. We’re going for conscious consumerism and as little waste as possible here.

Take Breaks !!!

When I started, I wanted to finish calligraphy pieces I was working on and I was damn determined to get it right! I was uncomfortable, so pile discomfort with frustration over a period of an hour or more and I felt rotten, negative self talk notwithstanding! Tension is poisonous and builds up. Fatigue does set in and the eyes and hands need a break. I’m sure I would have been gentler with myself and had better results at the beginning had I stood up and stretched, walked around, and gotten the blood flow going. Knowing when to say when and taking a break is a sign of strength. Your letters can only benefit from your rest. Stand up, walk around, and stretch at least every 30 minutes.

How to Study and Practice

There’s the comparison of calligraphy to my normal handwriting, there’s the comparison of my progress to where I began, and then there’s the comparison of my practice to the exemplar. I will say that practicing, even though I was using several incorrect pieces, got me used to committing to improvement, celebrating my successes, and keeping myself afloat when things weren’t going as I imagined they would. I remember this one page of capital Os (you can still find a post about it on my Instagram page, waaaaay down) that I wrote for practice and the nuance of guidelines finally hit me. Questions I started asking myself:

  • How wide is the oval?
  • Where does the broad part of the stroke start and stop?
  • How far away from the main stroke is this line?
  • What shape is the negative space?
  • How far up on this curve does the loop intersect? Halfway? Less than halfway?

The letters are all written in relation to a guideline, and this guideline is how the letters all relate to one another. Shortly after looking at the script this way, I realized the guidelines I was using were incorrect for the shapes of the script I was working with, as was the pen I was using.

Get used to asking yourself these minute questions about what’s in front of you. And get used to looking at historical works of calligraphy. These are the most accurate to the time period, original mastery and intent of the work. You can find them in libraries, books, and even online. Find examples of the script that you admire and look closely at them.

How to Practice

  • Practice writing a few letters
  • Put the pen down
  • Study your work against the exemplar.
  • Write notes on your work.
  • Learn from your mistakes. Practicing incorrect forms repeatedly is a great way to form a bad habit and create way more work for yourself in the long run.

 

So that’s it! Those were the main obstacles I had when I started. You can check out the Learn page to read more in-depth articles on these topics and more. Leave a comment or send me an email if you have questions or need some clarification. Sometimes calligraphy practice is still discouraging for me, but there is always something that keeps me coming back. Hopefully these suggestions make it easier for you to keep coming back to calligraphy too.

Check out Basic Calligraphy Materials to see what you can start with. You may already have a lot of these things at home.

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