It would be nice if calligraphy just lived between the pen and the page, but if you’ve ever practiced writing calligraphy for any amount of time, you know it lives in the body and is translated to the page. As you work with calligraphy, you work with a new way of being in your own body. I think this is true when we’re learning anything, and it’s one of the joys of being alive.
I wrote this post to address two of the discomforts that come up while writing and to offer some ways you can support your body as you learn and work. Some of these things I learned from my teacher, Paul Antonio, some I learned from my yoga practice, and some I learned from trial and error.
Before I get to specifics, make sure you are breathing as you work, as evenly in and out as you can. Breath is like a current that carries energy. Use it to your advantage. Also, make sure you take breaks from writing every 30 minutes or so. You need to move around and stretch. There will be slight strain as you learn, but it should never be so intense and prolonged that it causes injury. Calligraphy is cultivated.
Learning calligraphy is like learning to write all over again and this includes the way you are holding the pen. I actually recommend starting calligraphy practice using a pencil, but we’ll get to that. Most hand pain comes from having too firm a grip on the writing instrument, from asking the fingers to do work that the wrist and arm should be doing, and from stress while writing.
Loosen Your Grip. If you hold your pen as if it’s going to escape, then you can’t move it and make the shapes you want to make. In regular handwriting, the fingers do the work of making the shapes and applying pressure to the tool. Though calligraphy and handwriting can inform each other, the way you hold a pen while writing in calligraphy is different because it’s more intentional writing. So the fingers’ main job is to just hold the tool and stay, for the most part, still.
Hold the pen higher up. The pen should be held almost vertical anyway to allow you to properly manipulate it. The tips of the 4th and 5th fingers rest on the writing surface to steady your hand.
Place the pad of the 5th finger on the table as you write. This one helped me and keeps my hand steady, but the palm open. For me, the 5th finger is straight, but if your palm is more open and your hand is relatively supported, you’ve got it just right.
Transfer the Pressure Get a pencil with an eraser. Hold it in your non-writing hand, eraser side toward the page. Place the eraser just above the area you are writing in and hold it there. This will have the non-writing hand take some of the tension from your writing hand.
These adjustments will add longevity and possibilities to your practice. you will be able to make bigger movements with your letters and manipulate the pen in ways you never could with the former grip. Trust me.
I notice that my neck starts to hurt if I am tilting my head to the side and pressing it forward to try to see around my hand as I work. There are three things at play here — the desk, my position to the desk, and my writing are on the page, the latter two being things I can adjust. Unless you’re intentionally working on a slanted surface, you want to turn the non-writing side of the body away from the desk. Your non-writing hand never rests on the desk, but the non-writing hand holds the page still for you as you work. If both arms are on the desk, you can’t move the writing arm as freely and you may also begin to slouch and get drowsy. A few things to do before writing:
Establish a stable seating position. The desk should be at a height jusssst at your elbows. You can place a folded blanket or a cushion underneath your seat to elevate you if needed. Set your hips evenly under you and make sure your feet are flat on either the floor or on something steady and firm. Steadiness in the legs offers a softening to the hips and mobility in the upper body. Rest your arms by your sides and take a few deep, even breaths, lifting your chest and relaxing your shoulder blades downward.
Tilt forward at the pelvis without tilting the pelvis itself forward. Draw your low belly in and keep length to your sides. The spine should remain naturally curved without too much strain or distortion on the lower or upper back. Place your writing forearm on the desk. Tilt your chin down and look at your writing area with the head not tilting one way or the other. Move the page, not your body, until this is true for you. Not only can the paper move toward your body and away from it, but you can also rotate it counter clockwise to see your work, as long as you are able to maintain the slant of the script.
If you find yourself settled into your old posture, just know that it happens. Put your pen down. Use your breath as a tool to bring length to the sides of your body and lift your chest. On your exhale, let your arms fall to your sides and bring a softness to your body and mind. Use this moment of establishing your posture as a mini break and when you’re ready, start again.
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