In this article:
- Studying a Calligraphy Exemplar
- Tips for Using a Guidesheet
- Use a Pencil Before Trying Ink
- Practicing Basic Strokes
So, Beginning to Write. I’ll say it right here at the beginning: getting good at calligraphy has less to do with the tools you’re using and more to do with the time and effort you put into practicing the shape and consistency in your elementary strokes. Do have all your new toys, do play with them, and do be excited. But don’t forget that what you put in is what you get out of it. Anything that you are willing to apply discipline and dedication to is transformational and rewarding. Make sure you take a break from writing every 30 minutes or so. Stand up and walk around. If you haven’t already, check out my articles Basic Calligraphy Materials and What is a Calligraphy Nib?? to round out your introduction to calligraphy.
An exemplar is an image of a script, or hand. Some include both upper and lower case letters, or majuscules and minuscules, sometimes you even get letters and numbers. It often includes a suggested writing instrument, the proper angle to hold the pen, and the angle at which the script is written. It may sound like a lot of parameters, but each is a key to the success of your script.
Find an Examplar
I enjoy having a book or a printed copy of the script I’m working with as I practice. I try to choose books that have historical information to accompany exemplars, information about the tools, and other hints. Calligraphy books are usually near the art section of bookstores. Check the library, used book shops, and new bookstores too. There are also many exemplars available online and the nice thing about checking them out online is that you get to see a variety of scripts to choose from. Pick one that you really like and print it if you can. Remember, start now and use what you have.
Start Small with Study
Letters are made up of a combination of one or more strokes. A stroke is a shape made with the pen and some exemplars include a collection of basic strokes that make up the script. Usually these are short vertical strokes, long vertical strokes, and elliptical strokes that make up letters. For example: the lowercase letter a is an oval with a short vertical stroke barely touching the right side of the oval. Practice your basic strokes until they look similar to each other. This is before you make letters. Consistency in your basic strokes is vital to your success and contentment with a script. Most exemplars also include what’s called a ductus, or the order strokes are written to form a letter.
Study the strokes and where they land in relation to one another and in relation to the baseline, the x-height, and the slant line. Try to pick out similar shapes in different letters.
Guidesheets are another tool for you to build with and it’s gonna depend on the script you’re working with. There are no letters on guidesheets, but there are lines to train you make to the strokes of the letters the same height and width. If your script is written at a slant — tilted forward — there will be parallel vertical lines that show the slant of the script for you to follow. There will also be horizontal lines for you to write on. Refer to your exemplar; it will show you how to set up the lines so that the letters are proportionate. Again, there are also guidesheets available online for you to print and work directly from.
Tip: Place your guidesheet on top of a couple of pieces of white paper. This will help you to see the guidelines through the top sheet of paper because the lines won’t get lost in the darkness of the table you’re working on. The extra couple of pages also provide a cushion for your writing instrument, which can make writing smoother. Think of the difference between writing in a new notebook and writing on a single piece of paper that’s on the table. A trick I learned from Paul Antonio: use 2 small paperclips at the top of the page to keep your papers together. Place the long edges of the paperclips along the slant lines of the script to avoid confusion in your peripheral vision.
Start with a Pencil
Working in pencil is a great way to get a feel for a script and start training the hand, arm, and eye for making the strokes and hitting the guidelines. It’s easier than working with a nib and ink so that you can focus on your shapes and not fight with your tool. Once you get the strokes more consistent and can write using the ductus from memory, you should move on to ink.
How to Practice
A combination of one or more strokes makes up a letter. A stroke is a shape made with the writing instrument. Some exemplars include a collection of basic strokes that make up all letters in the script. In many scripts you’ll find short vertical strokes, long vertical strokes, and elliptical strokes that make up letters. For example: the lowercase letter a is an oval with a short vertical stroke barely touching the right side of the oval. Look for similar strokes and shapes in different letters in your exemplar. Practice your basic strokes until they look similar to each other. This is before you start making letters. Consistency in your basic strokes is vital to your success and contentment with a script. Study the strokes and where they land in relation to one another and in relation to the baseline, the x-height, and the slant line.
Pay attention to what part of the guidelines you’re placing the strokes on, where they begin and end, and if you’re working with broad edge, check your pen angle regularly. Write slowly and make sure you keep breathing. Instead of rushing to make the shapes, write with intention. And don’t rush to the end of the line either. Making lots of poor strokes for the sake of “getting it done and overwith” is not going to support the quality of your work. Practice making each stroke look like the exemplar BUT make sure you put the pen down and correct your work regularly. Writing with awareness and intention will show you what you are actually doing as opposed to what you think you are doing.
After you’re comfortable making the strokes, put them together to make letters. Writing letters and words is a great way to get a feel for the rhythm of a script while still practicing the strokes. Work slowly and study your work carefully against the exemplar. Be honest with yourself at this stage. You are laying the foundation for your experience and progress with the script. Try not to form habits you’ll have to break later.
Regular practice with the basic strokes is essential to your success with the script. Be patient with yourself and mind your posture. Make sure that you are taking breaks as you work. Write your name and the date at the top of your progress pages. This keeps track of the growth you’ve made.
When you’re all finished working, take care to put your materials away properly so that they don’t get lost or damaged. Sometimes collecting tools that work well for you can take some time, so treat them as if you want them to be around for a while.