Over the years, I’ve developed an understanding of what makes skillful calligraphy sooo appealing. I mean, there’s so much to love — paper, color, texture, fluidity and confidence of lines — but what truly elevates calligraphic work is invisible: it’s the negative space. When I say “negative space”, I mean the shapes inside the letters, the spaces between the words and letters, and the space around words and sentences. The mind is truly satisfied when these things are in order and it can relax, allowing the gravity of the work to sink more deeply into the viewer. Sounds a little like magic. And come to think of it, the space isn’t nothingness. It’s deliberate. The lines and motions made by the penman carve out those beautiful shapes from the blank page. As if they were already there before the lines were.
It comes down to consistency and for that, practice is required.
1. Your Breath and Your Body.
As you sit down to write and as you work, pay attention to how you’re breathing and how your body feels and keep checking in. Notice areas of tension in your body and face and relax them. See my article on getting started for tips on posture as you write. Keep your breath steady and even. If you’re feeling tired, hungry, grouchy, or just “off”, save writing for another time and go do something fulfilling for yourself. Calligraphy will still be there, I promise you.
2. Consistency of Strokes You’re Making
When you do get back to the page and you feel good in your seat, practice the basic strokes for the script you’re working with. Don’t do a whole page, do several and then check ’em out. They should all look alike and hit the guidelines you’re using. Take note (mentally or write them down) and then try again. As you move down the page, your strokes and shapes should be looking more and more alike. What you are doing is strengthening the building blocks of your script. Try not to think of the letters as letters, but consistent shapes put next to each other. This will help you to slow down as you’re writing and also keep your movements and shapes consistent throughout your whole piece.
3. Consistency of Deposition in Marks
You can work with this as you’re working with the basic strokes above. Your tool should deposit the same amount of media — ink, graphite, paint, chalk — with every stroke you’re making. Your pressure and (gentle!) grip on the handle should be consistent. This helps you control the thickness of the stroke. Heavier pressure makes thicker strokes; lighter pressure, thinner ones. To an extent, it’s up to you. Make a conscious choice and try for it, time after time.
Study your exemplar and historical works of calligraphy so you can see how far apart letters, words, and lines of text are from each other. The scripts were developed this way for a reason, do your best to match what is in front of you. Once you have this down, and I mean downnnnnn, then you can play with it. But for now you are learning to give your script the appropriate space to “breathe” and stand on its own.
Remember to be patient and give yourself time to grasp the movements and the script. When I am studying a script, I’ll get so far and make progress, and then I get a question about a ligature or placement and sometimes the answer takes me back a few steps. I am grateful for these setbacks though, because they always make my script stronger and not only offer more integrity to the script I’m working with, but to my entire practice as a calligrapher. May your setbacks also grant you success.