I recently had the good fortune of attending a calligraphy workshop for the very first time. Anyone who knows me knows that I have a big interest in typography and enjoy drawing letters. The cover for my first book, for instance, ‘A Sense For Memory‘ was hand-drawn before I converted it into a vector image. I’m also a complete beginner, all things considered, and I’m not a particularly ‘neat and tidy’ artist. Generally I don’t try to make my letters perfect. I think the quirks of hand-drawn type make them unique.
With that in mind, I’d be lying if I said that I wouldn’t like to be able to create some elegant, traditional calligraphy! I signed up for an introductory class via The Pen Shoppe, in Brisbane, Australia. This store is an excellent place to find specialist pens, ink and calligraphic supplies. It’s located on the ground floor of the Queen’s Arcade and I must say that I really like the décor of this building, which makes me feel as if I’ve stepped back to the Edwardian era. I’ll admit that I like taking the lift instead of the stairs because then I can pretend that I’m on the Titanic!
It has a sister store one level above which sells a variety of interesting models and bric a brac. It is here that the lessons take place under the instruction of calligrapher and handwriting specialist Barbara Nichol. Barbara has a long history as an educator and calligrapher and has a keen knowledge of the history of writing.
She even was good enough to autograph my copy of her book, ‘Polishing Your Penmanship’. Watching Barbara’s beautiful penmanship play out on a piece of paper is quite impressive and she makes it look very easy.
Since starting to practice better handwriting a few months ago and finally trying out a fountain pen for the first time (!), I’ve gained new insight into this field. If you are a complete beginner (like me), these tips might point you in the right direction for further practice.
1. Work on your pen grip
Whether you are using a fountain pen, ballpoint or even just a pencil, as I have been doing, you should pay attention to the way the pen is held. The thumb should not be the primary controller for the pen; instead, allow the index finger and the middle finger to control upwards and downwards strokes. Gripping the pen tightly can create a shaky hand and makes it difficult for letters to flick upwards on their final strokes. The index finger shouldn’t be bunched up but fairly stretched out for flexibility. This is something that I am working on, as you can see, I instinctively want to put my pen quite far back in the web of my thumb and index finger.
2. Every letter begins with an upwards stroke
…At least in the copperplate style of calligraphy writing. It seems to me that starting your letters with a flick more readily allows your hand to create the curving loops which are the hallmark of this style of handwriting. Although some styles will differ, I’ve found that starting letters with an upward motion makes it easier to finish the rest of the strokes as the hand sets into a natural rhythm.
3. Watch the x-height
This is a term that will be familiar to us graphic designers. The x-height refers to the height of the lowercase letters in a given script or typeface (not including the ascenders and descenders). In a typeface or script, letters sit on the baseline and reach up to the cap height. Some ascenders may exceed the cap height and descenders will drop below the base line. These heights are different for any given font and are part of what gives a font or script its distinctive look. Legible handwriting and calligraphy should have a nice differentiation of height between the lowercase and the uppercase. Add flourishes to your ascenders and descenders to create an elegant and illustrative look.
4. Spacing matters in calligraphy
Letters should have some room to breathe (kerning) to increase their legibility and allow for attractive ligatures. Ligatures are what connects certain letters to each other (as in a lowercase ‘t’ to an ‘e’ or a lowercase ‘h’ to a ‘u’). If letters are clustered tightly together, it becomes difficult to read, and after all, the point of writing is to be read and understood. As calligraphy has a decorative component it makes sense that we should apply pleasing amounts of space to each line and curve.
5. Stroke thickness should be practiced at the same time as letter forms
I am still getting used to my new fountain pen and elbow nib/ink combo. Nevertheless, most calligraphic styles of handwriting allow for differentiation in stroke widths. Most commonly, the upwards stroke is thin and crisp and the downwards stroke is more robust. You can create any number of interesting looks by playing with variations of stroke widths or replicate the look and feel of a script which you find appealing.
For instance, more Gothic or blackletter scripts have a very strong variance in stroke widths as in these examples. On the other hand, many sans serif fonts (like Helvetica, Gill Sans and Futura) have very little variance in stroke width. I intend to practice more with my fountain pen to create more of a differentiation in the stroke, as I believe this is also a crucial part of creating script that is both legible and attractive.
6. Don’t try to write a word in one single movement
It’s okay to take your hand off the page and in fact is necessary from time to time. This is something I personally struggle with because my handwriting is a variant of cursive. All of my words are created in one long movement. I only rarely take my hand off the page to complete some letters. This can present a problem when writing calligraphy as the hand can become tense when moving from letter to letter. Please understand – calligraphy and cursive are different and the goals are different as well. If possible, try to bring the end of each letter up to the x-height (or the waiting line, as Barbara Nichol refers to it) and then begin again when you have shifted your hand along. If this is challenging (as it is for me) I suggest writing letters in groups of three and then moving your hand away.
7. Accuracy, not speed
This is another tricky one for those of us who like to write joined-up letters. Calligraphy is more of a genteel activity and shouldn’t be rushed. Take your time, enjoy yourself and don’t criticism yourself too much. Writing is a pleasure and it’s no good to get worked up if it doesn’t look perfect straight away. Be patient and have fun.
8. Don’t beat yourself up
One thing I noticed at the calligraphy workshop was that the other people there were being very careful and writing in the lines, producing very neat results. I, on the other hand, was writing all over the pad and even in the margins because I was enjoying swooshing my hand around with the new pen. After the lesson, I spoke briefly to another participant who seemed very annoyed with himself and said that he had no hope of applying the lesson to his day-to-day life. This isn’t a very productive attitude and in fact will get in the way of the learning process so don’t fall into that trap! Our tutor, Barbara, was very encouraging in this respect and gave a lot of insight into how handwriting can tell us a lot about ourselves.
This is about all the insights I have. I’m just a beginner right now, but I’ll be posting more examples of (hopefully improved) work as time goes on. In the future, my goal is to get good enough that I can start incorporating calligraphy into my projects. You can visit The Pen Shoppe via the address below or go upstairs to book into one of the workshops. Some of the items are on the pricier side so you can also consider purchasing some supplies online or through Oxlades, Eckersleys or similar.
(The Pen Shoppe can be found at the following address as of this writing:
Shop 24, Ground Level, Brisbane Arcade 160 Queen St, Brisbane City QLD 4000)