If you’re beginning to practice calligraphy, you’re dedicating yourself to a discipline of observation. Penmanship isn’t about having trendy or expensive tools. Getting good at calligraphy requires practicing the shape and consistency in your elementary strokes — and correcting them. What you put in is what you get out of it. 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.
In this article:
- Studying a Calligraphy Exemplar
- Tips for Using Guidelines
- Start with a Pencil
- How to Practice Calligraphy
Studying a Calligraphy Exemplar
An exemplar is an image of a script, or hand. It often includes both majuscule (uppercase) and minuscule (lowercase) letters. Ideally, an exemplar also has numbers and punctuation. Some exemplars include 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 one supports you as you practice calligraphy.
Find an Exemplar
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 and hints about the tools. Calligraphy books are usually near the art section. Check the library, used book shops, and new bookstores too.
There are also many exemplars available online. 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 writing instrument. Look at your exemplar for similar shapes. Usually there are short vertical strokes, long vertical strokes, and elliptical strokes that make up letters.
For example: the minuscule letter a is an oval with a short vertical stroke barely touching the right side of the oval. Some exemplars also include what’s called a ductus, or the order strokes are written to form a letter.
Tips for Using Guidelines
What are Guidelines?
Guidelines are a page of lines you use to practice calligraphy. They are sometimes called a “guidesheet”. The guidelines yo use will depend on the calligraphy script you’re working with. There are no letters on guidesheets. The lines are there to train you to in the consistency of your strokes. Horizontal guidelines regulate the height of the letters. Vertical lines remind you of the angle of the script, or the slant.
Your exemplar will show you how to set up the lines so that you can practice. There are also guidelines available online for you to print and work directly from. For upright scripts, I use graph paper as guidelines.
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. The lines won’t get lost in the darkness of the surface 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 on a rough table. A trick I learned from Paul Antonio: use 2 small paperclips at the top of the page to keep your papers together.
Start with a Pencil
When we thing of practicing calligraphy, we tend think of practicing letters. But there is more to calligraphy than writing the letters. We have to develop control over the tools. This means developing control over the way we write.
Working in pencil is a great way to practice calligraphy. It lowers the stakes so you can work with the fundamental structures of your writing. Using a pencil is a great way to learn about and adjust the way you write. As you practice, you learn to control the speed and pressure of your writing to get the results you want. Once you can write consistent lines and ovals, you should move on to letters.
How to Practice Calligraphy
As you practice calligraphy, make sure you’re being totally honest with yourself. Support yourself in the integrity of your work. 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.
Don’t forget to take a break and walk around every 30 minutes or so. Give your body and mind a little rest.
A stroke is typically a horizontal or vertical line. Practice these lines 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.
Things to Look for:
- Consistent length of lines (look closely!)
- Consistent pressure throughout the line
- Light pressure
- Curves or crookedness from when you lost focus or control
Pay attention to what part of the guidelines you’re placing the strokes on, where your strokes begin and end. Did you write them the way you meant to? Make sure you correct your practice after each line. This will help you asses you what you are actually doing as opposed to what you think you are doing. Write notes to revisit the next time you practice.
When you’ve made progress with your strokes, put them together to make letters. Writing letters and words gives you a feel for the rhythm of a script. You also get to start working with the spacing in between letters and words. Even here, work intentionally 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.
Calligraphy Practice is Maintenance.
. . . As in, it doesn’t stop when you know how to write a script. 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.
Take Care of Your Supplies
When you’re all finished working, take care to put your materials away properly so that they don’t get lost or damaged. 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.