What makes skillful calligraphy sooo appealing? There’s so much to love — paper, color, texture, fluidity and confidence of lines. But what truly elevates calligraphic work is actually invisible: it’s the negative space. Shapes inside the letters, the spaces between the words and letters, and the space around words and sentences are all negative space. The calligrapher can use this tool to guide the way the viewer interacts with the page. It’s deliberate. A calligrapher can carve out beautiful shapes from the blank page as if they were there before the lines were. Better calligraphy comes from knowing the rules so you can break them with finesse.
It comes down to consistency and for that, practice is required. Read on for a few things you can bring into your focus.
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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. Make it a habit to keep checking in. Notice areas of tension in your body and face and relax them. See my article, Cultivating Better Posture Habits, for tips on posture as you write. You are the liaison between the script and the page.
How you show up to the page will affect your calligraphy practice. 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 touch the guidelines you’re using. Take notes (seriously — write them down) and then try again. As you move down the page, use your notes to make your strokes look 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 shapes put next to each other. This will help you to slow down as you’re writing and keep your movements and shapes consistent throughout your whole piece.
3. Improving 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 (See our article, “A Better Pen Hold for Better Calligraphy”, for tips on how to lighten your pen grip). 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.
4. Better Spacing
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. Spacing can be measured in nib widths or the width of the lowercase letter o. The scripts were developed this way for a reason, do your best to match what is in front of you. Guidelines will help you to train your eyes and hand to space the script properly. 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 — negative 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 guide you toward success.