Tips for Guidelines and Why You Need Them

I’ve been hearing this comment about my work recently: “It looks like a computer did it!” This is because I learned to draw and follow accurate guidelines for calligraphy.

There are tons of videos of magical lettering with no visible lines on the page except for the calligraphy. Keep in mind that the artists that can work like that have thousands of hours of practice. And that practice was with guidelines.

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Guidelines and Exemplars

An internet search will yield lots of printable guidesheets. But the results won’t always tell you what calligraphy script they are meant for, what to write with, or how to use the different lines. Depending on which calligraphic script you’re working with, there will be different sets of lines to work with. Each script — not “font” — was designed to have specific proportion, spacing between letters, and movement.

You can find this information on exemplars, or examples of alphabets. An exemplar will tell you the ideal height for letters, what tool to use to write them, and what angle to write them at. The guidelines and exemplars go hand in hand to support your success in learning. All you need to do is trust them and study them. Work with them.

Here’s a video I made that shows what the different guidelines mean:

Types of Guidelines

Guidelines train the eye to see the relationship between letters. They also train the hand and arm to move in a way consistent with the script. We work with horizontal and vertical lines at the same time.

Horizontal Lines keep the varying heights of pieces of the letters consistent. The baseline and the x-height contain the body height of the lowercase letters. The ascender line is above the x-height. It shows how tall to make ascending strokes for letters like b and h. Below the baseline is the descender line. It shows us how long to make descending loops and stems for letters like p and g.

The Vertical Lines are sometimes called the main slant or slant lines. We use them to keep the letters all leaning at the same rate. This set of guidelines can range from being completely vertical to being slanted to the right by as much as 55 degrees.

Tips for Drawing Your Own Lines

Use a t-square ruler or a square ruler to ensure the lines are perpendicular to the edge of the page. This makes a difference because, as I said, practice also trains the eye as to how the letters should look both in relation to each other and in relation to the page. Using consistent lines will make it easier to study your script against the exemplar and figure out how to improve it.

Make the vertical or slant lines even and consistent. These lines serve as a point of reference for the eye and hand as you work at first, so be sure these lines are accurate in angle and in spacing.

Use gentle pressure when drawing the lines. Heavy pressure with a pencil leaves grooves in the paper, so that even when the graphite is erased, the lines will still be visible. This is only a problem when guidelines aren’t a part of your design.

Make Sure You’re Touching the Guidelines as You Write

After all that work you’ve put in! This is probably the most crucial point. Decide where on the guideline you want your letters to rest and stick with it. Do you want to write at the top of the baseline? The middle of it? How about the top of the lowercase letters? The middle of the guideline? The bottom of it? This small detail makes a big difference after you erase the lines.

Lastly, take your time while practicing and be patient with yourself. Don’t forget to take breaks every 30 minutes. You didn’t learn to drive in a day or tie your shoes on the very first try. It takes a combined effort and learning to let the guidelines support your progress takes a lot of pressure off the need to make the strokes perfect every time.

Trust me.

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