Tips for Guidelines and Why You Need Them

After I finished a recent large commission in Spencerian script, a few people who viewed it were struck at how straight and evenly spaced the lines of text were. One person commented that if he didn’t know better, he would think he was looking at a computer printout. This is because I used guidelines effectively.

This is not by magic or talent! It took hours to rule up the page!! I thought I’d share some basics of guidelines. We’ve all seen the videos of magical lettering with seemingly no point of reference. Keep in mind that the artists that can work like that have thousands of hours of practice. And that practice was with guidelines.

There are lots of printable guidesheets available online, as well as calligraphy practice pads for different scripts. You should also be able to draw your own lines. This is especially important because one day you may to draw the guidelines to accommodate a unique surface or size. The lines will maintain the quality of your work. Guidelines get you more familiar with the script and enable you to understand why the letters do what they do.

Depending on what calligraphic script you’re working with, there will be different sets of lines to work with. Each script — not “font” — was specifically designed to have proportion, spacing between letters, and movement. Most exemplars, or examples of alphabets, 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.

Types of Guidelines

Guidelines are important because they 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. Typically, two sets of lines are necessary. The first set of lines is horizontal. These shows the body height of the letters, both uppercase and lowercase. They also show how tall or long to make the ascending and descending strokes {letters like b and g). The second set of lines is vertical. This is called the main slant. These lines are used to maintain a consistent angle at which the letters are leaning. This set of guidelines can range from being completely vertical to being slanted forward 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 the learning process easier on you and it will be 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!!!! 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 is something that will set your script apart. It eliminates another distraction for the viewer. Out brains love a sense of continuity. The same thing goes for slant lines. They are there to guide the angle of your script and they’re also there to measure spacing between words.

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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