A Better Pen Hold for Better Calligraphy

Using a firm pen hold to write hurts after a while. The tension isn’t only the hand either — usually when the writing hand hurts, so do the neck and shoulders. Sometimes the jaw and eyebrows are gripping just as tight as the writing hand! If you’re reading this, you already know. In addition to the discomfort in the body, putting constant pressure on a nib can damage it, make it squeak, and limit its mobility as we write. In this post, I’ll show you how to develop and support a relaxed pen hold.

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Movement While Writing Calligraphy

Contrary to regular handwriting, we have 2 types of writing movement in calligraphy:

  1. Finger Movement: Motions made by bending the fingers to push the pen up and down or back and forth. Think of dotting an i or crossing a t.
  2. Whole arm movement: Using the shoulder and forearm to move the hand as it holds the pen steadily. Think of writing the letter l or j.

Whole arm movement doesn’t necessarily mean a large gesture. It means that writing the stroke requires a larger range of motion than the fingers can perform. Relying on these larger muscle groups also helps you to maintain a lighter pen hold. We use whole arm and finger movements independently and together for smooth lines with character. And we need a pen hold that accommodates both motions.


Posture

When we practice better posture, we’re retraining our muscles and skeleton to hold us up. Creating stability in the lower body liberates the spine, shoulders, and arms, allowing them to focus on writing! When the body feels more supported, the hands (and eyebrows) have more ease. Be patient while working with posture; use your breath to re-establish a supportive seat and continue on, whether you’re working with calligraphy or not!

I go into this subject more deeply in my post, Cultivating Better Posture Habits. Below are some tips for you to try.

Posture Tips

  1. Sit toward the front edge of your chair.
  2. Uncross your legs if they’re crossed.
  3. Take an inhale and lift your collarbones up toward the ceiling.
  4. Exhale and release the tension in your neck and shoulders.
  1. Repeat steps 3 and 4. Notice the space around your neck and shoulders. When you notice you don’t feel this space any more, start back at 1. :)
  2. Bend at your hips to get closer to the desk rather than rounding your spine. You might need to move your chair around until this is comfortable for you.

Holding a Calligraphy Pen

Holding a pen loosely increases the range of motion of the fingers and lets us move the arm more freely. The fingers’ only responsibility is to hold the pen. They don’t have as much power as the larger muscles in the arm and shoulder. Just like posture trains the body to hold itself up, this hold trains the arm to participate in the movement of the hand.

  • Hold the pen (or pencil!) between the tip of the thumb and the last knuckle of the middle finger.
  • Rest the upper end of the pen between the first two knuckles of the index finger. (see next photo)
  • Rest the tip of the index finger on top of the pen. If any of your fingertips change color as you’re holding the pen, you might be holding it too tightly.
  • Rest the tips of the ring and pinky fingers on the desk. Many people hold a pen close to the very tip of it for regular writing. If you’ve followed these instructions and the tip of the pen isn’t touching the desk, that’s normal. The same thing happens to me. Use your non-writing hand to slide the pen downward until the point of it touches the desk.
  • You may notice that your inner wrist is turned down toward the table. We want the forearm muscle between the inner wrist and the inner elbow resting on the desk as we write. Rather than using the fingers to apply pressure to the pen, use the muscles of the forearm to apply pressure through the wrist.

Here are a few more tips to try for Lightening the Pen Grip.


Supporting the Calligraphy Pen Hold

Now that you have established your pen hold, your new responsibility is not to lean on your writing hand as it’s on the desk. If you find that you are, re-establish your posture until you’re not leaning on it any more. Calligraphy is relaxing, but it’s an active practice, not a restful one. That said, when you feel like you need a break, take one! Every 30-45 minutes, stretch and move around. If possible, walk around for a few minutes. Stretching and getting the blood flowing is good for you.

Check Your Nib and Ink

First things first . . Sometimes we feel like we have to press on the pen because the ink isn’t coming out. Check the nib for damage. Or, if it’s a new nib, make sure you’ve removed the protective coating with soap and water. You might also want to make sure your ink is the right consistency for the nib you’re working with.

Hand Placement for Calligraphy

Rest your writing hand on the desk, wrist to elbow. Use your non-writing hand to hold the paper in place, but hang the rest of the arm off of the table. This is so you don’t lean on that arm either. Turn your chair to the side, away from the edge of the table, to make this position possible.

Using Paper to Glide

If you’re not wearing sleeves that reach your wrist, chances are your arm will stick to the table. That’s just the way it is. However, we need to move the arm as we write. Even if I’m wearing long sleeves, I roll them up anyway without thinking. I like to put a large piece of paper on the desk under my forearm as I write. Some calligraphers place a playing card underneath the forearm so it can glide across the desk easily.

Writing Paper Placement

Where your page is placed in relation to your body and line of sight can either ease your practice or cause you to tense up. Get your lighting nice and bright. Make sure you don’t have to look around your hand in order to see the letters as you write them.

Tips for Placing Your Paper

  • Get to know the zone of the desk where you write comfortably.
  • As you write, move the paper so that you’re always writing within this space, maintaining your pen hold and posture.
  • Even with this optimal position, take periodic movement breaks anyway.

You need to move the paper along the desk as you write so you can see what you’re writing at the end of a line of text. If we don’t move the paper, then our view of the calligraphy gets distorted and our work loses its consistency. Writing further away from us strains the pen hold because we lose balance in the body. This can look like leaning on the desk, tensing the shoulders, holding the breath, and gripping the pen for “better control”. I even find myself leaning on the table, legs crossed, perched on my right hip, with my head tilted to one side.


Conclusion

I know this wasn’t a short answer, but for calligraphy, we’re writing for an extended period of time. Our bodies are our only place to live and it’s important to take care of them as we do the things we enjoy doing. Rests and breaks are just as important as the calligraphy practice and body placement. Leave your questions and comments below. Check out the next piece of the calligraphy puzzle — Practicing Basic Calligraphy Strokes — to try out your new pen hold!

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