What I Wish I’d Known When Starting Calligraphy

There are some things I learned from experience and from preference, and there are some things that deterred me from even wanting to sit down to write. I wrote this to share what I wish I’d known to support your comfort and success in your calligraphy practice.

In this post, I touch on:

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I Wish I had Known How to Sit Properly

Each of the following is something to check in with regularly. Work with one at a time and eventually you’ll be able to keep it all going as you write.

  • Sit in a chair or on a stool with your feet on something sturdy — the floor, a box, or a stack of books. Maintaining this keeps me busy because I’ve crossed my legs since childhood. Keeping your feet on something steady allows the pelvis to be even on the chair and relaxes your legs. This is the foundation of your work. It gives the sides of the body, the lungs, the shoulders and the arms freedom to move and develop their own strength and grace. This will appear in your calligraphy.
  • Sit high enough on your chair so your elbows just graze the top of the table. Need a boost? Add a folded blanket or towel under your seat. Play around with different arrangements until you find what works for you.
  • Develop an awareness of your back and your shoulders. Every now and then, do a little scan of these areas and kindly adjust as necessary. You are building new habits and strength.
  • Keep a natural curve in your spine. I tend to curve mine in a LOT. See what yours is doing right now. Sit with your feet on something steady and place the back of your hand on your low back. Play with gently curving your low back in and out until you find a neutral curve.
  • Try this exercise to sit a little more upright: With your feet on something steady and your low back curved ideally for you, place your hand on your upper chest by your collar bones. Inhale slowly and deeply, pushing your lungs up into your hand without changing the position of your back. Exhale slowly and soften your shoulders. Notice how your chest and shoulders feel and take your hand away. This practice (it takes hundreds of tries, be patient) teaches your body to hold itself up and gets your shoulders to move your arms.
  • Hinge at your hips instead of curving your back to get closer to your work. As you write across the page, slide the paper closer to you so that you aren’t chasing the paper across the desk.
Watch our YouTube video to see these movements in action!

I Wish I had Known I was Holding the Pen Wrong

My hand used to hurt from tightly holding onto the pen for dear life and I could never make long, elegant, confident strokes. The heel of my hand was planted firmly on the table as I wrote and I only used my fingers to move the pen, as I do when holding a pen for normal day to day writing. Because of steady movements and tool manipulation calligraphy requires, we adjust the way hold the pen to make the shapes possible.

You Need to Adjust Your Hold If:

  • The tips of any of your fingers are touching your palm
  • The tips of your fingers change color at all or flatten as you write
  • You feel any tension or pain in your hand while writing

Please be patient with yourself as you make the following adjustments and understand that you will need to practice and continue to make the effort. Having discipline here will offer you the freedom to write comfortably for longer periods of time and open the door to other calligraphy for you.

How to Hold the Pen

Loosely. As a start. Use your non-writing hand to place the tool in your writing hand and just hold it. Don’t squeeze it. Holding the pen with tension in your hand leads to more tension, pain, and possible injury. The muscular strength you use while writing in calligraphy will come from your shoulder, upper arm and your wrist. The control and manipulation will come from the fingers.

Have the inner wrist and forearm on the table. Just for a second, press the fleshy part of your forearm down into the table. Feel the muscle there? That muscle will govern some movements and turns, keeping the wrist straight and stable.

Hold the pen itself further up the handle. The tips of the ring and little fingers should rest on the table to guide you and give you stability. That high?? Yes. With the tool in your hand, make circles in the air. Check out how much more range of motion the fingers have than with a handwriting pen hold! The hand’s only job is to hold the pen. The pressure you’ll apply to the pen comes from the wrist.

Visit our article, “A Better Pen Hold for Better Calligraphy” for photos and more details!

3 Ways to Lighten Up Your Grip:

  1. Take your index finger off of the pen as you write. It’ll relieve tension and get you used to relying on your wrist and arm for applying pressure to the tool. You’ll see how much you can still accomplish without it. I learned this from Joi Hunt.
  2. Hold a crumpled up tissue or paper towel in the palm of your writing hand as you write. It’ll make you aware of the space in your palm and how hard you might be squeezing your hand into a fist. Alternately, hold the paper towel in your non-writing hand and squeeze it. It’ll transfer some of the squeezing out of your writing hand.
  3. Make the lightest mark possible with a pencil as you write, and try to keep the light pressure on the pencil consistent. This will engage you in the effort it takes to lighten your grip. It will show you what it feels like in the hand to write lightly. You’ll see how light of a touch you need to work with a pointed nib and ink. This made a radical difference to me.

I Wish I Had Known to Take Breaks !!!

Fatigue set in and my eyes, mind, and body needed a break, but I would always keep working. I was damn determined to finish calligraphy pieces I was working on. Couple discomfort with frustration and after a period of an hour or more I felt rotten and defeated. I’m sure I would have been more kind with myself and gotten better results out of my practice had I stood up and moved around. Knowing when to say when and taking a break is a sign of strength. Your letters can only benefit from your rest. Stand up, walk around, and stretch at least every 30 minutes.

I Wish I Had Known How to Study and Practice

Practicing, even though I was using inappropriate guidelines, got me used to committing to improvement, celebrating my successes, and keeping myself afloat when things weren’t going as I imagined they would. I remember this one page of capital Os (you can still find a post about it on my Instagram page, waaaaay down) that I wrote for practice and the nuance of guidelines finally hit me.

Questions I started asking myself:

  • How wide is the oval?
  • Where does the broad part of the stroke start and stop?
  • How far away from the main stroke is this line?
  • What shape is the negative space?
  • How far up on this curve does the loop intersect? Halfway? Less than halfway?

Calligraphy is written in relation to a set of guidelines, and is one way the letters all relate to one another. Shortly after looking at my practice script this way, I realized the guidelines I was using were incorrect for the script I was working with, and so was the pen I was using.

Get used to asking yourself these minute questions about what’s in front of you. And get used to looking at historical works of calligraphy. These are the most accurate to the time period, original mastery and intent of the work. You can find them in libraries, books, and even online. Find examples of the script that you admire and look closely at them.

I Wish I’d Known How to Practice

  • Practice writing a few letters
  • Put the pen down
  • Study your work against the exemplar.
  • Write notes on your work.
  • Learn from your mistakes. — don’t create and cement bad habits. You’ll create way more work for yourself in the long run.

Those were the main obstacles I had when I started. You can check out the Learn page to read more in-depth articles on practicing calligraphy. Leave a comment or send me an email if you have questions or need some clarification. Sometimes calligraphy practice is still discouraging for me, but there is always something that keeps me coming back. Hopefully these suggestions make it easier for you to keep coming back to calligraphy too.

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