The Calligrapher's Life

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Archive for the tag “calligraphy”

Taking a Crack at Illumination

modern illuminated proj
If I were to say that I found the nerve to start this project from my inspiration and self-study, I’d be fibbing. When I caught my first glimpse at illuminated lettering in a new calligraphy book, I couldn’t wrap my head around sitting down to try it on my own. So, guess what? As usual, it took my art class to force me out of my “scary zone”.

Illuminating letters can be serious, scary stuff for a newbie. Most calligraphy books that touch on the subject, display artists working with paints, inks, gold leaf and gesso. That can be very intimidating. And, unless a newbie is truly enthusiastic about illuminated lettering, she’ll balk at its complexity and move on.

But, illuminating letters doesn’t always have to be “scary”. Actually, artists can create illuminated letters simply designing them with a few colors or covering them in complex drawings that’ll usually make a novice’s head spin.

Illuminated manuscripts gained popularity in the 7th century to document stories and events in the era. Calligraphers use the term to describe brightly colored pages highlighted in gold. The illuminated letter is meant to attract the eye to the page with various designs and colors among dark, gothic-style lettering.

When I finally practiced this letter, I grew fascinated with its versatility. Creating large letters with an endless supply of colors and design varieties brought hours of fun and experimenting with paint. But, I most enjoyed working with the gold gouache.

The gold goauche lit up the page making it look fairly similar to the ancient manuscripts I tried to emulate.

Any calligraphers ready to try illumination don’t need to start on a full-size project like I did (see photo above). Try one letter first, like an initial. It’s much easier to get acquainted with illumination with a small project and, then gradually build onto it with a favorite gothic-style lettering for a simulated manuscript like mine.

Note: All images are copyright and must not be used without permission


Spencerian – Fancy Pointed Pen for Beginners

Thinking about trying a flourished and fancy writing style to challenge your inner calligrapher? Have you tried any of the pointed pen styles? Well, there’s no need to freeze and panic like I did when I first started. If you’re excited about trying a formal style, like Spencerian or Copperplate, I’d suggest Spencerian. Once you begin this hand, you’ll discover Spencerian is not the easiest pointed pen style to learn, but if you’re a beginner looking for something fancy, I recommend it.

Before calligraphy class, I assumed Copperplate and Spencerian were the same, but they are very different. While writing in the Spencerian hand, the calligrapher must write gracefully holding the pointed pen light enough to show ink on the page. A heavy pen stroke throughout the word could confuse the style with Copperplate. The lowercase letters flow easy with a light touch, but the uppercase letters are a different matter. They demand more concentration with thin and thick lines similar to Copperplate, but with very different styling to characterize the hand.

The Spencerian hand originated in America in 1848 by Platt Rogers Spencer. He created a writing style that would be easier to use, faster to write, and more legible for business and education. Before the invention of typewriters in the early 20th century, students learned Spencerian as normal handwriting similar to the cursive writing that our school children learn today.

With the invention of the word processor, it seems like words are created at nearly the speed of light, so handwriting with a pen to paper shows care for its recipient. This is possibly why calligraphy has experienced a rise in popularity for formal occasions, like weddings and other exclusive engagements.

At first sight, the Spencerian hand looks intimidating with swirls and curls delicately surrounded with soft handwritten words. But, believe me; it’s easier to write than you think. If you practice the basics first, you’ll get the chance to improve your skill and dress up words with wildly ornate flourishes.

Spencerian is a beautiful hand to write, but I had a tough time trying to complete the uppercase letters. Uppercase lettering is important to learn because it provides the starting point to creating fabulous flourishes, but they require the most practice time compared to lowercase letters.

In my opinion, Spencerian is not a hand you want to learn alone. Of course, the lowercase letters are a snap to grasp, if cursive writing came easy as a child. But, the uppercase letters alone are worth spending time and money. In class, you receive instructor assistance and classmate encouragement, which helped me tremendously during my first practice hours.

For calligraphers who’ve practiced other pointed pen styles, working solo with an instructional video or book on how to write in Spencerian hand should be simple.

Now, stop reading, grab your pen and ink and give the Spencerian hand a try. If you’ve tried before, start practicing. You’ll fall in love with it all over again. And, for the beginner, once you’ve practiced for a week, you’ll see exactly what I mean.

Have you tried this hand before or one similar? Feel free to share your work. I’d like to see it.

Give Brush Lettering A Try


If you’ve never tried brush lettering, it’s actually easier than you think.

Artisans accustomed to using a paint brush might have an easier time with it, but don’t let it chase you away if you’ve never picked up a paint brush before.

Brush lettering is a form of calligraphy used by artists and writers from all over the world for communicating visual arts. It’s simply creating letters or characters with a small paint brush and acrylic or oil paints.

Although this freehand lettering remained popular for sign writing and other paraphernalia in early American history, it’s lost prominence due to the rise in computer technology. Fortunately, artists and calligraphers keep it alive through arts and crafts projects across the country.

For instance, I recently used a casual style brush lettering for hand-crafted invitations with impressive results. Even without prior professional instruction, I received several compliments, which boosted my confidence and inspired me to learn more.

The Calligrapher’s Bible by David Harris and Brush Lettering Step-By Step by Jim Gray and Bobbie Gray were two good sources of instruction. The former provides simple tips on creating modern brush lettering in a variety of styles and the latter demonstrates brush lettering basics for artists or beginners who need guidance through each step. It also provides ways to practice with minimal investment by using tools and supplies you might already have.

If you’re a calligrapher who prefers writing with pen and ink, grasping the concept of this lettering only takes patience and enthusiasm. And, it should be a breeze to learn solo along with a lettering guide since it requires similar strokes with a slightly different approach.

So, give it try and practice until you’re comfortable and pleased with your progress. When you’re ready, move onto adding charm to your favorite item with a name or quote on glass, wood or canvas.

The audacious calligraphers who’ve practiced brush lettering understand the balance of joy and challenges that accompany this art form. From monograms to quotes, brush lettering gives artists infinite fun and creative possibilities as soon as they pick up a paint brush.

Have you tried brush lettering? What projects have you worked on?

Summertime, Kids, and Calligraphy

Summer’s drawing near and I’m already looking forward to fun with the kids. Lately, I’ve wondered exactly what will keep them occupied with constant activity and challenges aside from sitting in front of the television or playing video games.

For the past few days, my husband and I have been brainstorming ideas and struggling to find a variety of activities to stave off boredom.

Luckily, I discovered an idea last week during class when our instructor mentioned calligraphy for a new generation. She explained that if we expose our kids or grandkids to this art at an early age, then the art form will thrive. Classmates agreed and stated that encouraging children to visit calligraphy workshops or an occasional meeting exposes them to hands-on experience, which creates more enthusiasm for hand-lettering.

Suddenly, I experienced an “a-ha” moment. I realized this season offers the perfect opportunity for me and the girls to spend quality time while they learn the basics of calligraphy.

A 30-minute mini-workshop will allow the girls to explore their artistic talents and learn a new skill. Each session will give them the chance to build on their new-found skills and incorporate it into art and daily life.

Although I haven’t experimented with this approach yet, I thought I’d share a few ideas for parents looking for a different summer project to try with kids. And, don’t worry if you’ve got boys. The industry includes highly successful male calligraphers who create magnificent lettering.

Consider inviting children ages 6-17 for a mini-workshop. They should enjoy this new activity since children are normally exposed to art throughout school. If you have a third grader, it’s possible they’ve been exposed to cursive writing recently, so this workshop should be easy for them.

In case you’d like to try the workshop with your kids, I’ve indicated a few tips to get started:

  1. Start with tracing paper and calligraphy markers (found at craft and art stores). If you’d rather not invest in the markers, try using a ballpoint pen.
  2. Gather calligraphy letters to trace. Copy letters from your calligraphy book or print letter examples from (found in “art studio” section under “art lessons”). You’ll find lettering techniques for the kids to trace.
  3. Practice tracing with pencil. Once the child feels more comfortable with the pencil, he should feel more confident writing or tracing with the calligraphy marker.
  4. Try an easy project with cardstock. Have the child write his name in calligraphy on plain, colorful cardstock. Then, offer embellishments, like stamps, stickers, and glitter to decorate the paper. Add the finished piece to a scrapbook or hang it in the child’s bedroom.

I’d suggest doing this project about once a day for a half hour to an hour or break it down to once a week and place any unfinished work to the side for your next session. Finishing a project will encourage your child’s inner artist and teach them a new skill for the summer.

What new projects have you lined up for your child’s summer?

What’s In A Book?

Think about the month of June and the subject of weddings and graduations pop up in conversation. The lucky “June” brides and hopeful graduates often look forward to a new future, so celebrations are definitely in order.

Although I don’t know a single bride –to-be, nor do I personally know of a 2010 graduate, thoughts of this season and an ending semester, sparked an interest in a wedding calligraphy book I stumbled upon at the Cerritos Library last year.

At the time, I didn’t feel confident enough in my skill to check out the book, but I flipped through it gazing at the colorful wedding paraphernalia on nearly every page. For at least a minute, I wished for the skill to duplicate the images I witnessed. Without hesitation, I promised myself that I’d be back for the book the moment my lettering improved.

Well, that day finally arrived and I felt comfortable checking out the book to demonstrate my new and improved skills. While visiting the local library last week, I located the book and checked it out immediately.

Weddings, Invitations, Announcements, Place Cards, and More, written by Bette Matthews includes gorgeous calligraphy from several talented calligraphers and it’s filled with valuable information for the bride-to-be, as well as, calligraphy students and enthusiasts.

The book guides novice calligraphers and do-it-yourself brides through a gratifying journey with calligraphy sectioned into the classic, elegant, romantic, modern and artistic.

Various calligraphers contributed their detailed work demonstrating creative ideas and examples of wedding invitations, envelopes, announcements, favors, menu cards, place cards and other memorabilia. The inviting and vibrant photos would stir up the imagination of any lettering artist seeking new ideas. Unfortunately, a bride with limited artistic ability might find its contents intimidating.

Even though the lettering offers some challenges for brides, it does provide practical advice, such as wedding etiquette, tips for working with calligraphers and over 10 lettering styles to choose from.

On the other hand, this book shares instruction and examples for calligraphers looking to try new letter styles or learn layout techniques for a wide variety of projects.

If you enjoy calligraphy and plan to use it for weddings or special occasions, this book is a great starting point. But, if you’re planning to tackle some calligraphy ideas on your own, do yourself a favor…start six months in advance.

10 Dos and Dont’s for the Novice Calligrapher

You could read several books about calligraphy and never learn all the best and worst practices to follow. When it comes to lettering, it’s all about the experience. As we calligraphers prepare to work on a project, we don’t expect to make errors, but we’re only human.

Throughout our experience with lettering, mistakes come with the territory. We learn as we go along or we bend the ear of a colleague from time to time who might have struggled with a similar issue in the past.

While we address an envelope with pen and ink, it’s not uncommon to suddenly realize the ink type will cause problems and blur the work.  Or, we quickly begin a project without warming up first and discover our Copperplate “g” resembles the letter “j”.

As a novice, I’ve struggled with mistakes and nearly allowed the frustration to deter me from practicing calligraphy. With time, I grew to understand that both novices and veterans alike endure their fair share of countless errors during practice; it only makes us better calligraphers.

Although I’ve read a few books and gathered some important advice, nothing beats learning your mistakes from firsthand experience. So, I’ve compiled the following list based on my trial and error. Hopefully, it helps you limit mistakes and encourages better calligraphy practice.

Calligraphy Dos

  1. Sit properly in an ergonomic chair. – You’ll enjoy the experience much better if you’re able to practice without a sore back and neck. I highly recommend using a chair adjusted in height for maximum comfort.
  2. Use a slanted desk or table easel. – Sometimes it feels easier to write on a flat table surface, but in the long run, you’ll notice an unwanted discomfort from this position. If you plan to write less than ten minutes, it should be okay.
  3. Group similar supplies in an art box. – After lettering for a while, you’ll recognize the supplies you use more often. Add them in a container with individual dividers and close by for easy access.
  4. Take a small supply bag for extra practice. – Fill the bag with paper or a journal and one or two calligraphy markers or refillable ink pens to practice while waiting at the doctor office or auto service.
  5. Test your paper before starting a project. – Make sure your ink holds well on the paper before starting a project. It might be necessary to change paper or use paint instead.

Calligraphy Don’ts

  1. Don’t dry out your pen nibs. – Clean them regularly during and after practice to avoid clogging the nib. This ensures smooth writing for the next project.
  2. Don’t start without extra paper. – Keep a large quanitity on hand; you don’t want to panic if you make a mistake.
  3. Avoid last-minute or rush jobs. – Take your time to limit errors and create fabulous letters.
  4. Don’t push yourself too soon. – Think carefully before taking on a large project. If you don’t feel ready, practice smaller projects first.
  5. Don’t worry. – If your lettering doesn’t make you an overnight sensation, it’s okay. It takes numerous hours of practice to achieve flawless lettering and rank with the accomplished calligraphers.

Believe me, I’ve only touched the surface of the dos and don’ts, but the list offers a brief starting point. Lettering should be fun, not frustrating. Take my advice and enjoy.

Happy lettering!

Calligrapher Appreciation

Why would anyone spend money on calligraphy when computers can do it? Recently, a friend asked me this question which caught me off guard until I realized that others probably had the same idea.

Instead of responding with a less than friendly comment, I shared a few lettering stories and invited her to try a few pen strokes.

Although my friend struck a nerve, I couldn’t blame her misunderstanding about calligraphy and how it works. At one time, I might have asked a similar question since I’m known to look out for a discount or two. But, when it comes to calligraphy for special events, I’ve learned it’s not about letters on paper; it’s about appreciation for your guest.

Today, nearly every font or letter style easily prints from advanced computer technology. Printing envelopes and letters has become so commonplace that no one finds it special anymore. Unfortunately, the newer generation fails to realize a well-practiced calligrapher created the letters first before they were added to the computer program.

Living in the 21st century, we’ve become accustomed to receiving fast “everything”.  We love fast food, fast service, fast delivery, or anything associated with fast. Fast equals better, right? In an age, where most societies spend more time on their daily commute, I guess fast should be better, but that’s another topic in itself.

If more people took time to sit down and write, they’d realize addressing one envelope doesn’t take much time if a writer uses a fountain pen. On the other hand, imagine using a dip pen and ink. This practice takes enormous patience.

First, the writer should set up a comfortable area for writing. This allows ample space for an ink bottle, nib with pen holder and envelope or paper. Next, the pen must be applied in ink to “warm up” with a few practice strokes while making sure the nib works fine. Once the writer feels comfortable with the pen nib and ink, they’re ready to address the envelope. Throughout the addressing process, it’s necessary to continue dipping the pen in ink until the addressing is complete.

For one who lacks patience, this procedure sounds daunting, but once it’s complete, the finished piece offers an added touch and shows the recipient you cared enough to spend your time, or money to hand write an addressed envelope.  

So, now that my friend gained hands-on experience with calligraphy, she now has a greater respect for a calligrapher’s fees.

Paper Planning

Today, computers help limit the need for paper, so we avoid waste while cutting costs. It’s also the best solution for saving our environment, but I’m an avid paper lover and living life without it would be unfathomable. My fascination with paper started as a child because it delights the senses and offers tons of inspiration.  From decorative greeting cards to adorable stationery, the artist in me lights up with dozens of possibilities swirling in my head.

So, it’s not surprising I became fascinated with calligraphy. 

In the early practice phase, I grabbed inexpensive copy paper to test my new-found skills. What a disaster! Ink bled throughout the paper, and you couldn’t read any lettering. On top of that, the nib and runny ink easily ripped the paper with every stroke.  Of course, frustration set in and I almost thought my chances for creating beautiful lettering were over until I purchased calligraphy practice paper.

Calligraphy practice paper resembles a graph paper with slant lines and it’s sturdy enough to handle most inks while avoiding unnecessary bleeding and smearing. After purchasing the paper, I gained more confidence in my lettering skills and used it religiously. 

During my novice period, I had no clue why someone would choose one paper over another except for obvious color or texture differences. So, I continued to buy the “official” calligraphy practice paper until I discovered the best types of paper to use for my lettering projects. Oh, what a big difference it made! 

I’ve learned valuable information from classmates and instructors, which might have taken me months or years to learn on my own.

Calligraphy is no different from any art form that uses paper. Certain papers help enhance an artist’s work without ruining the paper or the overall piece. Depending on the project, artists generally work with a heavier standard bond paper (for practice) and they use stronger papers with weights up to 100 lb. or more for specialty pieces.

The stronger papers hold light grade inks much better than standard bond papers because they contain a greater pulp content, which makes them less susceptible to bleeding and smearing. If an artist must work with a lightweight paper, it’s better to use inks with heavy carbon content, such as Sumi ink. Acrylics and watercolors also hold well for standard bond papers.

Earlier this year, I discovered a fantastic method to save paper and time in the future. Before working with your favorite papers, turn them into reference pieces.

First, choose your entire medium, like watercolor, paint, inks and markers. Next, cut out a piece of paper large enough to include a description of each medium. For example, write out the name of each substance directly onto the paper. You’ll receive an instant example of how the paper responds to the marker, ink or paint. It might seem time-consuming at first, but you’ll reap the benefits when you’re ready to start your next calligraphic project.

 Have you ever endured problems using the wrong paper for your art project?

The Color Challenge

If you’ve ever experienced trouble choosing the best colors for an art project…join the club.

At an early age, I normally drew pictures using charcoals and pencil. Whenever the mood struck me, I’d color the finished drawing with pencil, pastels or watercolor, but I never really put much thought into the color choices. If I were copying from a color photo, I’d attempt to match the colors as closely as possible; but most times, I chose whatever color attracted my attention at that moment. As a calligrapher, I’m forced to plan color combinations and resist the urge to “throw together” whatever I want.

Like this weekend, it dawned on me that I need to place more thought on my color choices so the artwork achieves some type of balance. Unfortunately, I think I’ve practiced with black ink for so long that working with color hasn’t come easy for me, especially blending and pairing the hues.

Now I experiment during practice using various colors to see what combinations work and which ones to avoid.

But, practice alone hasn’t altered my color perception. On a weekly basis, my classmates provide tons of inspiration with their finished pieces.  For example, the instructor placed everyone in pairs to complete a team project. Rosie and I paired up last week and decided to use pink and green colors for our lettering. After we completed the project, the color pairs resembled a flower petal and stem. If I were alone, I don’t think I would have considered those two colors, but they worked well together.

A few weeks ago, I chose a decent color combination based on inspiration from a classmate’s prior classwork. During the project, I created the piece with pointed pen uncial, and used gouache to add color. In an effort to offer depth to the writing, I decided upon three shades of green paint to create a 3D effect with the same quote written three times.

First, I used dark green for the initial one sentence quote, and then I added white to achieve a lighter shade of green. Once the dark green dried, I applied the lighter shade. Next, I added white again and received a lighter green tone, then I put the new color slightly atop the new line, so the letters were layered. The final piece looked nearly as good as the experienced calligraphers that sit around me. At that point, I realized the effect color achieves to add personality, interest and depth to calligraphic words.

After playing around with colors and admiring others’ combinations in their work, I’ve complied a list of favorite  color pairs:

  •  Blue-green
  • Turquoise-blue
  • Orange-yellow
  • Blue-purple
  • Red-purple
  • Pink-purple
  • Lavender-purple

I’m sure more color pairings look beautiful together, but I’ve been exposed to the colors above and plan to use them in future projects. 

It’s probable most artists learn color and its importance for blending and matching early on in their education, but I’m a self-educated artist learning as I go along. Unbelievably, I’m finally paying attention to the value of color and I’ve grown to respect its power to create beautiful calligraphic art.

Don’t let color challenge you! Get out of the black and white rut…leave the black ink behind and pick up watercolor, gouache or your favorite colored inks for your next calligraphic piece.

If you’re already working with color, what color combinations are your favorites?

Planning is a Plus

Think about the last novel you read. If it drew you in from start to finish with captivating words, you might think the words flowed easily from the author’s brain onto every page.  If you’re an admirer of fine art, you probably imagine the artist randomly splashing color onto canvas to create this visual masterpiece? Well, for some artists and writers, this is a rarity instead of the norm. It actually takes some artists painstaking hours of planning, editing and sketching before unleashing their work at their own standards.

Personally, it took several months of calligraphy before I appreciated the time and effort lettering artists spend to layout designs for addressing envelopes and designing creative pieces.

In the beginning, most novice calligraphers understand the importance of basic envelope layout because no one wants to lose any addressee information while maintaining the proper letter style.

To avoid errors,  a ruler and straight-edge measure line width and length, which helps before adding the name and correct address. Then, using a light pencil, like #2B or #2, helps write the address in the exact size and length. Planning ahead eases the writing process and allows the calligrapher to fit letters and numerals perfectly before starting with permanent inks and paint. Once the layout appears accurate, writing with ink or paint should be a painless process and save time and envelopes!

During a recent assignment, I also discovered sketching in pencil helps generate ideas and determines how lettering will appear in the project format. Plus, it’s fun to brainstorm new ideas in smaller form then compare what appeals to the eye before making the final decision. Once the lettering artist reviews and makes changes,then they’re ready to create bigger and better designs with added color on their favorite paper.

Not all works of art or writing need careful planning to achieve greatness, but when it comes to calligraphy, I’d suggest beginners to plan every time. If you do, it’s harder for anyone to notice that you’re a novice.

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