Letter Artistry

Professional Calligraphy by Design

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Keeping Calligraphy In-Hand

"Oh wow, brilliant!" 

"That looks sooo incredible!"

"So talented, it looks amazing!!"

One might run across phrases such as these nowadays.  Do these words, perhaps, laud the work of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel?  Or maybe even a spectacular photo of one of the Seven Wonders of the world?

If you are a person who peruses the internet, perhaps you recognize some of these phrases, albeit with a few more exclamation points.

It seems that in the push of the bold and the new, compliments have grown larger and larger, until something simple as "Nice." almost comes across as trite, possibly even sarcastic compared to the "most amazingly awesome thing I've ever seen!!!"  Periods seem overly formal and exclamations are the point of the day.

It can be easy to grow complacent in such a setting, to find oneself in an ever growing rut of sameness and "that's good enough".  If you find yourself constantly busy with commissions, you may find that you have plateaued, the same set of scripts growing tired with no sense of improvement or excitement.  A studious calligrapher will know that they have not peaked in their skills, but sometimes it can be hard to break out of the stream of sameness.  

In such cases, it is good to take a break from the stream of commissions and projects.  Even planning a one week intermission from the norm can be helpful.  I like to take on a few breaks in between the flow of projects, and recommend trying one of the following.


A pop up class I taught at the Calligraphy Society of Ottawa going over Copperplate and working with dark paper.  

Be sure to support your local guild if you like meeting awesome people.

Learn a new script

There are many scripts to be found in the world of calligraphy.  If you find you've been doing a lot of pointed pen work, try out some broad edge calligraphy, and vice versa.  You may find new points of view that will allow you to hone your craft in ways that will help you in other scripts you know.  There are a plethora of resources for this.  I enjoy Shelia Waters Foundations of Calligraphy for many broad edge scripts, and Elanor Winter's Mastering Copperplate Calligraphy, as well as Michael Sull's works.

If there's a local calligraphy guild in the area, definitely pop in for a visit!  You'll meet other calligraphers at various skill levels and specialties, have a good chat about favorite tools and techniques, and pick up some new ideas.

If you look for a teacher, I would recommend starting at your local guild first.  Don't be afraid to ask questions, such as with whom the calligrapher has studied, for how long, and what scripts they specialize in.  

While not to be entirely ruled out, I would be careful of learning from someone who was purely self taught - we all need someone to point out tweaks and ways to improve ourselves, and some techniques are best taught in person.

If you are learning a script on your own, find some good examples of the script you want to study.  Dissect the script down to the basic strokes.  I find a good starting point is tracing over the letters on tracing paper with a pencil.  Review one's own writing practice of the script by critiquing it and noting ways to improve with a pencil or (gasp) a red pen.  You'll find yourself looking more critically at your own writing then when you go back to the daily grind.


My notes when critiquing some Italics practicing (text is from Robin Hobb's "Assassin's Fate"). It's good to recognize the parts done well in addition to things to improve upon.  I wrap up the session with some general highlights that cover aspects to keep in mind when next working with the script.

review a rusty script

In the same vein as practicing a new script, it is good to take stock and review scripts that you may not use on a regular basis, whether because of preference or how one's commissions lay out.  I find myself sometimes astonished at how rusty a script can get if you don't air it out on the paper every once in a while.  Writing the script in a larger size will help you more easily spot areas that need more practice.

One might stare at the paper in dismay at the rough looking calligraphy before them.

'But... but I know this script.  Why is my pen not cooperating?'  you may think to yourself with some apprehension, even alarm.  It seems just yesterday that you had this script well in-hand! 

Fear not - a good analysis of one's practice will soon have the ink flowing smoothly again, and the script tamed once more under the steady rhythm of the pen. You may be surprised at how this analysis will help you improve other scripts in your repertoire.


One of my early forays into folded pen work.  So much ink, everywhere!

Learn a new technique

There are many things a calligrapher can learn besides a new script.   Flourishing, folded pens, illuminations, gilding and goldwork; all of these are wonderful skills that can enhance and compliment a well crafted letter.  Plan to set aside time to focus and hone a new skill set without distractions or lurking deadlines.  

Again, inquire with your local calligrapher guild if you can to find the resources to assist you.  Even if you can't find a teacher, there may be someone to point you in the right direction for books or websites to look into.

You'll find adding a new skill can help the creative side emerge for future projects in ways that you might not expect.  Some skills will also require a different type of precision and movement in the hand muscles, which can improve overall dexterity when going back to traditional calligraphy.


Mmm, aged paper.  Delightful for reproduction pieces, and an interesting challenge to create the write ;) shade.

Try a new medium

There are a number of different papers and inks out there to try.  Experiment with different ink and paper combinations to create an exciting new piece.  Or branch out entirely from the norm and try working with chalk, glass, wood - there are many ways that calligraphy can be applied that can bring a breath of fresh air and a sense of playful whimsy into your lettering.  

Just remember to be mindful of the foundation of calligraphy forms and spacing of the letters so that your finished piece will look tidy with a sense of symmetry, even to the untrained admirer.  It can be easy to get caught up in the excitement of a new medium - just don't forget your roots and study any practicing with a critical eye.



This is just the tip of the nib, so to speak, of the many ways that one can alter the flow of their calligraphy to get a fresh new take on their work.  Let me know in the comments below if there are any other ways that you keep your calligraphy fresh and your nib sharp!