I used to work at Safeway when I was young and when there was a holiday or some kind of sale I used to love to write the signs for the flowers like Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day. I would write pretty letters and decorate them with ivy that I drew and colored. We had the best looking produce department in town. When I moved to Los Angeles from Brigham City, Utah I brought a stack of those produce signs with me to use to draw and color signs and pictures for my children. Every month had some kind of holiday that needed decorations. My boys and I would draw and color together and hang them all over the walls. One day my apartment manager said that I would probably like calligraphy if I liked drawing letters that much. Hmm, calligraphy, I hadn’t ever heard of that, but if it involved pretty letters then it was right up my alley. I remember checking into adult classes at Venice High School and decided to sign up for a Wednesday night class. Now this was when the “Hillside Strangler” murders were going on and being from a small town coming to the big city, this was a very scary proposition to go out alone at night to Venice, but this is how much I wanted to learn calligraphy. It wasn’t scary after all and I knew from the moment I took that first class with Richard Alonzo, who is now one of the LAUSD Supervisors, it was my cup of tea. I also took guitar and acrylic painting. I was there Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I really loved it! Then Proposition 13 came along and they cancelled painting and guitar but I managed to have 2 years of calligraphy.
My teacher introduced me to the Society for Calligraphy so I joined. This was in 1979. I have been a member ever since. I can’t tell you what a difference this has made in my life. It gave me a whole new world to explore. I went in thinking I would learn how to write pretty envelopes and have found myself with rubber gloves and a respirator grinding gesso for raised gilding. In that first class I made friends that I have up till today and I have my home because of someone in that class. I wasn’t lonely in the big city anymore either. I made so many wonderful friends taking workshops and going to SfC events that it became a whole new lifestyle. I’ve never stopped studying, having master classes with Reggie Ezell, Thomas Ingmire, Marsha Brady and all the many classes and workshops offered through different calligraphy guilds. I have done work for many celebrities and my work has been shown on television and movies. I’ve been a teacher now for 23 years and taught children from 8 years old to adults 95 years old. It’s been a wonderful ride!!!!!
Understanding and practicing letterforms.
One thing that I learned early on is that in order to be a good calligrapher and keep getting better, you have to learn some basic skills. You have to learn to see what the exemplar really looks like. Not what you think it looks like. So you have to really spend time observing the letterform you want to learn. I emphasis this to my students. Your hand can’t do something that your mind doesn’t understand. You need to really know what shape you want to write and then write it. It will take practice to get your hand and your brain to get it all together. It is not very effective to practice many, many letters without comparing them to the exemplar and correcting each attempt.
The next step is to be very meticulous in your practice. Remember when you are “practicing,” your head and hand are rehearsing to make nice calligraphic pieces. So if your practice is sloppy and hap-hazard how can you possibly do anything better when it’s time to perform? You should “practice” so that at performance time you will already be able to line up the paper and write beautiful letters. It’s important to practice by using the correct lining system and the right amount of space between lines. Don’t practice on both sides of the paper to save money. In practice, your eye gets used to the “color” of the lettering so when you do the original it won’t “look” right if you’ve practiced incorrectly. It’s important that you use good exemplars and try to emulate them. It’s a really good skill to be able to exactly duplicate someone else’s letters. Certainly after you learn the exemplar you have leeway to put your own personality into the forms. Once you learn how to do this you will be able to learn any letterform pretty quickly.
Lining the paper
I have so many students who ask if there is pre-lined paper. Well, yes, there is. But how useful is that? When you want to write on a card for someone it won’t come pre-lined. Then what? If you avoid lining your paper when you practice, how well do you think you’ll be able to line up when you need to do the real piece? If you do a poor job lining the paper and then spend the 2-3 hours that it takes to do your calligraphy, when you’re finished it will look bad. So you’ve just wasted the time on this piece and you’ll have to redo it or give it to the person and be embarrassed. You might as well take the time to do it properly in the first place and then be proud to give it away. YOU CAN’T HAVE NICE WRITING IF YOU HAVE BAD LINING! I have my students learn to line right from the beginning so that you are perfectly comfortable with the whole process. You won’t get anywhere if you don’t know how to line. You may as well learn how to do it well and ENJOY it. I find it to be meditative. If you take that attitude it is really fun to use the wonderful lining tools, like; rulers, Ames liners, dividers, drafting pencils and sharpeners. It’s actually fun to use those drafting pencils and know how to use the sharpeners and get that really sharp pencil! See isn’t that better than using a keyboard and mouse? All the tools for calligraphy are so wonderful. The actual writing of the letters is only one small aspect of the overall experience. Learn to take joy in the whole process.
In my classes we start by writing on 8×8 grid paper. The measurements are there and if you write 1inch tall you won’t have to add lines. But be sure to make marks on which line to write, so you don’t accidently write one line too close or far away. I like to put all the important directions to myself so when it’s time to write I can concentrate on pretty writing and not have to guess where to write next. The next size I have my students write is 1/2 inch x-height (the height from the waistline to the baseline). Now you can use an 18 x 2 inch C-thru ruler to put 1/2 inch lines on the paper. Again, with 1/4 inch x-height. Then we learn how to draw slant lines across the page to help keep a consistent slant. This way you gradually get used to using the ruler and measurements. Later, we learn how to use a T-square and triangle and usually an Ames liner to draw small x-height lines. I know a lot of people say they’ve bought an Ames liner and never use it because it’s too complicated. It’s really a great way to line for small writing and if you don’t try to read the instructions (which is enough to make you quit lining all together!) There is a really simple way to figure it out so have someone show you how to do it.
Next, is to do some projects. Pick words that you like and would like to see finished. This is the only way to learn how to do “real” calligraphy. You’ll have to design the layout and come up with ideas that will express the words in the best possible way. You will need to explore colors: gouache, watercolors, inks, etc. And papers: text weight, cover weight, watercolor papers, colored paper, etc. Remember your practice is to get you prepared to have a finished piece. It’s nice to have something that you can show for all your work instead of a bunch of practice sheets. I think it’s always a good idea to date your work. You’d be surprised at how you forget when you did something.
When you start a piece always finish it. Even if you make a mistake, keep going, the practice will be good for you. Don’t cross anything out or crumple up the paper and throw it away. You will find that tomorrow it looks much better than you thought. In a week it’s really good and you won’t remember why you didn’t like it. This will teach you to complete projects. It’s never going to be perfect. So get over it! If you still don’t like it then start another piece. Or do 2 or 3 versions of the piece and pick the best one for yourself and give the other ones to friends.
Continue to learn
There are so many things to learn in this field. I just wanted to do pretty cards and posters and have learned how to prepare vellum and mix gesso for gilding, sometimes I feel like a chemist. It’s so great!! There is never a time that I’m bored. I always have something to do and something more to learn. I’m particularly interested in paleography (the study of the history of writing). Of course, as much as there is to learn I have such a bad time remembering things that I can enjoy it all over when I read it again. It’s a good idea to take classes from a number of different teachers. Sometimes the way one person says something is clearer and the more you hear it you’ll finally be ready to understand it. There are many ways to do things, they are all valid, just different. Therefore many qualified teachers can help you grow in many ways. That’s where having adult school classes, college classes and the Calligraphy Societies and Guilds are so useful. We are lucky in Southern California to have many people with the same interest that we have.There are a variety of classes all around the area and the SfC brings people from all over the world to give instruction.
I encourage all of you to continue to study. Continue to take classes. I know that I never get any of my own work done unless I’m in some class that forces me to work on projects. Participate in exhibits and activities of the SfC. You’ll only get better. Try not to be intimidated by others around you. You’ll get there some day. Most people appreciate pretty writing and generally don’t compare you to anyone else. There is so much joy in expressing words in a way that no one else has thought of. It makes you read good literature and poetry so that you can find words worthy of the time you will spend on it. If you want to express your own words to someone using calligraphy, it’s even more special.
Educate yourself by subscribing to calligraphy magazines like Letter Arts Review
and Tabellae Ansatae (JohnNealBooks.com). Buy calligraphy books with good examples and a variety of different styles of artwork. Some of my favorites are: Jaqueline Svaren’s Written Letters (Taplinger Publishing Co.), The Mystic Art of Written Forms by Fredirch Neugebauer (Neugebauer Press), Calligraphy, The Art of Written Forms by Donald Anderson (Dover), Lettering Arts by Joanne Fink and Judy Kastin (PBC International), I like this book for inspiration of design and composition. Italic Letters by Inga Dubay and Barbara Getty(Portland State University, Continuing Education Press). This book is good for beginning Italic.