Last weekend, I taught an in-person calligraphy lesson for the first time in a couple of years. It was an informal and fun favor for a friend who has wanted to learn for a while. Teaching my friend reminded me: learners have to overcome quite a few pointed pen calligraphy problems at the beginning! In today’s article, I’d like to talk about those problems and their solutions.
1. Wiggling the Pen
In everyday life, a pen moves up and down and from side to side as you write. That makes sense because you mostly control the pen with your fingers. In pointed pen calligraphy, however, the pen stays in the same position as you push it up and pull it down. You’ll rely on your fingers, wrist, forearm, and elbow to create that motion.
The remedy: Commit to filling out a full page of drills that are similar to the “Hiss” drill from this (free) worksheet. Don’t worry about using guidelines, and don’t even pay attention to what you’re writing! Instead, watch your pen to make sure you’re not wiggling it. The quicker you can train yourself to keep your pen still, the quicker you’ll see progress.
2. Holding the Pen Too Upright
You’ve probably noticed calligraphers on social media holding their pens at a 90°-ish angle to the paper as they write. And that’s great! Advanced calligraphers have a mastery of how to exert balanced pressure on the nib’s tines, so they can use a severe pen angle. However, if a beginner tries to write with a too-upright angle, the nib usually catches on the paper.
The remedy: Try holding your pen at an angle that’s closer to 45°. If you work with this softer angle, it’s easier to control the flow of your ink and ensure that your tines don’t splay out! As you get more comfortable creating calligraphy, you can experiment with a more upright angle.
3. Not Exerting Balanced Pressure on Both Tines of the Nib
There are two tines on the end of your nib. You have to exert balanced, even pressure on both of those tines in order to write smoothly. When one tine digs into the paper more than the other, that’s when you start to pick up paper fibers and see uneven strokes.
The remedy: When I see this calligraphy problem in workshops, I ask learners to play with their paper rotation. Oftentimes, rotating your paper counterclockwise if you’re right-handed (or clockwise if you’re left-handed) can help. The trick is to use a push and pull motion to write — and keep your nib parallel to slant lines! Which brings us to beginner pointed pen calligraphy problem #4:
4. Not Positioning the Nib Parallel to Slant Lines
Pointed pen calligraphy is all about pushing the nib up and pulling it down. In order to do that effectively, the straight side of your nib should reflect the angle of slant that you wish to achieve.
The remedy: Keeping your nib parallel to slant lines can be tough for right-handed writers. That’s why the oblique calligraphy pen was invented. Essentially, that pen forces your nib into a right-leaning angle. If you’re left-handed or don’t want to use an oblique pen, rotate your paper to make it easier to write parallel to the slant lines.
5. Not Playing With Ink Consistency
When you purchase an ink, it usually contains an ideal ratio of water to pigment. But, as you write, the lid is off of the ink, which means that water slowly evaporates out. Over time, that can result in thick ink that doesn’t flow off the nib as nicely as it once did. The problem manifests in downstrokes that dump ink onto the page, upstrokes that skip, and/or ink that refuses to flow from the nib.
The remedy: Dilute any too-thick or temperamental ink with water. You can read about how to do that in this article. Some inks will never need to be diluted (iron gall, walnut) — but the majority of inks will, eventually! If you’re not sure if an ink’s consistency needs adjusting, dilute it anyway. If you over-dilute, you can always leave the lid off overnight to let some water evaporate out.
6. Using a Paper Towel to Dry Off Nibs
As you write calligraphy, it’s a good idea to swish off your nib occasionally with water so it doesn’t get all gunked up with ink. However, learners often use a paper towel to dry off their nibs. That’s problematic because paper towel fibers get stuck in the nib and tend to drag ink as you write. You’ll end up with a second stroke that you had no idea was going to be there!
The remedy: Use a scrap piece of tightly-woven scrap fabric to wipe off your nibs instead of a paper towel. Cotton is great because it’s absorbent!
7. Getting Water in the Pen
Your calligraphy pen serves one purpose: it’s a vehicle for your nib. The only thing that should make contact with your calligraphy pen (well, besides the nib) is your hand. Both ink and water should never make it up past the nib. If they do, things will get gunky. Try to make sure that no liquids ever make it past your nib up into the pen!
The remedy: Make sure that you only dip your nib in ink up to the reservoir. When you go to swish the nib off in water, the water also shouldn’t go past the reservoir. It’s okay if it happens once or twice — just try to wipe off the pen the best you can so it doesn’t rust. But as a general rule, try to keep your pen nice and dry!
8. Not Practicing Pointed Pen Calligraphy
One of the biggest calligraphy problems learners struggle with is a lack of practice. I think part of the problem is that people don’t know what or how to practice, which is why I wrote this article.
The remedy: Calligraphy practice shouldn’t be tedious — it should be fun. My biggest recommendation for combatting calligraphy boredom is to shake up your projects! Among other things, try sketchbooking, making greeting cards, and creating mail art. All of these types of projects will utilize and sharpen your calligraphy skills. Also try doing calligraphy drills … they’re excellent for improvement.
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Thanks very much for reading, and if you’re just starting out in your calligraphy journey, I encourage you to go full steam ahead! I encountered all of the problems mentioned in this article (and more — to be honest) when I first started. I’m so glad that I kept going! You will be, too.