A couple of days ago, I received a thought-provoking email from someone. It contained a few questions: “When you first started doing calligraphy did you like how it looked? Did it take a while before you felt you were doing a good job and you liked how you did it? … I’m hoping if I practice enough I will get good at it – is there hope?!” I remember having the same questions — and you might, too. Sometimes it’s just nice to read about how someone else achieved something, so I thought you might enjoy reading about how I learned calligraphy.
First, I will touch on why I wanted to learn calligraphy in the first place. In September of 2011, my now-husband, Hernán, and I moved from Lawrence, Kansas (where we had attended college), to Boulder, Colorado. Hernán came here to pursue his PhD in Aerospace Engineering, and I tagged along because I wanted to live in Boulder. Like moving anywhere, it was magical for the first few days, and then reality sunk in and I realized I missed my friends. So, I started writing letters to them. Writing letters made me feel closer to my friends in Kansas, and I really enjoyed decorating cards and envelopes to send to them. At that time, though, I wasn’t trying to create calligraphy. I just liked drawing on envelopes.
The first year we lived in Boulder, I worked at a software company as an office manager. When a coworker mentioned that she wrote calligraphy on wedding envelopes for extra pocket change, a lightbulb went off in my head. I liked making mail art, so why couldn’t I create calligraphy, too? And why couldn’t I make extra income from it?
I knew nothing about calligraphy, but I looked at some photos of calligraphed envelopes on the internet and resolved to figure out how to use a dip pen.
The Beginning of The Postman’s Knock
When I decided to learn calligraphy, I went out and bought a plastic Speedball pen with some nibs. I assumed that when I first used the pen, I would have a calligraphy epiphany and be able to write like a pro. That was woefully not the case! The calligraphy pen was so difficult for me to use that I gave up trying to write with it.
As far as I could tell from photos of envelopes on Google and Etsy, some parts of letters in calligraphy were fat, and others were thin. I figured out the pattern, and I offered envelopes with faux calligraphy in an Etsy shop called “The Postman’s Knock” (I didn’t have a website at that time).
For my very first commissioned envelope job, I had to figure out how to make white faux calligraphy. I went to Michael’s, purchased a few Sakura Gellyroll pens, and wrote out the envelope addresses. I couldn’t have been more proud of my creation — and by some miracle it ended up on Style Me Pretty.
The Style Me Pretty shoot gave me a confidence boost. Sure, I knew there were much better calligraphers out there than me, but I was getting little commissions to do things with faux calligraphy, which was fun. I remember charging $15.00 for the Rumi quote below — and it took me three hours to make! That price was fair, though, because my skill level was still “getting there”. I did the best I could, and was always thrilled when people requested commissions! I even designed a few tattoos.
My commissions weren’t overwhelming, but I was getting better at faux calligraphy. After a year of working at the software company, I turned in my notice; and Hernán and I planned out how I could create a business. I enjoyed a steady stream of calligraphy commissions; mainly poems and wedding place cards like the ones below, which were always created with a Pilot G2 pen.
Eventually, I thought to myself: “OK. I’ve got to figure this dip pen thing out.” In 2012, it was tough to find any calligraphy tutorials online. So, I sat down with my pen, and after a few hours of trial and error, I realized that when the tines are spread, a thick downstroke is created, and when the tines of the nib go up, a thin upstroke results. My strokes were shaky at first, but after a couple of days and countless ink blobs, my style got a little bit better. Shortly thereafter, I ordered a plastic-flanged oblique calligraphy pen.
If I knew then what I know now, I would have started out with a brass-flanged oblique holder. Nevertheless, the angle of the plastic oblique did make it easier for me to create calligraphy, and my work improved. At that point, a couple of brides approached me for help with their invitations. That put pressure on me to make sure my calligraphy was decent!
To be clear: I didn’t learn calligraphy with a structured approach. It was just a lot of trial and error! I mainly practiced by making mail art and sketchbook pages. While you can learn calligraphy on your own like I did, there’s no need to anymore. Now, the internet is a goldmine of dip pen instructions, tips, and tricks!
As I learned more and more about calligraphy, I started to blog about it. It was fun to write about my calligraphy breakthroughs, and I noticed that readers liked reading about them. I think that a lot of people have an interest in calligraphy because it seems approachable. That’s probably because everyone already knows how to write with a regular pen, and there’s always potential to improve on something that you already know how to do!
Shortly after I started blogging about calligraphy, a reader named Rodger Mayeda — who turned out to be a talented penmaker — encouraged me to try using brass-flanged oblique pens. Despite a bit of a learning curve, the pens helped me to improve my skills significantly. I happily tackled more and more work for clients as my skills grew!
In 2014, Hernán suggested that I design a printable worksheet for people to learn how to write a specific calligraphy style. He was inspired by a workbook called “Coquito” that teaches kids how to write in Peru, where he grew up. I put together a crude version of a worksheet — it was only 2 pages long with unintuitive guidelines — and I uploaded it to TPK for people to download for free. I was shocked at its success, so I ended up making a more detailed version, which I sold for a nominal fee. That first worksheet inspired more worksheets (which now, thankfully, are polished and professional), video courses, and in-person workshops. I genuinely enjoy explaining things, so teaching is a good fit for me.
Last year, I decided to start selling calligraphy supplies — in addition to digital products — here on the TPK website. I was nervous about shipping logistics, but once we put a system in place, figuring out how to send things was easy. Now, I’m overjoyed to know that people hear “the postman’s knock” to receive The Postman’s Knock goodies.
The point of this blog post is to show you: I wasn’t always good at calligraphy. It took me a long time — too long, really — to figure out how to peacefully coexist with my dip pen! That’s why I am so proud of the TPK website. It helps motivate people to learn calligraphy with fun tutorials, provides learning resources (some free, some paid), and contains plenty of encouragement! It’s the resource I wish I would have had when I started learning calligraphy nearly a decade ago.
If you’re just beginning calligraphy, here are some great TPK blog posts to check out:
- The Beginner’s Guide to Modern Calligraphy
- All of TPK’s Free Calligraphy Worksheets: A Master List
- 22 “Real Life” Calligraphy Practice Projects
- Anything in the “Entrepreneur” category of the blog (if you’re interested in starting a calligraphy business)
Just keep creating, and you’ll notice improvement. My advice is to keep it fun: send intricate, embellished envelopes to friends; volunteer to help with someone’s wedding; and make calligraphy quote art. The more you create calligraphy, the more your skills will improve!