One of the hurdles to learning calligraphy — or anything, for that matter — is figuring out how to practice. How do you set yourself up for success, and what projects and exercises should you do in order to improve? How do you even know that you’re improving? In today’s article, we’ll touch on the things you can do to ensure that you stick with your calligraphy practice and gauge your progress.
1. Make it fun.
As with anything you have decided to learn, you’ve got to make practice enjoyable. You will learn quickly and thoroughly if you like what you’re doing. To that end, you’ve got to set the mood! For me, that means setting up a workspace with a good podcast playing in the background, a hot cup of tea on my right, and a couple of squares of chocolate on my left. For you, setting the mood may mean playing heavy metal music and sipping on a milkshake. Just do whatever you want to make the practice space your “feel good” place! On a more practical note, you’ll need a nice, flat surface to write on, decent lighting, and the right supplies.
2. Start by building a strong foundation.
I’d kick off your calligraphy practice by beginning with a quality learning resource, something that addresses the problems you may encounter and provides solutions. To that end, I would recommend either attending an in-person calligraphy workshop from a reputable calligrapher or taking The Beginner’s Modern Calligraphy Online Course. If you begin with quality instruction and you understand the hurdles you may face, you’re less likely to abandon your calligraphy efforts when you run into problems as you practice.
3. Realize that there’s more than one way to practice calligraphy.
Are you familiar with the cliché “no pain, no gain”? Please don’t let that apply to your calligraphy practice! The moment you start to dread your practice, that’s when you need to re-evaluate what you’re doing. For most people, a varied approach will work the best. So, after you complete your beginner’s course, focus on mixing passion projects with structured practice (i.e. worksheets, drills).
I’d shoot for a 1:2 ratio of worksheets to projects. So, for every 20 minutes you spend filling out a worksheet set, try to give yourself 40 minutes of making something enjoyable (like mail art).
4. Experiment with different mediums.
Along the lines of making various projects, remember that working with different mediums will challenge you and improve your skills! So, instead of using sumi ink for your next project, try watercolor calligraphy. Work with metallic watercolors to make glittery, golden letters. Embrace paint-like white ink to make a pleasing contrast of white letters on dark paper! There are always new supplies and techniques that you can try to keep surprising yourself.
5. Don’t stress about having a strict practice routine.
Ideally, I’d recommend that you practice calligraphy at least three times per week in 20-minute sessions. That said, only you know your schedule and the repetition you need to master something. You may not have 60 minutes of free time in a week right now, and that’s okay! Just set aside whatever time you can to learn, and that’s enough.
The real trick is not to make it a chore; it should be a relaxing activity, like reading a good book. If you’re not feeling calligraphy practice, just skip it. In a couple of days, you’ll be looking forward to giving it another try with a fresher outlook.
6. Take lots of progress photos.
As you practice calligraphy, you’ll find that one of the perks is time away from your computer or smartphone. Once you finish practicing, though, take advantage of technology to document your creation! You’ll find that your memory alone is a very poor record keeper, and improvement will sneak up on you if you don’t take photos of your work.
The point of documenting your work is for encouragement. If you don’t see improvement in your calligraphy practice, you probably will abandon it. But if you have a photo of something you created two months ago, and you can compare it to something you created today, you’ll probably notice a difference that compels you to keep creating! (If you’re interested, you can see some of my comparison photos here.)
7. Embrace guidelines.
A learner once asked me if more calligraphy practice means that you eventually won’t need to draw guidelines. The answer — in my experience, at least — is no. Guidelines are just part and parcel of creating quality calligraphy. No matter what your skill level is, guidelines show you where to write and what size to make the letters.
Yes, guidelines take time to draw, but they’re part of the meditative process of creating intricate lettering.
8. Accept that you’re constantly improving.
As you practice calligraphy, you have to keep in mind that nothing will ever be perfect. That’s exactly why we make calligraphy versus using a calligraphy font on the computer. You will always see flaws in what you make, always. The trick is to realize that those flaws are exactly what makes the work pleasing. In a world so saturated with perfect design, the artistry of imperfection will always stand out. In other words: embrace your calligraphy mistakes and applaud yourself for putting yourself in the position to make them!
Before I let you go, I’d like to remind you to be sure and clean off your nibs in water and wipe them dry with a non-fibrous cloth (or a paper towel) after every calligraphy practice session. This will ensure that none of your nibs fall victim to rust! Thanks so much for reading, and I hope the tips in this article come in handy as we welcome the new year.