As I gear up to teach my Miami calligraphy workshops, I’ve been thinking about beginner calligraphy problems. Even if I don’t notice workshop learners making the mistakes listed below, I warn them of these issues because many of them are bound to crop up! Without further ado, here are the calligraphy problems that beginners encounter the most:
1. Not Exerting Balanced Pressure on Both Tines of the Nib
This is a tough concept to explain without an in-person or video demonstration, but basically, there are two tines on the end of your nib. You must always 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 normally ask learners to play with their paper rotation. The problem is usually that the person is trying to make lettering that slants to the right. As a result, they put more pressure on the right tine of the nib. If you’re learning at home, try to watch demonstrations of people creating calligraphy so you can understand exactly how the nib works. (I pay special attention to this problem in The Beginner’s Modern Calligraphy Online Course!)
2. Never Diluting Ink
When you purchase your ink, it likely contains the perfect 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 nearly as nicely as it once did.
The remedy: Don’t be afraid to dilute your ink with water. I have to dilute my ink often here in dry Colorado, probably once every couple of days if I’ve been using my ink a lot! You can read more about how and when to dilute your ink in this article.
I should also mention that ink problems can be caused by using difficult papers. It’s imperative that you write on a smooth, high-quality paper like 32# laserjet, Rhodia, or Clairefontaine. You can find more information about calligraphy-friendly papers in this article.
3. Holding the Pen Too Upright
You’ve probably noticed calligraphers on Instagram holding their pens at a 90°-ish angle as they write. And that’s great! More advanced calligraphers have a mastery of how to exert balanced pressure on the nib’s tines, so they can swing that pen angle. (As a side note, a more upright angle is wonderful for making super thin upstrokes.) However, if a beginner tries to write with a too-upright angle, it can lead to ink flow problems and issues with the nib catching 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 and more comfortable creating calligraphy, you can experiment with a more upright angle.
4. Using Plastic-Flanged Oblique Pens
I wince when I see photos of calligraphy workshops that use plastic-flanged oblique pens. I get that instructors want to keep their supply costs low, but cheap plastic-flanged obliques harm more than they help! For example, after Tona Bell took my beginner calligraphy workshop, she had this to say about the brass-flanged oblique:
Personally, my big take away (from the workshop) was the wooden oblique holder. I had only ever used the plastic ones and honestly, wasn’t sure I had any talent for calligraphy. Then I used this custom holder that was part of my workshop kit. IT WAS A GAME CHANGER. I now know feel that I will be able to continue and actually enjoy calligraphy like I had hoped.
The remedy: Read this article and kick your plastic-flanged oblique pen to the proverbial curb!
5. Trying to Use One Oblique Pen for All Nibs
Okay, let’s say you do have a brass-flanged oblique pen. And you probably spent a pretty penny on it versus what you would have spent on a plastic-flanged oblique. So, you’re not going to love what I tell you next: brass-flanged oblique pens are fit for specific sizes of nibs. If you have a Nikko G nib oblique, it’s not going to fit a Brause EF66 nib because the two nibs are very different sizes.
The remedy: Try out a variety of nibs in a straight pen first. Then, choose the nib that you connect with best and purchase an oblique pen for that nib. Honestly, I create calligraphy all the time, and I use a Brause EF66 oblique pen to write 95% of it! You’ll find that you develop a favorite and that you mostly stick with that, which justifies the investment in a dedicated oblique pen.
6. Using a Paper Towel to Dry Off Nibs
As you write calligraphy, your process should go something like: dip in ink, write, dip in ink, write, swish off the nib with water, dry it off, dip in ink, and so on. It’s a very good idea to clean 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. This can be done, but it is 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. Cotton is great because it’s absorbent!
7. Not Practicing
One of the biggest calligraphy problems learners struggle with is a lack of practice. That word itself — “practice” — has a bit of a negative connotation. 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 way to combat calligraphy boredom is to shake up my projects! Among other things, I sketchbook, make cards, and create mail art. All of these types of projects utilize and sharpen my calligraphy skills. I also love to do calligraphy drills … really fun, flourishy ones!
8. Getting Water in the Pen
Your calligraphy pen really 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!
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.