I am sorry if this has been sitting here for a while. I didn’t know to check it! And then this weekend I had a thoughtful, detailed reply typed up and then it disappeared because I sneezed or something, and I got frustrated, so I didn’t try again until now.
First, thanks for your kind words! That’s just about the nicest, most validating thing to hear so I appreciate you taking the time to say it.
Second, I am actually a self-taught beginner, myself. I went through a pretty intense 2-year arts program at my public high school, and did a few terms at university as an Art major, but as far as lettering and calligraphy goes - I bought my friend Ray Thai take-out for like, 6 tutoring sessions before I moved away from NYC so that he could reteach me the alphabet, and since then, I’ve just been kind of winging it. I knew I wanted to pursue a new career in lettering and illustration and felt woefully unequipped to do so (especially having some very talented graphic design and artist friends to whom I compared myself) but I had to start somewhere. Granted, with no kids or looming debts or real responsibilities, it was a bit easier for me - plus I would not be able to support myself without the generosity and patience from my very loving and encouraging partner. I know that, and am grateful every day.
But, I intentionally made some decisions to get to this place of freedom and took some risks and so here we are.
So that’s my confession. My caveat is that I have too much respect for the art and craft of calligraphy to call myself a calligrapher yet. I practice a form of calligraphy called “modern calligraphy” or “pointed pen” that is more freestyle, but I couldn’t write a thing in formal Spencerian or Copperplate to save my life!
Advice, as unqualified as I am to give it:
1. Start with lettering. I mentioned that my very talented friend and mentor (despite being like, 6 years younger than I am), Ray, tutored me in actually relearning the alphabet from scratch. I’d initially contacted him with some questions about calligraphy tools and he whoa-Nellied me and asked what I really knew about lettering. I said I had been told I had nice handwriting, and wanted to learn how to use that professionally, at which point he probably rolled his eyes and suggested the tutoring arrangement. We started with the basics. I mean Kindergarten BASICS. He re-taught me the Roman alphabet starting with majescules (“upper case” letters) and then miniscules (or, “lower case”). My homework was just to write the alphabet over and over again. I’d listen to music and write bits of lyrics, I’d sit in coffee shops and transcribe snippets of overheard conversation. I practiced a lot. I still do.
2. Practice. A lot.
The purpose of relearning the alphabet was to get a fundamental understanding of how letterforms are built, what pieces of them are essential and make them recognizable, and the proper strokes to put them together. This becomes imperative in learning calligraphy - understanding upstrokes and downstrokes, which is how you can achieve those beautiful thicks and thins. Buy a book! Watch tutorials online! Follow great calligraphers and lettering artists on social media and absorb their work. And then practice until you start to develop Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. (Hopefully not, but, probably).
3. Know your tools.
Lettering artists argue that you can use just about anything to letter, so no excuses if you don’t have the “right tools”! But I would argue that calligraphy is a bit different and does require some specific tools. You will need:
- a clean, flat or slightly inclined, smooth work surface
- a comfortable chair or stool at the proper height
- smooth paper. I like Rhodia notebooks, but artists like Molly Jacques recommend something with guides, which makes sense.
- a pen/nib holder (best to start with something oblique and inexpensive like this Speedball
- nibs (totally depends what style you are going for. Do some research online and read product reviews or visit calligraphy forums to explore). My recommendation for beginning nibs are the Nikko G, Nikko Zebra, and Brause Rose. You can buy all of these at John Neal Bookseller.
- a flat, inexpensive paintbrush (to load the ink onto your nib. I guess some people dip into the ink, but, I haven’t gotten that to work for me).
- ink. Lots of options here. Walnut ink seems to be popular, but I haven’t tried it. I have tried Bombay Ink, but it’s pretty runny and finicky in my experience. I prefer to use designer’s gouache. It’s cheap, but you have to work with it and play around with adding water to get the right consistency. The “right” consistency can vary according to nib and paper type, but, it should stay put in your nib for a few lines of text, and run off the nib smoothly without catching or blobbing on the paper.
And then just play and experiment!
Be fearless in making ugly stuff for a while - it will shake out into something prettier, eventually, I promise.
Other than that, I would recommend just taking a workshop or class if you can. Something that allows you to dive in, focus on just the task of creating lovely letters, and boosts your confidence in the process.
YOU CAN DO IT!