Here I’m sharing my experience learning calligraphy by the book: Calligraphy: Tools and Techniques for the Contemporary Practitioner (or Mastering Calligraphy: The Complete Guide to Hand Lettering) by Gaye Godfrey-Nicholls. I will write my process, what’s going on in my head and add some tips at the end, so this will probably read like an informative diary or an unofficial companion guide. This might be the most helpful if you also have the book and planning to learn as well.
First and foremost, I started reading the book. I took my sweet time, putting the book down whenever I feel I’ve had too much information. As I read the instructions, I imagined doing them in my head. Along the way, I started making the necessary guidelines. I then put pencil to paper and began to trace the skeleton Roman alphabet. Somehow I figured that it would be better to follow the alphabet’s ductus for this, so I consulted them with every new letter.
Based on the suggested practice amount, I timed my speed to calculate the number of alphabet sets I need to do, and came out with 10. Although it was suggested to get comfortable with one group before practising the next, I did all the groups alternatively for the sake of variation. I also tried out the stroke practice with a felt tip calligraphy pen. For practicality, this led me to creating angle guidelines, so I don’t have to use a protractor.
I put a tick whenever I produce a well-shaped skeleton, arrows and circles where imperfect curves are made. I noticed that the last letter I do in a letter drill is often the best one – probably because I was being extra attentive. It assured me that these drills do have merit.
I did have the determination to finish this task that I set myself, but between the drills, one couldn’t help but wonder, is this much practice really necessary? Will this build the so-called ‘muscle memory’ or am I being redundant? The answer came about halfway the course of 10 sets. I realised that I could do a letter without consulting the ductus for the first time. Without making a conscious effort, this practice will at least teach you to remember the ductus. As I progress, I began to consult them less and less. With every practice, I can see my skill visually improve, but I feel I’m not getting where I want to be fast enough.
I added my daily practice time, but paid more attention to every stroke. I made myself aware of my posture, took a breath and relaxed my hand – regularly shifted my seating position and drank water. I pause occasionally and set my eyes anywhere but the practice paper. I noticed that more and more letters are well formed with each set. They do indeed become almost automatic.
It took me almost four months to do the skeleton Roman alone. By then, I have long finished the book and managed to procure some broad edge nibs. The next phase of the training awaits me.
- Time yourself dilligently. Try to make time and practice everyday. You might not be able to do so, but when you do, sit down, and practice until an hour is up, don’t stop until then. And when it is then, do not prolong your practice. You would do well to take a break and start again the next day. Exhausting your eyes, hands and inspiration is never wise.
- As you go, put marks on the good shapes that you form, especially at the first half of the course, to encourage you. I put some marks on the bad too, but too much would be discouraging. Notice that as you progress, you could’ve put more ticks than crosses on the letters.
- Try to relax. I find at the beginning of a course, I tend to speed up, for want of mastering it quickly and out of curiosity (am I doing this right?). If you speed up, you tense your grip and add pressure to your medium. You will tire quickly and compromise the strokes. Slow down, breathe (blink while you’re at it), and be aware of what you’re doing – the strokes that you’re perfecting. Otherwise it’ll all be for nothing.
Below are the guidelines that I use for practising skeleton Roman and some angle of the strokes. They’re designed for A4 paper. The pen width is 3 mm. To maintain the correct proportions, do not scale when you print. I use 80 gsm paper for both the HB pencil (skeleton) and felt tip calligraphy pen (strokes). They are for personal use only, and please refer back here if you wish to share them.