October 21st, 2016 by D. T. Grimes

If we’re going to talk about ritualizing practice, we really should cover what practice looks like. Raise your hand if you’re guilty of sitting down with a pen and burning through page after page of frustratingly poor script only to feel overwhelmed at the end of the a writing session. The truth is, while that kind of thing is sorta necessary at the beginning, it’s also something that you can move past early on. Putting mileage on your pen is certainly one way to improve, but is it the best way? I don’t think so.

Like exercise, progress in calligraphy is most easily measured when it’s done in a standardized routine. I know the words ‘structure’ and ‘discipline’ make some people run for the hills when it comes to the thing they do for fun. If you’re a hobbyist, just dipping your toes, or not concerned with growth, feel free to ignore the rest of this article. I’m just glad that you enjoy writing, and if that’s enough for you, that’s enough for me.

But for those of you who want to improve your script, for those of you who have a a burning desire to hone a critical eye and steady hand, you absolutely need to take your approach to practice seriously. I’ve put this post together as a sort of outline for things to consider when you’re setting up your own writing program. Keep in mind, the variables may be different from person to person, but they should be standardized early and adhered to until you have a reasonable cause to change them.

Here’s how I do it.

Build an optimized writing environment

You’re likely limited in the spaces that are easily available for you to practice in. That’s fine. Few of us have a home office or studio built into our living space. Try to pick somewhere that is free from distractions, has ample space for you to spread your tools and resources out, and has a table set at a comfortable height for you to work with.

Writing session with David Grimes

As you get into the swing of regular practice, you might notice small things making a difference in your script. Where does your ink jar sit when you write? How does the angle of the paper in relation to your body change from session to session? Start to work these small inconsistencies out of your space each time you notice them. Pay special attention to small elements which might be overlooked. You’d be surprised how much a single item out of place can affect the quality of the work you produce, or more importantly how you feel producing it.

Select a regular practice time

I’ve found that early mornings are when I get my best writing in from a technical level. Since my eyesight is not as good as I wish it were, the natural light from the window, and the cool color temperature feel great on my eyes. When lighting becomes a consideration when evaluating your posture, chances are you’re not working in a space that is set up best for you.

I regularly hear from students and friends that they ‘just don’t have time’ for calligraphy any other time than late at night, after other obligations have been attended to. This is a very real problem for a large amount of the people learning calligraphy, currently. Our lives are incredibly full and demanding. Instead of staying up late, however, why not go to bed earlier and start the next morning with a practice session? I always find that a days worth of stress and activity can make my script feel heavy and hesitant. Early morning script is fresh and well rested.

Practice achievable exercises

I think that a lot of people make “progress” out to be this really amorphous thing that happens when you’re not looking. This is absolutely not the case. The real problem that people experience when they’re looking for progress is that they’re distracted by big picture details when they should be repairing smaller, technical matters.

Norder's writing on a check

For example, I may set out to work from a specific example, say the above check by Charles Norder. I look at the entire design and feel inspired by the cohesion of the various forms, the effortless way that the ruling lines are drawn, even the spacing of the design on the encompassing paper. If I embark on a session to glean some kind of growth from my study of this sample of writing, I might feel scattered in different directions. There are obviously a lot of things that Norder is doing better than me as I’m going along. I might notice that my slant was just off or, oh, dang, I messed that ligature up. My mind feels overwhelmed because I haven’t decided on one thing that I can learn, today, and set out to evaluate myself on that element in isolation.

This unfocused approach has two main drawbacks. First, it will frustrate you because you can’t identify that ‘magic’ that Norder’s script has that makes his better than yours. You might let your mind wander and start to doubt if you really have enough talent for this type of work. The answer is, of course you do. Norder didn’t start off writing like that. What you’re looking at is an amalgamation of countless writing sessions of his own. He built up to that ‘magic’ quality, and you’d do well by yourself to remember that.

The second, is that when you focus on too many things at once, you will undoubtedly skip over elements that really do deserve your direct and undivided attention. The silent killer of penman everywhere is the apathy with which they view and consume the work that inspires them. When you decide to study from something, do so because you are passionate about it. Select samples that inspire you to feast your eyes. Once you’ve decided that something is worth adding to your skill base, break it down into the smallest portions possible. Confident use of calligraphic skill traces it’s roots to bedrock. Build up, not out.

Evaluate progress objectively

One of the most useful things that I learned in design school was the proper way to accept and give critique. It’s important to remember when you’re working alone (which you likely are) that critique should still exist as a formal activity. This means that you need to find a way to look at your work and critique it as if it is not your own. For some, this may be as simple as pretending it was done by a friend or colleague, and for others, that may mean setting it aside until the emotional side of creation has waned and you can view your work with dispassionate eyes.

Once you feel like you can objectively criticize your own work, you can start to empathize with how others experience it. If calligraphy is in any way a discipline that you undertake for the enjoyment of others, then this can be a really helpful way to understand and improve the way your work is consumed.

The big caveat here is that like our hands, our eyes deteriorate with lack of practice. Concepts that may have been second nature for you several weeks ago fade into uncertainty with lack of use. And the untrained teacher (your eye) cannot be expected to guide and nurture the pupil (your hand). This is why the “study more than you practice” adage rings true. Your mind is responsible for leading your hands to understanding, not the other way around.

If you cultivate a strong environment for the development of a critical eye, then you should find it easier to separate doing from knowing, and critiquing your own work then becomes less personal, and by extension, more honest.

In review

Build a space that works with you, not against you. Set yourself up for success by putting intention and energy into creating an environment which breeds good habits and confident creative energy.

Select a time that your practice can fit into your regular schedule. Don’t be afraid to shake things up and start the day with calligraphy. You may find it therapeutic. Whatever schedule you set up for yourself, stick to it.

Identify small, measurable goals that can be achieved in single writing sessions. Big picture goals are fine, but you should be constantly adding small wins to your skill pile. Don’t be afraid to work on aspects of your writing that seem pedantic or frivolous.

Learn to separate your emotions from the analytical evaluation of your work. Teach yourself to see your work for it’s merits while identifying it’s failures. Understand that failures are just areas of focus for another day, and should not detract from successes.

If you can follow the above rubric, you’ll find that your practice becomes more efficient, rewarding, and purposeful. Always remember that your journey with the pen quite literally started with a single stroke. The big picture is great, but the integrity of your skill is determined when ink meets paper.

What about you?

Writing programs differ from person to person. I’ve arrived at these four simple points after years of creative work, and am very confident that they work for me. What do you use to encourage your own study? How do you structure growth and progress over time?