Calligraphy 101: A Left Hander's Guide

When I first started out in calligraphy there were a lot of conflicting theories about how to approach the practical side of the art form. Some believe that calligraphy in the copperplate style should only be tackled with a straight holder; left or right handed a straight holder was the tool of choice. While there is no right or wrong answer for this I can only talk from personal experience. For months I struggled in vain to perfect my “Lines of Universal Beauty” and ovals to no avail. I understand that not all left handed people write the same; some are under writers, over writers and some that write up-side down. Over the years I have had a lot of left handed calligrapher’s contact me, asking how I approach my calligraphy and my response is always the same no matter how they write in everyday life. Calligraphy is not handwriting. It is a perfected art form to which we can only aspire to through hard work, dedication, study and practice. This is my guide to help you get started with calligraphy. Most of this advice can also be used for right handed people the only difference is in the paper position.

I can only tell you how I approach my calligraphy practice while it might not be for everyone, it is a well-used technique favoured by many left-handed penman including Master Penman John DeCollibus. When I switched to this technique my script came on leaps and bounds and I achieved more from my practice in a matter of days than what I had previously achieved over months.

First off, getting the right tools will solve a lot of headaches and months of frustration. For me, using a straight holder would always result in nibs getting caught in the paper (probably the most infuriating obstacle to efficient practice) and feathered shades. Not a look I was trying to achieve with holes all over the paper, ink splats everywhere (not to mention on my favourite top!) and wobbly shades I suggest using a right-handed oblique pen. It doesn’t need to be the most expensive top of the range oblique pen holder but, what I would suggest is not to simply buy the cheapest and by that I mean the plastic speedball oblique. I say this only because the speedball pen holders come in slightly different sizes with only one or two nibs that will fit correctly. Having an expensive beautiful pen holder with vintage nibs will make no difference to the quality of your practice and script. You must practice, practice, practice from exemplary sources and study them diligently.

Setting up your oblique pen
The centre of the nib must be in line with the central axis of the pen holder. If the nib over-hangs it will hamper your practice as it may feel unbalanced. The nib should sit securely in the flange without any wobble, most flanges are made of brass and can be adjusted to fit different sized nibs.

There is some debate as what kind of nib a beginner should use. Most beginners prefer to use the common G-nib either a Nikko-G or a Zebra-G. The tines on the G-Nibs are quite rigid and need a bit more pressure to create the shades. For an especially heavy handed beginner these can good at moderating the widths of shades. My personal preference from the G-nib duo is the zebra-g, to me it feels slightly sharper thus producing thinner more attractive hairlines. There is a version of the zebra-g available which is coated in titanium and lasts a lot longer than its counterpart. Good for continual practice sessions. To jump in at the deep end would be to use a more flexible nib such as the Hunt Imperial 101. Not too sharp so the tip snags on the paper as you try to moderate your strength, it’s a good all round nib and fairly inexpensive. Another very good nib to use but, a lot more difficult for a beginner to use would be the Gillot 403 and 404. Both very sharp and a light hand is need to get the best out these nibs. Up until now there has been some production problems with the Gillot nibs however, the company has started to retool them producing better quality nibs.

Preparing nibs
Firstly, check that the nib you’re going to use is suitable before putting it into the pen holder flange. The tines of the nib should be together and not slightly apart. One other tip is to run the back of the nib over the pad of your thumb if it glides effortlessly it is perfect to use, if it gets stuck in your thumb it’s no good. When nibs are produced they are covered in a thin layer of oil, this oil has to be removed before you can start practicing there are several ways in which to do this. One is to stick the nib in a potato then washed in a little water. Rubbing alcohol can also be used as well as quickly passing the nib through a flame. I don’t particularly like this method as it never really worked for me plus, if done wrong the metal can warp and waste a perfectly good nib. The final method would be to use salvia on a paper towel and wipe the nip then dry it off. It never fails. Penman of old would put nibs in their mouths and swirl them about to prepare them for use. You’ll know when the nib has been prepared properly as the ink will evenly cover the nib and won’t run off or accumulate in different parts of the nib.

The best ink to practice with at all levels is walnut ink. It is non-corrosive and can be watered down to make it last a lot longer. To do this, use a pipette to transfer some ink to a small jar and then in the same way add some water. This mixture can still be used on a variety of different papers and still produces excellent hairlines and won’t blob or spread/feather.

Paper and guidelines
Paper quality when starting to practice makes a big difference. Stay away from sketchpads of all kinds most of the time ink will just spread and it becomes an ineffective way to practice. Layout pads are very good for practicing especially when using with guidelines underneath. Rhodia pads are an exceptionally high quality paper and take walnut ink beautifully. A high quality printer paper may prove to be a more cost effective way of practicing. Look for paper with a high gsm marker Clairefontaine papers are very good but difficult to come by. Navigator printer paper is also very good to practice on and can be found in numerous stockicts. Unless using a light-pad, guidelines will have to be drawn on these papers to ensure that a 45 - 55 degree angle is maintained during practice. Difference in angle depends on personal preference or on what script is being practiced.

Sitting Position and Posture
It is of the utmost importance to sit correctly while practicing calligraphy to avoid aches and pains. Height is an important factor to take into consideration. Arms must be resting gently at a 90 angle on the table with feet firmly planted on the ground, straight back and sit on the front edge of the seat. Another important note to keep in mind is to keep your head straight, subconsciously with this technique I found that my head was tilting to the side, ending up with a crick in my neck.

Paper position
The image above shows the paper at a 90 angle to the torso. This allows you to clearly see what you are doing, easy movement of the pen and no smudging of ink. Try not to be tempted to turn the paper round; everything can be achieved at this 90 degree angle.

Once you have your set up to practice it is just a matter pulling you hand down (or parallel) to your torso exerting downward pressure to create solid shades and going up with a light pressure to create hairlines. The angle of the oblique is low enough that the nib shouldn’t catch on the paper freeing you hand and pen to glide across the paper. The flange should keep the desired angle needed.

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