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Calligraphy & Lettering Practice: Tips to set up for success!

An intentional set-up for Brush Calligraphy and Lettering practice can make or break your progress. So today I want to focus on the things you should look for when setting up your space, time, and position to practice + I am sharing a FREE worksheet to get you started!

calligraphy practice

By now it is nothing new that the amount of time that you dedicate to the practice of Brush Calligraphy will dictate not only your improvement but also the speed at which you will improve.

This is why I'm such an advocate for intentional practice because the quality of your practice can dictate and greatly affect your rate of progress.

This is why it is so important to understand the factors that influence the quality of your calligraphy practice. After all, there is a wrong and a right way to practice calligraphy.

And today we will cover everything that will improve your practice, therefor accelerate your progress.

Learning Calligraphy will take a lot of time

There is no way around it, you need to invest time to see progress. But this goes for anything new that you are learning, so it should not be such a shocker.

The dangerous thing is when you try to teach yourself something, and you are dedicating time to things that will not help you improve, you get frustrated because even though you are investing time, you see no progress and start to think that maybe this is *not for you*.

Well, I'm here to tell you that Brush calligraphy is for ANYONE who is willing to put in the effort, practice, and build on a layer by layer.

So, before we go into details, let's answer one of the most common question I get:

Can I teach myself calligraphy?

Yes, you can teach yourself Calligraphy, but it's important to have resources that will help your journey, practice intentionally, and most importantly, follow and learn letter-construction rules before attempting to break them and find your “personal style”.

I am trying to set this blog are the ultimate resource for you to start your letter-journey without frustration and see progress as fast as possible.

The foundation of progress is practice, so please pay close attention to the points in this post to make your practice as intentional as possible!

Let's get started!

Concentration & muscle memory

Calligraphy involves your mind just as much as your hand. Even though at the beginning, controlling the pen might seem like a 100% physical task, a full understanding of the basic strokes and later on the construction of letters and words, demands that you pay careful attention to what you are doing.

Repeating each stroke, in your drills, will lead you to make that motion as a muscle response. We are training our brain, eyes, and hands.

Calligraphy is not a learned motor response, but a combination of judgment and planning with rhythm and motion.

You will learn muscle memory as you practice calligraphy and will be able to think about what you want to achieve, whether it's a basic stroke or a complex flourish, and you will be able to recognize and successfully perform the task because you are pulling from memory and not having to problem-solve the letters.

The importance of mindset

If you’ve read any of my other posts where I have mentioned mindset, you probably know that I love to use the GYM analogy when it comes to mindset.

Here is the thing, you cannot expect to have a flat tummy, defined muscles, and an athlete resistance after going to the GYM three times, right?

We know that developing muscles and burning fat takes time and dedication, and to target certain muscles, we have to make very specific moves. 

The same goes for building a skill like Brush Calligraphy.

We have to set our expectations realistically, even if you follow absolutely all of my recommendations, there will be a time when our pieces will not be too good. And that is something WE ALL have to go through, there is no skipping this part.

BUT with enough practice, we WILL see improvement. Our eye will develop and will identify minor mistakes, we will see little details that will improve our pieces.

We have to be ok with the process, we need to be ok with being a beginner. Because the way we THINK about learning will ultimately affect the way we do it.

The only way to improve is by taking action, and practice. To see real improvement, we have to be patient.

Go with the process and don't give up before we start to see real progress.

The importance of light for Calligraphy practice

Proper lighting is something that we definitely cannot underestimate. We should try to avoid lighting that will cast a shadow in our work area.

And while this might sound obvious, we should pay attention to the kind of light we have when practicing close-up and delicate work.

Since we are training our eyes, we want to see what we are doing as clear and with less distraction as possible.

And while writing with shadows cast all over might not seem like a terrible distraction. It is one more thing that our eyes need to get out of the way to concentrate on when we are doing.

So while it's a small detail. It can be yet another way to help our practice be more comfortable.

Check the temperature of your lights, I really like and respond to daylight bulbs better than warmer bulbs. But it's all about what makes you feel more comfortable.

The importance of posture

You want to pay close attention to how you are sitting, posture can help tremendously since we are not just moving our hand to make the strokes, we want the movement to come from our elbows.

Sitting up straight and having both feet on the floor is not only good for your back but also for an effective movement of your writing arm.

When you sit straight, you can see what you are doing with your pen much better, since you have an overview instead of a tilted one. Additionally, when you sit straight, you are less likely to be off-balance and to lose control of your pen. And you will get tired, not as fast as if you were sprawled over your paper.

position overhead

You want to try to position your hand below the writing line, in a relaxed position. Your paper should be in a position that is comfortable and natural for writing.

Left-handers may need to tilt their paper to the right while they practice calligraphy, so they can pull instead of pushing the brush pen. This will also prevent from smearing while writing. Another popular way to hold the paper is to place the paper in a 90-degree angle to the body to give free movement to the writing hand. 

But eventually, you should test different holds and positions for your paper, usually, left-handlers that go for a “hook” position, might need to alter the grip to make it more comfortable.

Full-body control

Sitting up straight with both feet on the floor or following the recommended Ergonomic position depending on your workspace is fundamental to have a good session.

If you sit crooked and put all your weight on one foot, or if you sprawl over your paper, you will be off-balance, and therefore you will have LESS CONTROL over your brush pen.

Another advantage of sitting correctly is that you will have a better view of your work, and will be able to make sure you are following your guidelines correctly.

Surface angle for Calligraphy Practice

When it comes to the surface used to practice calligraphy, Many artists prefer to work on a slanted surface rather than on a flat table.

To achieve this angle, I use this over the table drawing table (that I painted white). But this is totally a matter of personal preference, I know so many artists who are totally fine working on a flat surface. 

This, just like with the kind of brush pens, I would recommend you test, see what feels more comfortable, experiment. And if your posture is more comfortable with a slant, consider something like my little table. I consider this a good, middle of the road option, you can go as fancy or as simple as you want.

drawing table
Here you can see my desk drawing table, along with my favorite desk-pad

Other options for many artists are to use a full drawing table, tabletop drawing table, or a drawing board that you can tilt to achieve an angle.

This makes it easier to maintain good posture, but it is not 100% necessary, I started with just a flat surface and later on moved to my tabletop drawing table (I painted mine white so it would match my desk better)

While a practical option, a slanted surface is just that, an option. If you feel good with the amount of control you have over the pen and your back is comfortable, certainly, continue to work on a flat surface.

RELATED: If you want to have a peek at how my studio was set up for work in 2020, check this post.

drawing table on top of desk
The HowJoyful Studio

How to hold a brush pen when doing calligraphy

To achieve the most visual difference between the thick downstrokes and the thin upstrokes is to hold the brush pen at an angle of about 45 degrees relative to the paper. 

The grip used to hold the brush pen is a personal preference, but to have the most control, you want your finger to be not too close to the tip of the brush pen, and also the hold not to be too far so that it makes applying down-pressure difficult.

Now, no matter the grip you used to hold the pen, you should always pay close attention to the angle you have in relation to the paper. If your grip forces you to hold your pen upright, you should correct it.

how to hold a pen

You should try to puck the barrel of the brush pen so it sits on the webbing between your thumb and your index finger. This will give you a greater angle and since your pen will be resting, it will be more comfortable to do a longer session.

While we could get super technical when it comes to holds, I instead want to focus on comfort. Because before starting to test crazy handholds for your brush pen, your hand should be comfortable, and gliding your pen should be a natural movement. Even when you are applying down pressure.

Hand warm-ups for Brush Calligraphy Practice

This might seem like a silly suggestion, but similarly to when we work out, we need to do warm-ups! 

Warming up the muscles in your hands and arms will allow you to easily start practicing without the jitter and pain that can come from repetitive motions.

The warm-ups can be divided into two different sections:

a– Lifted warm-ups

These basically consist of motion that we should do with our hands to get our hand muscles looser. I like starting from my shoulders and work my way to my fringes. 

Just like you would do when you warm up for exercising, the goal is to stretch and extend your joints so that your hands and arms perform the movements without getting tired or jittery.

I figure that the best way to show all the warm-ups we can do is to share visually, so I made the graphic below, there you can see examples of the movements that you can do to warm up your hands.

hand warms ups

b– On paper warm-ups

As the name hints, these are drills that we can do on the paper to help our hands warm up. I always like to do half a page of these before I start a session, as it makes me get confident on my upstrokes and makes them way less jittery than at the beginning if I haven’t warmed up.

To help you with these warm-ups, I created a set of worksheets that you can download and start using right away when you subscribe to the newsletter, just download at the bottom of the post!

brush pen basics strokes printable
the importance of speed

The importance of speed

Speed is one of the most important points that I often see artists not really talk about or give as much importance as it should. Control, especially on the upstrokes (to prevent them from being shaky) comes from going slow.

When you try the fragmented method of constructing letters, you do need fast strokes to make letters.

But for the fluid construction method (the one I teach) you will need to go SLOW, going slow will give you more control over your thin lines (or upstrokes), your downstrokes are by default a little more controlled because when you make a downstroke, you are using the whole surface of the pen as a support, so it is easier to have a good downstroke than it is to have a good upstroke.

So, upstrokes will be more challenging, but this is why we are using our whole body and our movements are not just on your hand but your full arm.

When we learn how to move our arms, going slow will not be an issue.

BUT this is something we need to practice improving because it is a movement that does not come naturally, as this is not how we normally write.

I am not going to lie, mastering your strokes is not easy, but once you learn to control them, forming letters will be a breeze! and graduating to flourishes will be a very natural progression.

If you want to get started with your practice, check my FREE worksheet bundle and Brush basics at the bottom of the post.

The importance of guidelines

Guidelines will provide you with a solid foundation to write your strokes and letters. They are important to practice your slant and proportions.

Therefore, the quality of your guidelines will greatly affect the quality of your writing. As much as accurate and well-constructed guidelines can help your letters, inaccurate, and uneven guidelines will have the opposite effect.

You can either make your own or use premade guide sheets. And because I love making this game easier for you, I prepared a few sheets that you can use for practice, download them in my Calligraphy paper post here or just log into the Letter Vault if you are already a HowJoyful subscriber.

print and play grids

Below you can see my favorite guideline for brush calligraphy, I like having a pronounced angle and a short x-height. And if you are not sure of what each line is, check my cat explanation.

calligraphy grid
  • Ascender: The upper part (above the waistline) of the minuscules b,d,f,h,k, and l.
  • Ascender line: The guideline that defines the upper limit of all minuscules that have ascenders with loops.
  • Baseline: Also called the writing line, is the base that defines the lower limit or where letters lay.
  • Descender: The lower part (below the baseline) of the minuscule f,g,j,p,q, and y.
  • Descender line: This line defines the lower limit of all the minuscule letters that have descenders with loops.
cat letter guidelines

If you feel inspired, you can always use something like this rolling ruler and make your own with a pencil.

Another alternative is to use a Lightbox so you re-use the guideline sheets you just created, or re-sue the grids I shared with you, just print and use.

If you don't have a Lightbox, you can always use trace paper so you can still see all the lines and practice on top of them.

Extra tips for calligraphy practice

I know we have covered some of the most important aspects of practicing effectively, but there are so many extra tips that I wanted to point because they just make practice that much more comfortable and inspiring.

start with the basic strokes

1 – Start with the basic strokes

When you are getting started with Brush calligraphy, you need to learn how each letter is constructed before you start writing words. We need to learn how to walk before we start running.

Each letter is composed of a combination of strokes, the basic strokes shown below are the backbone of how legible and well constructed your letters will be.

the basic strokes

The more consistent your strokes, the more consistent your letters and words will be. I know it's tempting, but please do not skip this fundamental step.

I have a free worksheet with all the basic strokes in the Letter Vault for you. So download them and get started with your practice.

2 – Pause in between strokes

We already talked about speed, and how important it is to create consistent strokes. Pausing in between strokes will allow us to prepare for the next stroke, to plan where it should start, and where it will end so that we can plan our words.

Because Brush Calligraphy and Cursive writing are different, when we start to practice calligraphy we need to go slow, stop at the end of each stroke and plan for the next.

basic strokes

3 – Focus on one thing at a time

When we are in the beginning stages of something, it is essential to focus on one thing at a time. If you are just starting to learn how to build letters, don't try to practice adding shadows and embellishments just yet.

I know that is super tempting to just go all out! Trust me, I was there.
But to construct better letters, we should go one step at a time.

Building a good foundation before we add a new layer, similarly to when we make a cake, our base layer is the widest, and it has to be stable to add a layer on top.

Practice the Basic strokes, then make letters, then words, after we have mastered them, we can get as fancy as we want with shadows, flourishes, and other embellishments.

4 – Keep record of your work

One thing that I am always recommending when I do in-person workshops is for my students to save the sheets we complete.

Of course, you will probably not see a change from one day to the next, but comparing pieces month after month is the best way to boost your confidence and encourage yourself to keep going.

Comparing your own work is the best way to see progress, by comparing one piece to the next. I love to try to stick to a quote or something that has an emotional connection to you. Date and save the piece and try to replicate it once every 6 months or so.

5 – Ditch the caffeinated drinks

I know how important caffeine can be for some people to start the day, but if you have a practice session that you want to accomplish that day, have less coffee, or have your regular cup after you finish your practice. Coffee, or caffeine to be exact, can mess your upstrokes because it WILL make you shaky.

Try to either take your coffee or caffeinated drink after practice, try a caffeine-free option while you practice (and before) but don't worry, you can still consume all the caffeine you want after practice he-he.

6 – Practice at your best productive time

There is no time of the day that is the most productive time for everyone, so look for yours. When you are not distracted, tense, sleepy, or overwhelmed, it would be easier for you to focus on your practice. If possible, try to practice at the same time every day so that your practice becomes part of your daily routine.

7 – Surround yourself with inspiring artwork

While I don't believe that you should copy other artists, surrounding yourself with art that you want to be able to achieve in the future, will keep you focus and with a goal in mind.
I am a believer in Vision Boards and Mindset, but even if you are not, gathering inspiration will also help you do just that, stay inspired and make your surroundings more beautiful =]

8 – Play your favorite jams

Don't underestimate the value and power of your favorite tunes. Music can help your concentration and help you get in the “right mood” for a good practice session. If music is not your thing, try to make your work area as inspirational as possible, light a candle, close the door to the busyness outside. All of it will help you relax and focus on your strokes.

Download FREE Worksheets

To help you get the most out of your practice, I created different sets of worksheets just for you! Just subscribe to the HowJoyful Newsletter below and get access to all the worksheets!

Want to check the workbooks that are available inside the ever-growing Letter Vault? Below is a sample of the most popular ones.

free worksheets
Workbooks for 30 different alphabets, letters and words, the best companion after the basic strokes worksheets.
worksheets alphabet
Workbooks with different font-based alphabets! So many practice sheets inside the Letter Vault!

If you want to read more about the worksheets and also read my recommendations for how to use them, check this post about Calligraphy practice sheets.

In conclusion

I know all of this information can seem a little overwhelming, especially when you are learning something from the ground up.

But I recommend you pay attention to at least one of the points I cover each time your practice, this way you can start building up on your practice habits, and after a few sessions, they will come naturally and will become a normal part of your practice sessions.

Gillian Benade

Saturday 22nd of May 2021

I am not a person that can draw In other words not artistic at all I have decided to try my hand at caligraphy

Joy Kelley

Tuesday 1st of June 2021

I wish you all the luck, Gillian! Calligraphy is such a relaxing and beautiful art form! <3

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