Teaching is My Cup of Tea
to work at Safeway when I was young and when there was a holiday
or some kind of sale I used to love to write the signs for the flowers
like Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day. I would write
pretty letters and decorate them with ivy that I drew and colored.
We had the best looking produce department in town. When I moved
to Los Angeles from Brigham City, Utah I brought a stack of those
produce signs with me to use to draw and color signs and pictures
for my children. Every month had some kind of holiday that needed
decorations. My boys and I would draw and color together and hang
them all over the walls. One day my apartment manager said that
I would probably like calligraphy if I liked drawing letters that
much. Hmm, calligraphy, I hadn’t ever heard of that, but if
it involved pretty letters then it was right up my alley. I remember
checking into adult classes at Venice High School and decided to
sign up for a Wednesday night class. Now this was when the “Hillside
Strangler” murders were going on and being from a small town
coming to the big city, this was a very scary proposition to go
out alone at night to Venice, but this is how much I wanted to learn
calligraphy. It wasn’t scary after all and I knew from the
moment I took that first class with Richard Alonzo, who is now one
of the LAUSD Supervisors, it was my cup of tea. I also took guitar
and acrylic painting. I was there Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
I really loved it! Then Proposition 13 came along and they cancelled
painting and guitar but I managed to have 2 years of calligraphy.
My teacher introduced me to the Society for Calligraphy so I joined.
This was in 1979. I have been a member ever since. I can’t
tell you what a difference this has made in my life. It gave me
a whole new world to explore. I went in thinking I would learn how
to write pretty envelopes and have found myself with rubber gloves
and a respirator grinding gesso for raised gilding. In that first
class I made friends that I have up till today and I have my home
because of someone in that class. I wasn’t lonely in the big
city anymore either. I made so many wonderful friends taking workshops
and going to SfC events that it became a whole new lifestyle. I’ve
never stopped studying, having master classes with Reggie Ezell,
Thomas Ingmire, Marsha Brady and all the many classes and workshops
offered through different calligraphy guilds. I have done work for
many celebrities and my work has been shown on television and movies.
I’ve been a teacher now for 23 years and taught children from
8 years old to adults 95 years old. It’s been a wonderful
Understanding and practicing letterforms.
One thing that I learned early on is that in order to be a good
calligrapher and keep getting better, you have to learn some basic
skills. You have to learn to see what the exemplar really looks
like. Not what you think it looks like. So you have to really spend
time observing the letterform you want to learn. I emphasis this
to my students. Your hand can’t do something that your mind
doesn’t understand. You need to really know what shape you
want to write and then write it. It will take practice to get your
hand and your brain to get it all together. It is not very effective
to practice many, many letters without comparing them to the exemplar
and correcting each attempt.
The next step is to be very meticulous in your practice. Remember
when you are “practicing,” your head and hand are rehearsing
to make nice calligraphic pieces. So if your practice is sloppy
and hap-hazard how can you possibly do anything better when it’s
time to perform? You should “practice” so that at performance
time you will already be able to line up the paper and write beautiful
letters. It’s important to practice by using the correct lining
system and the right amount of space between lines. Don’t
practice on both sides of the paper to save money. In practice,
your eye gets used to the “color” of the lettering so
when you do the original it won’t “look” right
if you’ve practiced incorrectly. It’s important that
you use good exemplars and try to emulate them. It’s a really
good skill to be able to exactly duplicate someone else’s
letters. Certainly after you learn the exemplar you have leeway
to put your own personality into the forms. Once you learn how to
do this you will be able to learn any letterform pretty quickly.
Lining the paper
I have so many students who ask if there is pre-lined paper. Well,
yes, there is. But how useful is that? When you want to write on
a card for someone it won’t come pre-lined. Then what? If
you avoid lining your paper when you practice, how well do you think
you’ll be able to line up when you need to do the real piece?
If you do a poor job lining the paper and then spend the 2-3 hours
that it takes to do your calligraphy, when you’re finished
it will look bad. So you’ve just wasted the time on this piece
and you’ll have to redo it or give it to the person and be
embarrassed. You might as well take the time to do it properly in
the first place and then be proud to give it away. YOU CAN’T
HAVE NICE WRITING IF YOU HAVE BAD LINING! I have my students learn
to line right from the beginning so that you are perfectly comfortable
with the whole process. You won’t get anywhere if you don’t
know how to line. You may as well learn how to do it well and ENJOY
it. I find it to be meditative. If you take that attitude it is
really fun to use the wonderful lining tools, like; rulers, Ames
liners, dividers, drafting pencils and sharpeners. It’s actually
fun to use those drafting pencils and know how to use the sharpeners
and get that really sharp pencil! See isn’t that better than
using a keyboard and mouse? All the tools for calligraphy are so
wonderful. The actual writing of the letters is only one small aspect
of the overall experience. Learn to take joy in the whole process.
In my classes we start by writing on 8x8 grid paper. The measurements
are there and if you write 1inch tall you won’t have to add
lines. But be sure to make marks on which line to write, so you
don’t accidently write one line too close or far away. I like
to put all the important directions to myself so when it’s
time to write I can concentrate on pretty writing and not have to
guess where to write next. The next size I have my students write
is 1/2 inch x-height (the height from the waistline to the baseline).
Now you can use an 18 x 2 inch C-thru ruler to put 1/2 inch lines
on the paper. Again, with 1/4 inch x-height. Then we learn how to
draw slant lines across the page to help keep a consistent slant.
This way you gradually get used to using the ruler and measurements.
Later, we learn how to use a T-square and triangle and usually an
Ames liner to draw small x-height lines. I know a lot of people
say they’ve bought an Ames liner and never use it because
it’s too complicated. It’s really a great way to line
for small writing and if you don’t try to read the instructions
(which is enough to make you quit lining all together!) There is
a really simple way to figure it out so have someone show you how
to do it.
Next, is to do some projects. Pick words that you like and would
like to see finished. This is the only way to learn how to do “real”
calligraphy. You’ll have to design the layout and come up
with ideas that will express the words in the best possible way.
You will need to explore colors: gouache, watercolors, inks, etc.
And papers: text weight, cover weight, watercolor papers, colored
paper, etc. Remember your practice is to get you prepared to have
a finished piece. It’s nice to have something that you can
show for all your work instead of a bunch of practice sheets. I
think it’s always a good idea to date your work. You’d
be surprised at how you forget when you did something.
When you start a piece always finish it. Even if you make a mistake,
keep going, the practice will be good for you. Don’t cross
anything out or crumple up the paper and throw it away. You will
find that tomorrow it looks much better than you thought. In a week
it’s really good and you won’t remember why you didn’t
like it. This will teach you to complete projects. It’s never
going to be perfect. So get over it! If you still don’t like
it then start another piece. Or do 2 or 3 versions of the piece
and pick the best one for yourself and give the other ones to friends.
Continue to learn
There are so many things to learn in this field. I just wanted to
do pretty cards and posters and have learned how to prepare vellum
and mix gesso for gilding, sometimes I feel like a chemist. It’s
so great!! There is never a time that I’m bored. I always
have something to do and something more to learn. I’m particularly
interested in paleography (the study of the history of writing).
Of course, as much as there is to learn I have such a bad time remembering
things that I can enjoy it all over when I read it again. It’s
a good idea to take classes from a number of different teachers.
Sometimes the way one person says something is clearer and the more
you hear it you’ll finally be ready to understand it. There
are many ways to do things, they are all valid, just different.
Therefore many qualified teachers can help you grow in many ways.
That’s where having adult school classes, college classes
and the Calligraphy Societies and Guilds are so useful. We are lucky
in Southern California to have many people with the same interest
that we have.There are a variety of classes all around the area
and the SfC brings people from all over the world to give instruction.
I encourage all of you to continue to study. Continue to take classes.
I know that I never get any of my own work done unless I’m
in some class that forces me to work on projects. Participate in
exhibits and activities of the SfC. You’ll only get better.
Try not to be intimidated by others around you. You’ll get
there some day. Most people appreciate pretty writing and generally
don’t compare you to anyone else. There is so much joy in
expressing words in a way that no one else has thought of. It makes
you read good literature and poetry so that you can find words worthy
of the time you will spend on it. If you want to express your own
words to someone using calligraphy, it’s even more special.
Educate yourself by subscribing to calligraphy magazines like Letter
and Tabellae Ansatae (JohnNealBooks.com).
Buy calligraphy books with good examples and a variety of different
styles of artwork. Some of my favorites are: Jaqueline Svaren’s
Written Letters (Taplinger Publishing Co.), The Mystic
Art of Written Forms by Fredirch Neugebauer (Neugebauer Press),
Calligraphy, The Art of Written Forms by Donald Anderson
(Dover), Lettering Arts by Joanne Fink and Judy Kastin
(PBC International), I like this book for inspiration of design
and composition. Italic Letters by Inga Dubay and Barbara
Getty(Portland State University, Continuing Education Press). This
book is good for beginning Italic.
De Ann Singh
back to top