Copperplate practice pads from Logos Calligraphy

Learning Copperplate calligraphy can be a little awkward. The script is beautiful, but actually producing those beautiful letters is difficult. The oblique pen is nothing like a regular pen. It can take time to get a good feel for the grip of the pen. Another difference between pointed pen and a typical pen is that pressure placement is crucial to producing thick and thin strokes.

In my short experience with the pointed pen, I seem pretty comfortable with the pen itself. My problem tends to be putting the pen to paper. Due to the slant of the letter, the paper needs to be angled, even when using an oblique pen. The problem I have is producing the letters at that angle. I can see it when I have an exemplar in front of me. But once it is turned at an angle, it no longer looks familiar.

I was really intrigued when I saw Logos Calligraphy + Design start to develop practice pads with traceable letters. I went ahead and pre-ordered the Lowercase/Uppercase Bundle Set.

By following the traceable letters, I became more aware of where to place my nib, and when to apply pressure. I did not have to worry about how to write the letter, and became focused on the physical aspects of the placement of pen and paper. I noticed if my paper was not angled enough to trace the letter. I also became more aware of the actual shape of the letter when tracing, especially from the angle that I was looking at the letter. Being guided by the practice letters let me feel how it should feel when a letter is written. I practiced on a blank sheet and felt much more comfortable producing the letter.

The practice pads have one letter on each page, and there are extra pages for practice. The paper is perforated at the top for easy removal. Perfect for those like me who prefer not to write on the pad itself. The paper quality is great: thick and super smooth. I have used Pilot drafting ink, and Higgins Eternal. Both work well, but there is some minor feathering with Higgins Eternal.

I am definitely going to buy more practice pads from Logos Calligraphy! Not only is this a great learning tool, but it is also very soothing to trace letters. These sheets may be a good starting point to calm down when starting a practice session. In Chinese calligraphy, calligraphers grind ink to prepare to write. Not only does this produce the ink, but it also calms down the body and settles the heart. I have not been able to find an equivalent for Western calligraphy. I think these traceable letters are a great way to calm down and prepare for the practice session ahead.

Within the US, the practice pads can be purchased from Logos Calligraphy’s online shop. Outside the US, the practice pads can be purchased from Logos Calligraphy’s Etsy shop.

Practice and the time of day

I usually practice calligraphy at night, because that is when I have time. However, I noticed my latest watercolor practice did not turn out so well when I practiced at night.

Lighting may not matter so much with calligraphy, since I practice with black ink. Working with brush pens is ok too, since the color is a significant contrast from the paper.

I think I prefer natural light when working with watercolors. With watercolors, small differences matter, which may be more difficult for me to see under artificial light. I am new to watercolors, so I just might need more experience before I can figure out what happens under artificial light.

Do you prefer to practice during the day with natural light, or at night under artificial light? Do you think it makes a difference?

Abstract watercolor workshop

I spent a great day participating in an Abstract Watercolor Workshop at the Pacific Art League in Palo Alto last Sunday. The instructor was Robert Dvorak. I felt it was the art class I never took in high school. The workshop was very well planned out. There were different exercises to complete, as well as time to take a look at everyone’s work.

I went into this workshop with an open mind. It was the first time I really worked with watercolors. I’m pretty intimidated by drawing and subjects, so I figured the abstract part would help me explore a new medium without having to draw still life or landscape.

It was a really fun workshop and I learned a lot. It helped that there were plenty of other beginners in the class. Robert was super patient and also emphasized an important part of creating art – smile and have fun!

I left the class with the courage to continue exploring abstract watercolors. I also came away with a few pieces of finished work!

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During one of the breaks, I chatted a bit with Robert as he was admiring a piece of work. I looked at it and recognized it immediately as my calligraphy teacher’s painting. I told Robert this and he mentioned that he learned from Mr. Ho in the 1980s. Mr. Ho is my calligraphy teacher’s teacher as well. It’s a small world!

Our workshop seemed to come at an opportune time. Robert mentioned the Science Friday episode from the Friday before our workshop discussed abstract art and the brain. The guest was  Eric Kandel, the author of  Reductionism in Art and Brain Science. A key thing I took away from the discussion was that the more abstract a painting is, the more people need to use their imagination to interpret it. Also, people find it more enjoyable since they are using their own experience and thoughts.

I sent my parents some pictures of the work I did. My mom texted me saying that she showed my dad the pictures while explaining the technique used to make the painting. Apparently my dad wondered out loud if I did the paintings or if I took pictures of the teacher’s work. I’m not sure if there was a confusion in the conversation between my parents, but I’ll take that as a complement!

I had a lot of fun taking this workshop. There’s still more for me to explore, but this definitely gave me a good starting point. I’m not quite sure how I will integrate this with my calligraphy, or if I will integrate it at all. I also want to try to apply the things I learned in this workshop to Chinese painting. There’s so much more out there to try!

Balancing interests

When I first decided that Chinese calligraphy was something that I wanted to continue doing and learn extensively, I pretty much thought that was where my interests would stay. There is already so much to learn about Chinese calligraphy, and so much to practice to understand the nuances of each script.

Little did I know that my interests would expand to Chinese hard pen calligraphy, English calligraphy, and even possibly watercolor.

With English calligraphy, I thought I had tempered my interest by limiting myself to brush pen calligraphy. That did not last long, since I have added pointed pen and broad edge pen. I also realized there are English calligraphy workshops very near me, so instruction is not hard to find.

At the same time, I need to learn how to balance all these interests. When it comes to classes and workshops, Chinese calligraphy will always take precedence. I think the best way to go about this is to take workshops and classes with an eye towards Chinese calligraphy. I need to start thinking about how a new skill can enhance my Chinese calligraphy works. Calligraphy and art can be addictive!

How do you balance all of your interests? Are you ok with limiting your knowledge about one thing so you are able to learn more about something else?

Some practice habits to remember

Or, things I wished I developed a habit of doing from the beginning, and am now trying my best to remember to do.

For calligraphy in general, I need to be better about putting the date on practice papers. At some point I was pretty good about it, but somehow I started forgetting. Taking pictures helps a little, but it’s so much easier to remember when the date is on the page. I found it tedious to write the exact date for things, or I would forget while waiting for ink to dry.

The main reason to note the date of calligraphy practice is to make comparisons between different practice sessions. I’m going to start with writing at least the month and the year. I doubt I will be comparing exact dates, so an estimate of the month and year will probably be enough. It’s also simpler to remember, and I hope it will help me maintain this habit.

When I first started brush pen calligraphy, I noticed online that Rhodia pads were commonly used by many calligraphers. I went ahead and got a Rhodia pad and started practicing English calligraphy. Writing on the pad was not the most comfortable, because at some point, my hand would start dangling off the paper. Somehow it never occurred to me that I should tear the paper off the pad and practice on a single piece of paper. In Chinese calligraphy, I always practice on single sheets.

In Jake Weidmann’s blog post Tools of the Trade: Calligraphy, he specifically writes:

Never allow yourself to write where your hand is elevated above the flat surface, i.e., writing on a pad of paper. This will inhibit proper hand positioning and whole-arm movement.

The first time I practiced on a single sheet of paper felt really strange. I had less control of the pen than usual and had to adjust to it. It got better as I practiced. I’m not sure if I developed any bad habits by practicing on the pad, but I’m definitely not going back. It might get a little tedious having to tear off individual pages from a paper pad, so I might start looking into loose leaf paper.

Back to basics with a new script

This summer, I am adding to my practice by starting 行書 (running script). A while back I had attempted to learn the 楷書 (standard script) style of 智永, but found the style to be strongly influenced by 草書 (grass script). I had a very difficult time with it. After some thought, the missing link was the fact I had not studied 行書. The most famous style of 行書 is that of 王羲之, so that is what I am starting with.

Starting a new script means going back to the basics and learning new ways of writing the basic strokes. Even after studying different scripts and styles, this can be quite challenging. I feel like finally getting to start 行書 is already quite a feat, but it is another issue if I can master it.

I also decided it was time to start using my 蘭竹 (made from weasel hair), rather than my trusty 長流 (weasel hair center, surrounded by goat hair). It probably was not the best idea to change two variables at once, but 蘭竹 is more pliable than 長流. Running script is written faster than any other script I have written, so I thought a more flexible brush was appropriate.

A few practice pages later, I was pretty comfortable with the basic horizontal stroke.

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I managed to accomplish what I wanted to in this first practice session. I think I did a pretty good job understanding the specifics of the horizontal stroke, especially this particular one. It’s very specific to 行書, with the start and end parts exposed. I am also now more familiar with the 蘭竹 and look forward to continue using it in my 行書 practice.

New goals

When I first started learning calligraphy, I did not really have any goals for what I wanted to accomplish. I practiced because I wanted to, and did not make any hard or fast rules of how I wanted to progress. I let my curiosity dictate what I wanted to learn.

After practicing a couple of different script styles, I did make a small goal for myself. I decided to always do one piece of work before moving on to a different script. This way, I felt that there would be an example of a piece of work, and not just a stack of practice sheets. It did not have to be something that had to be mounted, just something on blank paper and not on practice grids. It also gave me the opportunity to study a few characters very carefully.

Recently I’ve felt a change in my calligraphy practice, and the need to establish new goals. I think my practice has advanced to the point where I can see there are certain things I do want to accomplish.

I definitely want to become comfortable writing on blank paper. When I practice, I start out practicing on grid paper. My copy books have the same grids so I can map out the positions of each stroke. However, if I’m writing an actual piece, it is on blank paper. I see this as phase two of learning a new script.

Phase one involves becoming familiar with the particulars of the script. The grid lines come in handy to better visualize the positions of the strokes. Now that I’m comfortable with some scripts, it’s time for phase two: seeing the characters without the grid lines and practicing without grid lines. To do so means to start studying original works.

I’ve started practicing on blank paper for one of the scripts that I have practiced the longest. In the beginning, it was really awkward. I felt as if I was back to learning the script all over again. But now I can see the benefits in doing so. I am no longer focusing on the grids, but am now focusing on the structure of each character I practice.

I also want to become comfortable with writing a string of characters, not just one. Typically in a practice session, I practice one characters many times to try different techniques to match the copy books. But when I need to write an actual piece of work, I need to be able to write a series of different characters. This could probably be called phase three.

I will need to practice the characters on their own, and then practice writing them in succession. I do not really think it matters if the characters make a phrase or word. The key here is to become familiar with writing different characters in succession, as I would when writing with pen and paper. I’m not sure when I will begin this phase of practice. I’m not sure if it is something I can combine with phase two. But it is definitely a phase I am looking forward to starting when I am ready.