Breakthrough with Copperplate calligraphy

This year, I intended to take a break from practicing pointed pen. I was going to pick it up later in the year or sometime next year. I decided to write something with I pointed pen because it was the appropriate tool. Little did I know, it would result in a breakthrough in my understanding of pointed pen calligraphy.

Since I had been practicing French cursive, I decided to write French cursive in pointed pen. I was not sure how it was going to turn out, or if it was going to work. Since there is not an angle or slant in French cursive, I used a straight pen holder.

It actually turned out pretty good. There are a few places where the straight strokes are not consistently straight. But I think it works, especially since I did not use a pointed pen for a few months. I wrote this with a straight holder because the strokes are straight and not slanted. Not having to maintain the letters at an angle really calmed me down. I felt I was really able to write with the pointed pen.

Even thought I wrote with a straight holder, I still felt that the nib was too stiff. I was using a Tachiwara G nib. I picked through a collection of nibs to find one that works. I needed something that was flexible enough so I would not have to put too much pressure on the pen. The Hunt 22 seemed to work well for me. It placed the right amount of ink when I wanted thick strokes. It also felt really smooth.

Since I found the right nib for the straight pen, I decided to try it on the oblique pen. The nib felt really good in the oblique pen. And since I was not so focused on the amount of pressure I needed to create thick strokes, I was finally able to take a good look at the pen and paper in front of me. I figured out the alignment of the front of the pen staff and the lines on the paper. If I kept the front of the pen staff parallel to the lines on the paper, the nib would always be at the angle of the flange. This way the movement of the pen will always create angled shapes. I finally figured out how to create and maintain a slant for Copperplate!

Once I was no longer having fatigue in my hand due to the nib, I noticed that I was becoming less comfortable with the grip on the pen holder. I make a point to not grip tightly. But I noticed that the small diameter of the pen holder caused my hands to cramp. I had the same feeling a few weeks ago with a slim fountain pen. I decided to try carrot pen holders, which are thicker in grip diameter. The carrot pen holder felt much better in my hand. My hand may fatigue due to holding the pen for a long time, but it did not cramp.

While trying the carrot holder, I also tried a few more nibs. I found out I really do not like to break in a nib, but would rather use a nib with which I can start writing. I really like the feel of the Hiro/ Leonardt 40 nib. It does not take a lot of pressure for the tines to open, but it also does not feel too delicate. A similar nib is the Brause Steno 361, which I also tried. The Brause Steno 361 is much stiffer than the Hiro/ Leonardt 40 and was too stiff for me. I will continue to use the Hiro/ Leonardt 40 nib.

It feels really good to finally have pointed pen tools that work for me. My hand still gets a little sore from practicing, but not as bad as before. I really still need to practice my shapes and letters. I find it funny that I now understand pointed pen more when I wanted to step away from it compared to when I was trying really hard working on it. At the same time, it shows that my decision to focus on French cursive (and then potentially revisit Copperplate) was the right decision. I was able to focus on the familiar and use it to associate with the unfamiliar. Now I feel like I’m prepared for this Copperplate calligraphy adventure!

Watercolor Brush Lettering workshop with Nicole Miyuki Santo

In the beginning of the year, I was able to attend a workshop by Nicole Miyuki Santo. I first noticed Nichole’s work on her Instagram, and was really happy to find out she was holding a workshop near me. It was a great workshop where we learned the basics of watercolor brush lettering.

A major bonus of Nicole’s classes is that all the supplies come in a reusable wood box. It contains all the paints and paper for the class. There is a handout with notes. And there are additional paints to play with at home.

It was a great workshop. We learned beginning brush strokes and practiced some letters. Then we worked on putting the letters together to form words. Nicole coached us every step of the way. We also discussed how to form a final design.

I learned a lot about brush control for writing English. My experience with Chinese calligraphy and watercolor helped a bit in the sense that I was not new to using a brush and watercolors. My experience with brush pen lettering seemed to help as well. But with any new tool there are different adjustments to make.

I really like Nicole’s approach to design and style. Even though we were practicing her style to understand shapes and brush strokes, she also emphasized that each person’s handwriting is different, so we would have different styles to writing letters. It reminds me of the way we learn Chinese calligraphy, where we learn different styles of different calligraphers, but in the end we also develop our own style.

Back at home, I decided to apply my knowledge of watercolor brush calligraphy to French cursive. I used it as the basis for handletteredABCs February challenge on Instagram.

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It was really fun and my letter ‘R’ was even featured!

I really like using watercolors for calligraphy. Colors can be mixed to create new ones. One brush stroke can also create different values, resulting in a gradient. I’m excited to create more English calligraphy with watercolor.

French cursive majuscules

I knew before I started that majuscules (upper case letters) would be more difficult for me than miniscules (lower case letters). Some letters were easier than others depending on the similarity to my regular handwriting. There are also a lot more loops in the majuscules compared to the miniscules.

I had trouble remembering how to write certain letters. It took a lot more practice to get to the point where I could write the letter from memory. I think it was good practice and a good lesson. A lot of practice is necessary to develop the muscle memory to produce consistent letters.

I found one fun way to practice majuscules is to practice spelling or phonetic alphabets. There is one word per letter of the alphabet. Those in the U.S. may be familiar with the NATO phonetic alphabet. I have written out the French spelling alphabet:

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I think I have a pretty good grasp of the majuscules and French cursive in general. It is not perfect, and there are plenty of places for improvement. But I think it is a good start, and I have seen improvement in other aspects of my calligraphy practice. I will keep practicing French cursive to make sure I maintain and improve this form of handwriting.

Calligraphy for Lunar New Year

Since I have been practicing running script, I was originally going to write Lunar New year banners in running script. But I quickly realized that I was not familiar enough with the script and felt really frustrated. I decided to write in standard script. I took my inspiration from the Yan script, but did not follow it exactly.

Last year I used Red with Gold Fleck Shuen paper from OAS. Unfortunately, the paper was rather thin, and absorbed more ink than I expected. It was also difficult to attach to the wall without damaging the paper. This year, I used banner paper from OAS. The paper comes in large sheets. When I started measuring and cutting, I realized I should look into pre-cut paper. It was a hassle to cut the banners, and took quite a bit of time.

The red banner paper has the consistency of wrapping paper. The paper is also slightly texturized with flower imprints. It also has a slight perfume smell that reminds me of wedding invitations. This paper does not absorb any ink at all. But I still had to make sure the ink had the same consistency as usual. I noticed if the ink was not thick enough, there would be some show through of the red paper.

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Part of writing calligraphy is working with the paper. Regular paper absorbs the ink. Different pressures of the brush results in different stroke widths. Writing on banner paper was very different because it did not respond the same. There still needed to be some pressure, but the speed of the brush needed to be faster to create the same strokes.

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I am definitely going to need more practice with the banner paper. I do not think these turned out as good as the ones from last year. It will probably be awhile before I fully understand the speed and pressure necessary to create the same strokes that I make on regular calligraphy paper.

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I also decorated my own red envelopes this year, instead of buying printed envelopes. I decided to use mica watercolor from Finetec because it is available in different colors, and are all very shiny and metallic. I had the idea to use gold and different hues of red. But I decided to stay with just one gold letter.

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I initially had some trouble with the envelopes because the paper was really waxy. It was difficult for ink to stay. It would bead up instead. I ended up treating the envelopes with gum sandarac, which really helped hold the ink. Similar to the banners, I had some trouble with the pressure and speed to get the same strokes. But I think it actually turned out pretty good in the end.

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I did have some issues when it came time to use the envelopes. When I opened the envelope, the paper became wrinkled and the gold ink flaked off. The photo above shows places where ink fell off. In the envelope on the left, there is even a flake of ink under the envelope. I was pretty disappointed when this happened. Perhaps a layer of clear acrylic could have to prevented this problem.

Even though these projects did not turn out as well as I thought they would, I actually learned a lot. I definitely need more time to practice and experiment with these different ink and paper combinations. This is also the first time I tried writing on something that had to be used, like the envelope. So far I have only used standard ink and paper combinations, so these projects were a challenge. I will definitely need to experiment further during the year to make sure I can do my best for next Lunar New Year.

French cursive miniscules

I have admired French cursive for a really long time, all the way back when I was learning French as a teenager and had a French pen pal. French cursive handwriting is really precise and consistent. My current handwriting is an inconsistent mix of print and cursive, and that probably will not change for my day to day writing. I wanted to learn French cursive so I would have a more formal cursive when I need it.

Another reason for learning French cursive is that it looks similar to the letterforms of English Roundhand. If I understand correctly, English Roundhand was derived from French Ronde, which looks like the precursor of French cursive. I hope that through learning French cursive, I will become more familiar with the shapes of English Roundhand. I think one of the reasons I have a lot of trouble with calligraphy majuscules (upper case letters) is because I am not familiar with them. French cursive is also straight, so I can practice without worrying about the slant.

Practicing French cursive also requires practicing on French rule paper, called séyès paper. The paper is has multiple lines that helps with determining the height of ascenders and descenders. The single height seemed a bit too small for learning, so I decided to double it.

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The minuscules were fairly easy. It did take some practice before I was able to write them at the standard size.

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Upper case letters will definitely give me some trouble since I am not as familiar with them. But for now, I think I am pretty comfortable with the lower case letters and can immediately write them when needed.

New goals

Going into a new year is a good time to rethink some goals and plans. This year was pretty eventful. I started learning pointed pen calligraphy. I started exploring running script in Chinese calligraphy. I even dabbled in some abstract watercolor.

In Chinese calligraphy, I will definitely continue with running script. At some point, I know I will probably want to switch to a different script. I could work on a standard script style that had hints of cursive script. Or I could start a different standard script style that I think will be an interesting match with English calligraphy.

I want to learn English brush calligraphy. I started with brush pens, but now I want to use an actual brush. It would complement my work in Chinese calligraphy and abstract watercolor. Brush pens require purchasing many pens for a variety of colors, but watercolors can be mixed for color variation.

I need to work on the basic drawing and color mixing skills. I have found two books by Betty Edwards that fit perfectly: “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” and “Color: A course in mastering the art of mixing colors”. I like that these books have guided exercises.

I want to develop a neat handwriting for those occasions where I need neat and nice handwriting, but calligraphy may not be appropriate. For the English alphabet, I will be working on French cursive. For Chinese, I have some books on improving writing and writing beautifully.

I really need to work on more projects during the year. I think the only major project I did this past year was red banners for Chinese New Year. I need to start focusing on producing actual works that can be mounted and exhibited.

These seem like a good starting point. I’m sure I will have more short term goals as the year goes on. Do you have major art goals for the coming year?

Getting to know 王羲之 and 蘭亭集序

The most famous running script is that of 王羲之 and in his work 蘭亭集序, sometimes also referred to as 蘭亭序. The work is generally known as an impressive piece of calligraphy, and the ideal for running script. I wanted to find out more about the calligrapher and the importance of his work, so I (naturally) turned to the internet.

The China History Podcast did an episode on 王羲之. It also includes a lot of historical background. I really like this episode, because it covers the importance of calligraphy in Chinese society, and also discusses a lot of aspects of Chinese calligraphy. It’s a good episode to learn about Chinese calligraphy!

I did not know that it was during the time of 王羲之 that paper became more commonplace. This was also the first time I learned about 衛鑠 (衛夫人; Lady Wei). She is the first female historical calligrapher I had heard about. All the masters we learn from are all male, since they were the scholars of the time. It was nice to hear that her work 筆陣圖 (The Picture of Ink Brush) was the precursor to 永字八法 (Eight Principles of Yong).

This CCTV episode of 文明之旅 (Journey of Civilization) discusses 蘭亭集序. The video has English subtitles.

I always take anything from CCTV with a grain of salt because it is the state television of China. I’m a bit confused by the work they reference in the beginning of the video. I thought the original was gone. I do appreciate that the content of the work is explained. It is not until towards the end of the video that we find out that the original is indeed gone, and the one we have been looking at was the one copied by 馮承素.

This short video was the first that I watched. It specifically discusses the story of 蘭亭集序.

The video is part of a series of interstitials developed by a Taiwanese television studio that are broadcast between shows. It is quick and to the point. It’s a little bite of culture to peak the viewer’s interest.

The next two videos feature Taiwanese art critic 蔣勳. The first video is about 王羲之, while the second is specifically about 蘭亭集序.

I like that this video goes into works other than 蘭亭集序 to explain the work of 王羲之. It’s interesting to look at the letters 王羲之 wrote just to friends and reflecting on life things and the society of the time. I especially appreciate putting his calligraphy and words in context of the wars and feuding states. At one point, 蔣勳 explains that 王羲之 writes that he feels uneasy when looking at the political news. I feel the same reading American political news these days. I remember shortly after the election, there were a lot of articles about how now is the time for artists to go to work. In his time, 王羲之 was able to produce magnificent calligraphy. What will artists produce during the next four years?

This part goes into the text of 蘭亭集序. I really like the interpretation that 蔣勳 has about the works about 王羲之. I did not realize the many contrasts of 王羲之 and his calligraphy. 王羲之 was writing in such a free style, about good or bad things, in the midst of political chaos. That it was due to the beauty of his free style, that people spent energy fighting over his works to the point that his works no longer exist for people to see or enjoy. I like that 蔣勳 says to truly enjoy the works of 王羲之 is to take heart the words from 蘭亭集序. The translation is mine.

是日也
On this day
天朗氣清
It is sunny, clear, with fresh air
惠風和暢
It is pleasantly warm, without a worry
仰觀宇宙之大
Looking up, admiring the vastness of the heavens
俯察品類之盛
Looking down, observing the extensive of things
所以遊目騁懷
That is why, happily gazing about as one pleases
足以極視聽之娛
Is sufficient to provide extreme amusement in sight and sound

I also found some references to 王羲之 and in popular culture.

周杰倫 (Jay Chou) had a song titled 蘭亭序 in his 2008 album 魔傑座. The lyrics were written by 方文山 (Vincent Fang), who is well known for writing song lyrics inspired by traditional Chinese culture and history. The melody is nice, and the lyrics are interesting. But I’m not sure either is reflected in the music video.

I want to point out a few lines in that are directly about calligraphy. The translations and interpretations are mine.

A few lines from the first verse:

蘭亭臨帖 行書如行雲流水
Copying the Orchid Pavilion model; the running script is like moving clouds and flowing water (行雲流水 is an idiom for a natural and flowing style of calligraphy)
忙不迭 千年碑易拓卻難拓妳的美
Extremely hurried; a rubbing of a thousand year stele can be easily made, but it is difficult to replicate your beauty (calligraphy was once carved into stone slabs or stele, the only way to copy the calligraphy on the stele was to create rubbings)
真跡絕 真心能給誰
The real marks (stele) are gone; to whom can I give my real heart?

From the second verse:

摹本易寫 而墨香不退與妳同留餘味
The copy books are easily written; the fragrance of the ink does not disappear, and with you leaves a lingering scent
一行硃砂 到底圈了誰
A line of cinnabar (red) ink; who’s name does it circle? (cinnabar ink is only used by the teacher to indicate corrections on practice works; typically the best character on the page is circled)

From the refrain:

懸筆一絕 那岸邊浪千疊
The suspended brush is cut short; the waves at the coast pile up in a thousand layers (懸筆 is the way to hold the brush; the brush is suspended mid-air, and the arm does not touch the table)
情字何解 怎落筆都不對
It is difficult to understand the character for love; each time the brush is placed on paper (to start writing), it does not feel right (落筆 is the act of putting the brush to the paper, to start a calligraphy stroke)

I like how specific calligraphy terms are scattered about the lyrics. The terms in the beginning describe the materials of calligraphy. The terms 懸筆 and 落筆 are terms that describe physical movements in calligraphy.

In 2016, Shen Yun Performing Arts included a story dance based on the Orchid Pavilion in their show. An original orchestral score was composed for the dance. I have not seen clips of the dance or music.

There’s also a Chinese drama called 書聖王羲之 (Sage of Calligraphy Wang Xi Zhi) that started filming in 2014, and included Korean actress Kim Tae-Hee portraying the wife of 王羲之. At the time, the drama was scheduled to be broadcast in 2015. There are some rumors that the drama may be one of many that have been restricted from broadcast in China.

王羲之 is considered the best calligrapher in history. It is really interesting to see that his story has stood the test of time. Even though his works no longer exist in their original form, the idea of his works has also inspired modern culture. It will be exciting to see what comes about in the future. Who will be the next artist inspired by 王羲之 and 蘭亭集序?