‘Formal Brush Writing’ exercises

I started practicing exercises from Tom Kemp’s book ‘Formal Brush Writing’. I use the same ink and practice paper I use for Chinese calligraphy. The only difference is the flat brush. I hold the brush the same way I hold a brush for Chinese calligraphy. The first three exercises are straight line, forming a long triangle, and making a circle.

I really like forming the circles. It’s pretty fun rotating the brush. It’s a stroke that’s really novel to me, and almost seems rule-breaking to do it. It’s a very cool shape to be able to form with the brush movement.

I do wonder how much of these techniques I can apply elsewhere. It probably would not be used for Chinese calligraphy, but it might result in some interesting shapes for abstract painting.


Focusing on brushes for Western calligraphy

When I started Western calligraphy, I found that there were many tools. Unlike Chinese calligraphy, which is only written with a brush, Western calligraphy has many possible tools. The main ones would be pointed pen and edge pen. Other tools include brush markers, glass pens, fountain pens. I dabbled with many tools when I first started Western calligraphy, not knowing which was the best or worked well for me.

Since I had different tools for Western calligraphy, I started thinking about Chinese calligraphy with these different tools as well. The tools for 硬筆書法 hard pen calligraphy include pencil, pen, and fountain pen. But so far I have not had the time to explore 硬筆書法。

With all the tools available, I think it’s time to focus on one tool and work on it. To complement my work in Chinese calligraphy, I’ve decided to focus on the brush as a tool and not worry about other tools for now. This allows me have more flexibility in future projects to combine both types of calligraphy.

I have some brushes to test for Western calligraphy. I’m trying smaller and smaller brushes to see if I can create lines as thin as pointed pen.

There are six months until I take a brush Roman workshop. I’ll be using the time from now until then to work on preliminary exercises. I need to become comfortable holding a flat brush the way I hold brush for Chinese calligraphy. This is completely new, but will definitely be an interesting technique to learn!

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.

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?

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.

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.