Wise Words for Calligraphers

Sometimes it’s good to reflect on the wisdom we’ve built up over the years, and if that can be shared with others to their advantage, that’s great.

Although these are from a calligrapher’s experience, they probably apply in any creative pursuit, and quite possibly in other situations too.

Write it down – otherwise you will forget. 

How many times have you come back to a piece of practice (or finished work) and wondered how you did it?  At the time you will have made all sorts of choices – pen size, nib widths, techniques, materials, colours.  You may even have said those immortal words to yourself “I’m bound to remember”.  So you saved the 30 seconds it would have taken to jot a note in the border of the piece at the time, but possibly the secret for how you created that look is lost forever.

(If you do commissioned work, it’s even more important to keep notes, because it’s possible that your client may come back to you, wanting something similar or even identical).

Margin notes


Tracing is not cheating.

Tracing another person’s work and passing it off as your own is, of course, not acceptable.  However, the activity of tracing (or meticulously copying) a piece of work that you admire is an excellent exercise.  It will help you decide which tool was used, and increase your understanding of how the letters were formed.

If you were to trace a classic script (such as the Ramsey Psalter Harley MS 2904) it should help you to form your own foundational letters better.  It might be that you discover new ways to manipulate your pen that will become features of your own calligraphy going forward.

(Tracing is also a good exercise for getting your hand and eye and brain warmed up ready for a writing session.)


Tracing historical scripts


You are unlikely to be 100% satisfied.

As our calligraphy skills grow, our hand gets better at creating the strokes we wanted.  At the same time, our eye gets better at spotting what is good – or not good – in the lettering.  Because of this, we are always going to spot foibles in our own work that we wish were better, and we’re always going to be saying to ourselves “if I did the piece just one more time I’d do this differently”.  Always.  So it’s important to learn to recognise that a piece has reached a high standard and is finished and ready for sharing.


Stop pointing out mistakes.

When you look at someone else’s calligraphy you (generally) see a beautiful piece of work, showcasing the calligrapher’s skills.  It’s almost impossible to view our own work in this way – instead we see a patchwork of all the things that didn’t quite go as we wanted them too, or that we’d do differently if we were doing the piece again.  What’s needed is to remember that’s not how others will see it.

But what do many calligraphers do when someone’s looking at their work?  POINT OUT all the things that are wrong!  It’s a bad habit, which we’d all do well to avoid.




Look how far you’ve come.

It’s a good habit to write the date on pieces and tuck away examples of your work.  If you find yourself feeling a bit disillusioned it can be great to look back at your earliest work and see the progress you’ve made.  Looking back at work you might also find ideas you’d forgotten about and even pieces into which you’d like to breathe new life.


17 thoughts on “Wise Words for Calligraphers

  1. Thanks for the excellent article. It is a gentle reminder for me to stop pointing out my imperfections in my work to others and appreciate it more when I receive a compliment about my calligraphy.

    Thank you for your words of wisdom.

  2. These are very wise words, especially about noting what materials you’ve used, nib sizes and line spacing.

    And so true about how self-critical we are. As a beginner, I can often feel disheartened when I look at someone else’s brilliant work but if I then refer back to my own work of some time ago, I can see how I’ve progressed. Looking at lovely work by others is inspiring and a certain amount of “wishing to do better” is not a bad thing! Thank you Scribblers.

  3. This is such good advice thank you.

  4. Thank you for lifting up my spirit. I am a hard self-critical about my calligraphy, and your article is awesome and an inspiration. I definitely will practice your suggestions.
    Best wishes for your happiness and continued success.
    Ninfa Abad

  5. Wise words indeed! An inspiration to read and hopefully put into practice a little more!

    Many thanks

  6. Hello

    Just checking on your Foundational Hand refererence Harley Ms. Are you referring to the Ramsey Psalter? Harley 2904 no?

    Great tips Scribblers!

    1. Ooops! Thanks for pointing this out Gemma. We have now corrected the reference.

  7. Thank you for these timely reminders . Just what I needed in the way of encouragement. It is Spring here in Australia and time for a new start for my Calligraphy. Love your tips

  8. Very good advice,
    the tip Re not pointing out what you see as flaws
    in your work particularly.

  9. Very handy comments, thanks. I keep a book and some part of a rough copy of work done and I can say this info is very handy to refer back to.
    Keep up the good work

  10. Thank you for reminding me to note down the details of line spacing, nib etc etc. How many times have I gone back to a piece of work (and sometimes only a week or so later) only to discover that I have totally forgotten all the details!! Note to self: write it ALL down!!!

  11. Brilliant article! Food for thought! Thanks Scribblers.

  12. So very helpful, thank you

  13. This is such a good and helpful reminder to see the positives rather than the negatives – thank you.

    In fact it reminded me that the first line I ever wrote out in copperplate (and felt daunted) was this:

    “The only writer to whom you should compare yourself is the writer you were yesterday.”


  14. Love all the tips from Scribblers, all clear and easy to understand.
    Thank you!
    How true is Emma’s comment on March 13, 2018.

  15. As always, very good advice and very welcome it is too. Thanks.

  16. Love your advice about tracing and discovering insights into the script & pen manipulation.

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