… which it’s possible I don’t have enough of. I’m more than halfway through this month of trying to learn calligraphy, and I am not sure I’m improving. I think I’m getting a little better at a couple of the styles (like the Uncials, or the Hobbit one, as I call it), but when I approach a new style in my book, like the dreaded Flourished Italics, it’s like I’m back at square one.

The book’s version

My first attempts

This clearly does not come easily to me! It might help to have a teacher, to watch me and point out what I’m doing wrong (which I’m sure is a lot). I do run out of patience quickly when I practice. If it’s not going well, I can feel the tension creeping up the back of my neck and shoulders, and before long I have a headache and want to stop. Sometimes I can practice for nearly a half hour. Other times it’s about ten minutes before I feel those telltale signs of frustration building up in my muscles. The swearing is always a good tipoff. I tell myself I’ll try again for a short period later in the day, but somehow I never get around to doing more than one session.

I’ve filled several pages of this notebook as well as numerous loose pages. Lotsa practice!

So how do I get through this frustration and continue to make progress? Not entirely sure there’s an easy answer. I know that when I’ve tried to learn difficult things on the drums and on piano, I take a number of approaches – sometimes I consult a teacher, or someone who knows more than I do; I watch YouTube videos; I slow down; I break the hard things into smaller bits to isolate the trouble spots and master one little piece at a time.

Aha! That’s what I have not been doing much with the calligraphy. I write each letter in its entirety (stroke by stroke, though), rather than just practicing each stroke several times first. In the book there are a few “homework” exercises like that, but not nearly enough of them. And the exercises offered do not necessarily focus on the ones troubling ME in particular; I need to figure that out for myself.

Warm-up exercises — some more useful than others. “U” is the easiest letter in every style.

The other thing that helps when I’m learning a piece of music is that I have a specific GOAL: I have X amount of time to learn X number of songs in time for rehearsal, and ultimately a performance. I know what I’m working towards.

A goal is what I haven’t sorted out for this particular effort. I’m just plowing through the book that I bought, occasionally going back and reviewing bits at random s well as in the booklet that came with my kit. Sometimes I try the different sized nibs and colored inks, again at random. Originally, I thought I’d get through the entire book, but I’m not sure I can succeed at that. It’s called “Calligraphy in 24 Hours,” so I thought that 24 days (or more) would do the trick, but I’m not completing a chapter a day – far from it. I do require more review than that. And I frankly HATE some of the styles, such as Gothic – which looks bad to my eyes, plus I’m terrible at it – and I’m not sure Flourished Italic is much better.

Gothic Cursive

So I will allow myself to skip a few styles and focus at improving on the ones I like better.

But I DO need a goal of some sort. My boyfriend suggested coming up with a poem or something to write out nicely and perhaps frame, which is a good idea. I DO need something to work towards, and maybe narrow down the few styles I will concentrate on for the final two weeks of my effort.



Why are the simplest things the hardest?

Calligraphy includes a number of different styles, I am learning. From Roman Capitals, Miniscules, Italics and Gothic to Chancery, Uncials and Spencerian lettering, I am just beginning to scratch the surface of the different types. And some are definitely more difficult than others. I am discovering quickly which types of writing and which letters are the hardest, and it is not what you would think.

In my quest to learn about calligraphic writing this month, I am using a book called Calligraphy in 24 Hours by Veiko Kespersaks to practice the different styles. It includes lots of examples of each type of writing, and exercises to work on each stroke, with good illustrations. 

I have filled many pages with practice letters and numbers from just a few of the different styles thus far. When I get tired of writing separate letters over and over again, it’s sometimes more fun to write the practice words provided in my book, or my name, or the names of people I know. That makes calligraphy seem more useful and interesting.

This is Gothic style

The Gothic style of writing is very difficult for me, and seems less attractive overall.

I was delighted to find the chapter on Uncials, which is the kind of writing you see in the Lord of the Rings.

That gave me the opportunity to pretend I was Bilbo Baggins (thought clearly I need to add more dots).

The rounded shape of the Uncial letters are very pleasing to my eye, thought it led me to realize what I was beginning to suspect: the simplest letters are the hardest to make.

When practicing calligraphy, I’ll often stop when I’ve made one or two letters that approximate the model I’m following. I’m least happy with most of my attempts at the letter O, and also C and E. I found pages and pages of similar letters (Q also) written repeatedly, when I reviewed my practice from the last couple of weeks.

Getting that simple curve just right the first time, and then again on the opposite side, is harder than you might think. I was rarely happy with my results, and I often did not stop because I was satisfied with my attempts, but because I just got tired of trying and not succeeding.

Why is it so hard to make the most simple, clear shape like the letter “o”?

I thought about this a lot. Reflecting on music, I recalled that it was sometimes hardest to play the slow, simple drum beats accompanying a slow rock ballad. When I used to play piano, making a straightforward Mozart melody in a sonata sound good was frequently more of a challenge than a complicated run or arpeggio. In my month of learning about baking, making a plain white baguette was actually one of the hardest things I attempted. Why?

Because there’s no place to hide.

Just like the clear, pure line of a melody that needs to be phrased just right to sound beautiful to the ears, a basic circle needs to curve around with an elegance that makes it look like a shape originating in nature — the moon, perhaps, or the inside of a flower.  We all know what a circle should look like.

We do not have as clear a preconceived notion of shapes like this:

So what is the secret to making something beautifully simple, or simply beautiful? I haven’t found it yet. I do know that my better attempts at these letters were made slowly, but not so slowly that I labored over them. There was a sense of movement to my hand, to the pen, that helped me to follow through the curve of the letter’s shape. I had to breathe, and not think too hard, but just DO.

What simple thing is hard for you to do? Is it something artful? Or something emotional, like telling someone that you love them?

I vow to do a simple thing each day.


Practice makes not quite as bad

People who get to know me eventually find out that I have terrible handwriting. My children have mocked me for it. My boyfriend can’t read my grocery lists unless I text them. This is not a recent problem that I can blame on middle age. My parents asked me to stop writing home from college because they couldn’t read my letters.

I could blame it on the hippie free school I attended for third grade; I was busy learning all of the words to the Yellow Submarine album while other kids my age were learning to write cursive. When I got to a somewhat more “normal” school for 4th grade, I had to play catch-up and learn handwriting in a big hurry.

I could blame all those college classes where I took super fast notes, my handwriting getting worse and worse each semester, so that now I can’t even read some of my own notes to myself.

What does this SAY??

Or maybe I’m just a bit sloppy and lazy.

Regardless of where the fault lies, it’s the truth. When I had to learn to write with my left hand after I broke my wrist a year ago last January, I was surprised to find that I could actually read my plodding, careful left-handed writing BETTER than my usual scribbles!

So now I will attempt something I have never tried before: calligraphy. (The Western kind.) I studied a little Japanese and Chinese language in school, but I was never terribly good at writing those characters clearly either.

Thanks to Michaels craft stores, I now have a set of calligraphy pens with ink cartridges and nibs, with a little instruction book.

My first attempts were painful. I kept getting the angle of the pen to the paper wrong, and the ink would stop flowing. There was a lot of cursing. It’s slow going, each letter. I began by tracing over the examples in the booklet the first few days. There was even more cursing the further I got into the curves and shapes for different letters. I developed a headache.

I could see that I was going to have to take this just a little bit at a time, for fear of getting overly frustrated. I began to figure out, after a few days of the cursing and tapping my nib (ok, hitting it) on the paper to get the ink going, how the angle should look. Some letters were definitely easier than others.

gs are hard

But on the whole, calligraphy requires more precision than I have asked of myself in my creativity blog adventures thus far. Yes, pastry baking did require a certain level of precision (measuring, kneading, folding, temperatures, times, etc.), or the results could be unsightly, or even inedible.

With collaging I allowed myself to be very imprecise, and I liberally used big globs of paint to cover a multitude of sins.

But this is different. You can see all your mistakes. (And I make a lot of them.) Technically, you’re supposed to get a certain kind of paper and razors so you can “scrape out” your errors, but that seems too hard for me at this point. For right now I’m just going to plug away at the different shapes and forms until it stops seeming so awfully foreign to me.

One thing that is actually helping is that fact that I learned something about stroke order writing Chinese/Japanese characters – you have to write them in a certain way, in the correct order. You can’t go from down, up when you’re supposed to go from up, down. So following the instructions in the book with those kinds of directions makes sense to my brain.

Once, just once each, I made a couple of letters that seemed really beautiful.

I especially liked the j because my daughter’s name is Julianne. And guess what! When I told her I was trying to learn calligraphy, she said that she is doing that too! She is using brush markers and learning more modern styles than I am working on, but it’s still cool that we are accidentally doing something so similar at the same time.

I will keep working away. Practice, as I have learned studying music, is everything.

Juxtaposition of Elements

Collage making is really fun.  I hate to see this month’s project come to an end. I hope to continue making paper collages on a regular basis, whether I’m blogging about it or not. I would like to learn more about drawing, painting, and using other materials. I would also like to improve my cutting skills and any other abilities that would help me make more interesting and artful collages, rather than just indulging my crazy, sloppy self-expression.

One result that really surprised me was the positive response from many people to some of my collages. After my friend Laurie so artfully used one of my creations to enhance her poster design for our band gig (see last week’s blog), my friend Colleen Koll remarked on Facebook, “I want a collage!” So I decided to take the commission.

The assignment was fun, and the process was somewhat less random than my previous attempts. I asked Colleen about things she liked, symbols, colors, shapes, etc., and she had lots of suggestions for me to work with! I sorted through my boxes and piles of collage materials for ideas and pulled out anything that reminded me of Colleen or that was on her list of things she liked.

Colleen Collage (say that 5 times fast)

The result was as colorful as Colleen herself, and she liked it! I really enjoyed making something with more of a purpose in mind, as well as a particular recipient. Instead of just making a picture to please myself, I was trying to make somebody else happy, and that felt really good.

My other collages this week were more self-indulgent, and mostly in direct response to the materials I pretty much randomly chose, as previous collages had been. Sometimes I painted first, before doing any gluing, sometimes I painted afterwards, and sometimes both.

Materials include watercolor and acrylic paint, pages including maps from an old atlas, pictures from coloring books, and cut up art reproductions, as well as some craft paper.

One of them, weirdly, ended up reminding me a lot of a book I just finished reading, The Patriots by Sana Krasikov, about a young Jewish woman from Brooklyn who ventures to Soviet Russia in 1934 to seek out what she idealistically views as a brave new world. The story explores her journey and personal fight against disillusionment despite tons of hardship.

The collage started with a picture from my oddball photo collection of a lady from the 1930s, and I added some paper that looks like old-fashioned handwriting (in French), and since it was looking like waves, I wanted to add a boat or ship. I looked through an old world atlas that’s been a treasure trove of maps and pictures to cut up. The ship picture I found has Russian writing on the side which reads “Lenin.”

It was a happy coincidence, or maybe my eye was deliberately looking for things that reminded me of the book that had just been on my mind.

The other collages I made had no relation to anything. I used pictures from an old set about children’s art and play that I found at Goodwill and mercilessly cut up. One of the collages is downright creepy, and another is more whimsical.

This creepy one has a Blair Witchy vibe

This one is just fun and silly

I’ve really had a great time making these creations and even the mess that seems to go along with it. I hope to have a “collaging party,” to invite friends over to make things with me. Truthfully, though, in most cases I like to work on my own, focusing with a strange, haphazard process that is as mystifying to me as it probably would be to anyone watching me.

The upshot is that I like the visual and tactile experience, the juxtaposition of elements that you would not necessarily think go together, and what that creates. Whether or not it’s beautiful or interesting or even art at all, I’m not sure if it matters to me. I like the process. Sometimes I like the result even more. Sometimes I don’t. Different colors and textures and shapes interest me. Sometimes I want the pictures to look like real things; other times I don’t care about that. Sifting through various materials and cutting and gluing engages me completely, and I lose track of time and logical thought. I just do it.

What’s up next month, and will I enjoy it as much as collage? Stay tuned . . .