Professional calligrapher Janet Smith shares some of her favourite tips from sitting comfortably to having a break from your calligraphy!
If you’re of a certain age, you may recognise that phrase, from the start of Listen With Mother, a 15 minute radio show filled with children’s stories and songs. Even if you don’t remember the programme, the phrase has slipped into everyday use. The idea of the calming voice was to get the pre-school children to sit quietly and get the most from the programme. (I’m not saying that was always what happened, but that was the intention!)
In calligraphy and in all creative pursuits, we’d do well to heed that advice. Our success in whatever we’re doing comes not only from the skills and the materials enabling the task in hand, but how we’ve prepared ourselves.
It’s really all about planning – planning to give yourself the best chance to get absorbed into your creative pursuit, with as much of your brainpower as possible focused on what you’re doing. This is expressed well in a British Army Adage used widely in business too, known as the 7 Ps.
Proper Prior Planning Prevents Painfully Poor Production
Much of what follows is common sense and you’ll know about it. As you have a read, I want you to be thinking “Do I really DO that? Or do I just recognise that it’s a good idea?”
So, if you’re sitting comfortably, I shall begin.
Not everyone has the luxury of their own studio space – but that doesn’t mean you don’t have your own space, even if it’s half the kitchen table, available only when supper’s finished.
When you’re settling down to do calligraphy, try and make sure that your space is dedicated to calligraphy. If you put that unpaid bill or that kitchenware magazine into your workspace, it’s going to distract you. Put it to one side and deal with it when you’re not doing calligraphy.
If you’re not comfortable, you won’t write at your best. One of my favourite calligraphy tutors used to say that her piano teacher told her that you play the piano with your feet. That wasn’t a critique of her style (!) but a comment that if you sit in a balanced way, with both feet flat on the floor, you’ll give your upper body the best chance of performing as you want it to.
This is so true for calligraphy. I do see people in workshops sitting scrunched up, legs crossed, head off to one side of their board. In most cases they’ve got so absorbed that they didn’t notice what they were doing, and appreciate the chance to untangle themselves. Occasionally people say they’re more comfortable like that – and that’s fine.
Try sitting so that your feet are comfortably on the floor in front of you, back is straight and your shoulders are parallel to the edge of the table.
Assuming that feels comfortable, think about how you can set yourself up to write with the minimum number of adjustments to this posture.
Have you noticed that when you’re absorbed into your lettering, you’re almost certainly not leaning on the back or arms or a chair, so the only bit we really care about for calligraphy is the seat of the chair.
It needs to be big enough and comfortable, and at the right height. And by right height, I mean the correct height relative to our writing surface.
Here’s a useful test – when you’re sitting properly, ready to write, put your right hand on your right ear – and you should just be able to brush across your writing surface with your elbow – that’s a good distance for comfortable writing.
(I’m going to write a future article on the benefits of having a sloping writing surface – but you’ll probably see it’s easier to pass the elbow test if your board is sloping)
Where’s my stuff?
Put the things you’re going to be using – pen, ink, brush, cloth etc. within easy reach. If you’re right handed and dipping your pen, you’ll want your ink on the right. But if you’re filling it with a brush, you’re probably holding the brush in your left hand, so have the ink on the left.
If you’re copying out some words, or using an exemplar, have them so that you just need to glance across to see them. (If you’re writing a poem that’s in a book, maybe copy it one a sheet of paper that you can tape it to your board.)
This is so obvious, and yet I am guilty of failing to set my workspace up properly every time, and maybe I’m not the only one.
It makes such a difference to have good light on your work. There are plenty of ways to achieve this – have a think about how you can light your workspace so that you’re not casting shadows across your work.
An adjustable lamp with a daylight bulb is a great addition to your workspace, but if you don’t have that, an ordinary light is great for most tasks – I’d just suggest that if possible you do any colour selection and mixing in natural light, as the purple you mixed under your lamp might turn out to be brown in daylight!
Give yourself a break!
We know that, however pressing the deadline, it’s not good for our body or our lettering to keep writing without a break. For computer users, the advice is a 5-10 minute break every hour, and I think this is right for lettering too. (And no, a 15 minute break after 3 hours is not a suitable alternative!)
If you think you’re going to get absorbed into the work, consider setting an alarm to remind you to rest – it’s better than ending up with such stiff shoulders that you don’t even want to sit at your board.
Create a haven
Unless you’re doing your calligraphy in a cave, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to stop the world interrupting your work occasionally, but you can help yourself. One of the key things is to decide what you’re going to do if the phone/doorbell goes. Will you answer, or not? If there’s someone else in the house, do you want them to disturb you if the call turns out to be for you?
Are there other distractions you can anticipate – such as feeding the cat before you start?
One of the things I used to do was have the audible alarm set for when an email came in to my PC. I’d hear it, and then a bit of my brain would wander off, thinking about who it might be from and whether it might be urgent, until I’d have to go and have a look – a ridiculous thing to do! Alarm switched off – much better focus on my work.
This is probably the right place to mention radio and music. Some people love it while they work, others crave silence. I’d say just be observant to what works for you- I know that I can’t listen to anything “singalong” while I’m writing, as I risk including song words on the page. I also know that if I’m lettering properly I don’t even notice what’s playing – the music stops and I don’t notice. But if I’m doing something like ruling up or rubbing out lines, music is a must!
I hope you have enjoyed a reminder of all sorts of common sense ideas on how to plan to be at your best when lettering – and perhaps there are some new ones for you to try too.
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