The Only Way to Improve at Calligraphy & Lettering

You can watch tutorials all day, spend money on reference books and new tools, but the only way you are ever going to really improve at calligraphy and lettering is with consistent practice.

If you think of people who you admire, they weren’t always as skilled as they are now. They started at the beginning and worked at it every day taking small steps towards improvement. Those small steps build up over time and the only thing between you and them is they have done it thousands of times before.

Life is busy. We have jobs, partners, children to take care of. Not to mention trying to fit in a social life. It can be really difficult to find time for something else in our busy schedules. I know I definitely struggled with this at first. The daily commute to work is an hour each way (on a good day). It could be well spent if you had the chance of getting a seat, but that possibility is slim at peak hour on the London Underground. It is tightly packed with barely enough room to lift your hands!  

I tried to find some time in the evening when I got home. It didn’t work. I was tired from the day and keen to relax. I live with my boyfriend and my priority in the evening is to spend time with him. Reluctantly, I realised I was going to have to create the time, so I moved my practice sessions to the morning. It was a challenge to wake up earlier, but I found it got easier after awhile, and I came to treasure that peaceful hour of practice early in the morning before the busyness of the day kicks in.

There’s definitely days I don’t feel like it, especially in the winter when it’s dark and cold and all you want to do is stay in bed. I’ve found a few things that get me through those moments, and I’m hoping they help you too.

Don’t Break the Chain

One of my favourites comes from the comedian Jerry Seinfeld. I originally heard this story on the seanwes Podcast and since then, many other places. An amateur comic approached Jerry after a show to get some tips on becoming a better comedian. Jerry told him the only way was to write better jokes, and the only way to do that was to write more jokes. He told him to get a big wall calendar and a fat red marker. Hang the calendar somewhere you can see it. Put a big red ‘X’ in box every day you show up and write. You’ll start to see those X’s pile up over time and you won’t want to break it. ‘Don’t break the chain’. While it’s a very simple concept, it’s extremely effective.

When I first tried this, I used the digital calendar on my computer. To my surprise, it didn’t hold the same power. Having the a physical print out with large red x’s right in front of my workspace is a much stronger motivator!

The below photo is actually my writing ‘wins’ calendar, but this technique can apply to anything you want to do consistently and works just as well for calligraphy.

Don't Break the Chain
My February calendar has a few more gaps in it than January, so best show you this one

If you would like to try this method out for yourself, there’s free printable calendar downloads for the full year here.

Keep the Motivation

Another piece of advice that really influenced me was from a passage in Robert Cialdini’s new book, ‘Pre-suasion’. He recalls a conversation with a work colleague where he was complimenting her on her writing output. He asks if she has any advice for increasing the amount of writing. Here’s an excerpt from the book –

“She never lets herself finish a writing session at the end of a paragraph or even a thought. She assured me she know precisely what she wants to say at the end of that last paragraph or thought; she just doesn’t allow herself to say it until the next time. By keeping the final feature of every writing session near-finished, she uses the motivating force of the drive for closure to get her back to her chair quickly, impatient to write again.”

I have started apply this to my calligraphy practice as well. If you are composing a piece and you are excited where it is going, put your pen (or pencil rather) down and sleep on it. You’ll be excited to return to it the next day. It might seem counter intuitive. Why not complete the piece if you are almost finished? I’ve found leaving some space between finishing has helped not only with a eagerness to return to it the next day, but also for coming up with completely new ideas. With fresh eyes you’re able to develop the idea further than you would completing in one sitting.

Time Management Tips

As well as forming proactive habits, being organised will have a large impact and help make the best use of your time.

  • Choose a regular time slot you can be consistent with 
  • Put your phone on silent or ‘do not disturb’ mode, close your email and anything else that might interrupt or distract you
  • Communicate goals with your significant other and people around you. Then they are not surprised when you need to say no to something and can also help keep you accountable
  • Prepare what you plan to work on the day before. If you’re learning a new style of calligraphy, pick 5 letters you’ll study in that session and focus on those. This is partly the reason I chose to split the Copperplate Guide into modules. Studying 5 letters at a time fits perfectly into a 20-30 min practice session
  • If you’re composing a piece, give some thought to the word and layout before you sit and start
  • Carry a notebook. Ideas tend to strike at odd times. Some of the best ideas  happen when I’m walking (even just the journey to work). Capture these ideas and transfer them to a central place (Google document or a To-Do list app like Bear)

These practical methods ensure the time you set aside for practice or creating is well spent and move you closer to your goals. Using these not only improve my skills organically, but I feel more energised and ready for the day. Calligraphy has a calming and meditative effect which is a really positive way to get started. It doesn’t have to be a hour long session, even just 15 or 20 minutes a day can improve your skills dramatically. Most importantly, you make that small bit of progress that adds up over time.

I also recommend keeping your older work to refer back to later and see your progress. It will encourage you to see how far you’ve come. It’s not always easy to gauge gradual improvement, but the comparison from where you started to where you are in the future will be much more obvious.

Having a full, busy life can help rather than hinder your creativity. It’ll take some adjustment and sacrifice to make it work, but if you’re well organised you’ll be surprised at the amount you can fit in your daily routine. Work life and day-to-day activities should feed your creative ideas rather than take from them.

Do you have any productivity tips you want to share? Leave a comment below.

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