Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Pen Pals

Dear Pen Pal,

In your last letter, you asked me, “how can I improve my letters if I can’t see what’s wrong with them?”

First off, take comfort in the fact that your ability to “see” grows over the years. In fact, you are training your eyes, hand and brain now. It will take awhile before they learn to work together making letters. With practice and continued use, you should be able to see shapes much better a year from now than you can right now. And in 5 or 10 years, who knows what all you’ll be able to see??

In the meantime, though, you can use tracing paper and mylar to help you see easier, better, and more.

Try making a copy of the alphabet you’re studying, for example, the same size as you’re working. (You may have to take it to the copy shop and have them enlarge it for you.) Then you can trace the letter you’ve made and compare it to your original, and see right where you may be off. Mylar makes it all that much *clearer*. (Get it? Clearer?) J

One time I xeroxed an exemplar onto clear mylar for that very purpose. In fact, I think I did this with Copperplate/Script and found out very quickly, whoa, were my ovals off! Not only were they not oval, the axis of the oval was at the totally wrong angle! Very eye-opening and a little horrifying (!), but I needed to know where I was going wrong and the clear mylar was just the ticket.

Also, don’t just make a letter and then look at it afterwards to see if it looks right. Look at the stroke as you create it. Get real time feedback on your creation. Watch it unfold and tell that nib what to do!! J

Also, and this may be obvious, but don’t look just at the Marks that you are making. Train yourself to look at the Counters that you are creating, while you are making them.

The Counter is the shape created by your pen marks or strokes. One example of a counter would be the lemon-shape inside a foundational O, or the 2 D-shaped counters stacked on top of each other when you make a capital B. Some people call it Negative Space, and some people won’t call it that because they don’t believe it to be a negative thing. (!)

Nevertheless, if your counter is right, your letter will be right.

And you know what? (And I feel like I’m telling a little secret here for some reason…) When I am really in The Zone, I almost don’t feel like I’m making letters anymore, but simply carving beautiful counters with my pen. Weird, right? Unfortunately I’m not in The Zone as often as I’d like. It’s a magical place that I don’t visit nearly enough. J

And perhaps I should also touch on the normal Frustration a Newbie feels. Well, actually we all feel it, to some extent. We all want to be so much better than we currrently are. It’s a fact of life for an artist that you can fight or finally accept. I have come to accept that truth and even be grateful for it. Without it, I would be ignorantly content with how my letters look, and I’d never get any better that way. That frustration can help drive you toward excellence.

But your frustration should be that vague discontent, not the maddening throw-your-pen-across-the-room type. If you are beyond-crazy-frustrated, as the old advice goes, go dancing. (i.e., do something, anything, else)

Actually, when I would get that bad kind of frustrated, I would stop lettering for that day and play with my beautiful papers and ribbons and beads and make a collaged greeting card. That’s how I entered the world of Collage. But that’s really another topic for another day.

Enjoy the journey, and have fun!

Lucky Dog J


  1. WOW...what GREAT information. I will soon be off to the store for some mylar and dig out my stash of tracing paper so I can get the feel of the letters that I so enjoy. (The lettering on the children's book I showed you or the Charles Dickens book cover.) I worked on a piece yesterday, laid it on a table, and when I looked at it again, I happened to glance at it upside down. Ooooh, did I ever see some mistakes. The 'n' that looked pretty good right side up, looked very wrong upside down. I could SEE that my downward strokes were NOT at all parallel. You were so right about how your ability to 'see' grows. AND, even though I had heard about 'counters,' I had totally forgot to be aware of them as I was forming my letters. A great eye-opener! Thanks for reminding me of a very valuable lesson! Now, for some quiet time to practice what I've learned......

  2. Great advice! May I add one small additional tip regarding practice? Date every piece of practice paper then you'll be able to track your progress. On days when you feel frustrated, it's good to look back and see how far you've come!

  3. Oh, yes, always date your pages! Thanks, Kim.

  4. Just finished practicing with tracing paper (haven't been to the store for mylar, yet)! I traced over some calligraphy from the cover of a children's book to get the feel of it, and then I practiced the same hand on graph paper. I, then, compared my lettering to the original by overlaying the papers. I could definitely see where I need to improve. Thanks, LuckyDog!

  5. You are very welcome! Glad that helps! I'll be posting some more ideas soon. :)