Teach Me: Calligraphy

Getting an inkling of a new skill.


What do Leonardo Da Vinci, Juana Inés de la Cruz, Zhang Heng, Donald Glover, and Emma Watson all have in common? They’re polymaths — or renaissance men and women. Talented in fields across several disciplines such as astronomy, engineering, music, and literature. “Teach Me” is a new Local series about one reporter’s quest for knowledge, skills, and truth on the Island of Martha’s Vineyard.

Perhaps the coolest thing about taking on a new skill is learning about the subculture surrounding it. When I learned knitting, it wasn’t just mastering the stitches, but hearing the slang and deciphering knitting pattern worksheets.

This time around I took on calligraphy. I turned again to a colleague, Tara Kenny (The Times has a bevy of talented hobbyists), to take my literal writing to a new level.

Calligraphy is all about giving expressive design to letters, essentially creating a piece of art.

The basic calligraphy tools are the penholder, paper, ink, distilled water, a lint-free cloth, and a nib. The nib is the metal tip that holds the ink as you write. There are a variety of nibs, but as a beginner I have to say my personal favorite is the blue pumpkin, which as you guessed looks like a blue pumpkin. Head over to daRosa’s in Oak Bluffs to get all the supplies you need.

All new nibs come with a protective coating to prevent rusting, so when getting a new nib it’s important to clean it with an alcohol wipe or by stabbing it into a potato — yes, you read that correctly. The starch inside the potato helps remove the nib coating. Once cleaned, test the nib by dipping it into the ink to make sure it adheres to the nib evenly.

A great paper to use is Rhodia, which has a smooth surface and low absorbency — good traits for your paper to have so the ink won’t bleed. Writing with ink on regular printer paper causes the ink to bleed.

In my first lesson, Tara taught me some helpful tips. I was lucky to be right-handed — calligraphy is slightly easier as a right-hander in terms of using ink. It’s not at all impossible for lefties — it just takes a bit more finessing.

I began my writing with an oblique pen, which features a flange on the end where the nib is held. At first it seems awkward, but the flange quickly becomes a beginner calligrapher’s best friend. The flange gives a nice angle to help with the slanted writing style.

Rotating the paper is important as having a good angle helps with getting the right slant.

Correct writing posture is key. As a reporter by day, while churning out Island news I often find myself hunched over my laptop. For calligraphy, two feet must be firmly planted on the ground, the shoulders should be loose, and no slouching.

For a beginning calligrapher it’s good to start with practicing warm-ups such as writing upstrokes and downstrokes. Upstrokes are the thinner lines and downstrokes are the thicker ones.

Calligraphy is a meditative art form. As someone who enjoys writing handwritten letters to my friends, calligraphy will add a personal touch. With holidays around the corner, calligraphy is also great for creating place cards at a dinner table.

While I’m only writing individual letters, my next step is connecting them into coherent words — the current goal is to write my name. My final tips for those interested in practicing calligraphy is to not feel discouraged when starting out (you’ll feel like a kid again trying to learn to write) and to not drink too much coffee beforehand. Shaky hands make for shaky writing.