12 tips for creating a successful calligraphic artwork

Creating a calligraphic artwork is daunting. There's a lot of pressure to fill that blank page with something amazing. Most times you don't even know where to start and a lot of people end up avoiding creating them altogether. I didn't want to be that person so on Saturday I attended a 'Layout & Design' workshop with Debbie Longfield to learn some 'simple techniques to guide you through the steps to achieving a beautiful layout.'

Debbie's workshop was excellent! She broke down all of the steps she takes when creating a final piece for a client. We learnt that planning is the most important and most time consuming stage of the process. Without a detailed plan you are going to end up with a unsatisfactory result. Throughout the workshop Debbie was very generous with divulging valuable tips for all levels of calligraphers and I thought I would share my top twelve with you here:

1. Balance your layout on the optical centre

If you centre your artwork on the horizontal axis of the page your artwork will look a little low when looking at it on a wall. Instead centre it slightly above the horizontal axis. This means you will end up with a larger white space at the bottom of the page compared to the top.

2. Write out only the longest line of your text to find out what nib size to use

In the initial planning stage you will have to work out what size you are going to write at and what nib you are going to use. Instead of writing out the whole text just start by writing the longest line, saving you time and energy! (Please note: You will have to write out the whole text once you have figured out what size you are going to write at!)

3. Keep your layout pages

During planning you will create several layout pages of your artwork. Make sure you always keep them as your client may come back to you in the future asking for another copy. Without them you're not going to remember any of your guidelines and will have to start from scratch again. Also keep notes of the nibs you used, colours, border sizes etc. - the more detail the better!

4. Never use more than 2-3 calligraphy styles on one piece

Using more than two or three calligraphy styles in a design will confuse the viewer. Instead keep it simple and use calligraphy styles that enhance the words you are writing.

5. Start with a much bigger page than you need

Your artwork will always want to have some white space around it. It's better to have too much and cut the page down compared to ending up with a cramped design.

6. Always rule lines onto your good paper

Using a lightbox with your ruled lines on a page underneath just isn't going to cut it. Your writing won't be as crisp as you need it! Instead rule faint lines with a HB pencil directly onto your page. You should also be ruling up at least three good pages at once. Then if you make a mistake on one you won't be interupting your flow by stopping to rule up again.

7. Take time to warm up before writing

If you don't warm up before writing onto your final piece your calligraphy is going to suffer. You want to spend at least 20 minutes writing in your chosen calligraphy style to achieve good letter forms and flow.

BONUS TIP: Start by writing your second line first, then once everything is dry come back and write the first line. That way if your first few words are a bit shaky it won't be as noticeable.

8. Write with gouache, not ink

Writing with gouache is the only way to make sure that your artwork is achival quality. You must also check that the gouache is an A series and not a B series. Any gouache that is a B series will end up fading and separating out of the arwork. Don't even mix a bit of a B series into an A series as it will still eventually disappear from the artwork! You should also add a tiny drop or two of gum arabic to your gouache to set the paint onto the paper. Then mix with enough water to create paint that is the consisency of pouring cream.

BONUS TIP: Keep your leftover gouache for a few days after finishing the artwork as you may notice a mistake and it's almost impossible trying to mix up the same colour again!

9. Load your nib with a brush

Never dip your nib straight into the gouache and start writing as the colour will be super dark at first and then fade out a bit, which looks inconsistent. Instead load the nib with a brush and test write a stroke on a scrap piece of your good paper to make sure it is the same colour and density as where you left off. Also stir you paint constantly to make sure it doesn't separate.

10. Write first, then decorate

If you are going to make a mistake it's most likely going to be within the calligraphy. Therefore you should make sure to complete all writiing first before moving onto decoration eg. borders, illuminated letters, drawings. The decoration can be corrected a lot easier than the calligraphy!

BONUS TIP: Once your wording is completely dry place a sheet of acetate over the top to protect it from any errant drops of paint that might occus while you are decorating.

11. Work on two good pages at once (at least!)

Mistakes can happen and it's best to be prepared. By working on multiple pages at once you increase the chance of at least one being successful. If you happen to make it to the end without any mistakes then the best version can be given to the client and you can keep the others.

12. Always use a cover sheet

A cover sheet is a clean blank piece of paper that you put underneath your hand while writing to stop any marks transferring from your hand onto your good paper.