Learning Calligraphy: my experience

I’ve always wanted to create artwork featuring the above quotation by Alexander Pope, so my post below about learning calligraphy presented me with the perfect opportunity. The words in the quotation are the first two lines of Pope’s “An Essay On Criticism,” but although he intended the word “writing” to be regarded in a journalistic context, I think the sentiments of the quotation relate just as well to “writing” calligraphically. They also relate well to the benefits of putting the time into learning calligraphy properly.

See a larger version of the artwork on Flickr.


My previous post about Margaret Shepherd made me think about my early experience of learning calligraphy, so I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on that topic…

I learned calligraphy the hard way, by teaching myself, and I would definitely discourage anyone who considers doing the same. There is only one way to learn calligraphy, and that is to attend a calligraphy class. One of the first things I tell students who attend my own classes is that they have done themselves a favour by signing up for formal tuition. Yes, it costs more than learning from a book, but it also saves an unbelievable amount of time and frustration. I don’t exaggerate when I say that, in the space of just ten two-hour classes, I teach my students more about calligraphy than I learned in years of slavishly copying examples from books.

An example of my earliest calligraphy.
I’m not sure what style I was intending here, but don’t laugh… we all have to start somewhere!

Just to be clear, I love calligraphy books… I have a bookcase full of them… but they are no substitute for formal tuition. Books are handy for reference, for guidance, and for inspiration. But in regard to tuition, they can only illustrate a process. Unlike a tutor, they can’t demonstrate or elaborate, they can’t answer questions, they can’t nip bad habits in the bud, and they can’t motivate you when you feel like throwing your pens in the bin and taking up crochet instead. If you want to learn calligraphy, by all means surround yourself with books. But use them in support of formal tuition, not in place of it. It’s the only way.

Back in the mid eighties, when I decided to learn calligraphy, there were no local calligraphy classes on offer. So I taught myself by copying alphabets from Margaret Shepherd’s Learning Calligraphy. The resulting letters (I use the term loosely) were neither decorative nor legible, simply because I dismissed the finer points of Ms Shepherd’s instruction as supplementary information. I was naive, intending to master calligraphy within the shortest time possible, so I took shortcuts. The result was that I didn’t appreciate the importance of spacing, I didn’t consider proportion, I didn’t know what an x-height was, my pen angle was inconsistent (occasionally non-existent), and I bypassed Foundational with all its benefits, diving straight into the Gothic alphabet simply because it looked like the fanciest form of ‘fancy writing.’

Another early attempt of mine.
Almost recognisable as Carolingian.

At that time, in my opinion, Gothic was synonymous with calligraphy. And, even now, that appears to be a widely held notion, because whenever I tell people that I’m a calligrapher, a common response is, “Oh, so you do that Old English stuff?” Actually, yes, I do, but my preference is always for Italic. (It has become my favourite calligraphic alphabet, even though I originally loathed Italic, simply because I couldn’t get to grips with it. And now I love it because I have got to grips with it. The key to progress is that simple!)

My first attempts at Italic produced jagged, sharp-cornered, triangular letters that resembled a succession of lightning streaks. My pen was not so much dancing across the page as zig-zagging.

But, oblivious to my calligraphic shortcomings, I continued to practice my jagged triangles. Then I practiced them some more. In fact, I practiced them until I became very good at being very bad at Italic. Then, with the realisation that I wasn’t making progress, I practiced some more. But despite all this practice, I just became better and better at being bad, and my latent talent for calligraphy remained stubbornly dormant.

My big break came in 1987, when I saw an ad for a two week course in calligraphy and handwriting being held in Stirling University, less than twenty miles from my home. The tutor was none other than Tom Gourdie MBE, although his name meant nothing to me at the time. This was the only calligraphy class I had ever seen advertised, and I remember it being very expensive in relation to my income at the time. But I knew that it might be my one and only opportunity to gain some formal tuition in calligraphy, so I signed up immediately.

Those two weeks of tuition genuinely changed my life. Thanks to Mr Gourdie’s expert tuition, whatever raw talent I possessed when I first walked through the doors of his classroom became fine-tuned within a very short period of time. He sat with each of the students in turn, giving us a few precious minutes of one-to-one tuition. I can’t explain just how much that experience helped me to progress. Suddenly, like a switch going on inside my head, everything made sense. I can only describe it as an epiphany. Consequently, I was able to undo most of the bad habits that had thwarted my progress, and that had made my lettering look distinctly amateurish. But I benefitted mostly from watching an expert create the strokes right there in front of me. It made me realise that there was no magic or special equipment involved. Mr Gourdie was writing on my paper. Using my pen. For the first time I felt confident, and thought, I can do this. It was a welcome breakthrough after the futility of following instructions in books throughout the previous two years.

One of my earliest calligraphic “works of art.”
Copied directly from a book, if I remember correctly.

My subsequent progress was so rapid that within a year of attending Mr Gourdie’s class, I began teaching evening classes in calligraphy at Glasgow College of Food Technology. Two decades later, I continue to teach in The City of Glasgow College and in Strathclyde University, and I love to share my knowledge of, and my passion for, calligraphy with incipient scribes. Having learned so much from Mr Gourdie’s teaching methods, I spend as much time as I can giving one-to-one tuition to each of my students. It’s amazing how quickly they master a stroke or letter after being shown, first-hand, how to create it. On their paper. Using their pen. And it gives me great pleasure to be able to flick the switch inside their heads, as Mr Gourdie did for me all those years ago.

Since the late-eighties, calligraphy has been my life. I work as a freelance calligrapher during the day, and I teach calligraphy classes in the evening (even my hobby is digital calligraphy, but I tend to keep that quiet lest I become regarded as an anorak). I am convinced that if I had continued trying to teach myself calligraphy, then I would have soon given up through frustration and lack of progress. It was inevitable. And I dread to imagine how less satisfying my life would be if it didn’t revolve around calligraphy.

Hopefully, I have made a good case for choosing to learn calligraphy in a classroom setting, rather than going down the self-taught route. But a number of years ago one of my calligraphy students recognised an additional benefit of attending a class that I hadn’t considered.

It was the first night of a new term, and the students were putting pen to paper for the first time. Looking around the room, I noticed one young chap who appeared to be distracted and perplexed. I assumed that he was having difficulty with his letter-making, so I caught his attention.

“Do you have a problem?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied, hitching a thumb in the direction of the attractive girl sitting at the next table. “She won’t give me her phone number.”

Not the type of problem I felt qualified to deal with, so I resisted the temptation to become their go-between. I don’t know if he ever did get her number, but the combination of romance and calligraphy would surely have led to beautifully written wedding invitations. And I don’t know of anyone who ever got a date while learning calligraphy at home, on their own!


If you would like to comment on your experiences – good or bad – of being a self-taught calligrapher, I’d love to hear from you.


9 Responses to Learning Calligraphy: my experience

  1. Sergii says:

    Very interesting!
    Would you mind if I translate that story into Russian and post it on my blog? I would like to make post about you with links on your website and blog.

    • Hi Sergil

      Thank you for your email. Of course I’d be delighted if you translate my story and post it on your blog. And if you send me a link to your blog, I’d love to have a look at it (despite not understanding a word of Russian).

      Thanks again for getting in touch.

      Best wishes,

      • Hi Sergil

        I managed to find your excellent blog on my own…. very interesting! The English version was particularly helpful for me.

        I can highly recommend it to fellow calligraphers, who can find it at http://www.calligraphy.com.ua/

        Best wishes,

      • Sergii says:

        Thank you, Dunkan!
        I’m from Ukraine and the most of my readers are from Ukraine and Russia. It’s hard to find any class or teachers of calligraphy here. So I collect in blog any info of that topic. And first of all it helps me with my calligraphy. My experience is not very successful – I really stuck in books. (You have described the problem very well.) But I keep trying 🙂

  2. Keep working at it Sergil. It is definitely more difficult learning from books alone, but it’s not impossible. It just takes a bit more time, and perseverance, but I’m sure you will get there.

    Best wishes,

  3. Pingback: блог о каллиграфии » Duncan Tolmie: мой опыт изучения каллиграфии

  4. Pingback: calligraphy blog » Duncan Tolmie. Learning Calligraphy: my experience

  5. Sergii says:

    Hi, Duncan!
    Here is the post – http://www.calligraphy.com.ua/posts/2012/771
    I hope you like it 🙂 Thank you for sharing your knowledge!

  6. Scarlet says:

    I’ve always been book bound, and I now feel like I’ve cheated myself out of my potential! I was reading the Margaret Shepherd books at the exact same time you were.
    My advice to those like me who are learning from books is to keep referring their own work to a good calligraphic model – observation is key if you are teaching yourself AND it will take ages longer.
    I study the Italic calligraphy of Patricia Lovett, Timothy Noad, and Gillian Hazedine to help me on my way.

    P.S Please come down south to teach!!!

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