As a self-taught hand-letterer who’s experimented with every calligraphy technique known to man (as far as I know), I’m very familiar with beginner calligraphy mistakes, because I made all of them! I started learning calligraphy in 2012, tackling these mistakes, and by 2016 I was teaching hand lettering classes in my own brick and mortar shop.
This was when I learned that those mistakes I made when I first started out were not unique to me at all! Nearly every student I taught had to tackle at least a few of the following hurdles. Here, I’ve laid out the most common mistakes I saw myself and students make when starting to learn calligraphy. We’ll go through each error and I’ll pass along some tips to help you troubleshoot your lettering! Let’s get started.
To download the free beginner’s guide to calligraphy, and put these tips into action, click below.
1. They don’t research which lettering technique fits their needs beforehand.
There are TONS of techniques for hand lettering. You can choose from ultra-traditional pointed pen lettering, to more modern brush lettering, or even “faux” calligraphy done with a regular ballpoint pen. Before choosing a technique, think about what you hope to accomplish with your lettering. Do you just want to be able to write the days of the week in your bullet journal? Pointed pen lettering will probably be too complicated and messy for that use. Are you addressing 200 formal wedding invitations? Faux calligraphy will take way too long and you’d probably be better of learning brush pen calligraphy or pointed pen lettering.
Whatever technique you choose, read up on it and decide if it fits your needs before jumping in and buying supplies for a style that won’t work best for you.
2. They focus too much on finding the “perfect” supplies.
I’ll tell you – the most common question I get is “what pen are you using?” when posting a calligraphy video. This is understandable! People want to be steered in the right direction. However, don’t get too hung up on purchasing the “perfect” pen or the perfect paper. I practice on regular printer paper and it works just fine! A fancy notebook may be nice to buy to carry around with you for on the go practice, but is by no means necessary.
For pointed pens, there are tons of nib holders and nibs out there with great reviews. But don’t worry too much about finding the perfect one – I guarantee your preference will change over the course of a few months of practice. Just try out a few styles and don’t spend an arm and a leg on any one nib or nib holder until you have more practice under your belt.
For brush pens, everyone has their favorite. Even Crayola markers work! My all-time favorite pen for beginners is the Tombow Fudenosuke hard tipped pen. This is a really stiff brush pen that is perfect for heavy-handed beginners (don’t worry, we’re all heavy handed when we start out!) and it stands up to a ton of pressure. You can find this pen on Amazon and from art supply stores, and we also stock them at Printable Wisdom.
3. They try to write as fast as they do in their everyday life.
I like to think of calligraphy as “drawing” instead of writing. It takes me about ten times as long to write words or phrases in calligraphy as it does to write them in cursive. If you write too quickly (especially with brush pens), then the ink does not have time to lay down on the paper and will look streaky. Check out this video below to see how slowly you should be writing (ignore my long-past due manicure, please!)
4. They rush through learning letterforms.
Learning the letterforms (or shapes of each letter) is essential when starting out! Nothing is more frustrating than having to go back and remind yourself of what each letter looks while trying to write a word. If you put some work into memorizing the letterforms, your calligraphy will look much more fluid. Practice worksheets are a great way to learn the letterforms and are available from many calligraphers either as free downloads or for a (usually) low price. Our free beginner calligraphy guide in this post has a great exemplar for beginners!
5. They put the focus on flourishes, not readability.
I get it! Flourishes are fun! They are rule-free and make you feel like a really fancy letterer. However, they have to be deployed sparingly. For beginners, I recommend sticking with flourishes only on capital letters and the last letter of a word, if you use them at all. Too many flourishes makes it hard to find the word hidden among them.
6. They hold their pen upright (like you would with a pencil).
This is usually the mistake I correct first when teaching beginners. If you hold your pen at a 90 degree angle it will be difficult, if not impossible, to get a contrast between your thick and thin lines. Keep the tip of your calligraphy pen at about a 45 degree angle the entire time you write, so that the tip of the pen can bend gently against the paper. The video above also demonstrates this.
7. They keep their paper perpendicular to their body.
The best way to practice calligraphy is with your paper or notebook tilted away from your dominant hand. For example, I’m right handed, so I tilt the top of my notebook to the left (as seen below). This will help you get the right angle to your lettering. Lefties should tilt the top of their notebook to the right.
8. They apply too much pressure to their pen.
Heavy-handedness is a characteristic of nearly every beginning letterer. In the beginning, it’s important to remind yourself to barely touch the tip of your pen to the paper for those thin upstrokes. Too much pressure will not only make your upstrokes too thick, it will wear out your pen more quickly as well.
9. They compare themselves to experts.
If you are anything like me, your Instagram feed is full of handletterers. It can be easy to get into what I call a “comparison-spiral” and start feeling really inadequate very quickly. But everyone started out as a beginner and try not to get discouraged by comparing yourself to experts (see tip #10 for more about this!).
10. They expect perfection (or close to it) immediately.
Here’s a little secret – everyone is unhappy with their calligraphy when they first start out, unless they are some kind of prodigy. Below are photos of my very first calligraphy pieces that I was so proud of in 2012. I thought these were the best thing ever produced. Don’t get me wrong, this is good for a beginner but nowhere near the quality of lettering I can produce now. So don’t be discouraged! Calligraphy takes practice and everyone’s style is always evolving. You’ll be shocked at the progress you can make in a few months!
What do you think? If you’re an expert now, what did you struggle with when you first started learning calligraphy? Beginners – is your most common problem on the list? If not, let me know what it is and I’ll share tips in the comments!