Ladders, Angles, and Drills Oh My!


I still remember my first days learning calligraphy. There was a whole new language to learn, a different way to write and I had to learn how to use the written instructions I was being given.  In other words it was confusing and I was confused.  The good part about it was that I had a pair of wonderful instructors who made learning all of it fun if and easy.  People learning calligraphy have many of the same problems I had.  Calligraphy does have its own jargon and its own seemingly arcane way of doing things.

Today I drew up a sheet that I hope will be a bridge for the beginning calligraphers to better understand some of these terms and diagrams making it easier than they might otherwise be.  So I present to you what I drew up today with explanation below it.

The beginner in anything has a lot to learn.  Hopefully this will make it easier for the beginning calligrapher

The beginner in anything has a lot to learn. Hopefully this will make it easier for the beginning calligrapher

Lines and printing were drawn using a Zig .05 marker.

Ladders drills and lettering were done using a Speedball C-1 nib.

Ink is round bottle “green bottle” sumi ink.

At the top left of the picture we see two angle diagrams.  The angle diagram shows the calligrapher at what angle in relation to the bottom line they should hold their pen tip (nib.)  In this case the angles are 45 degrees and 30 degrees.  As you look down the page to the pen drills and the lettering you can see how the two different angles can make a very visible difference in look of the writing.  In reality the difference in the angles is only 15 degrees, not very much at all.  But visually it makes a very big difference.  Also if you look closely you can also see how the two different angles also change how the nib moves on the paper surface.

To the right of the angle diagrams we see two sets of ladders.  On the left of each set of ladders is the “ladder” style and the “step” style of ladder.  What is a ladder in this case? A ladder helps you determine what the “x” height of you letters should be.  Your x height is the definition of the correct height of the main body of your letter x.  This is really a determination of letters with no ascenders and no descenders.  Letters such as a, c, e, i, m, n, o, s, u, v, w, and x.  Anything that goes above this main body of the letter is an ascender, anything that goes below this main body is a descender.

In calligraphy the x height of your letter is determined by a ratio of nib widths to the letter’s x height.  This controls the proportion of the letters giving them their unique and beautiful forms.  In this case I chose an x height of 4 nib widths.  The set of ladders on the left shows some common mistakes made in drawing you ladder.  The ladders are slumped, sometimes the nib is angled instead of perfectly straight up down. The overall effect is that the ladder is actually shorter than it should be for the x height.  The set on the right does have a mistake or two in them, (purposefully) but they do not affect the correct height of the ladder.  It is important to know that perfection is not required to be able to make a useful ladder.  If it were we would spend half of our time drawing the ladder correctly before we could get on to drawing the lines and doing lettering!  A Speedball C-1 nib at 4 nib widths high should show an x height of 12mm.

Drills and warm-ups.  They are simple and amazingly effective at helping you learn how to control you pen and put the ink on the page exactly where you want the ink to go, the way you want it to be there.  As a warm-up these drills help you to re-engage your brain and muscle memory to doing calligraphy.  Sheila Waters (A master calligrapher and instructor) in her book, “Foundations of Calligraphy,” recommends to always do warm-ups before you start working on finish pieces.  I still do these warm-ups but not as they are shown.  These are just examples of the strokes.

I warm up by doing a line of horizontals, two lines of perpendiculars and three lines of “o”.  I did these drills every day for 15 minutes for 4 weeks and went to an SCA event where there was to be a competition of calligraphy writing.  I was drafted into the competition not entirely of my own free will.  Despite that I had fun.  The pieces when finished were whisked away to be judged by people who did not know the competition entrants but did know calligraphy.  I came in second place.  These drills work that well even at 15 minutes a day.  Obviously I think highly of them.

Some mistakes to look for and to avoid when doing these drills.  The perpendicular lines should be 90 degrees from the bottom line.  It is very easy to leave you elbow in place and eventually have the perpendicular lines start to lean.  Most often they lean toward the right.  You either must pick up you arm so that doesn’t happen or move the sheet you are working on so it doesn’t happen.  If you pick up your arm you need to find your sweet spot for writing all over again.  Each piece you work on is unique so make the decision that works best for you in each circumstance.  My suggestion is whenever possible, move the sheet, not your arm.  Again, do what works best for you.

The horizontal lines often provide the greatest difficulty. As you can see on the drill line labelled 45 degrees, the horizontal lines aren’t straight.  No, they really aren’t.  They wobble and dip down and rise up.  This means that you are not controlling your pen appropriately.  This is particularly difficult to do when using a broad tip nib such as we use in the SCA and to write this kind of calligraphy.  The broad tip seeks the path of least resistance and thus moves in that direction if you let it.

Some suggestions on solving this problem.  1 – Don’t press down on you nib, it isn’t a ballpoint pen.  Dip pens of all kinds write worse when you press down hard on them.  Instead of trying to press the ink onto the page, imagine that you are trying to pull the ink out of the page. (Thank you to my calligraphy instructors for this fantastic piece of advice.)  You still have to keep contact with the writing surface but I have found that the pen is much easier to control when you do not press hard onto the page.  2 – Be assertive with your pen.  Sounds a bit silly I know, but it works. You tell the pen where to go, not the other way around.  If it helps, you can even verbally tell your pen to behave itself while you are writing with it.  Probably best done when you’re alone.

The curved lines are nothing more than halves of the letter “o”.  The trick with these two strokes is to let the letter work.  Don’t rush the stroke or you will flatten it out.  Don’t let it hang out too long or you will create a fat letter.  And always hit bottom line. Don’t rush to meet the next stroke, take your time and hit the bottom of the stroke.  If you don’t hit the bottom line you will have a floating letter that will stick out very loudly in your otherwise beautiful calligraphy piece.

The diagonal lines are probably the easiest strokes to do.  Your pen pretty much just wants to do them.  Like all strokes, take your time with them and enjoy the experience.

For a more in dept h analysis and explanation of how to deal with the errors you see in the picture please see the follow-up posts:

A Deeper Analysis of Calligraphy – Pen Ladders

A Deeper Analysis of Calligraphy – Drills and Warm-ups

A Deeper Analysis if Calligraphy – The Alphabet

I welcome any comments, thoughts, questions and war stories you may have about learning and writing calligraphy.  Please remember to give this post the star rating you feel it deserves.

4 responses to “Ladders, Angles, and Drills Oh My!

  1. Pingback: Milestone – 5,000 views | scribescribbling·

  2. Pingback: A Deeper Analysis of Calligraphy – The Alphabet | scribescribbling·

  3. Pingback: A Deeper Analysis of Calligraphy – Drills and Warm-ups | scribescribbling·

  4. Pingback: A Deeper Analysis of Calligraphy – Pen Ladders | scribescribbling·

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