Author Topic: Ten Tips to Self-Critique and Improve your Calligraphy  (Read 13351 times)

Offline Erica McPhee

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Ten Tips to Self-Critique and Improve your Calligraphy
« on: December 31, 2013, 10:33:56 PM »
Oh, we are so good at seeing our flaws! But sometimes, it's not so easy when we are producing a work of art or calligraphy. After all, the work created is a reflection of ourselves in many ways. While it is often easy for us to be critical of our work, it is not as easy to critique it in order to make improvements.

It is easy, however, to be defensive. When I was developing my photography business, I belonged to a great forum where you could post your work for critique. I found when people posted their work, they really didn't want to hear the bad news. They only wanted to hear the positive feedback. If anyone gave constructive criticism, it was typically met with lots of excuses or a "well, I like it that way" response. This is a really NATURAL and altogether normal reaction! While it does help us feel better, it doesn't do anything to help us improve.

As any designer knows, you really have to develop a thick skin to design artwork for other people. It is one thing to design/letter something and then offer it "as is" in its completed form, and a completely different thing to create a calligraphy piece for someone else. You are now working under his/her expectations, not your own.

I developed a pretty thick skin after a couple years of designing custom logos. Clients have no problem telling you what they don't like! I then began lettering for Sunrise Greetings (now a division of Hallmark) and Papyrus for a number of years. If I thought logo clients were tough, they weren't even close to the feedback art directors can give. They usually have a very specific look they are trying to achieve and will help you achieve it with amazingly accurate description and critique.

So when I took my first lettering job for American Greetings, I was thrilled. I thought, yes, this will be great! Mike Gold was the art director. Anyone familiar with calligraphy knows Mike is one of the best. He has years of experience working with top lettering artists.

My first card was strictly lettering - no design. I worked diligently on the lettering and sent it in. Mike called me. I was really unprepared for the extensive and equally spot-on feedback he gave! My notes from our call:


But, instead of being upset when I hung up, it was like I had new eyes! Mike had given me the opportunity to see my work in an entirely different light. Even then, I did not recognize it but I really was not ready to be designing contemporary greeting cards! I look back at some of my early cards and cringe. But that is the beauty of time and calligraphy! Hopefully, with time and practice, you continually improve. There is no finish line.

And in order to improve, you have to be able to see what you are doing wrong. So here are some suggestions which I hope will help you to improve your work.

1. After finishing, put your calligraphy away for a day or more. When you go back to it, you may be surprised either at how much better it really is than you thought, or at the flaws you didn't initially see.

2. Tape your work to a blank wall and step back at least 3 feet. Look at the overall shape. Look at the "big picture." Does it flow well? Is the arrangement pleasing? Does anything jump out at you? Are there gaps or congested areas? Is it easily readable?

3. Ask someone else to look at it and give honest feedback. Ideally, at least two people.

4. After the initial bristling and feeling like those people have no idea what they are talking about, consider they might actually have a point.  :D Try some of the suggestions based on their critique and see if it improves your letters. It might, it might not. But I guarantee you will learn something from it.

5. Take your red pencil and mark your work. Draw lines with a ruler. If you are doing traditional calligraphy, do your letters all reach the midline? Do they stay within the baseline. Is the size and shape consistent? Are your letterforms good? Inspect individual letters. Does your "a" look like the exemplar "a?" Does the bowl form an oval? Does the second descender line bump into it or gently touch it? Does your t have a squared off top? Take your exemplar and compare letter for letter.

6. Check legibility. Read your piece backwards. Can you read each letter/word without hesitation? Is there any chance for confusion?

7. Pretend your calligraphy is someone else's. Look at your work as if a friend had just handed it to you and asked you to give him or her feedback. How would you respond? Hopefully with compassion and kindness - looking for both the successful components and the areas that need improvement.

8. Accept other factors. There are many factors which are going to contribute to good or bad letters. Recognize when you are tired, the lighting is bad, you're in a grumpy mood, the nib/paper/ink won't cooperate, it's too humid, etc. Sometimes it is good to push through those times and then lettering makes you feel better. Other times, it is better to put it away for another time.

9. Critique other calligraphers. One of the best ways to learn good letterforms is to study other calligraphers' work. We all know it when we see it - that piece that just takes your breath away. Critique it. Really study it. Ask yourself, why does this appeal to me so much? What does this artist do? What about it do I like? And the converse is true. If you see a piece that doesn't resonate with you, try to determine why. Is it illegible? Are there bad letterforms? Is the style unpleasing. If so, why.

10. Judge your letters - do not judge yourself! Being hard on yourself does not make you better - it makes you feel bad. It is easy to feel deflated and like we'll never get it. Calligraphy is hard. Except in rare circumstances, it is going to take months, if not years to develop a good hand. But don't let that time be discouraging. Encourage yourself! Enjoy forming the letters. Enjoy learning. There is no finish line so don't rush through it. Show yourself the same compassion you would show a friend. Every time you sit down to letter, it can contribute to your improvement. Don't just look at the bad letters, look at and circle the good ones. Feel happy in that perfect s or a! Yes, it feels pretty awesome to complete a piece you are proud of - but much of the joy is in creating it!  :)
 
« Last Edit: January 24, 2014, 01:53:05 AM by Erica McPhee »
Truly, Erica
Lettering/Design Artist, Homeopath, Photographer, Mom, Wife
Dasherie Magazine | Paperwhite Studio | Instagram | Facebook

Offline eddysarah

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Re: Ten Tips to Self-Critique and Improve your Calligraphy
« Reply #1 on: January 01, 2014, 02:26:34 AM »
Great article. Do you have a copy of the finished product?

Offline Floralovely

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Re: Ten Tips to Self-Critique and Improve your Calligraphy
« Reply #2 on: January 01, 2014, 06:49:04 AM »
Really enjoyed this article, thank you! X

Offline Lynda

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Re: Ten Tips to Self-Critique and Improve your Calligraphy
« Reply #3 on: January 01, 2014, 09:47:33 AM »
Thank you for this positive article to start the new year with!  I have printed out these 10 questions to refer to as I complete projects.  I think it will help me feel I've covered all bases and did my best.
Happy 2014!

Offline ewigginton

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Re: Ten Tips to Self-Critique and Improve your Calligraphy
« Reply #4 on: January 01, 2014, 10:36:14 AM »
Wow, this is astounding to me. Really. When there is so much out there in professional venues that looks like it has been done very loose and fast to my untrained eye, to know they had to go through a rigorous process to get that far is amazing. I recently saw some work by a well-known modern calligraphy teacher in a very prestigious publication that made me wonder. I'm sure the publisher got the look they were going for which makes me think all art directors can't be as particular as yours was. It looked, based on your notes, that maybe what your art director really needed, Erica, was type rather than calligraphy? Your work always looks beautiful and to pick it apart so much must have shaken your confidence. It certainly would have knocked me for a loop!

For me, who never, ever has aspirations of earning a living with calligraphy and is happy to always be an amateur, I'm pleased to look upon it as another skill I found as a challenge and conquered to my own satisfaction. I **used** to think I was a perfectionist but now I know I'll never achieve that level in calligraphy so why beat myself up? I am at the point in my life when I get to do what I want every single day! Something we only dream of when we have kids and/or a career foremost in our daily thoughts.

Thanks for sharing this, Erica! Makes me so happy I don't have to work for "The Man (or woman)!"

Offline Erica McPhee

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Re: Ten Tips to Self-Critique and Improve your Calligraphy
« Reply #5 on: January 01, 2014, 06:55:07 PM »
I wish I did have a copy of the final. My final artwork is on a dead harddrive (lesson to always keep multiple backups). And American Greetings does not give you the finished cards like the other companies do. I was able to find one of mine in a local Walmart once but not this one.

Ellen, yes, it does change things when you start doing something you love as a means of income. I struggled for many years with the anxiety this created. In the long run, however, it made me a better calligrapher. I am very happy now though that I no longer have to take clients if I don't want to and I can letter whatever I want to my heart's content!

Also, I wanted to add - taking workshops is probably the single best way to improve your lettering. There is no replacement for taking a class in person with a good, experienced teacher. The more - the better!
Truly, Erica
Lettering/Design Artist, Homeopath, Photographer, Mom, Wife
Dasherie Magazine | Paperwhite Studio | Instagram | Facebook

Offline Lindamirth

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Re: Ten Tips to Self-Critique and Improve your Calligraphy
« Reply #6 on: January 01, 2014, 07:28:58 PM »
I really enjoyed reading this, all of us need a critique from someone that we respect.
Your website is a fountain of information, thanks for sharing with us.

Offline Erica McPhee

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Re: Ten Tips to Self-Critique and Improve your Calligraphy
« Reply #7 on: January 01, 2014, 08:15:01 PM »
Thank you Linda! I appreciate your kind words!
Truly, Erica
Lettering/Design Artist, Homeopath, Photographer, Mom, Wife
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Offline katianaval

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Re: Ten Tips to Self-Critique and Improve your Calligraphy
« Reply #8 on: January 02, 2014, 04:40:09 AM »
Wow. When I saw the calligraphy I thought it looked perfect. I admire the expertise that some people have, and how they can point out these details that amateurs don't notice. I have no problem with anyone making suggestions and feel like I'm my own worst critic at times...

But I do agree that sometimes it takes a day or two to appreciate your own work. I actually find my calligraphy better when it's already a photo! (thank you smartphone) Haha!
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Offline Nice Plume

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Re: Ten Tips to Self-Critique and Improve your Calligraphy
« Reply #9 on: January 02, 2014, 05:29:16 AM »
Very useful and so true ! Thanks a lot for sharing  :)

Offline dailyletterings

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Re: Ten Tips to Self-Critique and Improve your Calligraphy
« Reply #10 on: January 02, 2014, 07:40:09 PM »
this is an awesome, in-depth list of tips that looks like it would actually be effective in teaching us something LONG TERM!  i find that to be rare for a set of "10 tips" type articles!! thank you so much!!
torrie t. asai

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Offline Erica McPhee

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Re: Ten Tips to Self-Critique and Improve your Calligraphy
« Reply #11 on: January 02, 2014, 09:21:24 PM »
Thanks Katia, Nora, and Torrie!

Torrie - I really appreciate your comment! I actually hesitated to title it that because I agree with you! So I'm glad you let me know they seem useful!  :D
Truly, Erica
Lettering/Design Artist, Homeopath, Photographer, Mom, Wife
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Offline Sharon

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Re: Ten Tips to Self-Critique and Improve your Calligraphy
« Reply #12 on: January 02, 2014, 11:19:30 PM »

Also, I wanted to add - taking workshops is probably the single best way to improve your lettering. There is no replacement for taking a class in person with a good, experienced teacher. The more - the better!

Erica, you are so right. Feedback from the teacher and learning from/with other students is invaluable. That being said, practice is still the most important thing a person can do, but classes are fun and it's great to be with other people who are just as passionate about learning it.

Offline Maurelle

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Re: Ten Tips to Self-Critique and Improve your Calligraphy
« Reply #13 on: January 04, 2014, 01:33:38 PM »
Thank you Erica! This is superb!

Offline tintenfuchs

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Re: Ten Tips to Self-Critique and Improve your Calligraphy
« Reply #14 on: January 17, 2014, 04:14:37 AM »
Oh my, I wouldn't have found any flaws in your writing. Shows how much I have to learn. Thank you for sharing your tips & tricks!
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