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Learning business penmanship

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Less than half a year ago I started my self-taught calligraphy journey mostly with Spencerian. That led me soon into what I think are the two main offsprings of the Spencerian tradition: ornamental penmanship and business writing. In this short time I have read a lot and practice a bit. And I have become fascinated with business writing, because I think it means a complete revolution about how writing should be taught and practiced. I am trying myself to strictly follow the method (one could say the mantra) of all the BW old books: first speed, second touch and third form. In my apprenticeship I have been very inspired by the work of Marcus Carlini, Michel Gebhart and specially David DiGiovanni.

As David @daviddig has recently joined the forum (I don't know if the other two gentlemen are already part of this community) and he has kindly offer his expertise, I have decided to ask a question.

All the BW specimens and videos I have manage to find in the internet are executed by people who already master the system. I can't find anything showing the actual process of acquiring the skill and I am not sure if the masters got to that point through the three steps method I mentioned above. All the old method books say you have to keep writing at high speed with whole are movement until you get the accuracy in the the form of your letters. I have been working in this way for a couple of months and I have seen a big improvement in my whole arm movement but I don't think if I will ever get the accuracy. In short, I think I have quite good speed and touch, but good form seems to be almost unreachable. Will it come with time and practice? How much? Any advice about how to work further?

@Trazo -

First, let's get straight on the term "whole arm movement". This term specifically refers to writing with the whole arm lifted off the table (or sliding freely on top of the table). Whole arm movement was recommended in Spencerian/Ornamental books for writing capitals, but never recommended in any of the Business Penmanship books as far as I know.

I would assume that you are actually referring to "muscular movement", which is writing with the forearm planted on the edge of the table. Just want to get that straight so I know exactly how you are using your arm to write. A misconception here would be costly.

As far as "mastering" muscular movement, I've gained a certain level of control with the arm that you might be after, but I'm far from mastering it. It might be helpful to look at my movement from one of my earliest videos on Instagram vs something more recent.

From Aug 2017 (10 months into my practice):

And from September 2020 (~4 years into my practice):

Hopefully you can see the differences between these two samples. Unfortunately, I don't have video from when I first started, but I can assure you it was very, very bad.

I do have this picture which features three samples of my work from early Feb 2017 (3 months into my practice), 2019, and 2020:

As you can see I was severely struggling, even after 3 months of pretty much daily practice. Also feel like I've made the most progress this past year since my first 1-1.5 years of writing.

The point is that it takes time. Everyone I know that has developed a high level of control with muscular movement has spent countless hours working on it. That said, I always reserve the possibility that there is a better, faster way to develop control that no one has figured out yet.

Overall, if you've only spent a few months of daily practice, I wouldn't expect to feel like you've accomplished much or like there is light at the end of the tunnel. I remember writing to Marcus Carlini with same general question that you are asking now and he basically said, "Keep working on developing your arm, keep studying the forms, and control will come eventually". That gave me confidence to keep going. Hopefully this does the same for you.

Erica McPhee:
This is really encouraging to see. I would like to ask how much drills have played a role in developing your muscle memory and overall muscle development. I find them boring but so helpful in terms of solidifying my line strength. My business writing and Spencerian have a long way to go but I have only been concentrating on Engrosser's Script for the past three years. I'm looking forward to going back to Spencerian in due time.

I have found hints in some of the old text that the masters used to be fond of saying they used muscular movement but often you could see finger movement employed as well.

Thank you for asking this great question @Trazo .


Dear David,

Thank you very much for your answer. First of all, you are completely right: I am using the wrong terminology. I found quite a good definition of the different physical movements you can use for writing in pag.11 of Tamblyn's home instructor (however he doesn't include wrist movement, which I think is quite usual among calligraphers). I am working on what Tamblyn, Palmer and co. call "muscular movement" (which in fact implies writing with your arme instead of with your hand or your fingers).

I am very thankful for your videos and samples. This is exactly what I was looking for. I assume that getting accuracy using muscular movement is a long journey, as it means learning to write in a completely different way and using larger muscles that are much more difficult to control than your fingers. You explain it very well in your series of videos about "Why is so difficult to write or draw with your arm". But I reformulate my question, because perhaps I didn't put it very clear in my former post. What I would like to know is if you (and other people who master the technique) worked in the strict way the old methods presents, ie. developing first a high speed and a light touch and only after that concentrate in the form (without compromising the other two aspects). The video where you write the word "Onion" is very instructive. It is very short to have a proper sense of your speed, but I have timed it and I guess you write about 6-7 word per minute. For that same exercise Tamblyn establish 15-18 words per minute, which is almost triple the speed. The question is if one can get your accuracy (which is very good even at that stage of your aprenticeship) working always at Tamblyn's speed.

Concerning my feeling of improve, perhaps I didn't explain myself either. My actual muscular writing looks pretty similar to your first sample. But I was not talking about the result (the actual imprint of the pen on the paper) but of the feeling that I have found a completely different way to write, which I find very exciting which opens a lot of possibilities beyond the proper business writing. It is not about learning a script, but about (re)learning to write. Regardless the actual look of my letters, I am writing in a complete different way than I have written all my life and this is a for me a big improvement, no matters how far is the light at the end of the tunnel.

Thank you once again for your time and your instructive answer.

My interest in penmanship goes back 25+ years and I had numerous conversations with people who were taught the Palmer method. They are all dead now, but they were consistent in describing a few things that I, too, observed in my many years of teaching.
Very few people have the patience to master the muscular movement. The push-pulls and ovals are super boring and it alienated a lot of school children. A few people loved it and their penmanship did not deteriorate as they aged. Many people did *OK* and then their penmanship deteriorated.
There is no way to make those exercises *fun* today.

There has never been a method that guarantees that every student will excel. No matter what style you teach, a few people will *get it.* Many people will do OK. And a few people will think it is all torture.
This is exactly what happened in every single beginner class that I taught.

Just because you are attracted to beautiful penmanship does not mean you have the *secret ingredient* to master a style or just get the hang of it
It is really hard to explain what that *secret ingredient* is - but I will give you three things that I have observed over the years that I think are essential.

You have to be able to *see* the shapes/spaces/geometry/angles.
Guidelines are helpful, but at a certain point, you have to see all kinds of details and you have to discern ON YOUR OWN where you are missing the exact
shapes, spaces, geometry and angles.
There are a variety of methods to learn this skill, and the secret is to find the one that gives you an Ah-ha moment.
Or an epiphany is even better.

You have to ignore the ornery little devil that sits on one shoulder and listen to the angel on the other shoulder.
People who are running a constant stream of whining and complaining will never get there.
If you are thinking, "I hate capital D's. I always mess them up. They are so hard I'll never do a good one,"
then you will never make a pretty D. If you stop that negative chatter and do what you need to do to SEE the components -
then you CAN and you WILL build a perfect D - because you can SEE the exact shapes, spaces, geometry and angles.

I never did this, but I know calligraphy instructors who would wear t-shirts or aprons that stated clearly, NO WHINING.
That illustrates how detrimental a bad attitude is. I'm not the only one who feels this way.

You have to obliterate parts of your muscle memory. You probably picked up a pencil or crayon when you were 2 or 3 and you settled on a grip when you were 5 or 6 and you have many years of moving your hand/wrist/arm, using your own natural grip -- and it is so embedded in your muscle memory that you may have a very difficult time changing your grip or your natural movement.

It is impossible to tell how well a person will do if they decide to change their grip or switch to muscle movement. You won't know until you try it.
With some people, it comes very easy - with others, they have zero aptitude at changing and they have to figure out a work-around.

My 2-cents.
It's nice to see this topic on the forum.

P.S. Keep an open mind about *the right way.* There are many conflicting opinions on how to rehabilitate your penmanship.
Don't expect to find one easy recipe.
It is like learning how to bake bread. Yeast, flour, water, salt. How hard is that?
Well -- for some people, it never works out. They make a couple bricks and give up.
Other people are more determined -- do their research -- and actually enjoy learning how to make 20 different kinds of bread.


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