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A beginner's guide to calligraphy

When calligraphy is done right, it looks effortless, graceful and downright beautiful. However, the process isn’t as easy as people realize. Enter Laura Hooper, a calligrapher with over two decades of experience who’s taught thousands of people how to decorate everything from oyster shells to envelopes with gorgeous lettering.

At one of her recent workshops in Alexandria, Laura and her sister, Alyssa Bobbett, clued us in on the basics of calligraphy so you can work on your lettering at home.

First off, it’s important to start with the right tools.

Pen - Laura and Alyssa started me off with an oblique copperplate pen. Unlike the standard ballpoint, the nib (the metal piece you write with) is attached to the left side of the holder (the part you hold). The exception is for left-handed writers, who may feel more comfortable with a pen that’s straight up and down.

When you write, the nib should point to the top of the paper and the holder should be at a 45 degree angle. Be sure to wipe off your nib with a thick paper towel periodically, especially after a few dips of ink.

Ink - Laura cautioned against using ink that’s too thin - we used a proprietary blend in her beginner’s course. Thicker inks won’t bleed through paper.

Paper - Speaking of, Laura recommends using a heavy, cotton-based paper - not the kind you’d find in your copy machine. When you write, be sure to put your paper on a soft surface so you pen can more easily glide over the pages.

When you write, be sure you’re sitting up straight and using your non-writing hand to anchor your paper. Dip your pen in some ink, ensuring that the vent, a hole in the center of the nib, is covered.

Laura said one of the biggest mistakes beginners make is trying to immediately jump into writing full words. Instead, start by practicing a light upstroke and a heavier downstroke. My first upstrokes were wobbly and misshapen, but it got progressively smoother as I practiced, so be prepared to be patient. On the downstroke, press harder on the pen to create a thinker line. It’s a good idea to practice making the breadth of your strokes even every time so your words will look more polished.

When you have the basic strokes down, try practicing individual letters. Laura’s fonts are proprietary, but there are plenty of calligraphy samples you can look at online for reference. Start by writing individual letters, both capital and lowercase, until you’ve found a consistent shape. From there you can venture into writing full words, but it will take time to make your calligraphy smooth and pretty.

One of the most important things you can do is practice, practice and practice some more. Calligraphy is an art form and takes time to learn, even if you’re just trying to make some pretty wedding invitations. If you’re interested in finessing your calligraphy, Laura and Alyssa’s course is extremely informative and accessible, even for people, like me, who have illegible handwriting.

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