Offhand flourishing lesson

In my long-term Spencerian lessons, we’ve covered all the letters of the alphabet by now and are on to the more advanced stuff. We just had our last lesson for 2013, and the focus was on flourishing. You want to talk about things that look effortless and turn out to be hard? We can talk about flourishing. The good stuff is a graceful, airy bit of pizazz. And then there’s what I do – leaden, sad, and hopelessly awkward. It’s just unnatural. I’ve known flourishing was coming, and I have been scared. Especially when your teacher spins out something like this in a few minutes, as if pulling this off would be way easier than picking up a notecard at the store:

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Basic flourishes are an integral part of Spencerian. It’s frilly. But hey! Spencerian offers up the magical world of offhand flourishing! Offhand flourishing is the ultimate decorative skill you can learn with a pointed pen. It’s daunting to look at a whole page of fanciful animals, feathers, floral sprays and swirls and think you’ll be able to figure out how to do it. Check out some of Jake Weidmann’s amazing work. Yeah… I’m supposed to be figuring out how to do that stuff.

Fortunately, it breaks down to rather simple elements you already know how to do, and the challenge is putting them together in one coherent whole. The little bits are the strokes I already know how to make for the most part, only more controlled, more precise. As it turns out, it’s a fabulous exercise to practice the pressure control on your pen without having to engage your mind in the business of letter-forms. After a few hours of sitting there doodling, we came to the conclusion that this is a splendid way to start practice sessions – very meditative.

20131118-174919.jpgThe big sprays and birds are super cool and very dramatic, but they’re not very practical for most applications. I’m a practical calligrapher, especially when it comes to how I plan to use Spencerian, which is for invitations, weddings, envelopes, and the like. Ain’t nobody got time to be making fancy turtle doves snuggling up on one of 200 envelopes…

So I got comfortable with something like this – extend some of the basic flourishes on the initial capital, then use that as a base to do something quick and small. Little floral things like this are quick. So are things that look like wheat, feathery things, and an underline that looks like a little pine bough.

Something tells me everyone is going to have very fancy tags on their Christmas presents this year…

 

Queen’s Blade of Honor

I’m working this up in a hurry for Queen’s Champion this weekend. Calligraphy and illumination aren’t usually arts people get to see being done, so here’s a peek at how I do original works. Different people work differently, and there’s no right way to do it.

First, I find a design for decoration. Sometimes I trace from a manuscript, sometimes I draw my own totally from scratch, or a mix of the two. (The N on this is from a scribe’s sketchbook.) Whatever I’m using, I get out the tracing or typing paper and make sure I have a clean line drawing I can trace with my light box. Photoshop can help with desaturation and contrast to get this. Size it to what you need for your layout. Place it where it’s going to be on the backside of the paper and secure it with some drafting tape.

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If you prefer to do the illumination before the calligraphy, now is the time to trace it lightly in pencil and go paint and gild. If you’re a calligraphy first person, your next step is to draw the lines for the text. I make up guide sheets in Photoshop for various nib widths and x-heights. I hate drawing and erasing lines, so I do this. Tape into place on the backside of your paper, slap it on the light table, and do the calligraphy.

Then you trace your decorations, pencil in lines, whatever. Now you have this (forgive the sad calligraphy, but it was a bad calligraphy day and this was the fifth try of the night):

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Start with the gilding – and that goes double if you’re using gold leaf, since it will stick to the gouache. This is Schminke gold gouache, and it’s very pretty. Gold always needs outlining, so it’s ok if it’s not perfectly crisp and defined. Next, paint. I start lighter and work in darker washes to shade. It looks a little funky at this point, and I want you to know that’s normal.

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Outlining, shading, highlighting, and a little touching up can absolutely transform the letter, even if what you’re doing is subtle. Here’s the final outcome, finished at the event. I think this whole thing took 5-6 hours, plus another 5 spent screwing up the calligraphy four times. Lesson learned: when you’re in a hurry, stick with a hand you know how to do well.

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