How a « 365 days challenge » helped me improve my calligraphy skills
Back in January 2016, a year and a half after I picked up a calligraphy pen for the first time, I decided – a bit impulsively – to embark on a “project 365”… Inspired by similar challenges that other calligraphers had done and posted on Instagram before me, I was convinced that daily practice together with the weight of the responsibility of producing quality work so frequently, would eventually allow me to improve my style, and I’d keep learning while having fun.
Actually, it’s not improbable that I was imagining myself creating dazzling art and getting an ecstatic audience to swoon at the sight of each of my posts – what can I say, I’m a dreamer 😉 …
In order to avoid getting psychoanalysed by my (then) few followers, and especially to get out of a beaten track, I decided not to write inspiring daily quotes but to illustrate chosen headlines of offbeat news instead. That’s how I lightheartedly started what I thought would be a very exciting year (they always are in the beginning) ! Oh, I forgot to tell you that this is absolutely not the kind of commitment I would normally trust myself with… Like I said, I’m a dreamer.
Naturally, this challenge proved to be much more demanding than I originally thought, and I must admit that I am glad that the “terrible” year 2016 is finally over. That being said, here’s why this long experiment helped me grow as a calligrapher.
1 – Calligraphy is about practice, perseverance and discipline.
Ok, so that’s something I thought I already knew…
But it was reminded to me more than a few times along the year. I very often didn’t have the opportunity to get any other practice time apart from the day’s artwork – which took up between one and two hours of my time, sometimes even more… I would have loved to spend more time experimenting without any pressure, just for the pleasure of playing with my pen.
On the other hand, one of my primary motivations was to create artworks worth keeping, less spontaneous but better thought out. I think the key must lie in the balance between free experimentation and serious creation… I intend to try and achieve a better harmony in 2017 !
Perseverance and discipline were even harder to get into my stubborn and disorganized little head… Not being discouraged by the apparent stagnation of my work was the hardest thing I had to push through. But I somehow managed, and I am so happy that I did !
2 – Deliberate practice is more effective.
As I said, my main goal for this challenge was to practice laying out full sentences : after spending eighteen months perfecting basic gestures and writing random words on rough paper, I needed to move on to doing some more “polished” artworks, and to learn how to connect words and lines properly (flourishing !).
I first learned at my expense that a little (or even much) planning doesn’t hurt. We obviously – and thankfully – can’t become Schin Loong or Michael Sull without having the patience to train properly before we are able to fill a page with gorgeous flourished letters, without even tracing baselines or – even better – thinking ahead !
After all this time, I still need my x-height lines and I do a draft in pencil (almost) every single time.
As time went by and I was slowly getting more confident, I wanted to push my studies a bit further. So at one point, I started to work every day with a clear idea of the one thing that I wanted to work on. Without surprise, I quickly noticed that I got better results when my goal was set, and I was eventually writing better lines, drawing better balanced and more original flourishes, and expanding my mental “library of letterforms”.
3 – Creativity can’t be forced.
Resolving to create something beautiful every day is nice, but it also puts a lot of pressure on one’s shoulders… The first few months, I often got the feeling that the day’s work was my best work ever. But after a while, the pressure started to stifle my creativity and I wasn’t as happy with my artworks. To add to that, I never thought that I wouldn’t always find a fun or inspiring piece of news, but it happened, and sometimes the artwork was really bad…
I gradually learned that I can’t possibly expect myself to make something completely new and original every single day : we all need to take a step back from time to time, and learn to be patient with ourselves. This explains why I didn’t actually post every day… Some fifty headlines are missing before I could reach the 366 I first promised.
But on the days when I felt that my creativity was lacking, I noticed that having a well regulated routine and process helped me to be more creative. I have to tell you that I am particularly “free” and disorganized, so working at a fixed time and always following the same steps was some big discovery for me !
Like many calligraphers, I can be extremely hard on myself, so I think it was a good thing to get to know my weaknesses this way, and to learn how to gradually accept and tame them.
4 – I got to experiment with new materials, and learned to recognize the ones I like.
From one project to another, I obviously got the opportunity to try out a lot of different papers, inks and nibs… There are still a lot of those materials to try out there, but I gradually learned to recognize the ones that suit me and my particular way of writing.
As I got a lot of questions on this, I’ll tell you a little about what I used throughout the year : I noticed that some papers are better suited for pointed nibs, some watercolor papers don’t take the ink as well, but drawing paper (papier à grain) is generally quite nice. Gouache and watercolors became my favorite colored inks, and my taste in nibs fluctuated quite a bit, but the Blanzy Départementale Cémentée n°2552 is probably the one I used the most.
But I’ll tell you more about that in later posts !
5 – It’s a crazy world we live in…
Looking back on 2016, I believe that the past year won’t be remembered by human-kind as the best year of all times. Between the wars, the various attacks, the refugee crisis in Europe, the somewhat surprising electoral results, the natural catastrophes, and the slow disappearance of the idols of my youth, it looks like a page of History was turned too violently… Next to all that serious stuff, my “amusing” little challenge looked superfluous, even ill-placed at times.
Many of the stories I shared were chosen because they made me laugh or smile, others were rather surprising or thought-provoking. While the media were talking about the long list of human flaws, I liked watching elsewhere and opening my mind to different cultures, discussing with friends about all these bizarre events that somehow made the year lighter and allowed me to grow as an artist.
The wonderful and supportive people that I met through Instagram gave me the energy to get to work (almost) every day, in spite of my tiredness or lack of inspiration.
In the end, all the I time spent designing, writing and illustrating these 311 news headlines had a rather beneficial effect on my work as a calligrapher. I often felt overwhelmed, I wanted to drop everything more than once, but when I look at the evolution of my style over the past year, I cannot help but be proud. I realize it was quite an achievement to create all these little works of art that tell, in my own way, a brief and marginal history of humans in 2016.
Well, I am also far from becoming a master calligrapher, but it is clear to me that my calligraphy has gained enormously in quality and personality. I can now more easily create interesting layouts and ornaments… And even though I am still influenced by the wonderful work of other talented calligraphers (and always will be), my work is now equipped with its very own character.
An ebook containing the 300 best headlines is now available ! https://gumroad.com/js/gumroad.js
Get it here
8 janvier 2017 @ 07:43
So many words I would like to express sound trite in their overuse. We say something is amazing and sometimes we don’t appreciate the meaning of the word. But your accomplishment is truly amazing. The dedication, commitment, and hardwork is astounding. It is both impressive and incredibly inspiring. I hope you will share more about your daily routine, timing, etc. Thank you for sharing it with the world. And I look forward to purchasing the book!
8 janvier 2017 @ 10:59
Thank you so much Erica !
Your kind words mean a lot to me, your generosity towards the calligraphy community has been a great inspiration to me ever since I began my calligraphy journey.
I am not a sharer, I tend to do my own thing in my little cave and don’t really give a damn about what people think… But I got so many positive energy from sharing my headlines during the past year, and today with this post… The feeling is amazing !
My challenge for this year is to share more about myself and my process through regular blog posts. I just hope I’m not going to run out of things to say 😉
8 janvier 2017 @ 07:55
What a wonderful reflection on your experience! I can’t begin to express how your amusing headlines and work were not only inspiring to me as an aspiring calligrapher but each morning my husband and I shared a laugh as we read about the stories behind the headline! 2016 was definitely not among my favorites (especially here in America) but your posts were a very positive start to each of my days! I would definitely be interested in a book of them! I look forward to seeing your works in the future as well. Congratulations on an incredible achievement.
8 janvier 2017 @ 11:09
Thank you so much Holly !
I think Belgians are known for their ability to laugh about everything (even the saddest things, really), and I am hopelessly optimistic in all things. So sharing something fun with the world was a lot more meaningful to me, and it makes me so happy to know that I brought some smiles to your home in the past year !
13 mars 2017 @ 06:01
Hi Sybille! I’m so inspired just reading this post 🙂 I’ve always been following your headlines, and they are just delightful. In fact, your flourishes and progress are such a joy to see on IG, and I’m like you, I’m not great with long term commitments, I like funny random things, and certainly haphazard and disorganized in my little head most times. But looking at your progress, I’m tempted to also do a similar challenge (though I mostly quake at the ‘omg what did I get myself into) Totally agree with you on the points of consistent practice is what drives improvement, and that creativity does dry up sometimes. It’s a bit depressing some days when I’m all psyched to do something and nothing manifests, so I’m really in awe of your creativity sometimes!
btw I’d most certainly get a copy of your book! 😀 (and I also need to learn how to layout my sentences properly)
13 mars 2017 @ 08:59
Hi Felicia !
Thank you so much for your words, you gave me lots of energy to start the week !
I assure you that when I started the challenge, I was almost certain that I wouldn’t make it to the end of the year… but having made the commitment on IG, and seeing that more and more people were following along, I just couldn’t let everyonone down. So I pushed through and I guess I exhausted myself a little. But I am so proud ! The feeling is great and I would definitely recommend this to you.
If a daily challenge seems to be too much for you, maybe try to come up with a schedule that fits you better : maybe post only on weekdays, or every other day or just once a week; maybe not for a whole year but just a few weeks or months… I’d say the best thing would be to get out of your comfort zone a little, because you’ll get bored if you don’t. But also be gentle with yourself : I wish I would have decided not to post on the weekend for example, and allowed some vacation time. That way I wouldn’t have felt bad not to post anything when I needed to have some time off.
Inspiration is a very tricky thing that doesn’t always manifest herself when and where you need it… But I found that I actually get more creative when I just dive into the work. A blank page is not inspiring – it’s actually very frightening – but a few scribbles, even if they’re ugly at first, are a first step towards something new… and that’s inspiring.
The book is slowly coming along, I still need to figure out a lot of things but I hope that it will be done before summer 😉