Artsynibs Calligraphy Workshop at Cult Pens

Imagine, if you will, the scene: several staff members sitting expectantly around the meeting room table at Cult Pens headquarters, surrounded by dip pens, nibs, ink, paper and a dog. We'd tackled (with varying degrees of success) drawing and colouring, courtesy of Kuretake, and Inktense painting thanks to Derwent, and now it was time to add the art of calligraphy to our list of talents. Enter Joyce Lee, the founder of Artsynibs and a brush lettering specialist. She is about to impart to us the secrets of her trade, and she begins by telling us about… potatoes.

Potatoes? Now, don't get me wrong - the humble potato is a wonderful thing: you can carve it and use it as a stamp, enrich your compost heap with its peelings and use it as ammunition for a spud gun. You can even eat it. But what has it got to do with calligraphy?

Well, new nibs are coated with a protective lubricant, which needs to come off before you embark on a bit of stylish penmanship. So what you do is stick the nib into a potato (preferably not one you're planning on eating), and then clean off any starchy bits with kitchen paper and nail polish remover. Another way to do it is to pass the nib through a flame, and this is what we had to do, because - strange though it may seem - we were clean out of potatoes.

Once we'd de-lubed the nibs and managed not to set fire to the window blinds, we looked longingly towards the ink. But Joyce is as methodical as she is talented, and set about advising us on the best sort of paper to use. This should be good quality, and - if you're using a soft nib - as smooth as possible, to stop the nib catching on paper fibres. Fortunately we sell Rhodia pads, which were ideal, and Original Crown Mill 100% cotton is also perfect (we sell that, too). A quick raid of the warehouse stocks and we were ready to go.

And now for the ink? Um, no. Correct positioning was next on the list, and it's all in the alignment of the body with the paper and the pen in order to reduce muscle fatigue. Joyce made us position our bit of paper as if we were going to write on it, and then she got us to exaggerate the angle. Then, we had to shuffle our chairs to align ourselves with the paper. It got a bit cosy being seated next to Amanda, who just happens to be left-handed and whose positioning was the exact opposite to the rest of us normal people. Then we got to put our elbows on the table (fortunately we weren't handling knives and forks) and take up our pens - keeping them in line with our arms rather than out to the side as you'd normally do. Normal writing entails a fair bit of effort from fingers, hands and wrists, but calligraphy involves the whole arm, so elbows on the table gives you that extra bit of support and freedom to orchestrate a free-flowing style of calligraphy.

Ink? Now? (We were looking a bit puppy-dog eyed by now…) Yes! Lots of lovely colours of bottled Diamine Calligraphy and Drawing Ink sat on the table like giant jewels, and we descended upon them like, well, people who love ink! We dipped our nibs to cover the vent, as instructed, and began our warm up. This - thankfully - did not entail a quick jog around the business park, but a few minutes of drawing ovals and swirls and it was a bit like dancing, but with your arms rather than your legs. It was quite fun, actually, quite liberating! This, says Joyce, is an essential precursor to calligraphy as it helps to loosen up your joints and encourage you to breathe. Breathe? Oh yes - I'll get onto that in a moment.

Having covered several sheets of paper with lots of different coloured ovals and circles and curly telephone-wire type designs, Joyce got us started on actual letters; well, parts of letters anyway. Calligraphy is all about breaking letters down into strokes, to try to achieve consistency. Upstrokes (gentle), downstrokes (more deliberate), a candy cane shape, and then a meat hook shape. And this was where the breathing came in (or rather, lack of it). It was strangely easy to forget to breathe as we created our first letters! It was all that concentrating: tongues started popping out of mouths, and noses got closer and closer to the paper, and it was as if we were all back in primary school sitting round desks with abbreviated legs learning how to write all over again. There was the occasional gasp and grunt, and a few red faces, as oxygen deprivation set in, but we managed to get through the exercise without anybody actually keeling over.

Where calligraphy is concerned, lack of speed is key. Creating your upstrokes and downstrokes takes time: think sloooowwww. Chill out, relax: this is yoga for the mind. Or - if you're an impatient person such as myself - torture! It really took some self-discipline to deliberately write slowly! To challenge us, Joyce counted slowly up to 15 - and that was how long it should have taken us to draw a simple shape - an S or a J. And no, going at normal speed and just making the letters extra big didn't count! (Believe me, I tried…) Taking time to learn the basics is worth it, says Joyce. They're fundamental to getting a grip on calligraphy and if you skip them you run the risk of learning the wrong techniques, which are difficult to un-learn!

By now we were exhausted: the morning order pick on Mondays is nothing compared to this! So it was time to attack the sandwiches in the staff room and learn a little more about Joyce.

She is originally from Singapore, where she taught English, and has been in the UK for about three years. A change of country triggered a change of career; calligraphy (and netball - strangely - she's barely five feet tall!) has always been a great love of hers. So she decided to take the plunge and try and turn her hobby into a way to earn a living. Now, many workshops, commissions and events later, Joyce is enjoying a successful career as a professional calligrapher.

Suitably victualled, Louise, our own calligrapher, then closeted herself with Joyce to learn more about Joyce's likes, dislikes and recommendations.

In terms of ink, Sumi is her favourite, but she recommends any ink that flows well. Watercolours are great for adding interest - just mix them with water and use a brush to coat the nib. For nibs, Joyce likes the Nikko G, as it's sturdy and flexible. Where brush pen work is concerned, ordinary paintbrushes will do the job nicely, particularly KUM Memory Point as they keep their shape. So how about fibre-tipped calligraphy and brush pens? Did they have a place in Joyce's armoury? Well no… until now.

Just as Joyce challenged us with her 15 second letter formation, we thought we'd respond with a challenge of our own. We had some porcelain travel mugs, kindly donated by edding, and Simon had conducted a quick dash around B&M for an assortment of ceramic pots and plastic tubs. A collection of calligraphy pens suitable for surfaces other than paper were gathered, and staff members were summoned. Joyce - no doubt feeling a bit like a rabbit in the headlights - nevertheless hid her perplexity well and gamely picked up a green edding Porcelain Pen, a white ceramic pot, and wrote 'Mint' on it in beautiful swirly letters. And then she tried a Kuretake Suitto Crafter pen and decorated a mug for one of the staff members. A plastic tub was next. Inspired, the staff got stuck in too, and we spent a very pleasant hour decorating the edding mugs, with - it must be said - varying levels of artistic prowess. The Porcelain Pens and Paint Markers from edding were generally agreed to be the easiest to use.

Calligraphy is about more than beautiful lettering, though this is obviously its primary aim. It's also an exercise in creativity: it's not writing so much as an artform: you create the letters as if you were producing a painting or a drawing. It also makes you slow down and smell the roses. Creating a piece of calligraphy takes time: you can't just whip something up in a couple of minutes - at least, not something you'd want to hang on your wall - you have to think about it, plan it and execute it carefully. And then gaze at it proudly.

Our grateful thanks to Joyce - she's not only very talented, she is a genuinely nice person: she plainly enjoys showing others how to take pride in beautiful penmanship, and is endlessly patient and enthusiastic. It was a real pleasure welcoming Joyce to Cult Pens.

11 September 2017

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