Calligraphy As an Art Form: Evaluating Calligraphy

This post is part 3 of 3 posts in a series. Be sure to check out part 1: Appreciation and part 2: The Rules of Calligraphy

Evaluating Calligraphy

If we agree that each of the elements that make up excellent calligraphy can be improved, we need to evaluate how it can be improved. 

How to Evaluate Your Own Work

Critical self-evaluation of your calligraphy work is key to improving it. Practice is essential to developing letters with characteristics that make them recognizably rooted in history and for your individual style to emerge.

Step one: Walk Away

Put the work away for at least 8 hours. Do not skip this step. Before you try to critique your work, you need to step away from the micro-focused, hypercritical view. Then, when you come back to it, you will see it as a whole again. Often I find I like my work much better when I return. Sometimes I am genuinely amazed at how much better it looks after a break.

Step two: Evaluate Composition

  • Prop the work up and look at it from a few feet away so that you’re seeing shapes and not individual letters or strokes.
  • Look at the positive and negative space.  Are these two elements balanced or well-planned? Is it pleasing to your eye?
  • Is your eye unintentionally drawn to any particular area because of gaps or constricted areas?  

Step three: Evaluate Harmony

  • Are there any elements on the page that seem to compete for your attention? Do they all look like they belong together?
  • Are there any elements that lack cohesion with its neighbors or with the overall piece? For example, how many different letter styles did the artist use? Do they look like they go together?

Step four: Evaluate Ancestry

  • Move closer to the work again.
  • Understand the characteristic elements of this hand. The most common differentiators are:
    • height and treatment of the ascenders
    • length and treatment of the descenders (do they end in a straight line or curl back over themselves?)
    • letter slant for some or all of the letters
    • letter spacing – especially inside the ‘o’s and between each letter
    • treatment of terminals – that is, how each stroke ends or begins
  • Do the characteristic elements of the hand shine through in this example? Remember that it doesn’t have to mimic an extant example exactly. See “individual style

Step five: Evaluate Rhythm

  • Move even closer to the work
  • Are the individual strokes that make up each letter smooth and fully inked where they should be? If not, make sure the end of the pen (the nib) is fully in contact with the paper throughout the motion.
  • Are there noticeable thick and thin sections to each letter? If not, make sure that the angle of the end of the pen to the paper is correct for the hand and that it doesn’t change as you create the strokes.  Watch out for gripping the pen too tightly. Gripping the pen too tightly for too long causes hand fatigue and makes it more likely that you will try to change your grip on the pen as you write. With a modern pen, you probably don’t even notice when you’re doing it, but with a flat-tipped or pointed-tip pen, its angle to the paper is crucial and must be intentional.
  • Notice the long, straight strokes; are they genuinely straight, or do they wobble at all? If they wobble, try to write them slightly faster next time

Step six: Evaluate Individual Style

  • Evaluating individual style is the most challenging because it is the most subjective
  • Looking at all of the elements you’ve already examined, does the overall piece show creativity?
  • Did the artist take the opportunity to arrange or embellish or play with the words/letters/punctuation in a visually clever or interesting way? Even if they didn’t, is the overall work pleasing to you?
  • Does the art provoke an emotional reaction in you?

Video: Critiquing Your Own Work

Professional graphic artist and calligrapher Josten Dooley demonstrates how he critiques his calligraphy.

Remain Objective

Above all, remember to judge your calligraphy and not yourself.

Show yourself the compassion you would extend to a friend who was at your same ability level because being hard on yourself is discouraging.

Calligraphy isn’t easy. It can take months or years to develop a stunning hand, and every time you put pen to paper is an opportunity to take one step closer to that.   

Evaluating Others’ Work

Obtain Consent

Before evaluating others’ work, it’s essential to establish whether or not that person wants your feedback. Unsolicited feedback is unwelcome, potentially rude, and often discouraging – especially to a beginner.  Also, be sure to ask what type of feedback they want and if they would like you to focus on any particular aspect of their work.

Obtain Background

Having a general sense of how long a person has been practicing calligraphy is helpful to establish the kinds of things they might want to work on next. Anything they can tell you about the goals or purpose of the artwork will be helpful as well as the hand they used.

Practice Means Improvement

Notice that I say “practicing calligraphy.” Calligraphy is constant practice. I have been practicing calligraphy for over 30 years. I critique my work often, and I am still improving.

Start with the Positive

Remember that this is art, and we can’t do art wrong.

Use steps 2-6 above to assess the work using your inside voice. As you go through each section, point out the things that went well. It’s a comprehensive list, and many people don’t look at half of these things when evaluating another person’s calligraphy.

Give One or Two Recommendations for Improvement

Depending on a person’s experience level, recommend one or two things to work on next. Unless they ask for it, no one needs a to-do list. The newer someone is to something the more overwhelmed they will feel by a long list that they’re unlikely to remember anyway.

What to Look for

These are examples of the kinds of things I have encountered many beginner, intermediate, and advanced calligraphy students need to work on to take their art to the next level.

  • Are they shaping the letters well? If ‘o’, ‘e,’ ‘c,’ and the parts of the ‘d’, ‘p’, g’ that go on the line are all pretty much the same level of roundness or squareness, then they’re doing well!  If not, that’s a good place to start improvement.
  • Are vertical lines straight if they’re meant to be?
  • Are they using guidelines so that the heights of the letters and the spaces between the lines are consistent? They should be. If they’re using guidelines, are their letters going fully to the top and bottom of the lines every time? They should be; this is an example of poor rhythm.

If they’re doing all of the above, here are some common areas intermediate students often need more focus on:

  • Are the spaces inside their letters consistent? Look again at ‘o’, ‘e,’ ‘c,’ and the parts of the ‘d’, ‘p’, g’ that go on the line. Focus your eye just on the negative space inside each shape to check for consistency.
  • Are the line spaces proportionate to the height of the letters? Does the text look cramped or too spread out? Composition and the consistency of negative space as it relates to lines and words is one of the biggest things intermediate students need to work on.
  • Adding creativity and trying to get away from having to mimic extant hands too closely

it’s worth noting that even advanced students can benefit from reviewing the common things to work on from the other sections. In general, advanced students are working on smaller adjustments to the rules discussed above as well as:

  • Consistent letter shape and form
  • Consistent and appropriate spacing letter and word spacing are possibly the most difficult things to master. More advanced students will begin to notice that some letter pairs need more or less spacing between them in order to look consistent with other letter pairs. Compare the space between the letters in the following pairs: “ki” or “re”. There  and between the following pairs: “mn” and “ne”

Be Kind

Most importantly, always approach evaluations with compassion and kindness. It can feel very vulnerable to receive critique.

Everyone makes mistakes, mistakes can turn into brilliant individuality, and everyone has something to learn.

Receiving Critique

Hopefully, you have invited this review.

Simply by asking, you demonstrate your desire to improve, which is the best way to frame the rest of the session. Everyone makes mistakes. EVERYONE. One of the great things about art is that we have the potential to find new skills and abilities and create beautiful mistakes.

If you haven’t asked for this critique, feel free to tell them that you’re not ready to receive their feedback right now thankyouverymuch.

It can be challenging to listen to someone critique or judge your work. Sometimes it’s hard not to take criticism personally. Remember that it’s not personal; It’s about learning to improve.

Listen to what the person has to say. Hopefully, they come from a place of compassion and kindness with the spirit of helping you take your work to the next step.

Remember. Calligraphy is a marathon, not a race. You really only need to focus on the next step in your journey.

In the immortal words of artist Bob Ross:

sometimes you learn more from your mistakes than you do from your masterpieces

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