Learn calligraphy with a friend
I have been learning Spencerian for about a year, and English Roundhand for just over two years now. I spent most of my journey learning on my own, and never went for a workshop or calligraphy meet. After all, there are quite a number of instruction manuals which I have picked up - Eleanor Winter's "Mastering Copperplate Calligraphy" for ERH, and PR Spencer's "Spencerian System of Practical Penmanship", both sufficiently describing how to sit, hold a pen, and ultimately write. Learning on my own, I have managed to pick up both hands well enough that I am confident enough to use them in my written correspondence with others.
However, an incident a few days ago got me thinking.
I had previously spent the past week churning out page after page of Spencerian capital stems. "pull, pressure, snap to the left. pull, pressure, snap to the left". I was using 5 sheets of Rhodia lined paper a day solely on stems, but they still looked a bit off. I was hoping that by practicing, my stems would look start looking like those written by Madarasz or Courtney. "Muscle memory", I said to myself. As long as I practiced, my hand would get lighter, faster, and more precise.
One of those days, I was in my studio looking at specimens of Spencerian stems written by Courtney. As I scrolled through exemplar after exemplar, I saw something that I never saw before - when shading a capital stem, the counter (empty space) should resemble an oval. What this means is that while shading, the left tine of the nib should follow the shape of the oval, while the right tine moves to the right to create the shade. Here's an image for reference.
Look at the left edge of the shade - it continues along the circumference of the oval. It is the right edge that breaks off from the circumference with a downward movement towards the baseline.
Well the purpose of this post is not to discuss the capital stem anyway. What I am trying to point out is that there are many aspects of calligraphy which we can't see with our own eyes, due to our current understanding of the script. We might be so focused on one aspect of the script that we can't see the other aspects: try teaching a beginner how to write "h" in ERH. You may explain and demonstrate how to first create the ascender then add the compound curve, but watch as your student focuses so much on creating the shade that they ignore the base line, ascender line, how to do a proper compound curve. And if you ask them why their's is different from yours, they probably can't tell.
So anyway, this is not a phenomenon which only affects beginners. Even at this stage of my learning journey, I still can't see aspects of the script that would make it look so much better. While it would be perfect to have a mentor which helps point these out to you, this may not be feasible all the time as mentors are far and few between.
Next best solution? Learn with a friend! Both of you may see things differently, and end up helping each other learn faster. I myself have found myself a group of calligraphers who I can ask for criticism and opinions, and we spend time looking at "The Universal Penman" book together, studying different ways ERH was written in the past.
If you really don't have friends, just holla at me at email@example.com, and I will see if I can help with your script. Love,
@Yakiujohn the Gorgeous