Being a student & being a teacher
I recently took a course on Spencerian calligraphy with master penman Harvest Crittenden. It was the most interesting journey for me. Although I’m familiar with several calligraphy styles, I never quite grasped how to implement the concepts behind Spencerian writing, so I imagined a steep learning curve for me that I was very excited about. I love these kind of challenges. And it’s been a great six weeks with the class! Harvest Crittenden is a great teacher, very generous with her time and wisdom, and apart from taking an in-person course with her I felt this online course was the closest thing to it – getting in-depth insights and guidance on my way to learn Spencerian, as well a friendly community around it. If you’ve taken my online course, you know I believe in this kind of guided online learning and I’ve seen amazing results from it. So now it was my turn to be a student again.
I watched myself as I went from beginner’s curiosity and being very motivated, to struggling with the basics and pushing through, then still very eager to learn but then reaching a plateau where nothing in my letterforms would get better for a while even though I was practicing. What a frustrating experience! Yet I ended up handing in all the assignments, even if I felt I lacked the necessary skill at that point.
Throughout the course, Harvest always had encouraging words to say us too: give yourself time, keep on practicing, it’s a slow process. Don’t stop and you will see the results.
And it’s true. Particularly with calligraphy (or drawing, or any other artistic technique) you cannot expect instant results. It’s a long way that you need patience and time for, your brain needs to learn seeing things in a new way, and your hands need to learn moving in a new way. All of this takes times, particularly since we’re already grown-up and have spent years holding our writing tools and making the movements to write in a different way. And it’s similar for every new calligraphy style you learn, particularly if it is notably different from the styles you learnt before.
Around the same time I was taking this Spencerian class, I reopened the signup for my own online course Calligraphy Essentials. I’ve been blown away by everyone’s results so far. Students have been sending in assignments with great practice results, and everyone’s really motivated and eager to learn. Yet, as expected, learning calligraphy is also hard, and sometimes progress takes a bit longer. I encouraged everyone to keep practicing, in similar words like the ones that were so helpful to me when I felt frustrated with my own progress. Calligraphy is this weird art in which you see every mistake you make, yet at the beginning you seem unable to change your movements and make it better.
That’s another thing Harvest Crittenden reminded me of: Head learning comes before hand learning. You see the mistakes before you will be able to adapt your hand muscles. This has been tremendously helpful for me, and I hope it is to my students too.
The importance of lifelong learning
I’ve also thought about the process of learning itself, and why I feel it’s such an important part of my life. What I’ve learnt about the process of learning itself is that it can be your lifelong companion. For me, it’s about keeping your curiosity and being open to new experiences, in every encounter you have, with every new challenge you face (or seek out). This way you invite change and growth into your life and make it less static. For me, this way of keeping yourself in movement and striving for new things is a sign of being and staying alive.
How to learn any skill efficiently
The way learning works best for me is to focus on one thing at a time – like setting aside two intense month in my year to learn Spencerian calligraphy. If you focus on one task, you’re more inclined to learn it well, since you give yourself a single theme for that season you’re in.
Another thought that has helped me tremendously in my calligraphy practice, and indeed in my entire artistic career, is how I think of the thing we call failure. Or rather, how I choose to deal with failure. The key is not to see failing (or lack of progress) as a finite thing, but to accept it into your process, and make it part of your growth. Don’t be afraid to fail, instead see it as a reason to get better. Never give up when you have failed at something, but get over the frustration, study what went wrong or what you’ll have to change to get better (like certain letterforms or slant or your tools).
Also, accept that learning anything will take time and patience. Simple as that.
This, for me, is the key to getting better with any skill, and it has helped me immensely in my own learning endeavors, but it has also become an important message in my teaching: giving encouragement to my students when they need them, and inviting them to embark on their own lifelong learning journey.