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Cross-Training with Handwriting: Four Reminders for Photographers Like Me

My handwriting isn't perfect. To be generous, it could be called "utilitarian" in the sense that it's legible to others. To be honest, however, it could be called "ugly." Ugly, because my letters are squished together and are arranged on inconsistent slants. The overall effect is that my handwriting looks like a series of uneven wrinkles in a shag carpet. Neither smooth nor elegant.

A few months ago, a video popped up in my YouTube feed about "polishing up" one's handwriting. The video introduced a woman from Australia named Barbara Nichol. She set forth a few simple exercises and has truly excellent handwriting. I thought, I'd like to improve my handwriting. I started with her exercises and then looked for other handwriting examples. A few months and lots of practice later, my handwriting has improved. It's not excellent, but I'm beginning to see progress.

It also introduced the world of calligraphy to me. I got a Pilot Parallel pen and a Pilot Plumix, each of which has a broad, Italic edge. I have done some basic exercises and can write an elementary Italic script. I am just a beginner, but I have enjoyed calligraphy. When I practice it, I often lose track of time, which is the hallmark of an enjoyable hobby.

Italic calligraphy with Pilot Plumix
Basic Italic Calligraphy Written with a Pilot Plumix

Handwriting practice has taught me a few lessons. They aren't barnburners--in fact, they are basically common sense clichés. Nevertheless, they are helping reorient my approach to photography:

Number 1: It's never too late to focus on the basics.

Many handwriting exercises begin with focusing on elements like straight lines. In the last few months, I've drawn more short, uneven lines than I care to admit. It's hardly glamorous, and it's not even handwriting. I've written letters for nearly three decades, yet I'd never previously practiced drawing straight lines. No wonder my "l"s often look more like spaghetti than arrows. My practice of straight lines is just one example--I've also practiced hooks, entry and exit strokes, and bowls. And then there have been line after line of "a"s, "b"s and so on. Of course, I've been practicing capitals as well.

My photography would probably benefit if I practiced the basics more consciously. In high school classes, we used to have a focus for each week's assignment--texture, perspective, line, shadow etc. I should keep those ideas in mind when I go out to shoot.

Number 2: Practical experience is irreplaceable.

It's not complicated to imagine a straight line. Yet I find it extremely difficult to make my hand draw one on a page. This is where practice steps in to help bridge the gap between imagination and art work. At this point, my straight lines are less crooked than they used to be. This is good news for my upper and lower-case "z"s.

What this means for my photography is simple--more time taking pictures will help lead to improved results in the sense that I'll be able to bring about what I imagine. This lesson applies to my work at the time of capture (composition and exposure) and to my work in post-processing (burning/dodging and color correction).

Number 3: Tools can't be ignored.

O, equipment, how I love thee. Based on the shape of my hand and my personal preferences, I've found that I like pens and pencils of certain sizes and shapes. The tools I like for handwriting fit these specifications. Moreover, I've learned from basic calligraphy that certain styles and scripts require certain nibs. For example, it simply doesn't make sense to work on blackletter or italic scripts with a pointed pen. For that reason, a good tool is an aid. On the flip side, a nice pen won't lead immediately to better handwriting. If only a better pencil would make my "s"s more even!

To get going on this project, I purchased pens (including the Pilot Plumix and Pilot Parallel), inks and paper from Jetpens ( and Goldspot Pens ( You shouldn't visit either website if you're trying to save your money. By the way, both dealers treated me very well, and I would recommend both without hesitation. Nobody sponsored this post, in case you were wondering.

Okay, it's obvious that I like photography equipment, so this lesson is more of a confirmation than anything else. I'll remind myself that equipment doesn't do everything. Let's keep moving before I actually stop loving equipment.

Number 4: Improvement need not come at the cost of the personal style.

It makes sense to use a model when practicing calligraphy and handwriting. It becomes a measuring stick for judging one's output. A good model is also a good reference point for understanding what differentiates one style from another. For example, I'm not sure I could state all the relevant differences between italic and gothic writing in a simple list. However, I can put two models next to each other and see the differences quickly.

On the other hand, I don't just want to make the italic script that I see in my model. I want to make my own version of an italic script. I'm certainly not able to match my model perfectly, but I think that's okay. I am learning what choices I could make to make my handwriting or calligraphy my own--I can choose to do certain things with ascenders and slant and size. My reference helps me understand these choices.

It's easy to find photographers that I can imitate. Using the internet, I can look at images from Instagram lifestyle photographers, combat photojournalists, or long-gone fashion photographers. For certain genres like portraits, I could even turn to painters from all eras. Why shouldn't I try to imitate Rembrandt or Caravaggio? In any event, my lesson from calligraphy is that I can choose a model to use as a guide and reference point. This is a serious choice--it is important to choose a model that is defined by many features I like. Over time with diligence and practice, I'll be able refine my personal style.

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