As a calligrapher in Singapore, I often have to meet clients to show them samples of work and to get a feel of what they like and dislike.
It is no secret that calligraphers in Singapore are a rare bunch, and it is often the first time these clients are speaking to a calligrapher. Hence, this question is bound to pop up during the first few minutes of conversation:
“I saw your beautiful work! I love it! Did you learn calligraphy yourself?”
I admit — I do get a little weary telling the same story over and over again each time I meet someone new. Nowadays, I tend to tell my story in different ways so as not to sound bored.
Those people who have heard my story multiple times would know that I usually have two versions, one where I go on to declare that I had self learnt calligraphy, and the other where I admit that I had a lot of help from others. Although both statements are opposites, they are both true as well.
"I self-learnt calligraphy"
In all accounts of my stories, it always starts in a quaint little shop in Fremantle, Perth. It was one of those moments where the universe somehow comes together to show you a purpose in life. The old man behind the counter had somehow decided to dig up his copy book from the back of the store on that fateful day, and I had somehow decided to go into this shop. After looking at the copy book, I was intrigued.
Were I born in the 1800's, I would have gone straight to the local library to hunt down every book related to calligraphy and penmanship. Thankfully, I have a computer at home.
Within days, I was trawling through the internet, grabbing any information I could find on calligraphy. Armed to the teeth with manuals and books, I procured a Speedball holder (read about what John thinks about Speedball holders here) and went straight into Copperplate (or so I thought). I had managed to get to a decent level of proficiency with what I had found on the internet.
So in some way, I did start learning calligraphy on my own. Resources are abundant in today's world, and one does not really need to look far to start learning calligraphy.
"No, I actually had a lot of help"
I wish I could say that I had completely self-learnt calligraphy. Unfortunately, I am no genius.
After practicing calligraphy for a few months, I was caught in the midst of a problem I never expected: Too much information! You see, at that point in time I had no clue that Copperplate actually refers to several scripts, the most popular being Engrossers / Engravers and English Roundhand. Although they kind of look the same, both scripts could not be more different in their techniques and letter forms.
Can you imagine reading about Copperplate, being exposed to two different scripts with different ways to write and with different letter forms, but thinking it is the same script!?
It was not until I went for John's class that he pointed out the differences to me. At that point, I just felt like everything made sense. Had I not gone for John's class, I would still be writing English Roundhand with frequent pen lifts. Ironically, though, John's class was called "Copperplate for Beginners". Oh, John... you can do better...
Along the way in my journey, I have met many talented calligraphers. By looking at the way they write, or having discussions on letter forms, I have made discoveries that have changed my script for the better (I hope).
While I don't have a mentor who will teach me exactly what I am doing wrong and what I should do instead, I do have friends whom I can talk to about scripts. They may not always know the answer, but together we can collectively research and find out the truth.
In summary, while it sounds really good to be a "self-taught calligrapher", we really learn the most by sharing with others.