Beginner's calligraphy; and am I hampered by being a lefty?

I know that there are already a few posts in the forum on beginning calligraphy, but I have slightly more specific needs. I'd like to learn calligraphy, especially since at some point I'd also like to do a bit of type design, and I have already come across a number of books on Amazon and elsewhere. The problem is that I'm not really sure if such books cater for left-handers, or if indeed it makes any difference at all. Any thoughts or specific recommendations?

Stephen Rapp's picture

Hi Michael. Left handed calligraphy can be a challenge, but you could also look at it as an opportunity in that coming from it with a slightly different slant (no pun intended), can also help distinguish your style. There are a number of great calligraphers who are left handed. Here is a link to a Yahoo group where a lot of calligraphers discuss various topics and you might get some good advice:

hrant's picture

First of all, know that traditional calligraphy hates lefties.
I don't care what fancy defense any apologist comes up with.

If a leftie wants to produce the illusion of traditional calligraphy,
he has to write sideways* or hold the pen upside-down, or engage in
some other contortion; I guess you have to figure out which ruse is
the least awkward for you.

In terms of books, this one is good: "Left-Handed Calligraphy", V Studley

* What Noordzij prescribes.


I recommend you personally try to invent special rules for lefties.

hhp's picture

Thanks for the comments. Maybe I can learn to write backwards. Ragged-left, perhaps?

riccard0's picture

On the "Handwriting repair" PDF you can find here:
there is a chapter dedicated to lefties.

Nick Shinn's picture

There are special pens available for left-handed calligraphy.
No different in principle than the special pens used by right-handers for copperplate script.

typerror's picture

This is not a harsh tone Hrant just thoughts based on your thoughts and my experience with people in a field that you are not a practitioner.

Why does it have to be a "conspiracy of exclusion?" Hate is a pretty ugly word Hrant. Struggle is a part of life. There are many lefties out there who do damn fine work and do not whine or think the field is unfair. Some of these people were giants in the movie and advertising industry. Every leftie I have ever encountered has intimated that discovery was the best part of learning the craft... not a long term burden!

As a rightie I often have to adapt, in fact I built my diversity by using tools that do not fit into the traditional mode of execution and expression.

There are a number of books out there Michael... figure out which one works best for you. Search left-handed calligraphy.


Nick Shinn's picture

No different in principle than the special pens used by right-handers for copperplate script.

Actually, a bit different in construction, but the basic idea is to angle the edge of the nib, relative to the stem of the pen, differently than in a regular (right-hander) pen.

I taught a calligraphy class to a group of general design students, and acquired left-handed calligraphy pens (Sheaffer, IIRC) for those that needed them, although some decided they were unnecessary.'s picture

Thanks for the further comments. At least I know that I shouldn't give up before I begin! As hrant and Michael say, I should try to make the left-handed-ness an advantage, not a disadvantage.

quadibloc's picture

"Traditional calligraphy" does not designate a person, or other feeling and thinking being. As such, to say that "traditional calligraphy hates lefties" is simply a figure of speech; it is not an imputation of hatred or bigotry to the calligraphic community. When people are unfair it is blameworthy, but that life is often unfair is just a fact.

It was just a short way of stating a simple fact: attempting to write traditional calligraphic styles with the left hand in normal writing orientation will be difficult and will tend to produce poor results. There are workarounds; after all, right-handed people do calligraphy in Hebrew (traditionally by writing sideways, as Hrant mentioned) and Arabic.

If one is making a master copy for reproduction, rather than an individual original, I suppose one could actually write the mirror reflection of what one intends to produce... perhaps using a mirror to see your result!

aric's picture

Look up John DeCollibus on Google or YouTube (start with his home page: Lefties can do awesome calligraphy.

John Hudson's picture

The videos showing John DeCollibus writing are very instructive. Note that all the script styles that he writes are split nib, expansion stroke styles. I've long maintained, on Typophile and elsewhere, that these styles are the natural domain of lefties, since they avoid the problems inherent in the broad nib, translation stroke styles. Writing these styles, the lefty is at no disadvantage or awkwardness.

Plus you get to listen to lots of baroque music, and how cool is that!

henrypijames's picture

Come to think of it, I don't know a single famous lefty in the entire history of Chinese calligraphy. On the other hand, the ability to write with both hands -- either separately or simultaneously (same text, of course, and normal, not mirrored) if one's really good -- has always been considered a high art in China, though I doubt any living CJK calligrapher is capable of simultaneous writing.

Does any one know if right-to-left scripts like Arabic are more friendly to lefties? Are there any famous left Arabic calligraphers?

Paul Cutler's picture

No "lefty" has to ever be intimidated by anything. They do things differently. I like that.

henrypijames - What history of Chinese calligraphy are you talking about? You are probably well informed to make such a claim but the calligraphers of the Tang Dynasty (the finest years of Chinese history for me) are not documented that well except for their work.


henrypijames's picture

Actually, we now know a lot about the way Chinese calligraphy was performed even at the time of Wang Xizhi (303-361 BC, in Jin Dynasty, which the Chinese themselves -- including later generations like those in Tang -- regard as the grand epoch of calligraphy): How people used to sit, lay out the paper, hold the brush, and so on. Many of the things we know today were unknown -- or presumed in ways that have turned out to be wrong -- a few decades ago, but recent historical and archaeological research has brought them into light.

To be clear, I'm not a calligrapher myself -- not even an amateur. But the person in my family who taught me a bit of calligraphy when I was a child is a professor of Chinese calligraphy history. He's also not the only person with professional background I discuss those topics with from time to time.

henrypijames's picture

Statistically, I'd say in (modern) Latin handwriting, the pen is moving left-to-right about twice as often as right-to-left (counting only on-paper time and disregarding vertical and near-vertical movement). Comparatively, LTR movement is at least four times of of RTL movement in (modern) Chinese, because the horizontal stroke ("heng"), which is the most frequent type of stroke, is always drawn left-to-right. In other words, Chinese has a much stronger (horizontal) directional bias than Latin.

Does anyone know what the LTR to RTL movement ratio looks like in Arabic?

aric's picture

I'd guess that Chinese calligraphy might be easier for a lefty than Latin script calligraphy. A key reason why lefties struggle with a broad-nibbed pen is that it's difficult to find an angle that's both natural and that allows the nib to be drawn across the paper as it's designed to be. With Chinese calligraphy the tool of choice is a brush rather than a pen, which has a flexible rather than a rigid tip and deposits ink on paper in a very different way. And if I'm not mistaken, the angle at which the brush is held is nearly vertical, which is just as easily done with the left hand as with the right.

Jongseong's picture

I doubt any living CJK calligrapher is capable of simultaneous writing.

At a park at Chengdu, Sichuan Province, I saw a man writing on the walkway with two brushes simultaneously, one in each hand, using water instead of ink. The characters written by the left hand (I think) were mirrored, though. Unless it was the case that I happened upon the one street calligrapher in China who does that, it can't be that rare a practice, and perhaps there are even those who write normal un-mirrored characters simultaneously with both hands.

And yes, Aric, you make good points about Chinese calligraphy being more amenable to lefties. I learned some Chinese calligraphy when I was young (a bit before Korean calligraphy, actually). I had already got used to writing with a pencil, held at an angle to the page with the fingers close together and the wrist resting on the paper for support, so it was difficult to transition to holding the brush vertically with enough space maintained in the inside of my hand to grasp an egg (I think that's how they taught it). This and the fact that it's a round brush means that there is no angle bias at all with Eastern brush calligraphy.

Frode Bo Helland's picture

Make your southpaw your trademark instead of trying to adapt to the norm. Create something new! That’s my advice.

hrant's picture

Interesting analyses for Chinese.

> Does any one know if right-to-left scripts
> like Arabic are more friendly to lefties?

I think in theory that's true, but in practice that's not allowed to surface.


henrypijames's picture

@Jongseong: First of all, writing mirrored text simultaneously with both hands is easier -- by magnitudes -- than writing normal text (which is why I emphasized "normal, not mirrored"). Second of all, writing merely readable text simultaneously with both hands is again easier -- by magnitudes -- than produce something good enough to be considered "calligraphy". For it to be a real simultaneous calligraphy, the product of both hands need to be both as good as what the calligrapher would normally produce with his normal hand -- in fact, it should be unrecognizable which sheet is written with which hand. That is incredibly difficult.

henrypijames's picture

@Hrant: Is there any society in which a right-to-left script is used and lefthand writing is generally tolerated?

hrant's picture

It's not just incredibly difficult; it's probably pretty much impossible unless you're inherently "wired" a certain way, which extremely few people are.


Lefthanded writing is tolerated fine in most cultures with RTL writing; my point is that formal calligraphic instruction in any script will tend to subvert lefthandedness.

The only way lefthanded calligraphy can truly flourish is to establish a distinct school that formally rejects the righthand school. A lefthander following a righthand-centric course will certainly learn much, but can never reach his full potential.


William Berkson's picture

Individual Hebrew letters are traditionally written left to right, in the manner of a right hander primarily pulling the pen to the right and down. However, each new letter is put down on the line in the other order: starting on the right, then each new letter to the left of the previous letter.

Hence whatever special challenges a left-hander faces with Latin calligraphy will be similar in Hebrew.

John Hudson's picture

A couple of points regarding right-to-left scripts:

The direction in which a script is read doesn't necessarily imply anything about the direction in which it is written. This is something one learns from watching Arabic calligraphers rotating the page and writing top-to-bottom.

Writing direction is independent of pen angle, and it is the latter factor that determines the normative patterns of letters when they are written with contrasting stroke tools, especially translation stroke tools such as broad nibs or flat brushes. One can ignore those normative patterns, of course, but the result will be that the letters look weird to most readers. Normative contrast patterns are so basic to script identity that reversing them frequently gives the impression that one is attempting to make a pastiche of a different writing system, e.g. writing Latin letters à la Devanagari.

Again, my advice to a lefty would be to look at tools (brushes, split nibs, low contrast tools) that do not enforce a translation stroke pattern, and at styles of lettering within a writing system that favour left-handed execution.

henrypijames's picture

Do all (or a majority of) Arabic calligraphers rotate the page and write top-to-bottom?

John Hudson's picture

I believe it depends on the style being written.'s picture

I suppose calligraphy can have nothing to do with the way one normally writes. If you learn to draw characters at 90 degrees instead of 0, then there's probably no principle that says your characters should be any worse.

@John Hudson: That's interesting John; I guess it would make sense actually. But are there any left-handers who write with LTR languages upside-down? Probably few, if any. I normally rotate the page at about a 60 degree angle when I'm writing to avoid smudging, but I notice that John DeCollibus has more of a 90 degree angle when doing calligraphy.

Incidentally, I once had a teacher at school who thought that someone else had written my homework for me, because she couldn't believe a left-handed writer could write as neatly as I had.

dtw's picture

@Murphy: amazing how dumb some teachers can be, huh?
BTW, I'm another 60-degree-page-rotator...

hrant's picture

However, writing in any way that you can't read what you've written in realtime of course cannot be optimal. Forcing a leftie to write sideways or upside-down simply to exactly match what a rightie would produce is dysfunctional, and depressing. It's really no different to how leftie children were (and sometimes still are) physically forced to not use their left hand when doing anything.

BTW, do read this:
And check out the interesting trials that John produced.


dberlow's picture

latin, chinese, arabic or hebrew?

Cheers!'s picture

I think I'll start with the Latin. Still looking for a good book. I would like to look in the book before buying, but living in Germany makes it quite difficult (good English book stores are hard to find where I live). My other thought was just to buy a standard calligraphy book with decent reviews from Amazon and see if I can work through it left-handed.

John Hudson's picture

Hrant, I've been thinking about your comments in that other thread regarding writing 'naturally' vs 'contortion'. If you look at the ways in which different writing systems are written around the world, I don't think you can easily define what constitutes a 'natural' way of writing: all writing is cultural. I think it is better to talk in terms of comfort and ergonomics. In which case, it is interesting to note that the common hand position of European writing, in which the wrist is flexed backwards is less comfortable over a long period of time than what we would think of as a rotated position in which the hand is in-line with the lower arm and the wrist is not flexed. As someone who suffers from rotator cuff mobility problems and pain, I'm very much aware that there are habitual positions that are very bad for the body and that should be avoided. But I think the range of comfortable positions for writing is greater than perhaps a culturally biased notion of what is 'natural' might suggest.

hrant's picture

I have to agree, and would even suggest that all writing is unnatural! The human body has not evolved to hold an implement to make marks on a surface. What I'm getting at is that what makes traditional calligraphy comfortable (or less uncomfortable) for righties also makes things commensurately more uncomfortable for lefties.


John Hudson's picture

Hrant: The human body has not evolved to hold an implement to make marks on a surface.

Oh, I beg to differ. Consider the precise motor skills that are necessary to move an arm -- not fingers, not hand, but the whole arm -- to produce accurate movements of just a couple of millimetres. It's as if the entire arm is a pantograph, translating the movement of major muscle groups into very small marks on a surface. Now consider that writing is one of the very few and by far the most common skill that requires such a capability.

What I'm getting at is that what makes traditional calligraphy comfortable (or less uncomfortable) for righties also makes things commensurately more uncomfortable for lefties.

Ain't demographics a bugger!

hrant's picture

> Consider the precise motor skills

1) More than precision, I was speaking -as you were before- of ergonomics.
2) Surely that inherent, primordial ability [partly] led to us writing the way we do, not the other way around.

hhp's picture

Wow, we're getting pretty deep here. I've taken the plunge and bought two books. I'll go down to the shops this weekend and see if I can't get some supplies to start me off. I hope to post some actual calligraphy soon!

Jongseong's picture

If we are talking about ergonomics, plenty of things that are deeply ingrained in our cultures are anti-ergonomic. Conventional musical instruments are an obvious example. I guess we should leave behind the unnatural sounds created by physical instruments and explore digitally created soundscapes. ;-)

John Hudson's picture

Hrant, it seems a chicken and egg sort of question, whether we write the way we do because of fine motor skills that are an ‘inherent, primordial ability’ or whether we developed such an ability as we practised mark making. An adaptationist could easily make a case that being able to e.g. paint animals well on the walls of a cave would lead to greater social status and hence to both better nutrition and to more opportunities for reproduction. I'm not much of an adaptationist, though, and while I wouldn't presume an ‘inherent, primordial ability’ I would be inclined to think that there are innate potentials or capabilities that might be developed into abilities or characteristics. And we see this with regard to fine motor skills even today: we have this capability, but it must be fostered and practised by each individual, usually at quite a young age, or else it doesn't develop. This is parallel to many other innate capabilities, which we probably all have but which we lose if we do not develop them. There are no tone-deaf people among speakers of tonal languages, because they all develop their capability to produce and recognise verbal tonality at a young age; whereas speakers of English generally have much poorer tone sensitivity unless they have studied music quite seriously. Depressingly, one can imagine all sorts of innate capabilities that we might possess, but which we have neglected and lost.

Evolution is an imprecise process, in which mutations tend to be surplus to requirements (since mere survival is the only requirement): you need mutations that make it possible to survive in a sub-Saharan grassland, and you end up with Bach.

hrant's picture

John, good analysis.

Michael, if you ever want to get deeper into calligraphy, I would recommend the best book on the topic that I own, Claude Mediavilla's monumental "Calligraphie" (which however is in French, with the long-promised English edition still to become reality).


dberlow's picture

>The human body has not evolved to hold an implement to make marks on a surface.

Be serious for a moment. Ready? Watch a master work, and then say that again.


John Hudson's picture

Hrant: Claude Mediavilla's monumental "Calligraphie" (which however is in French, with the long-promised English edition still to become reality).


I have had the English edition for many years. It was published as Calligraphy by Scirpus Publications in Belgium in 1996, but doesn't seem to have been well distributed. It is available in the US from the calligraphy specialist bookseller John Neal:

There are a couple of copies available for sale on ABE, but for more than double the retail price quoted by Neal, presumably reflecting the poor distribution and the impression that it must be out of print.

I agree that it is the very best book on the subject.

hrant's picture

> I have had the English edition for many years.

Oh. Sorry.
I couldn't find it in a quick search, so I assumed it was still in the works.


russellm's picture

>The human body has not evolved to hold an implement to make marks on
>a surface.

It didn't evolve to drive tractors either but it does. :o) Tractors were "evolved" to be driven by humans, as marks made on paper have evolved according to what the human body is capable of.

nibsnknits's picture

I'm a left-handed calligrapher and with the exception of the ruling pen, I have not found it to be a problem at all. In fact, with pointed pen it seems to be an advantage--I still use the oblique holder but some lefties do not. And as others have said, the broad-edged nib needs to be cut at the opposite slant. But the essence is this: in calligraphy, the most important thing is seeing--i.e. line, slant, spacing, curve, negative space etc. --- and getting what your mind's eye envisions onto the paper. When you approach it that way it doesn't matter which hand you write with. It helps to make sure any teacher you work with is of similar mind; I've run into a few "old school" types who don't want to bother with me when they could be critiquing my work as they do anyone else's.

hrant's picture

> in calligraphy, the most important thing is seeing

I agree. But most of all I'd be curious where you think that puts the Noordzij recommendation* of writing vertically (such that you can't fluidly write and read).

* Shared by Arabic to some extent.

> I've run into a few "old school" types who don't want to bother with me

Why do you think that is?
(You don't think they believe lefties are Evil, right?)


henrypijames's picture

in calligraphy, the most important thing is seeing

I disagree. I think most (professional) calligraphers have a precise mental picture of what they want to draw, but their hands fail them in reproducing the lines from their imagination.

In fact, I believe most calligraphers are seeing to much: They tend to over-adjust their movement -- and often even their plan -- midway because seeing the partial picture (or even the current partial curve) makes them insecure about whether it's right. Maybe if they rely less on their eyes and more on the mental picture in their head -- go into a meditative trance, if you will, so as to tune down the non-stop visual feedback analysis that's messing with them, they would produce more fluent and natural results.

John Hudson's picture

Hrant: But most of all I'd be curious where you think that puts the Noordzij recommendation* of writing vertically...

I think it would be useful to provide the Noordzij text to which you refer.

hrant's picture

Well, sure - I just don't have a link.

Basically he says that if a left-handed calligrapher wants to reproduce the traditional forms comfortably, he should turn the paper 90 degrees and write the letters on their sides, arranged vertically.

My point has always been that not being able to
read what you're writing isn't "comfortable" at all.


cerulean's picture

It seems to me that if you taught yourself to calligraph that way, you would learn to read sideways far sooner than you would begin to master any aspect of the writing. People generally don't have trouble recognizing a word at a time sideways. I wouldn't sit down and read a novel sideways, because it would slow my reading down to the speed of writing, but it should work fine while writing, because you write a word at a time and have to be somewhat conscious of the shapes on a stroke-by-stroke level anyway. But maybe I'm projecting my experiences as an ambigram specialist, wherein I do a lot of mental rotation.

hrant's picture

> you would learn to read sideways far sooner than
> you would begin to master any aspect of the writing.

1) The human vision system favors a horizontal arrangement far
more than vertical. AFAIR there have even been studies to show this.

2) I might possibly agree when it comes to traditional
calligraphy, but that "any" there is certainly too much.
Lefties do write, after all! And I believe there are forms
for them to write that are both comfortable and attractive.


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