Archive for March 27th, 2009

It happens. You’re lettering a final copy and you get a ink blob, a smear, a spelling error, or anything else that would be considered a mistake.

Over the years I’ve found that the  best way of correcting errors is to avoid making them or simply do it over.  Not the most popular solution, but trying to correct errors rarely complete hides the mistake.

Note:  My personal philosophy for fine artworks and paid commissioned calligraphy work is simple – nothing leaves my studio that has lettering errors or corrections.  This applies to everything from small works such as lettering a name on a certificate to large presentation broadsheets to original works of art.  If I see a work with a mistake or obvious correction, it tends to become the entire focus of work.

Tips to Help Avoid Mistakes

The best way to correct mistakes is to avoid them altogether:

Work area:

  • Use scrap paper to mask areas around the lettering area.  This will avoid smearing and might also save the paper from ink splatters.

Tip:  3M Scotch Removable “Magic Tape” is excellent for taping masked areas over your work and for layout positioning with drafts.  I have even used it for masking areas on genuine vellum as it does not leave any residue on the surface.  It is very easy to reposition and will not damage any paper surface I have used.  Just make sure it is the Removable tape (in the blue box) as other types might damage the paper.

  • Try not to letter the final copy if you are tired.  It can be difficult to concentrate and this might be where a lot of spelling errors can occur.  Most calligraphers have a “best” lettering time – sometimes in the morning, some prefer the evening – find the “best” time for you and try to letter your final copies during that time.
  • Keep food, beverages and other “spillables” away from your work.  Your bottle of ink needs to be handy, but try to position it in a way that it will not be easy to knock over.

Tip:   An old calligraphy trick is cutting a hole in the middle of a kitchen sponge to fit your bottle of ink and placing the bottle in the hole.  The sponge can help keep the bottle from tipping over and spilling on your work, and can also be used to blot excess ink from the nib


  • Write out a draft of the text a few times.  Pay particular attention to letters you might have difficulty with, and spend some time practicing those letters.
  • Check and double check spelling on the copy, especially surnames or names with unusual spelling.
  • Ask someone who is not familiar with the text to look at your draft – a second pair of eyes can often spot errors such as spelling mistakes you might have missed.
  • Keep a printed copy of the text close to your work as a reference while you are lettering.  It’s easy to be concentrating so hard on the lettering that sometimes a word or entire line can be skipped.

Papers and Inks:

  • Test a sample of your final copy paper with your ink.  This is especially important if it is a paper you haven’t used before as even though the paper might be sized, sometimes the sizing can be a little uneven.
  • If you are lettering on pre-printed certificates or invitations, matboard, or a paper supplied by a client always ask for extra sheets or paper samples.  This will give you a chance to test the paper and give you a few extras in case of mistakes.

Tip:  The odds are good that clients who want lettering on pre-printed certificates, invitations or matboard will have already selected a paper that is not the best for calligraphy.

If you suspect the paper isn’t suitable for calligraphy (e.g. unsized, textured, etc.) ask for a sample to test.  Sometimes lettering can be accomplished with a bit of gum sandarac, using a gouache or paint instead of ink, or an alternative pen such as the Mitchell Witch pens designed for lettering on textured or rough papers.

Order of Execution

  • If your work includes lettering, painting and/or gilding the order of executing each stage is best accomplished based on the difficulty of correcting mistakes (most difficult to least difficult):
  1. First, execute the lettering.  Lettering errors are the most difficult to correct as ink can penetrate the paper or vellum surfaces and corrections will be conspicuous.  It is easier to start over with lettering than to have to re-do any painting or gilding already completed!

  2. Second, complete the gilding, especially if close to painted areas.  Gold leaf fragments like to attach themselves to painted areas and this can require tedious removal or repainting.  Gilding gesso can be carefully scraped off and re-applied, but patent gold adhesives (such as gum ammoniac) are more difficult.

  3. Last, complete the painting.  Painted areas are the easiest to correct depending on the media and support material.  For example, egg tempera on vellum can easily be completely scraped off without damaging the surface.  Watercolor on a Hot Press paper is more difficult to remove as the paint will soak into the paper fibers, but watercolor on a rougher paper can sometimes be washed out depending on the paint.

Of course, its impossible to avoid all mistakes, but taking time to think about the work, lettering a few drafts, organizing your work area and familiarity with your tools and supports will help you develop a “plan of action” to produce quality, mistake-free projects.

If you really need to fix something, you can try Correcting Mistakes.

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