Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Not As Easy As It Looks: Spencerian Update 1

Theory of the Spencerian System of Penmanship In Nine Easy Lessons uses 237 questions and answers on Signals, Positions, Movements, and Form to teach the 9 Principles of writing. Along with the Theory are 5 workbooks to practice forming letters and numbers. After reading through the Q & A, I went to the workbooks and started copying using my trusty Lamy Al-Star fountain pen with a fine nib, and loaded with one of the De Atramentis red wine inks. That's when the fun began.

Lesson 1 (at the top) was on the straight line, which is designated simply as "1" and is simple enough. Lesson 2 (directly above) was on the curved line, with the right curve designated as 3 and the left curve as 3. I found myself making these curves and thinking "2, 2, 2, wait no that's a 3, 3, 3." Uhmm, okay not great curves but not too bad.

Then we get into more interesting shapes, such as the letter "i" which is 2 (right curve), 1 (straight line), 2 (right curve), dot. I was able to do the 2-1-1-dot in my head for a few seconds, then began intoning "eye-dot, eye-dot, eye-dot." Both cats, napping on the bed, raised their heads thinking I was offering some prayer to Lady Bast, the cat goddess and their patron. Or maybe I was about to get up and feed them crunchies? No? Heads slowly lowerer back down, and then I noticed the admonition on the worksheet: please do not shade. Well, I wasn't shading, at least not in public...? Oh, wait--shading can be done on the strokes of the lines with a flexible nib, but in this case is not allowed for beginners learning to write. That problem would be more likely with my Namiki Falcon II with its soft fine nib rather than my hard-as-a-nail Lamy fine point, so I'm still in good standing on the "no shading" issue.

On to the next sheet and "ui" (above), which is 2-1-2-1-2-dot, and the warning to avoid unequal spacing and keep the lines parallel. In my mind I'm thinking "2, 1, 1, equal spacing, careful of that curve, what number am I on, dot now? wait, stop, stop, STOP!" Easier to just think "you then eye then dot," "you then eye then dot." After that came "iw," which is actually much easier to write and has a nice little loop on the end of the lower case "w." But per the worksheet, please avoid unlike turns!

Next comes "ni," which is interesting as it starts with a 3: 3(left curve)-1 (straight line)-3(left curve)-1(straight line)-2(right curve)-dot. I'm thinking, I like this one, just "enn-eye, enn-eye, enn-eye" and so on to the end of the worksheet. Wow, nothing to it!

Hey, this is getting easier. My spacing is more even, my curves and straight lines are looking good, and the characters are reaching the same height. Go Me! Until I read the top of this worksheet more carefully: "The accuracy of this copy may be tested by inverting it." Huh? Okay, let's see it inverted. Oh. Ahh. Hmmmm. Even the most generous of viewers would say this is not a winner. Back to practice.

Finally, although I have some 15 or so more pages of letters to practice in the first workbook I decide to end with something easy, the letter "x"--which is 3-2-3-2. But it's tricky, because the first 2, a right curve, is somewhat reversed, as is the second 3. No doubt the author also realized this, as he included a note for those in need of help with the "x," albeit a tad snarky in its singling out of those people:
Another method of making the x, preferred by some, is to lift the pen after forming the first half, then put it down even with the top turn, and one-third space to its right, and complete the letter....

I've never really given much thought to the teaching of writing, how one actually learns cursive, or Spencerian as it is known here. I do have memories of learning cursive, but that was repetition rather than reasoning. I don't think I could actually lay out the steps to explain how--and why--letters are formed. So if nothing else, this first Spencerian lesson has taught me a lot about the thought behind the method. I appreciate my pens much more now, and am looking for some pencils and beginners writing worksheets to play with.


  1. AND this is why the schools gave up!! They just don't want to deal with it anymore.

  2. Great post, PB! Gets you wondering, is it the quality of the pen, or is it the quality of the penmanship? Jackl/Youngstown

  3. I'm considering ordering the same set from Amazon. I'll follow your progress if you choose to post more samples as you learn.

    Do the lessons touch on flex-nib penmanship, or is Spencerian considered "standard" cursive without the varying thickness of flex?

  4. There were pens & nibs designed especially for the various writing styles/methods. Palmer method nibs that I've seen are pretty much the same -- always flexible fine. Spencerian nibs are always fine too, but flexibility varies more, ranging from firm to flexible.

    For ornate alphabets using a flexible nib you want to steer away from Palmer or Spencer methods. They were designed for business use -- fast & legible. There were also engrossing alphabets used for calling cards & invitations and also embellishments to, well, embellish writing. When calling cards were de rigeur you'd pay a calligrapher to design & make your calling cards -- each individually hand-written. These alphabets really show off a flexible nib!

  5. Thanks Mike.

    I'll reserve Spencerian script for my stiff nib pens since I have many of them and find an appropriate alternate guide for flex writing.

    The Spencerian exercises looked like fun so I actually started doing them myself going by what Diane posted. I'll definitely place an order for the same set at Amazon.

  6. Mike, thanks for that information. I've seen samples of Spencer Business writing posted at Fountain Pen Network and marvel at how beautiful it is and how anyone could possiby do it fast and legibly. With lots of practice, I may get the fast part. Legible is entirely in the eye of the beholder!

    InkWhisperer, I haven't checked the other workbooks, but within Theory there are many examples of letters with the wider lines that come from a flexible nib. I think it's the larger capitals, such as O and Q, where flexible lines are a must. For the beginning lowercase lessons such as i and w, the line should not be wider at one end or the other so no flexing.

    I'm rather liking the idea of really learning and practicing this writing. I kind of wish I could just sign my name with an "x" as that has been my favorite letter thus far, and pretty good looking too tho' I say so myself.

  7. My book and workbooks arrived today!! Thanks for the posts, I can't wait to play with this.

  8. Thanks, MikeWas, for mentioning "engrossing". Columbus, Ohio was the site of an engrossers' or calligraphers' academy (can't recall the exact name) back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Serious business, penmanship. Jack/Youngstown

  9. Prof. Anne Trubek argues that handwriting ought to be discouraged in favor of keyboarding in an article reported by HisNibs on his blog. She cites a "democratization effect" when every student's book report, e. g., is written in the same font. I'm not buying that yet. The poor kid with the calligraphic hand and a clutch of Pilot Varsitys is told he has to shell out $400+ for a computer and printer and umpteen ink cartridges so the schoolteacher won't be prejudiced against the rich kid's illegible scrawl? Jack/Youngstown

  10. I would say the democratization effect is more likely to apply to grading. I've heard stories about final exams where professors have required students to print rather than write (cursive) because the writing was so bad the blue book couldn't be graded. One more reason we should all study the Spencerian and Palmer methods! ;)