En Plein Air: Taking Your Calligraphy Outdoors

Calligraphy En Plein Air

I love being outside.

But before you start inviting me on camping trips that don’t involve actual, flushing toilets and memory foam mattresses, let me clarify. I love socializing (read: drinking) and relaxing outside. I saw a t-shirt once that said “I’m outdoorsy in that I like drinking on porches,” and that pretty much sums up my relationship with the great outdoors. Point is, as soon as the weather is fine, I like to spend as much time in the fresh air as possible.

In addition to socializing (read: drinking) and relaxing outside, I also like to practice my calligraphy. “En plein air” is a fancy way of talking about art that is done outdoors. Typically, it refers to painters, but I think calligraphy deserves the plein air treatment as well. You may be thinking, “Kim, this is all well and good, but how am I supposed to practice my calligraphy without, you know, a table to write on?” Girl, I got you.

I took my brush pens, Adirondack chair and a picnic blanket out to a sunny spot and did some experimenting — yes, seriously. I am sure passersby were both confused and alarmed. I did the confusing and alarming so you don’t have to. So, you know… you’re welcome.

Without any further ado, here are my tips for practicing your calligraphy en plein air.

Choose the right supplies.

First thing’s first, you need to pick the right supplies. Because you won’t have a table, you’ll want to use a pad that has a sold backing. It’s also helpful to use a pad that is spiral-bound, that way you aren’t required to hold back tightly rolled pages with your non-dominant hand while you script. My fave (and what I’m using here) is the Rhodia Dot Pad.

You’re also going to need brush pens. This is not the time for pointed pen and dip ink — you really need a table for that. Choose a brush pen you’ve already got a fair amount of comfort with. In these examples, I was using a Tombow Dual Brush pen, but any will do. One tip: because you aren’t going to be able to apply quite as much pressure on your brush as you would if you were working at a table (more on that later), I would choose brushes with a little more flexibility, like the aforementioned Tombow Dual Brush or Faber-Castell Pitt Artist Brush Pen.

Calligraphy En Plein Air: Using your thighs as a easel. This works best when you’re lounging in a chair.

Calligraphy En Plein Air: Using your thighs as a easel. This works best when you’re lounging in a chair.

Pack light.

You don’t need to pack your whole studio. In fact, I recommend you only bring 3 items with you: a small dot pad you can fit in your purse/tote, your favorite brush pen and a pencil. Here’s why. By packing light, you can keep these items on you at all times (assuming you carry a purse or tote). Then, when you’re waiting on friends to join you for a drink outdoors or are just lounging on a picnic blanket in the park, you can get your calligraphy on.

Use your thigh easel.

If you’re able to bend your knees, you’ve got a built-in (and sexy) easel — them thighs! The thigh easel method is best if you’re sitting in a chair. Here’s how it works.

Place your dominant foot (i.e. if you’re right handed, your right foot) on the seat of the chair so that your knee is bent and you’re looking at your thigh. If you find it comfortable, you can also bring your other leg up, too - personally, I found it easiest to just have one knee up. Position your pad on your thigh at a slight angle (just like scripting on a table, you’ll need to adjust back and forth until you find the angle that works best for you). Your thigh acts like an easel, giving you an ah-mah-zing position for scripting.

Criss-Cross Applesauce

When you’re sitting on the ground, say on a towel at the beach or a picnic blanket in the park, you can create a table with your knees. Sit cross-legged and prop your pad on your knee on the dominant side of your body. You can also use a cooler as a table, but you’ll have to move whenever anyone needs a beer, so I don’t recommend it.

Calligraphy En Plein Air: Sitting cross-legged, use your dominant knee as a “table.”

Calligraphy En Plein Air: Sitting cross-legged, use your dominant knee as a “table.”

Let go of perfection.

Simply put, you aren’t going to get the best looking calligraphy while you’re scripting outdoors without a table. But that’s not what this is about. It’s not about creating finished pieces, it’s about letting your creativity flow. The fact is, when using the thigh easel and criss-cross applesauce methods, you aren’t going to have the same angle or leverage that you would at a table. That means you might not be able to apply as much pressure as you normally would, and your work may be a little less refined overall. But who cares? This is just for you, no one else. (That being said, passersby will look over your shoulder and ooh and ahh at your work — don’t be shy — let them revel in your awesomeness.)

Practice techniques.

If you have trouble with your knees and can’t bend them the way we discussed, that doesn’t mean you’re out of luck. If you don’t have a table to work with, you can always practice different techniques that don’t require the control of calligraphy. For example, you could practice blending your colors with your Tombow Dual Brush, or use your pencil to test out different layouts of fun phrases. Trust me, I do a lot of calligraphy practice that doesn’t involve calligraphy. Remember, it’s not about logging hours — it’s about resdicovering your inner creative queen. And what better way to do that than with a little fresh air and sunshine?

So what are you waiting for? Grab your pens and head outdoors. If you are so inclined to share your work on the ‘gram, be sure to tag @hooplaletters — I can’t wait to see what you do!