Workshops and Teaching

Fall workshops at San Francisco Center for the Book announced! My Cola Pen Techniques workshop will be offered in October.

Cola Pen Techniques  10/14/18

Using a new writing tool opens the imagination and spurs fresh exploration of form and rhythm. Making your own tool promotes a sense of exploration beyond the usual mark-making. In this one-day workshop each student will make at least two cola pens and explore lively and expressive gestural strokes that make words come alive with fresh calligraphic line. A system of zones along the blade edge guides formation of the stroke shapes. 

We’ll work with pattern, movement, spacing, and explore the amazing variety of marks in a thoughtful way, guided by design principles. There will be warm-up exercises and a system for repeating desired rhythmical stroke effects without relying on happy accidents.

Cola pen writing is ideal for creating word marks, logos, monogram designs, and handwritten names, or short favorite phrases. It can be used to make cuts of initial capitals or other marks to contrast with or to augment letterpress printing. 

Students will leave with their new tools and several pieces of artwork, as well as instructions and examples of cola pen writing at its fluid and energetic best.

Academy of Art University

To begin searching for classes, go to the main Academy link and scroll to the bottom of the page, click on "Catalog" link in the footer to search for classes. I teach courses in Fine Arts (FA153 - Calligraphy and Letterform & FA253 - Advanced Calligraphy) and Illustration (ILL345 - Logo, Font, and Lettering for Illustrators).  Register at


Advanced Calligraphy (FA253) is offered only on site in Fall 2018. This is a rare occurrence, so please take advantage of the opportunity to immerse in the freewriting and freepainting of calligraphic imagery and calligraphic design space.

Advanced Calligraphy (FA253) is offered only on site in Fall 2018. This is a rare occurrence, so please take advantage of the opportunity to immerse in the freewriting and freepainting of calligraphic imagery and calligraphic design space.


Whiteboard demo for students learning the basic structures of Humanist Minuscule during class at San Francisco Academy of Art University, 2016.

On Teaching Calligraphy

How to teach calligraphy to beginning students has come up often in conversation, and has set some gears working.

There are several places for the instructor to start. 
1) Starting with pencil and making circles, ovals, and lines, and working with flow and motion.   2) Selecting a text and tracing and copying letters until they look like the original model.   3) Learning alphabets and copying the letters onto ruled or graph paper.   4) Establishing a precise grid for each hand and micromanaging the learning process while exploring and fully embedding design principles.

The arguments range from letting the spirit free to express itself in the spontaneous structure and creation of the letters and words—often with uneven success or the manipulation of so-called happy accidents—to absolutely "getting it right" as those before you have done, using every technical means known to the lettering industry and its history, assuring perfect spacing, letter formation, and replication of the model hand.

There is a widespread mistrust of using guidelines and geometric principles in the construction of letters, perhaps due to the overwhelming nature of understanding the many hands that form the foundation of our writing systems. But using a grid for structure of letters is no less important than using sound structural elements in architecture.

I see the lettering grid as more of a jungle gym than a prison. The letters swing through it and play in it. There is leeway, but you don't know how to see possibilities of movement and rhythm until you establish the basics. I feel that beginners need to know the lay of the land. But sometimes it's appropriate to teach differently, to use different approaches depending on the student.

Making art of any kind is about organizing visual elements. Anytime something becomes visual it is governed by the laws of optics and balance (virtual physics) and as much by what is not there as what is there. The spaces and solids create the whole. In order to transmit a sense of space, or illusion, there must be a way for the artist to understand and organize something complex; this is impossible to achieve on the fly, with consistent success, without a basic foundation. Weak art can be seen beyond and through. It doesn't communicate with impact. It doesn't convince and is often just repetitive. You can’t grasp it well enough to feel it with your eyes. The challenge to artists is to create that which contains the infinite while touching the finite. In order to do that, there must be a way of organizing that is based on sound principles. Learning to divide the page, learning the nomenclature of design so that ideas can be communicated and challenged, and learning what scribes have understood for centuries, is important because it allows us to realize how we fit in the timeline as we pick up the pen and make our forms.

Students want to know how to get their works to look not only good, but authentic and genuine, so they will feel a sense of accomplishment and begin to see how the visual rhythms and contrasts are built on the page and how they reflect their own individual sense of touch and vision. Beginners need to have a definite place to hang their letters so that they can understand that even without the guideline, that letter is in a specific place with known and intended coordinates. Optics don't lie; the effects are subtle and dynamic, and exciting to discover. But the learning is quicker if the student starts by understanding the design process and the grid, so that progress can continue to the next phase with a solid foundation and points to talk through. It's not usually helpful to say "do your thing."

In my beginner's class I teach the grid, which helps everyone compare "apples to apples," reducing the guesswork regarding proper spacing. At the same time the first part of the class contains other freeform exercises in flow, touch, pressure and release, loops, spirals, arcs, intervals, and spontaneous directional work that use the part of the brain that doesn't deal with measurements, pen scales, pen angles, and basic layout grid.

In the advanced class the students start by imagining there is a grid in the visual field, and placing simple pencil marks using judgment while "seeing" that grid on the page and getting control over intervals, shapes, and design. From that point the full field of creative possibilities begins naturally to open up, but with a solid foundation already in place that can be relied upon if one were asked to justify or explain the method, or be commissioned to produce a manuscript book, or make any of the millions of projects that require the combination of measurement and skill and expressive strength.

In short, establishing control over the character of the letters, pen strokes, pressure/release, sense of touch, sensitivity to all aspects of the process and all the elements of design is how to enjoy calligraphy to its fullest. "Write your way through history." This is my advice, to learn all the hands correctly before you invent your own.

People may all be drawn to calligraphy for its obvious attraction, but some individuals are natural born dancers and builders, and it's no problem to get those agile students to follow the rules and at the same time begin dancing with the pen. Others will love dancing with the pen but have no sense of how a ruler is used. These will struggle initially with measurements, but in the end will find the middle ground if they stick with it. That leaves those who love to measure everything, are musical, appreciate geometry, like to follow instructions, and are happy just making awesome copies of what has gone before us. This last group may not consider themselves inventive or creative, but when introduced to the cola pen for the first time, or dipping a batch of bound toothpicks or a bunch of rubber bands in ink to make a mark, they will be amazed at the beauty of the stroke that still contains the structure they know and appreciate. This opens a whole world of possibility. The idea is to go back and forth between the worlds of design, lettering, painting, drawing, single stroke, built-up letters, cursive forms, and whatever else your pleasure is, until you can instantly call them up and blend them into a whole that puts the pieces back together in your own authentic way.

Anyhow, that's my reasoning on it, and why I enjoy teaching it. Some things are definite, others are pure magic and mystery. But we have to know which is which.

©2011 - Ann Miller
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