Practicing the Fine Art of Writing


As the people of planet Earth exchange hastily typed messages pounded out on computer keyboards through the electronic ether of the Internet, Sadie Tsuyuki ponders the shape of a single letter.

Hers is the art of the line. She spends endless hours in quiet isolation, carving small paths of ink through the forest of tiny fibers that is a single sheet of paper. She is a painter of words.

Tsuyuki has devoted 14 years of study to calligraphy, attempting first to master the maze of traditional “letter forms,” then to infuse them with her aesthetic interpretations. Calligraphy requires much from its practitioners: patience, self-discipline, deep concentration, a steady hand and ruthless self-criticism.

“No matter how long you’ve been doing calligraphy, it never seems quite good enough. I am always working on my letter forms. I am always finding faults in my work. If I become too comfortable, my work will never improve. Someday, I hope I can make one great piece.”


Tsuyuki creates hand-lettered book covers, hand-bound books, framed works of art and certificates for individuals and community organizations. She uses all kinds of pens and brushes, inks and paints. Much of her work this time of year is on wedding invitations.

It can take as many as seven drafts for her to achieve the high standards of style, spacing and balance she strives for on a wedding invitation. And each draft takes from two to four hours to complete.

Although Tsuyuki’s wedding invitations are reproduced by a printer, she carefully letters each envelope. She has inscribed as many as 700 envelopes for a single wedding, using her hybrid combination of classic American Spencerian and copperplate scripts.

“When you go up with a pen stroke, it can dig into the fiber of the envelope and the ink just splatters. I waste more envelopes.”


A grandmother of four, she is married to a physician and does not rely on calligraphy to earn a living. She charges about $50 for a wedding invitation and about $3 for each envelope.


Tsuyuki says her art is often inspired by dreams. Such was the case during her early studies when she was having trouble executing the letter ‘I’ in formal Roman script.

“To make that ‘I’ is really not that easy; it’s hard,” she said. “I just couldn’t make it. One night I dreamed that I was making these ‘I’s’ all over the place--on the ceiling, on the walls, all over the place. The next morning, I thought it was really too bad it was a dream. But I went to my desk and I found that I could make that ‘I.’ I actually made it.


“I’ll have a project I’m working on and I will actually dream about what I’m going to do. I’ll see the design. If I were going to do a poem, it would be all designed for me in my dream. Then I’ll go back and use that dream.”

Tsuyuki grew up watching her father, a dairy farmer in White River Valley, Wash., paint Japanese characters, called Kangi, on long sheets of white paper he spread out on the floor. He made his own ink.

Tsuyuki was inspired but did not begin the study of calligraphy until her youngest child had left home.

“Calligraphers are an unusual lot and their motivation is generally a mystery to the outside world,” reads a small, hand-lettered piece of paper, framed and hung on a wall inside her Fullerton home. It was created by one of the many artists she has hosted as program director of the 135-member Orange County Society for Calligraphy.


Calligraphy is an art whose attraction she hesitates to explain to the uninitiated. Calligraphers value the human touch, she says, the balance between discipline and expression, recorded on paper. She delights in the flow of ink, the careful application of pressure to the pen that spreads the nib and creates a broad flourish; the angling of the pen in mid-flight that reduces the line to the width of a cat’s whisker.

In preparation for the final draft, some calligraphers use computers to design their layouts, a practice Tsuyuki has resisted.

“You can save a lot of time with a computer, but I just eyeball everything and then I do the first draft. I know some people use computers for the whole thing because it’s cheaper, but you can’t beat the handwritten thing. When it’s done on a computer, you can tell. Everything is so even. There are so many beautiful fonts out there, but it’s the calligraphers who make the fonts.”

Tsuyuki regularly attends workshops to hone her skills, and has studied in Austria with Friedrich Neugebauer and in Ohio with Michael Saul, both considered masters of the art.


She has spent the last four years studying locally with Marsha Brady, a calligraphy instructor at Cerritos College. She also attends calligraphy retreats where like-minded souls gather to preserve the art of the handwritten word.

They generally disdain the word “craft,” Tsuyuki said.

“Don’t say ‘craft’ to a calligrapher,” she warned. “You have to say ‘art.’ If I say ‘craft,’ they would kill me. I would say calligraphy is a specialty in art.”



Profile: Sadie Tsuyuki

Family: Parents born in Japan; married to pathologist Ted Tsuyuki; three grown children, four grandchildren

Residence: Fullerton

Hometown: White River Valley, Wash.


Background: Studied oil painting for 10 years; began calligraphy in 1982; currently serves as program chairwoman for the Orange County Society for Calligraphy

On calligraphy: “It’s not just lettering. There’s angles and spacing and branching--there’s so much refinement to it. Some would say it’s a craft, but it’s really a different form of art. It takes years and years of practice and commitment.”

Source: Sadie Tsuyuki; Researched by RUSS LOAR / For The Times