Posture & Penmanship in Paintings: How Not To Do It

One cannot overstate the importance of good posture for an ergonomic writing habit, as I recently discovered while extending my ambidexterity to handwriting. (Ergonomic: ergo, meaning therefore, and nomic, meaning in the nature of a gnome – viz. you’ll end up wizened like a gnome if you don’t do it properly).

Of course, no sooner had I schooled myself in the Right and Proper way of positioning one’s assorted body parts while writing, than I discovered endless examples of those who were doing it in a Wrong and Improper way. Especially in art. Let us consider a collection of these Improprieties.

But first – and at intervals throughout, to keep your eye in – let me show you someone doing it right. (Note: nearly all these writers are writing with their right hands. For greater left-handed representation, hold a mirror up to the screen.)

 A woman in a late nineteenth century dress and hairstyle, sitting at a table with an envelope in her left hand and a pen in her right.
Albert Edelfelt: Dam som skriver brev. NM 2653

The Lady Writing a Letter is sitting up straight – neither leaning on her desk nor slumping in her chair (though I am prepared to believe her corsetry is assisting in this respect). Her upper arm is in line with her torso, and her lower arm is at approximately 90 degrees to her upper arm, and to her torso. Her arm rests gently on the paper, but her hand is not dragging at the page.

One girl leans over her page as she writes. Another girl leans on the table next to her and watches.

This girl is demonstrating the problem of bending over one’s page: it becomes impossible to keep one’s arms at the right angles, and they begin to stick out like chickens’ wings.

A girl in a blue checked dress and blue and white striped apron leaning over her writing, her left hand marking her place in a smaller book.

Not only is this girl chicken-winging to the max, her paper is at a most strange angle to her pen. Is she writing sideways??

A girl with a copybook page in front of her looks toward the little bird sitting on the edge of her desk.

This girl takes it further! Chicken-wings (two of them!), paper at nearly the same bizarre angle, and to top it all off, she’s not even looking at what she’s doing. She’ll end up blotting the paper, even if the bird doesn’t.

A girl in a short white dress stands at a table hunched over a paper on which she is writing.

Taking it further again: a girl who has two chicken wings due to her hunching over the table, but does not even have the comfort of sitting down while she does it. Most uncomfortable.

A curly-haired boy in a red cap sitting at a high desk with a pen in his hand. The same hand is touching his chin and the papers on his desk.

Little Titus van Rijn is going to stab himself in the eye with his pen if he’s not careful, having the desk that close to his chin. Chicken wings still well in evidence.

A bride leans over the table to sign the register in front of the minister, her groom standing beside her and a girl behind her holding her bouquet.

This is all very well if you are just signing the register, but it’s a recipe for back pain if you’re writing anything else. Or if you have a particularly long name.

A man bends over a table to write. He is leaning heavily on his left arm.

Back pain again here. Or possibly the shoulder pain will get him first.

A girl in a blue dress with a blue and white striped apron leans over a slate on her lap on which she is writing. Her left hand holds a book open.

This isn’t bad – note those ninety degree arms – but having the writing surface on one’s lap, rather than on a somewhat higher desk or table does put some strain on the neck, as you can see.

An old man with spectacles and a couple of cloths wound round his waist has a large floppy book open on his draped lap. He has an inkwell in his left hand and is writing in the book with the quill in his right.

St Jerome should really have a flat surface under his book if he wants it to not flop around while he’s writing. The table to his left, say, or one of the books sitting on it.

A merchant sits on the ground, one leg bent as if cross-legged and the other with the knee pulled up to his chest. He has one end of a piece of paper on his knee and is writing on it with a quill.

This Greek merchant should have invested his profits in a desk, a stool, or really anything that has a firm flat surface. Kneecaps are not flat writing surfaces.

Back to a good example:

A mother sits by a window and watches her boy teaching his little sister how to write. The little girl is seated at a small table and is just a bit too short to reach it comfortably.

This barefoot boy is teaching his little sister well. All she needs is something to boost her up a bit to reduce the chicken wings, and some support for those dangling boots.

A man in a yellow robe glowers out at the viewer, his hand poised over the papers on the table in front of him.

Not bad. I am too intimidated to point out that he is not actually writing. Is that even a pen he’s holding, or a thinly disguised dagger?

A person in a loose white top stares wildly to their left, their blue eyes wide and their reddish hair flying here and there about their head.

This person has Seen Things (perhaps the person in the previous painting?). They are also not writing.

A man in baggy white trousers and a blue jacket dictates to a cross-legged man in a gold robe trimmed with red, who is taking down notes with his right hand on a pad he holds with his left.

A writing surface held in midair is not generally advised, but this guy seems quite comfortable regardless. Presumably the letter is not going to be a long one (as he probably charges his customers by length).

A shocked-looking man wearing nothing but a bit of red cloth ddraped over one arm and around his middle gapes over his right shoulder. He is holding a pen in his right hand and his left holds up the large rectangle he is writing on.

Where do I even start? Bad posture, terrible choice of outfit – chilly but hanging off an arm he’s trying to use – and he’s not even looking at the pen. Possibly he’s hoping the words will just slide off the pen and dribble down the page to their rightful places.

A little girl leans on her brother's shoulder as he demonstrates writing on a slate he is holding upright in his lap.

A most uncomfortable angle of the arm – down and straight up again at close quarters, with limited movement possible without strain. Setting a bad example to his sister. Tck tck.

A black-and-white-robed figure extends their right arm, supported by a black-robed child, toward a book. The brush in their right hand forms letters in the book. The figure's left hand holds a black and white quill pen and supports a board over which a long thin scroll has unrolled. The child also holds - among other things - a palette, a couple of brushes, and a long thin pole with fire bursting out the end of it. The background has the word HISTORIA written on it.

Wut? Two surfaces (book and scroll draped over board), two sets of writing implements (brush in right hand, pen/s in left hand), plus small creepy child somehow involved and brandishing further tools, including what appears to be a mysteriously blazing torch right up in the long-suffering face of History. Just don’t.

A man sitting on stone stairs, writing on a stone projection beside him. He is leaning on his left arm, his torso is twisted, and one booted leg is twisted around the other.

This man is going to need to see a chiropractor.

A kimono-clad lady reclines on one arm, with which she is also executing calligraphy on a scroll lying in her lap.

So is this woman. She’s never seen a rule of writing posture she didn’t want to break. She’s not only writing on a scroll loosely unrolled in her lap, she’s also reclining while doing it – and writing with the arm she’s leaning on! Anarchy.

A woman in a green dress holds up a sheet of blue paper with her left hand, a sharp metal pen held horizontal in her right. She is looking straight at the painter/viewer.

If you do have a flat surface to write on, for pity’s sake let your paper lie flat on it. And that pen angle is something else altogether. It almost looks like she’s staring the painter down and saying “Madame Le Brun, if I have to hold this pose another minute I am going to stab myself with this pen. Try me.”

A girl in a frilly dress with a square neckline sits at a little desk and stares haughtily at the viewer. Around her neck is a choker of pearls; atop her head (which appears disproportionately large) is a small jewelled ornament.

This one isn’t too bad as far as the writing posture goes – though the right arm is angled in a bit more than ideal – but it illustrates the danger of wearing your pearl choker too tight: your head swells up until your tiara looks like a hair clip.

The Virgin Mary writes in a book while holding baby Jesus on her lap, his hand resting on the page. Five curly-haired angels surround her. Two are lifting a delicate gold crown onto her head. One is holding her inkpot, one is holding the book open for her to write, and the fifth is giving the latter two a hug.

I know mothers of littlies frequently have to do things with a hands-on baby tucked in their lap, but she could at least ask the angels to bring her a desk, if not to hold the baby for a while. No mortal being is going to produce good writing at arm’s length with their wrist (ouch) and book at those angles, even without adding a baby to the mix.

A woman in a white dress writes on the wall of the wood-panelled niche in which she is standing. A stone wall in front of her comes up well past knee height.

It should not need to be said to a grown adult, but: do not write on the walls. If you are cross that someone is trying to wall you into a recess, hoik up your skirts and climb out. There is no need to resort to graffiti.

A man in a voluminous robe sits on the floor and writes with a pen held in his feet. He has no arms.

Just…no. Unless, like the calligrapher Thomas Schweicker (pictured) you have no arms, in which case you can write however you jolly well please.

Let me leave you with a final Good Example:

An African woman in seventeenth century clothing sits at a table, a pen in her hand at the head of a sheet of paper.

The poet Phillis Wheatley, showing us how it’s done by a proper professional. (Though purists would argue against the hand at the chin, she doesn’t appear to be leaning on it.)

If you want to write without incurring pains – or ending up a gnome – take my advice and write like Phillis or the Lady Writing a Letter.

2 Replies to “Posture & Penmanship in Paintings: How Not To Do It”

    1. You’re very welcome! Glad it hit your funny bone (another thing good writing posture avoids…).

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