Calligraphy tools & materials

The three fundamental calligraphy tools are: 

  • page (or other writing surface)
  • ink (or other liquid colour)
  • nib (or brush) on a handle

The relationship between these three elements is what makes or breaks your calligraphy.

This is a fundamental point so please, if you're interested and you remember only one thing on this page, it should be this.

Get your page, ink and nib (or equivalents) working in harmony. Experiment and adjust, until they all balance against each other for smooth, crisp lettering. 

For example, thick ink needs to flow freely onto a smooth surface that takes an even flow. Absorbent paper needs ink that's not too thin, and a nib that flows lightly so it doesn't soak in and spread. A fountain pen requires thin ink and a more horizontal surface. And so forth.

Harmonise your page, ink and nib.

After that, it's about details :-) And the details are fun: layout, design, borders, drawing, colour, ornament, illumination, gilding, historiation, quills, reeds, parchment ...

If you're just starting out, and you want to see how calligraphy suits you, you need a bare minimum of calligraphy tools and materials as follows:

  • reliable information about how to write calligraphy, or at least examples to copy
  • calligraphy marker, medium to large (2.5-5mm) -- 
  • fair-quality paper (cartridge paper, legal pad, etc)

I think you will find life much easier if you also have:

  • rough paper (80gsm printer paper, etc)
  • HB pencils
  • a ruler
  • good eraser (not those pink scrubby ones on the pencil-ends)
  • a couple of different sizes of calligraphy pen
  • different colours of pen, too

Personally, I would also add 'a large window' and 'an adjustable desk lamp' to the above necessities ... good lighting can't always be taken for granted, and it's a vital part of all fine artwork, including calligraphy!

What about a calligraphy fountain pen? It's up to you. I did hours of practice with a fountain pen writing certificates for a local school, and it stood me in good stead. But a dip pen is actually better to work with even though it's a little more trouble.

If you do want a calligraphy fountain pen, it's preferable to get one with a refillable 'converter' reservoir as well as cartridges. Yes, it seems cheaper to buy a cartridge pen but then you have to top up with new cartridges (which is how they make their money ...) If you get a better calligraphy pen like a Rotring Art Pen then you can also get a piston-fill converter which means that you can refill as often as you like from an ink bottle – and change colours whenever you want, too.

So, you try it out. It's interesting. Good results looks very possible. You're prepared to commit to a set of metal dip nibs. What are the next calligraphy tools and materials to obtain, the ones will carry you into the realm of gift calligraphy, greetings cards and (generally) your own written art? Well:

  • more detailed information about more alphabets
  • dip nib holder
  • at least one medium-to-large good nib (Brause, Mitchell, Sheaffer etc) and possibly some smaller ones (<2mm)
  • separate reservoir, if the nib needs one
  • good quality black ink such as India ink or lamp-black watercolour or Chinese stick ink (if you're prepared to grind it, which isn't as hard as it sounds)
  • red ink (good quality vermilion or cadmium red artists' gouache is excellent
  • other colours, as you desire
  • slanted writing surface (drawing board propped against books, in lap on edge of desk, etc)
  • medium, rough paintbrush, for mixing up colours, applying ink to nib etc
  • smaller nib (eg fine italic, 1.5-2mm)
  • fine drawing nib, or separate mapping pen
  • one full sheet of hot-pressed 300gsm watercolour paper (eg Fabriano) for cutting/tearing into sections for good work

So ...

You make a couple of birthday cards. You do a haiku in italics, and put it in a little gold frame, and it looks fantastic. Someone asks you to write out a few words for them.

Now it starts getting a lot more fun. Suddenly, you can write calligraphy, and your calligraphy tools do make a difference! So, as soon as you find you want more, I recommend:

  • another nib holder, to avoid the trouble of changing over
  • more nibs, always more nibs: a very big nib ... and a very little nib ... a crow-quill or fine drawing nib, for outlining; and maybe a copperplate nib
  • Another lamp-black artists' watercolour, for mixing into water-soluble ink; and an ultramarine blue, a cerulean blue, a yellow ochre to imitate gold (or metallic gold gouache), a chrome yellow, a lemon yellow, another cadmium red, a quinacridone red, perhaps a vermilion, a viridian green, and a titanium white
  • a fine paintbrush (for example, a sable size 0) for adding ornament, colouring in, etc
  • some calligraphy 'parchment' paper, for playing around with
  • a desk-easel to make it easier to write on a slant
  • an adjustable desk lamp (with a daylight bulb) or get a full-spectrum work lamp, or magnifying lamp

By now, you are doing things with calligraphy tools and materials that, to the casual observer, look quite specialised. If friends come round and see you writing, they'll say things like, "I never knew you could put the ink on the pen with a brush!" and "Wow, you write it so fast!"

Now that you know a little bit about your abilities, it's a good time to experiment again:

  • fine sharp knife such as a traditional quill-cutting knife, or a scalpel (I use Swann-Morton)
  • reed pen
  • quill pen
  • Chinese calligraphy brush
  • different papers: rice, handmade, linen rag etc
  • a piece of vellum -- off-cut, if you can get it
  • a piece of parchment, just to underline how much nicer vellum is
  • fine sandpaper (for 'fuzzing' the vellum surface)
  • pumice powder, for degreasing
  • gum sandarac, for tightening hairlines
  • gold leaf (the kind called 'transfer' or 'patent' on tissue sheets -- easier to handle)
  • flat gold leaf size or mordant -- water-soluble, for use on paper
  • two or three fine sable watercolour brushes, for example a size 000, a size 0 and a size 2
  • book of examples of fantastic decorated pages -- whether medieval, Renaissance, Arts & Crafts or modern
  • desk storage for your nibs, holders, brushes, paints, etc

Pretty soon you may also find that you want more than calligraphy tools, because now you've got the gilding bug:

  • one tablet of shell gold (real gold paint)
  • a book of loose gold leaf
  • glassine paper or fine silk, cotton wool etc for pressing down gold leaf
  • raised gilding medium (for example, Roberson's gold body, or your own gesso sottile if you're up for it)
  • an agate burnisher
  • gilder's tip, gilder's cushion and gilder's knife

After that ... who knows? You may well be teaching page decoration in evening classes at the local college, or applying for membership of a prestigious lettering-and-penmanship organisation, or organising an exhibition of your own work, or too busy selling greetings cards to go shopping.

What I do know is that nowhere along the line do calligraphy tools stop being fascinating and desirable.

Happy writing!

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