Calligraphy tools: checklists
The three fundamental calligraphy tools are:
- a writing surface
- ink or other liquid colour
- a nib or brush on a handle
... but there's more to it than just that, of course ... which is what the rest of this page is about.
The unique relationship between your page, your ink and your writing tool will govern the appearance and
quality of your calligraphy, as well as how satisfying or frustrating it seems!
The following list of calligraphy tools is based on my own and my students' experience. It's laid out roughly in order of ease and importance, as I see it.
Note: I'm not suggesting you need everything in any one section. These are just useful or desirable calligraphy tools, laid out in some kind of order :-)
"Just trying it out"
- reliable information about how to write calligraphy, or at least examples to copy
- calligraphy marker, medium to large (2.5-5mm) -- recommended are Yasutomo Calligraphy Marker Sets in 3 sizes, which balance well in the hand and come in different colours
- fair-quality paper (cartridge paper, legal pad, etc)
In a way, that's all you need. But you will find life much easier if you also (or already) 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
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 to obtain, the ones will carry you into the realm of gift calligraphy, greetings cards and (generally) your own written art? Well:
"Calligraphy suits me"
- more detailed information about more alphabets
- dip nib holder
- one medium-to-large good nib (Brause, Mitchell, Sheaffer etc)
- separate reservoir, if the nib needs one
- good quality black ink such as India ink; lamp-black watercolour; 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 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
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 you go back
to Online Calligraphy Stores Central, and you say:
"I want MORE calligraphy tools ..."
- another nib holder, please, to avoid the fiddle-faddle of changing over. Uh ... heck with it, make that three more nib holders
- and another couple of nibs: a really big nib ... and a really little nib ... oooh -- is that a copperplate nib in the corner there?
- Excuse me, where are your artists' watercolour and gouache ranges? Oh, I see them: I'll have another lamp-black, please
- and an ultramarine blue
- and a cerulean blue
- and ... yellow ochre, to imitate gold ...
- unless of course you have any metallic gold gouache? Oh, you do? Is it any good? Oh, well then, one of those, and the ochre, for mixing ...
- and some viridian green
- no, really, that's all the paint I need. Oh, wait, could I have one tube of titanium white, too? Thanks.
- one pack of calligraphy 'parchment' paper, for playing around with
- How much is that desk-easel in the window?
- While I'm here, for future reference, I'd like to see your adjustable desk lamps ... and, by the way --
- -- do you stock daylight bulbs? Oh, good. Oh -- you also have full spectrum desk lamps? Hmmm ...
Good lighting is very important for good artwork and an adjustable desk lamp which gives bright even light is an essential among calligraphy tools.
By now, you are doing things that look quite arcane with calligraphy tools that 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:
"All things calligraphic are of interest to me"
- a fine sharp knife such as a traditional quill-cutting knife, or a scalpel (I use Swann-Morton)
- a reed pen
- a quill pen
- a 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
- a 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:
- one tablet of shell gold (real gold paint)
- a book of loose gold leaf
- glassine paper 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.
Notes on paper, ink and pens
There is huge variation in the paper, colour and writing points out there. Don't get bogged down. Experiment. Remember and use those calligraphy tools which work
best for you.
Personally, I would 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!
If you're just starting out, you don't need many calligraphy tools beyond some kind of broad-nibbed marker and some kind of paper.
The results you get will depend quite a lot on the
quality of both, but to begin with it's more important to get a feel for how a broad-nibbed pen works than it is to work with more expensive materials.
An exception to that is if you're starting copperplate.
It's important to get a reasonably good quality of nib, ink and paper simply in order to form the letters!
When you're using a calligraphy marker, the material which makes most difference to your work is the quality of paper you use.
It shouldn't be too absorbent, or it will bleed
and your thin lines will look thick and fuzzy. Cartridge paper is lovely to practise on; a legal pad is cheaper, and thinner, and it's
still not as absorbent as bargain-basement printer paper (which bleeds, but is nevertheless extremely useful for general practice work, layout etc).
Calligraphy fountain pens should be used with the recommended ink. Do not use waterproof inks, India ink or ink containing shellac or gum; they'll clog the pen.
It's best to avoid the cheapest cheap paper when you're using a fountain pen or other calligraphy tools with thinner inks, because the paper will very likely absorb liquid like a sponge,
and blur the letters, which is discouraging.
If you're using a dip pen, the ink you choose becomes much more important. Too thin, and it will blot and run onto the paper ('niborrhoea').
Too thick, and it will clog your nib.
Once you get used to mixing your own colours out of gouache and watercolour, or grinding your own Chinese stick,
you may find it a little frustrating to work with pre-mixed inks, because you quickly get used to being able to adjust your own ink to the perfect
consistency with a few drops of water or a little more paint. Good gouache is infinitely convenient, you can change colours whenever you want,
and if you're serious about continuing to work with
calligraphy tools for any length of time I'm sure it saves money, too.
In fact, as soon as you start using a dip pen there is a risk that you may (like me) start turning into a calligraphy diva
(or, if you want to look at it another way,
'acquiring a semi-professional attitude'). You'll realise that you really do want proper calligraphy tools: a slanted board to work on, a decent long steel rule, masking tape, and miniature
desk drawers for your nibs, and a proper full-spectrum desk lamp over your left shoulder (unless you're turning into a left-handed calligraphy diva,
in which case, of course, the lamp goes over your right shoulder).
'Tis but a short step from there to ordering a whole book of 23-carat gold leaf, three kinds of scalpel blade, a facsimile copy of the Macclesfield Psalter and a proper Sepp agate burnisher. Don't say I didn't warn you :-)
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