Calligraphy tutorial: five options for creating calligraphy

This calligraphy tutorial outlines five easy ways to get a new ‘feel’ for calligraphic lines and letterforms. Different tools and techniques suit different people, so have a go with all of them if and when you can.

(For how to write a particular script, try out the calligraphy alphabets page.)

Already confident using a nib or brush? Surprise yourself with a fresh understanding of letter forms when you try a couple of the alternatives below.



No. 1 in the ‘Five Options’ calligraphy tutorial

DOUBLED PENCILS

You’ll need two sharpened pencils and two rubber bands. If possible, first carefully shave a little off one side of each pencil. When the shaved sides are positioned adjacent, the pencil points come closer together, giving a narrower ‘nib’.

Rest the pencils together vertically point-down on a flat surface, so their points are exactly level. Fasten them securely with a rubber band at one end. Adjust the points so they are again aligned. Fasten the other end with the other rubber band.

At your calligraphy desk, hold the double pencil as for writing. Point it front-left, at about 45 degrees.

Rest both points on the paper. The distance between the pencil points now forms an ‘invisible nib’. Keep both pencil points pressed lightly upon the paper; keep them pointing forwards and left.

Now, move your hand and you’ll draw a double line. If you keep the pencils pointing in the same direction but move your hand in circles, you’ll find thick-and-thin ‘ribbons’ happening on your page.

If you are not sure about pen-angles and exactly how to produce ‘thick-and-thin’ effects, have a look at the different movements and directions involved. There are three separate skills there: pen angle is one; direction of hand movement is another; pressure on the page is a third.

The double-pencil is a simple but surprisingly useful tool for understanding the construction of calligraphic letters. Double pencils can also be used to lay out large lettering for banners, posters etc.

Can't find a pair of good pencils? Here are some good value Dixon pencils (24/pack, yellow) and some slightly more expensive but infinitely cooler-sounding Black Warrior Cedar Pencils (8 in a pack) - surely, the graphite tool without which no serious Ninja calligrapher would leave the house.

Rubber bands? One of the least expensive at Amazon is even named "Pencil Grip" Rubber Bands. 40 in a pack. Multi-coloured. But do check around for better rubber-band offers :-)



No. 2 in the ‘Five Options’ calligraphy tutorial

FELT-TIP CALLIGRAPHY PENS

These are wonderfully convenient, readily available, cheap-and-cheerful tools.

Bear in mind that their ink usually fades with time, their ‘thin’ lines soak in too heavily, they damage easily and go fluffy under pressure, they run out in a matter of hours (it seems), you would never use them for a professional or important piece of work ... but they are still wonderfully convenient, and available. And cheap.

All you need is the pen itself and some paper. It’s helpful to have at least two for messing about with: one should be broad (3-5mm) and one rather finer (1.5-2mm). The broad pen is the one to start with.

Re paper: felt-tips work fine on printer paper. ‘Parchment’ paper ... well ... it does look nice but I am not a fan of using it for practice. Save it for the special work. (Cheerful that stuff may be – cheap it certainly is not.) I recommend ordinary paper for use with your cheap pens until you’re feeling more luxurious. (Then you can get a swan’s quill and some real parchment.)

The best advice you’ll get on using felt-tip calligraphy pens is just this:

Keep the pressure even and light.

All too often, beginning calligraphers in a real-life calligraphy tutorial make the mistake of pressing harder. It won't make the pen do what you want. Felt-tips soften and splay under pressure.

Try instead to sense a light, clinging contact with the page which comes up through the nib into the pen and your fingers.

Touch one corner of the nib to the paper, then the other, to see how it feels. Lightly rest all the end-width of the nib on the paper and rock it slightly: can you feel when one corner leaves the paper while the other is still touching it? Again touch the paper with the full width of the nib so that both corners are down on the paper. That’s the contact you want to maintain when writing. Don’t let either nib-corner lift, and don’t press too hard.

Pressure is separate from pen-angle (see the 'Laws of the Nib' calligraphy tutorial page). Keep the pen pointing out to the front and left at around 45 degrees, and move your hand to form ‘ribbons’ on the page while keeping the pressure light and constant.

Having dissed marker ink above, I will admit that a slightly higher quality marker can produce sharp, crisp lines with little smudging ... it's just that I only ever buy the cheap ones for practice/rough layouts.

So for best-value bulk-buy calligraphy markers I'd get something like this 12-pack of black Sharpie Calligraphic Markers ...

... while for experimenting with different colours AND sizes of nib, you need something more like the 5-piece, 2-size Staedtler "Duo" calligraphy marker set ...

... and finally, here are four superior coloured calligraphy markers which won't bleed or smudge and which even boast light-fast ink: Calligraphy Pen Set (4 Primary Colors).

As mentioned above, ordinary copier/printer paper is the cheapest option for practice, but if the ink-fuzzing irritates you (as well it may), I've been recently reminded by a visitor that a legal pad doesn't bleed in the same way, and is also lined, which can be useful. (Thanks, Bethany!) This 100-page white Dual Ruled Pad by Ampad looks good enough.

You could also use the thin art paper called cartridge paper in the UK (it's my own preferred layout medium), but it costs a little more.



No. 3 in the ‘Five Options’ calligraphy tutorial

CARTRIDGE, REFILL OR 'FOUNTAIN' CALLIGRAPHY PENS

You will need: the pen itself and an ink supply (cartridges, usually included, or a bottle for refill.)

Cartridge or refillable calligraphy pens work on the same principle as a regular fountain pen. A (comparatively) large reservoir of thin ink is held in a cartridge in the barrel of the pen. This ink feeds round internal baffles to control its flow. It runs into the nib unit and is fed onto the page via a slit.

When you buy such a pen, you'll usually get different sizes and types of nib units and a selection of ink cartridges along with the main body of the pen. The advantage of using cartridge or refillable calligraphy pens is that, like felt-pens, they can be used easily on horizontal surfaces because of their mechanically-controlled ink-flow. Also, they do not run out mid-word like a dip-pen, and they don’t involve open bottles of ink during a calligraphy tutorial.

However, cartridge ink is thin so as not to clog the pen’s innards, and it looks jolly thin too on paper. Also, the nib unit is necessarily quite rigid because its mechanisms must screw into the barrel. This can have a dampening effect on the calligraphic experience. The nib is not responsive and flexible.

Like all fountain pens, cartridge calligraphy pens can leak spectacularly. Over time, any ink left in the pen dries out and clogs. Changing a cartridge nib unit involves a lot of washing, and the ink always seems to stick to the basin.


NOTE

Cartridge and refillable calligraphy pens are a major source of revenue for most calligraphy departments and, I dare say, websites too. They are easy and convenient to use and good for beginners.

But as this is a candid calligraphy tutorial, I recommend that you work your way round to a dip-pen. They’re only a little bit more effort for a lot more fun and flexibility.

Having said all that, a good cartridge calligraphy pen with a fine italic nib and a couple of lessons will do wonders for your handwriting!

As you can imagine, Amazon is full of these things. Let me start you off with a solid middle-of-the-range example, a Manuscript Calligraphy Set, which comes with 5 nibs and an ink converter, and from there you can browse the many alternatives, marvelling at the science (and price-tag) of top-notch efforts such as Rotring's Artpen Calligraphy Set which comes with a sharpening stone for when your nibs begin to lose their bite.





No. 4 in the ‘Five Options’ calligraphy tutorial

DIP-PEN OR QUILL

So-called 'dip-pens' come in several varieties. They all work on the same essential principles. Nearly all calligraphy dip-pens and quills consist of the following elements:

1. Handle, nib-holder or shaft – this is what the calligrapher grips while writing. It should be comfortable to the hand. A nib-holder will generally have some kind of internal sprung metal arrangement in one or both ends, which nibs can be pushed into and removed from fairly securely.

2. Nib – the business end of the pen, usually made of metal. Consists of two ‘shoulders’ with an extending slitted tongue in between. The square-cut pen-tip should (during this calligraphy tutorial and in normal use) make full contact with the paper. It flexes, to distribute ink evenly and crisply onto the writing surface and so draw new ink down the slit.

3. Reservoir – this may be part of the structure of the nib – a small cup or depression which feeds the slit. Or it may take the form of a separate little metal ‘doofus’ which has to be fiddled onto the nib before use. Some reservoirs sit on top of the nib, some underneath. The reservoir’s function is to hold a small supply of ink in constant readiness at the top of the slit so that several letters or words may be written before the ink needs to be replenished.

Generally speaking, unless the reservoir is built into the nib, all three of the above can be purchased separately, ‘mix-and-match’. There isn’t really space in a short calligraphy tutorial to go into all the possible options but I’ll try to catch up on that elsewhere soon.

To save time and effort as a beginner, it's well worth buying a dip-pen set: you'll get 4-6 nibs with reservoirs and a decent holder for less than it would cost to buy them separately. A good example of a nice inexpensive dip-pen set is Speedball's Calligraphy Lettering Set, consisting of a holder and six nibs.

Don't forget that unless your set already includes it, you’ll also need ink.

Ink for dip-pens

Dip pens can be used with all sorts of inks.

Generally, you’ll get a better result with thicker varieties such as India ink, Chinese stick ink, or gouache paint diluted to the consistency of half-cream.

Thin, watery inks, such as those used to refill fountain pens, tend to run suddenly off the dip-pen onto the paper, and produce pale, wishy-washy strokes.

Despite popular imagery, and contrary to their name, it isn’t advisable to dip your calligraphy pen into a pot of ink. It may be alright for Victorian clerks on-screen but in every calligraphy tutorial I’ve run, it’s led to blots and uncontrolled ink flow (‘niborrhoea’).

Instead, use a medium-sized watercolour brush or an eye-dropper to refill the reservoir at the upper portion of the nib-slit.

Writing on a slope

If you’re using a dip-pen, it’s easier to write on a sloping surface such as a writing-desk, desk-easel or a board perched on your lap against the edge of a table. So arrange yourself comfortably:

• Make sure your sloping writing surface is stable. (If you have a desk-easel, ensure it can’t slide away from you unexpectedly. I weigh mine down with both volumes of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.)
• Adjust your seat to bring yourself up to a relaxed working height.
• Fasten your paper to the writing slope (blu-tac, masking-tape, fancy hanging weights like the medieval monks used to use etc).

When using a dip-pen or quill:

• Make sure your ink, paint etc is opened and within easy reach of your non-writing hand.
• Have a parking-place next to the ink to put down your loading brush safely after you’ve dipped it, so it doesn’t splotch ink onto other surfaces. (I usually rest it across a small saucer with its brush-hairs sticking out in mid-air.) A pen can rest in the same place when you want to get up for tea, stretch etc.


Warning
If you rest your loading brush or pen across an open ink-bottle, you will sooner or later get ink on the handle, whence it migrates spitefully, inevitably, via your fingers onto your work.



Loading a dip-pen or quill

Hold the pen horizontal in your writing hand.
Dip your loading brush or eye-dropper into the ink so that you take up a few drops.
• Still holding the pen horizontal, apply ink from the brush-tip or dropper to the reservoir.
Replace the brush or dropper on its saucer etc. Keep holding the pen horizontal. Or you’ll get ink-spots in your lap.
Test the ink-flow on a piece of scrap-paper at one side of your sloping board before taking up your main work again.

Depending on the size of your nib and the nature of the ink and writing surface, you’ll need to reload the reservoir every few letters or words.

If you’re using a quill, the same rules apply. Use it ever so lightly. Quills flex more than steel nibs, and they wear down quicker, too, particularly on cheap abrasive paper. (Again, this calligraphy tutorial is not the space to discuss quill pens in full but they are a very interesting topic all to themselves.)

Because dip-pens and quills have flexible slit nibs, they dig into the paper or can be damaged when mis-handled. If you haven’t already done so, I recommend you take a quick look at the other calligraphy tutorial guidelines and illustrations on the 'how to write calligraphy' page.


No. 5 in the ‘Five Options’ calligraphy tutorial

USING A SQUARE-ENDED BRUSH OR SPONGE

The final entry in this calligraphy tutorial is certainly the messiest!

You’ll need a brush which looks as thin as possible from the side. It should be between 6mm and 20mm wide, and fairly firm-textured. Nylon and sable work better than bristle. A ‘bright’ (as they are called) is probably better than a ‘flat’, being shorter and stiffer and giving more control over the lines.

An ordinary cleaning sponge cut into blocks with scissors is an effective calligraphy tool. You might want to wear an ink-proof glove to use it.

Writing calligraphy with a square brush is in some respects quite different from using a nib. A brush is very soft and flexible and responds to pressure by producing a thicker line, which an ordinary calligraphy nib really doesn’t. A brush also runs out of colour quite quickly. It produces a ‘scratchy’ or textured, lined look when it starts to run out, which can be very attractive.

A brush is best used on a shallowly sloping writing surface (30 degrees or so) but if it grips the colour well you’ll get away with it on the horizontal.

A sponge ‘nib’ can be used for large, bold letters. Firm sponge used lightly gives surprisingly crisp strokes. Any variation in pressure tends to squash the fine lines and squeeze the ink or paint out so it runs down the page: lovely, if it’s deliberate! When a sponge starts to run out of colour, it can produce a patchily lined effect a little like brush-strokes. It’s fun to play with the contrasts between the strong colour from a new sponge-stroke and the fading colour as it becomes exhausted.

Use a ‘heavy’, slightly thicker ink such as India ink, diluted gouache colour or a very thin poster paint for both brushes and sponges. Runny, watery ink will come off the brush or sponge too quickly. Your letters will look patchy, and may drip (even more).

One advantage of using large brushes or sponges is that after applying one colour you usually have enough wet ink and space in the line of the letter to add other colours which will flow and blend interestingly.

To mix colour in the letter, draw your basic letterform on a slight slope in a light, bright colour; then move it to a horizontal surface and drip in a few drops of a contrasting, darker colour. Allow to dry motionless, or tip to blend it more.


That's it!

I hope this ‘five options’ calligraphy tutorial has given you some interesting ideas to work with in getting a feel for calligraphic tools and lines.

You might find it useful to look at the ‘How to write in calligraphy’ page to ‘brush up’ on the three separate skills of handling angle, pressure and direction.



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