Two of my admirers asked me this question in the same day and I thought it may be worth addressing here.
Let it be said that I admire and bow to the living calligraphy gods who can write straight and uniformly on a blank page (or window!) without a shadow of a guideline that I can see.
I am a calligraphy mortal. As such, I am versed in several tools that aide in the skillful foundation in a great piece of work.
I am blessed with a large commission that will appear in a book and I’ve elected to write it in Spencerian script, a simple and elegant angular cursive. The letters are quite flat and there is ample spacing between the lines, so I knew that the spacing of the lines of text and the spacing between lines was going to have to be even and consistent throughout the work. This is the largest piece I’ve ever worked with and I believe the smallest x-height I’ve ever used. It has about 40 lines of text, written on a 52° slant.
Let it now be said that I suck at drawing guidelines.
With enough practice, calligraphy does become some kind of alchemy where you use ink and a nib to cultivate artful letters out of an ordinary piece of paper. Until then, guidelines are what you use to cultivate consistency in your script. The term x-height refers to the height of the main body of the lowercase letters. The rest of the script uses that height for proportions for the sake of regularity. Learn the rules so you can break them properly. The ascenders, or lines that go above the x-height, such as d, b, h, and k, are regulated by another guideline, as are descenders — g, j, p, and y. Capital letters generally fall into these guidelines too. Different scripts have different proportions.
When drawing guidelines, it’s important to keep in mind that you’re going to need space between each line of text so that the letters don’t happen to overlap each other — you’d be surprised how much that happens — and to keep the lines light so that they don’t make a groove in the paper and so that they’re easy to erase later.
For slanted scripts, another set of guidelines, sometimes called the slant line, keeps the letters angled consistently. This helps the eye and hand learn what the script should look like as is is written. These are much more straightforward, as they are equidistant, and are also valuable to have in place to judge the spacing of letters widthwise and the spacing between letters.
You can either draw guidelines directly onto a page for practice or for a work or you can work with a blank page on top of a page with guidelines, printed or drawn. That’ll save you time. I like to practice directly on a lined page because I need practice with touching the guidelines with my letters.
Now back to ruling up, or drawing guidelines on a page.
I love ruling up a page. I love to measure off the x-height and make little marks and draw the lines with a ruler. So satisfying, relaxing, and meditative. Mindless in its mindfulness. And I really suck at it.
I use a T-square ruler to make the first line, usually in the center of the page, to make sure that it’s perpendicular to the edge of the paper and measure and draw other lines from there. With letters written with a broad edge nib, the x-height is measured in nib widths. Draw the baseline, draw the guidelines for the ascending and descending letters, draw the line for spacing between lines of text, and go down the page following the pattern. You can either do this with a ruler or you can mark the heights on a card and use that for measurement as you go. Much less margin for error that way.
No matter how meticulously I look directly over the ruler or my card, I can never quite seem to get the lines in the same spot every time. My own margin for error depending on the pencil lead thickness or whatever. So I’ll end up with one line of lettering that’s bigger than the rest, or two lines of script that are superclose to each other. Or I’ll be doing fine and not skip enough lines and have to start all over.
And I’ve been screwing it up for about 3 years now.
Ames Lettering Guide
This project is how the Ames Lettering Guide has become a valuable addition to my studio. I heard about the guide from other Instagram users. They posted one or two videos about using it to rule up pages for calligraphy. It’s a small plastic drafting tool that has a small rotating disc set into it with 4 rows of holes.
The user gently turns the disc, setting it so that the holes will correspond to the desired height and spacing of lines of letters, measured by the row of numbers two through ten at the bottom right of the disc. The numbers correspond to 1/32 of an inch, so the higher the setting, the wider the lines are apart. I was working in millimeters, so I did a few test runs and measured the distance between the lines to get the right setting for my work. I also tend to way overthink math and fractions.
With a straight edge in place, put the point of the pencil into the bottom hole of the row of holes on the guide that you’ve chosen for your project and, holding your straight edge down and using the pencil, draw the guide along the straight edge to the end of the page. Move the pencil point up to the next hole and draw it back across the page, continuing up the guide as you draw back and forth. Re-position the straight edge and guide and repeat the process for as many lines as you need.
Right off the bat, it has increased the speed and accuracy with which I rule up a page. This saves me a ton of time and frustration. I love drawing the guidelines, but sometimes the effort it takes detracts from what I would put into the actual calligraphy. So that’s my secret. That I rely on tools for accuracy and do my best to get rid of the evidence!