This article is geared toward the aspiring calligrapher, someone inspired by letters but unsure about where to begin. I will go over materials and information I suggest to those looking to begin with calligraphy.
I would say study and practice make up most of the foundation of successful calligraphy, along with a little positive encouragement. Having materials that interact well will add to your success.
We have 5 things to consider when sitting down to work with calligraphy:
- Writing Instrument
Each component feeds the next in some way.
Walking into the paper section at the art store can be overwhelming if you’re unfamiliar with allll the choices, especially in the calligraphy section. Most papers I’ve seen in the calligraphy section are different colored pads of parchment paper and one type of practice pad with guidelines printed on it. Both of which I bought when I first started because I thought they would help. But the guidelines were incorrect for the script I was trying to learn (Copperplate) and the ink I bought bled and feathered terribly in the parchment and the guidelines pad. Which all made me feel like I sucked at calligraphy. Very discouraging.
Practice papers that I’ve had success with are Canson Marker Paper and Rhodia Blank. Both come in pads and both are 9″×12″. What I love about each of these is they are smooth, bright white, and take ink really well, and are lightweight enough to be able to clearly see guidelines through if you place the page under them.
The first ink I worked with was Higgins, straight out of the bottle, followed by sumi ink because it was a favorite among the people I follow on Instagram. I like bottled inks for practice and for beginning. They lessen the friction of getting started. That said, some are easier to work with just out of the bottle than others. My favorite at the moment is Daniel Smith walnut ink. You always want to make sure you stir your ink well and store it in a cool place. Always test your ink with the paper and nib you’re working with to see how they do together.
It’s a good idea to decant ink into a smaller container. Chiefly, if you spill it, you make a smaller mess! Also, it’s hard to pick up too much ink on your writing instrument if there isn’t much there to begin with. The furthest a nib needs to be dipped is just enough to submerge the eye.
It might sound elementary, and you don’t see a whole lot of impressive videos with it online, but a pencil is a wonderful way to learn and practice a variety of components of calligraphy. Pencils are nice because they take the ink component out of writing, allowing you to focus on what you’re trying to practice. Many people new to calligraphy have an excessively firm grip on the writing instrument with the side of the writing hand planted on the table. A little tweaking and a lot of practice with a pencil can alleviate this. Pencils are also great for practicing whole arm movement, breathing while writing, pressure, form of strokes, and flourishing. Lastly, I still use a pencil to draw swift ovals with in order to warm up the muscles of the arm before I get started working.
I tend to use a soft lead pencil like a 4b, fairly sharp but flattened on one side. With pointed pen scripts, there is just enough pressure on the upstroke — strokes made from the baseline upward — to make a mark and heavier pressure on the downstroke — lines made when traveling toward the baseline — to create the variation in Copperplate script. I find a soft pencil mimics the result of a pointed flexible nib well.
Broad Edge Felt Tip Calligraphy Pens
The first calligraphy pen I ever used was a black chisel felt tip pen provided to the class. I was 11, and so was everyone else, so it was perfect. After that I was gifted more felt tip pens, sized broad, medium, fine, and even a scroll tip. I think these types of markers are wonderful for beginners because they give a clear idea of what their function is supposed to be and the mind gets into the habit of making strokes and connecting shapes. With dip pens, the penman has to be concerned with the consistency of the ink, the quality of the writing surface, and the preparation of the nib. Inexperience in these areas can be frustrating and misleading for a new penman, especially a shy one who is trying this on their own. Once you get your feet wet, it becomes time to learn the necessary pen control and pen manipulation to make more calculated and complicated strokes. Steel nibs stay sharp longer and allow for finer and more nuanced calligraphy.
Check out my article about nibs if this is a new word to you. The most important thing to check every time you sit down to write is your nib: check it for cleanliness and damage. Dried ink or paint, stray hairs and other particles on the nib prevent the flow of the ink and the proper function of the nib. The last thing you want in your strokes when you’re trying to make careful, thoughtful strokes is an errant hair that drags ink where you don’t want it.
A Note on New Nibs
Since they are made of metal and are fragile, manufacturers put a thin coating on each nib to protect it from moisture and damage. Ink will not adhere to or flow from this coating, so it needs to be removed by gently washing it with soap and water. Saliva works well for this too. Some calligraphers poke the nib into a potato for the starches to break the coating down. I think this increases the potential for damage to the nib.
Whatever you do, don’t pass the nib through a flame to get rid of the coating. Heat will soften it, making it more fragile and susceptible to damage and disappointing letters.
Notes on Damaged Nibs
Damage to the nib will skew your strokes and not allow you to make the shapes you’re trying to make. Sometimes ink won’t even make it to the page if the nib is damaged. Checking the condition of your nib can save you a lot of time and frustration.
An exemplar is a model of the script you are working with. It is set on guidelines and shows what the letters look like and where they sit on the guidelines. Exemplars sometimes have notes about the angle of the script and examples of letter variations. You can find exemplars online and in calligraphy books. Keep an exemplar of the script you’re working with visible to you. This will be a visual reference to you as you work and practice and it will also be what you check your practice against. You will also want to have the correct guide sheets for your script to practice with. The exemplar is a great place to check to see what you need.
Also, if you’re working with a broad edged script, you might want to work on a slightly angled surface. I didn’t start off working this way, but it changes the angle of the nib to the paper, slowing the flow of ink to paper, keeping the strokes more consistent. As I’m sitting at my desk, I use a drawing board that rests in my lap and against the edge of my desk. Not fancy, but useful.
If you’re working with a pointed pen script, a flat surface is suitable.
Keep your work area neat and clean. Calligraphy is tedious and time consuming and you wouldn’t want your work to be harder than it is because you can’t find a tool you need and you certainly don’t want anything you make to be ruined by errant dust or by papers blowing around on a windy day. Trust me, I know from experience!
Have good lighting. It’s important to be able to see details like guidelines, your exemplar, and your writing instrument as you work. Having good lighting adds to your comfort, to the consistency of your letters, and to the integrity of your script.
Sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor. Posture and comfort in the body play a massive role in your success. If you’re uncomfortable or if you are straining to see, you’ll be less likely to make the letters you want to make and less likely to want to continue to practice. You should be sitting upright with a straight back, hips steady and feet on the floor. This type of stability in the lower part of the body offers freedom and movement in the upper body, as well as literal room for the lungs to breathe while you’re writing. This truly brings your script to life.
Here are a few more materials that I have found useful and keep within reach at my art desk:
Pencil: I have a couple mechanical pencils for drawing lines, letters, and layouts. I like a mechanical pencil for these uses because the thickness of the lead is consistent. I mentioned above that I still practice pointed pen scripts with a soft lead pencil to save ink. I also work with letters that are drawn rather than written and I always start in pencil!
Ruler, Square Ruler, and Protractor: I use a ruler to mark lines and sometimes guidleines, or to measure paper sizes. I also use my metal ruler as a straight edge if I am cutting paper to size with an X-Acto knife. I use the square ruler when I want proportioned cuts and lines that are perpendicular to the edges of the paper. I use a protractor to measure the angle of the script and mark it directly on my work if I can’t use my light table.
Paperclips: These are used to hold a stack of papers together as I am working on them so they don’t slide around as I write on them.
Masking Tape: I use this to mark areas for watercolor washes that go under calligraphy and I tape pages on top of guidelines sometimes, depending on the project. I use it a lot to play with layout and it is really helpful and handy.
Ames Lettering Guide: I bought this for maybe $6 with shipping from Amazon (after checking local art shops first! Shop local and support small business!). It’s a guideline tool initially intended for architecture and plans of that nature. It has massively improved the accuracy of my lines and the consistency of my work. Check out this article I wrote singing its praises and how the heck to use it.
I keep two beloved types within reach: a Staedtler white eraser for starting over (I do that a lot) and a small Mono eraser for fine tweaking of lines.
I hope this post pointed you in the right direction in the land of calligraphy supplies! Check out Beginning to Write and Practice to put your tools to good use. Any questions or feedback? Leave a comment or send me an email! Thanks for reading!