In this article:
- Choosing a Script
- Finding and Studying a Calligraphy Exemplar
- Using a Guidesheet
- Starting Out with a Pencil
- How to Practice
I had my new nibs, I had a calligraphy practice pad with guidelines, I had my ink, and I was gonna write beautiful letters just like the artists I admired. Or was I? Looking back through my Instagram feed, I was writing in a not-so-glorified cursive, and that was after all the difficulty of getting ink to paper via the nib, which I didn’t know was incorrect for the script I was using it for. I read once a long time ago that if you’re not ashamed by the first paid work you did or by your first product, then you’re doing something wrong. I am happy to report that according to that, I am doing something right. A few posts ago, I encouraged my reader to start now and use what they have if they love letters and making marks. I suppose my patchy start is a good example of that.
So, beginning to write. Do have all your new toys, do play with them, and do be excited. Anything that you are willing to apply discipline and dedication to is transformational and rewarding. And when you hit a wall, take a break and walk around.
After you’ve had a go with your ink and nib, clean the nib and put both away in a cool safe place.
An exemplar is an image of a script, or hand, with upper and lower case letters — majuscules and minuscules, respectively, along with letters and numbers. It often includes a suggested writing instrument, the proper angle to hold the pen, and the angle at which the script is written. It may sound like a lot of parameters, but each is a key to the success of your writing of the script.
Find an Examplar
I enjoy having a tangible copy of the script I’m working with as I work. Most of the exemplars I have are in calligraphy books I have. Since they’re in books, there is also historical information to accompany the exemplars and information about the tools and other hints. Calligraphy books are usually near the art section. Check the library, used book shops, and new bookstores too. There are also many exemplars available online and the nice thing about checking them out online is that you get to see a variety of scripts to choose from. Print the one you choose if you can. Remember, start now and use what you have.
Choose a Script to Learn
Decide on a script you love that you really want to learn. For me it was a broad edge pen script called gothic textura quadrata. It’s a mix of short diamond-shaped strokes and straight lines. Learning and writing it was sooo satisfying to me — still is. I never particularly loved the cursive scripts Copperplate or Spencerian, but they have found their own graceful place in my repertoire.
Either way, choose a script and find yourself an exemplar with guidelines.
Start Small with Study
Some exemplars include the basic strokes that make up the letters. A stroke is a small shape made with the pen, moving in one direction. Usually these are short vertical strokes, long vertical strokes, and small curved or elliptical strokes. Different strokes are then put together to create letters. For example: an oval is written, and just next to it a short vertical stroke. Together, these strokes form the lowercase letter a. Even though letters are different from each other, using basic strokes that look consistently similar to each other really brings your script together and makes the whole body of text look and feel cohesive. Practicing consistency in your basic strokes is vital to your success and contentment with a script. Most exemplars also include what’s called a ductus, or order of strokes in which a letter is formed. The ductus will give you clues as to which strokes to use when writing the letters.
Study the strokes and where they land in relation to one another and in relation to the baseline, the x-height, and the slant line. Try to pick out similar shapes in different letters. Letters are, after all, made up of a few shapes combined.
Guidesheets are another tool for you to build with and it’s gonna depend on the script you’re working with. A guidesheet is a page with lines on it that guide your lettering as you work with calligraphy. If your script is written at a slant, or not straight up and down, there will be parallel lines that show the slant of the script for you to follow. There will also be horizontal lines for you to write on. There are no letters on guidesheets, but the lines are there to train you how to place the strokes of the letters. Refer to your exemplar; it will show you how to set up the lines so that the letters are proportionate. Again, there are also guidesheets available online for you to print and work directly from.
Place your guidesheet on top of a couple of pieces of white paper. This will help you to see the guidelines through the top sheet of paper because the lines won’t get lost in the darkness of the table you’re working on. The extra couple of pages also provide a cushion for your writing instrument, which can make writing smoother. This is helpful when working with a nib and ink. Think of the difference between writing in a new notebook and writing on a single piece of paper that’s on a table. A trick I learned from Paul Antonio: use 2 small paperclips at the top of the page to keep your papers from sliding all over. This will help keep your writing consistent. Furthermore, place the long edges of the paperclips along the slant lines of the script to avoid confusion for your eyes as you work.
Start with a Pencil
Working in pencil is a great way to get a feel for a script and start developing the muscle memory in the hand and arm for the formation of the strokes. It bypasses the nuances and complications of working with a nib and ink so that you can more easily develop a relationship with a script and get used to working with the guidelines.
Pointed Pen Scripts — Copperplate, Spencerian
I prefer a soft lead pencil like an HB for this — a wooden pencil works best for me.
Broad Edge Scripts — Italic, Uncial, Fraktur
Tape two sharpened pencils together so that the points are even. The tips of the pencils mimic what would be the edges of a broad nib, so you get a broad stroke when you write with this instrument. Like a broad pen, hold the pencils at a consistent angle without turning them. This will keep your strokes of the same thickness as you work and you will be able to achieve the shapes you see in your exemplar more easily. The exemplar should have a note that tells you how many nibwidths — small horizontal marks the full width of the nib — high to make the body of your letters, and a note of what angle to place the edge of your nib as you work.
How to Practice
So you’ve got all your materials, you’ve looked over your exemplar, and you’re ready to begin! Start by making the basic strokes. Pay attention to where on the guidelines you’re placing them, where they begin and end, and watch that you’re keeping your nib consistently facing the same direction. Practice making each stroke look like the last BUT only make 5 of the same stroke at a time, then study your work.
After you’re comfortable making the strokes, you can move on to putting the strokes together to make letters. Writing letters and words is a great way to get a feel for the rhythm of a script while still practicing the strokes. Again, study your own work carefully and against the exemplar. Be honest with yourself at this stage. You are laying the foundation for your experience and progress with the script.
Regular practice with the basic strokes is essential to your success with the script. Be patient with yourself and mind your posture. Make sure that you are taking breaks as you work. Lastly, my teacher Paul Antonio suggests to write your name and the date at the top of your progress pages. This keeps track of the growth and progress you’ve made.
When you’re all finished working, take care to put your materials away properly so that they don’t get lost or damaged. Sometimes collecting tools that work well for you can take some time, so take care of them. I’ve had many favorites get damaged or lost because I didn’t put them away. I take much better care of them now — you never know when they may come in handy.