This article is for the aspiring calligrapher, someone inspired by letters but unsure about what supplies they need in order to begin. I will go over materials and information I suggest to those getting started with calligraphy. What we’re really trying to improve in practice sessions is the steadiness of the hand and the execution of form — meaning — straight lines are straight and curved and circular shapes are all the same volume. It sounds tedious, and it is, but this is the practice. Whether you’re after a clean, traditional script or something modern and carefree, the quality of your lines makes your work peaceful and satisfying to view.
Regular study and practice are the foundation of successful calligraphy, along with a little positive encouragement. Having materials that interact well will add to your success. Be patient as you work, and be sure to take breaks every 30 minutes or so.
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 this 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 on pretty much all types of paper I used it on. It 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 sized 9″×12″. What I love about each of these is they are smooth, bright white, and can take a good amount of ink. They are also lightweight enough that you can see guidelines through them if you place the guidesheet under them.
It sounds 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 calligraphy. Pencils are nice because they take the ink component out of writing and allow you to focus on your form. Many people new to calligraphy have an excessively firm grip on the writing instrument and keep the side of their writing hand planted on the table. This can cause pain and eliminate mobility. A few adjustments. patience, and a lot of practice with a pencil can alleviate this. Pencils are also great for practicing whole arm movement, breathing while writing, pressure control, form of strokes, and flourishing.
I tend to use a sharpened soft lead pencil like a 4b. With pointed pen scripts, you can still learn to regulate pressure to get variation of thick and thin strokes for Copperplate script.
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 you can still work with ink, but you don’t have have to worry about regulating the ink flow like you would with a dip pen.
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. These areas can be frustrating and misleading for both experienced and new calligraphers, especially someone shy 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.
Check out my article about nibs if this is a new word to you. The most important thing to look at 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 work carefully and thoughtfully is an errant fiber that drags ink everywhere. Trust me.
A Note on New Nibs
Since they are made of metal and are fragile, manufacturers put a thin protective coating on each nib. Ink will not adhere to or flow from this coating, so it needs to be removed by gently washing the nib 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. This approach is just too abrasive to me and I’m convinced it would damage the nib. Plus you could still eat the potato.
Whatever you do, don’t pass the nib through a flame to get rid of the coating. Heat will soften the metal, making it more fragile and susceptible to damage and disappointing letters.
The first ink I worked with was Higgins, straight out of the bottle. I later switched to sumi ink because it was a favorite among my Instagram calligraphy idols. I like bottled inks for practice and for beginning. They lessen the friction of getting started. That said, some are easier to work with straight out of the bottle than others. You can add water to your ink to your liking, but do it a little at a time. 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 nib if there isn’t much there to begin with. If you can, make a tape roll and stick the bottom of your ink container to the desk. The furthest a nib needs to be dipped is just enough to submerge the reservoir.
An exemplar is a model of the script you are working with. It shows what the letters look like and where on the guidelines to put them. Exemplars sometimes have notes about the angle of the script and examples of letter variations. You can find exemplars online and in calligraphy books. Use your exemplar to plot the correct guidelines and slant lines for your practice. Keep the exemplar you’re working with visible to you. Study it and refer to it as you write, then use it to check your practice against.
If you’re working with a dip pen on a broad edged script, you might want to work on a surface slightly angled down toward your body. I didn’t start off working this way, but it changes the angle of the nib to the paper which makes the flow of ink to paper slower. The ink won’t blob onto the paper this way and the strokes stay 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. Don’t make your work harder on yourself because you can’t find a tool you need. Protect your work from being 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 successful in your writing and less likely to want to continue to even 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 to the upper body, as well as room for the lungs to breathe while you’re writing. This truly brings your script to life.
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 stays 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 lines that are perpendicular to each other. I use a protractor to measure the angle of the script and mark slant lines.
Paperclips: These are used to hold a stack of papers together to keep them from sliding as I am working.
Masking Tape: I use it all the time. I 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 specific erasing.
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!