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By Trish Meyer |

Try Your Hand at Calligraphy! Start with These Pens

calligraphy tools

As a typoholic with a vast type library, I always thought I could find the perfect font for every job. But so often when designing a motion-graphics opening for a video client, I found the title required a more personal touch than even the most charming “handwriting” font.

So I decided to learn calligraphy.

Calligraphy is “continuous writing” with little to no touching up, and it ranges from very formal to very expressive. Depending on which calligraphic script (also known as style or hand) you want to write, you’ll need either an edged pen or a pointed pen.

Here’s a Just-Enough-to-Be-Dangerous Guide to traditional calligraphy pens. I’ve included a pair of videos so you can see how these tools work, along with a link to a Resources page if you’d like to do further research.

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The word calligraphy is derived from two Greek words: kallos, meaning “beautiful,” and graphein, meaning “to write.”

Don’t confuse calligraphy with hand lettering, where a logo design might be sketched and drawn numerous times, then scanned and vectorized in Illustrator. (See these courses on lynda.com for more: Margo Chase’s Hand-Lettered Poster and Drawing Vector Graphics: Hand Lettering with Von Glitschka.)

As I learned about calligraphic styles, I discovered what a huge influence calligraphy has had on typeface design—particularly scripts and blackletter styles. Type designers Hermann Zapf and Rudolf Koch were expert calligraphers before they created their first typeface—as are contemporary type designers Julian Waters (Waters Titling) and Stephen Rapp (Shoebop, Memoir, and more).

It’s fair to say that in order to create great letterforms, knowing how a nib or brush behaves is as important as mastering Bézier curves.


Broad-edged pen

The broad-edged (chisel-edged) pen creates thick and thin lines depending on the angle of the nib to the paper. Speedball, Brause, and Mitchell are popular nib manufacturers; the pen holder is sold separately. The Pilot Parallel pen is a great choice, too.

Note that new nibs are shipped with a protective oily film that keeps them from rusting, but also repels ink! Scrub a new nib gently with a gritty toothpaste before using it for the first time (see Troubleshooting a Calligraphy Dip Pen). Applying a little gum arabic will also help ink stick to a nib.

The broad-edge pen is used for many scripts including Roman Capitals, Foundational, Uncial, Italic, Blackletter, and more.

Italic is written with a slight letter slant and a mostly 45-degree pen angle. Because there are many variations (including a Gothicized Italic from Sheila Waters), it’s often personalized by artists such as Denis Brown and Carrie Imai.

Blackletter covers a basic script, Textura, Fraktur, and more. I’ve never been fond of blackletter typefaces, but Fraktur can really come to life in the hands of an expert calligrapher, such as Rudolf Koch or Luca Barcelona.

Calligraffiti is a blend of blackletter and graffiti for contemporary designs and performance art. Notable artists include Neils Shoe Muelman and Pokras Lampas.

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Pointed pen

The pointed pen uses a flexible nib: the more you press down, the wider the stroke. While there are many new and vintage nibs to choose from, the go-to beginner-friendly nib is the Nikko G. It’s fairly stiff, so it can deal with a heavy touch; a more flexible nib may create a wider “swell” but they take practice to obtain consistent results. I’ve learned to try several nibs and then use the ones I like best. You buy the nib and holder separately (see the video above for details, along with these tips for adjusting your oblique holder).

The pointed pen is used for Copperplate and its many informal pointed pen variations, including those made popular by master penman Mike Kecseg. For examples, check out Jake Weidmann, Barbara Close, and Xandra Zamora.

Modern calligraphy is a more informal style popular for wedding invitations and party invites (see Molly Thorpe’s book of the same name).

(Note: Some modern calligraphy tutorials can cross over into hand-lettering if there is a lot of sketching and redrawing. And if the calligraphy is drawn with a monoline marker, it’s called “faux” or “fake” calligraphy.)

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You can also write calligraphy with a flat or pointed brush, both of which offer a different feel and results. See John Stevens, Stephen Rapp, and Eliza S. Holliday for inspiration.

J-LAF (NPO Japan Letter Arts Forum) introduces calligraphy and letter arts in this wonderful video. They cover the influence calligraphy has had on type design, the various tools and scripts, and examples of using letter arts in commercial and fine art.

To learn about brush pens, see JetPens’ Guide to Choosing a Brush Pen for Calligraphy. The brush offers a huge advantage in that it can write on bumpy surfaces like canvas or walls, and very large brushes can be useful for calligraffiti.

While the choices might seem overwhelming at first, most calligraphers do specialize in just a couple of scripts. So pick a style that interests you now, and don’t be surprised when your taste changes.

As you practice, you’ll gain immense satisfaction from seeing your skills improve. I’ve also found practicing calligraphy to be quite meditative; it forces you to slow down your breathing and focus—a welcome respite in a world of rapid-fire digital communication. So put your computer to sleep and enjoy the feel of fine paper and luscious wet ink.

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To get started, you’ll need a nib, ink, paper, and a good book. I’ve uploaded an extensive resources list on my website with links to various vendors, recommended books, and all of the artists mentioned above.

To explore further, browse the Typography courses at lynda.com.


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