Beginning calligraphy

12 Mar
Beginning calligraphy

I recently started doing calligraphy as a hobby. It started when I was visiting Sophie over the New Year: she got herself a parallel pen for her Chinese calligraphy. It’s basically this one. The nib is a stubby, flat shape so when you write the thickness of the ink changes depending on how you hold the pen and in which direction you write. So this pen came with a little booklet describing how to write roman, italic, and gothic scripts, and for fun I tried it out. Gothic of course, because why not? Anyway, I enjoyed writing with it so much, and although the technique seemed hard to master its entry barrier appeared to be fairly low, so I decided to commit for a few months with some proper calligraphy equipment and see how it go. To help as a kind of log of my progress, I’ve decided to also keep a series of blog posts in parallel (!) and meanwhile get to share a bit.

Deciding on the kind

Since I’m just starting out I’m hardly in a position to tell others everything you need to start with calligraphy. But it turns out that although it’s an easy question to find answers to, for me it ended up depending on the kind of calligraphy I wanted to do, and so it’s important to figure out what kind of answer to look for.

Obviously since I’d fallen in love with the kind of script the parallel pen writes, I decided to get into broad-nibbed calligraphy. This seems to be basically every Western script before maybe the mid-19th century, stretching all the way from Roman capitals in the ancient world through uncial of the dark ages, and the gothic of the late middle ages, to the humanist and italics of the renaissance. There’s a really rich variety of scripts with all sorts of different styles. The alternative is pointed-nib calligraphy, of which the really well-known scripts are copperplate and Spencerian, the kinds you tend to see on wedding invitations.

Starting stuff

I ended up just needing a few things:

  • A pen holder
  • A nib
  • Ink
  • Paper
  • Fine paintbrush for loading the nibs with ink
  • Pencil & straight edge

Basic equipment: two speedball nibs C2 & C3, a Brause 1.5mm nib, a Zebra pointed nib; the pen holder, Higgins Eternal Ink (great for beginners apparently), and a paintbrush.




Nib with reservoir: the reservoir is the flat metal leaf arching over the nib.


Loading the pen with the brush.

Broad nibs usually have reservoirs that come with them, although they can be used without reservoirs. The reservoir is a basically just a small leaf of metal placed on top of (or in some cases under) the nib – see pictures. The ink sits in the little gap between the reservoir and the nib and is held in place by adhesion and surface tension, I guess. It then flows through the slit in the nib by capillary action as you write.




Calligraphy pens are different from other pens like ball-points or fountain pens because you load the nib with ink directly. The nib is also typically removable from the rest of the pen; the pen holder and the nib together form the pen. The obvious way to load the pen is by just dipping it in an inkwell, but in practice this overloads the pen and the first few strokes will deposit a whole lot of ink that look really obvious. It’s better to load the nib with a paintbrush dipped in ink, or I’ve read that you can also use a dropper.

Learning scripts

To learn writing I got two books:

The first one is great for a comprehensive overview and teaching of basic (and some more advanced) scripts, but is written entirely from a right-hander’s perspective – hence the second book. Also, Vance Studley is a heck of a name. I also read up online as much as I could and I found The Calligraphy Pen to be very helpful in particular. This guy is a professional calligrapher and has a lot of interesting things to say, including discussions about illumination (calligraphic illustration) and other similar crafts. Both these books, and from what I can tell of some other well-known ones, the best script to learn as a beginner calligrapher is uncial. This is that all-caps script from the dark ages/early middle ages. It looks kind of Celtic; this is probably because of its resemblance to the later scripts like the insular or Irish half-uncial.


First letters of my far from perfect uncial alphabet. The five little blocks on the left specify the “module”, which controls the weight of the letters. So how big you write depends on how wide your nib is.

Uncial is supposed to teach the basics of strokes and the letter ductus (the set of rules or guidelines for how to write the letters) is quite straightforward. I ended up really not liking the script at all compared with some others I’ve picked up since I’ve started: it wasn’t particularly satisfying and the end result only really looks good from a distance… at least for my pretty poor skills! But as with all things worth doing, it takes perseverance and some work to get good.

IMG_7165 (2).JPG

Opening of Once by the Pacific by Robert Frost in uncial

Anyway, I could keep on going for ever, but I think that’s it for this post. As I do a bit more I’ll keep writing. Next up I’d love to talk about the script I’m learning at the moment, Batarde gothic.

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Posted by on March 12, 2017 in Calligraphy


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