Author Archives: Mocha

A different perspective

A different perspective

During my move from italic to gothic styles I picked up yet another book on calligraphy, this time Foundations of Calligraphy by Sheila Waters, which is probably now the most detailed book I have for basic technique, along with Margaret Shepherd’s book.

Actually though, the biggest breakthrough for me now came through seeing this video which is actually pretty bad (in my opinion!) except for the fact that the guy is left-handed and writes at 90 degrees to most people. So he writes the words vertically down the page towards him.

This gave me an idea because one of the biggest issues with left-handers is having to push the nib along the paper rather than pulling it. This can be a problem because the nib can catch on the paper, and spatter ink. For all this time I thought I was ok with this because I don’t get any of this, but in the video the guy says he couldn’t write calligraphy until his teacher recommended this new angle (!).

He’s an underwriter, which means that if he were writing right-side-up his hand would be below the line. I’m an overwriter on the other hand (!), curling my hand over the top of line. This gives me some advantage over underwriters with broad nibs because I can keep the same pen angle as a right-hander: the only difference is I push instead of pull. An underwriter could pull, but they’d need special nibs ground at an angle to accommodate the way their pen contacts the paper.

By rotating the paper 90 degrees and writing lines down the page towards him, forming the letters with a right-to-left motion, Klahr gets a good angle on the pen and pulls on the page, solving his problem. The only issue is getting used to the perspective, but that’s just practice. For me, the equivalent solution is a 180-degree turn: I already had the right pen angle, but I wanted to see what it was like to pull instead of push. This means writing right-to-left, bottom-to-top and all the letters are upside down.

It was glorious.

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Left: written right-side up, ink unevenly spread, uncomfortable shape. Right: written upside down, uniform ink

Except obviously now I have to write upside down like a chump, but along with Ms Waters’s book this turns out not to be so much a problem. The other thing I learned from Klahr here is it’s a good idea to save your practice sheet: like, the sheets you practice letter forms on. To me this means writing practice good enough to save, and this in turn means practising extra carefully. Practising carefully sounds obvious but if you know you’re going to save the work you’re doing it takes on a bigger significance.


Ms Waters begins with the foundational script, which is a recent, early 20th-century script developed by the first modern master calligrapher, Edward Johnston, resembling lowercase roman. Here the letter forms tend to be based on circles rather than ovals, as in italic, and as Ms Waters develops it, it can lead naturally into gothic forms.

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Apart from more consistent practice, from here the way forward seems clear. My next project is definitely gothic, but I’ll try Ms Waters’ approach of going via narrowed, angular foundational to see how it works.

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Posted by on June 18, 2017 in Calligraphy


A (welcome) distraction appears

A (welcome) distraction appears

An impromptu adventure

So my friend Dustin is running/very recently ran a single-session DnD campaign titled “East of Enuillo” in a Wild-East-West-fantasy hybrid so crazy it just might work and sure to disrupt all worldbuilding efforts for DnD across the world hereon out.


Man, I should’ve joined in on this one

Part of this campaign design involved construction of a pretty cool map. By his permission I got it here:

large old paper or parchment background texture

And yes, it features El Dorado. The map is adapted from Walter Raleigh’s actual map, which bizarrely is well-suited for a DnD campaign. So the map itself features two scripts: the cartographer’s script in the bottom left, and the map owner’s scrawl in the interior. The only trouble is the writing as is looks pretty clearly typeset (how about that Chiller font!), and it would be nice to have them look a bit more authentic. We thought, what if I practised a bit of calligraphy for it! Although I’ve recently been concentrating on Roman and italic lettering in the effort to learn technique properly, a bit of fun couldn’t go amiss.

The first point is that the two scripts should look distinct. The cartographer’s script might appear hand-written, but it should be clear, legible, and look at least somewhat official. So for the calligraphy here, there were a number of options:

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Top two: a kind of Gothic rotunda with Roman capitals, but it didn’t know what character to take.  Middle: Bloody uncial with those obnoxious all-caps. At least that O isn’t the problem child anymore, this time it’s the infuriatingly similar D. Bottom left: italic. Bottom right: Gothic textura, which I’ve not tried before. How about that munted ‘a’?

The map owner, on the other hand, is a foreign businessman whose script should look suitably different. At first I thought of trying some lowercase insular, with its dropped n’s and clublike ascenders, while looking reasonably suitable for a fantasy setting.

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It has its charms, but then I tried Gothic cursive, which nailed what we were trying to achieve.

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mountains (3)

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Bolded for emphasis!

The best contrast to this was probably the uncial or textura for the cartographer’s script, so Dustin and I went for that. There was one last step though: the writing on the map was much smaller! So I practised going to smaller nibs and smaller sizes:

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That was not overly easy, and of course there’s a limit to how much you can shrink the text, but I’m pretty happy with it. Finally, all that was left was applying it to the map!


Now with new lettering!

I had a real blast doing this, experimenting with these scripts I’d barely touched before reminded me of why I started learning calligraphy. Sometimes it’s good to get away from the slow, careful practice and just do something different. Props again to Dustin for the work he put into designing this map. (Those moon symbols are particularly mysterious.)

And italics

One of the cool things about calligraphy is while it can be discouraging how bad your efforts are, a bit of practice can provide noticeable improvements, or least improved confidence. In the case of italics, I found out last week (despite actually being told this by my Margaret Shepherd book and then ignoring it) that italics can be practised every day with a regular pen. A broad nib is, it turns out, not necessary to learn the correct counter shapes and forms to write the text. Also, italics are best practised at small sizes because getting the shapes right is a matter of fine hand movements, not broad arm control. These two together mean that I’ve been able to practise during my day while writing on other things. I can prioritize the letter forms I need to learn (usually a’s, e’s, o’s, n’s and b’s, since most other forms are just variations on these) according to what I’m doing.


This helps me tackle quotes with a bit more confidence.

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Dune’s Litany Against Fear, smudge notwithstanding

The aim is not perfection in itself but getting my hand used to the spirit of the letters. I do think I have a fair way still to go before I’ll be able to write really good italics repeatably, but I feel happy enough with all this that I can move onto (regular!) gothic to expand my basic repertoire a bit more.



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Posted by on May 14, 2017 in Calligraphy


Lowercase italics

Lowercase italics

Continuing in the theme begun by Roman capitals in my last post, I’ve been continuing to practise with italics. In typography these are very often implemented in word processors as simply oblique versions of upright styles, but in cases like this on they are genuine italics – you can tell because the a’s are different. In handwriting, italic script, or chancery cursive, is where italic typeface came from, as you’d expect. It seems that you don’t need to know any roman (properly “humanist” I guess) scripts to learn italic, but I did start with Roman capitals last time because it seems that at least to begin with, italic capitals are just oblique forms of the Romans. The fancy swashes seem to come later.

Practice, practice, practice…

Margaret Shepherd’s book Learn Calligraphy has by far the most exercises for italics compared to the other scripts. These begin with squiggles and swirls, straight lines, very slightly oblique straight lines (5 degrees!), which are amazingly hard to get consistently right by the way, and then onto basic versions of the letter forms themselves.


I’m taking Ms Shepherd very seriously when she says “rhythm is more important than consistency” for those squiggles


A variety of exercises from Ms Shepherd’s book. You’re supposed to do two lines of each. The o’s are, of course, not very well done here!


I feel like I’m going through primary school

At some point you get sick of just doing the straight exercises and do just a small bit of writing. Obviously this should be done in moderation so I’ve got to just keep working at this. Unfortunately over the last few weeks my workload spiked and I’ve not had as much time to give to this but I hope this’ll change soon.

Another thing I like about Margaret Shepherd’s exercises is how they approach the letter forms themselves. The a’s and b’s are really good examples of this:

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The top line is an angular, simplified version of the bottom part of the b. The idea is it teaches the shape of the counter, the space inside the look. The bottom line is the proper version, with the corners softened and the shape smoothed out. The ‘a’ minuscule is just this shape upside down. These forms show up in g’s and p’s and q’s and d’s.

As always, there’s always more work to be done. Here’s me trying desperately to get used to consistently writing at 5 degrees. Being a left-handed overwriter I naturally slant really strongly to the right, and rotating my arm and the paper and learning to write with just the right amount of slant takes a lot of concentration.

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To treat myself I tried doing an actual bit of writing.

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Dune’s opening line, because why would I pass up an opportunity to quote it?

It’s not lost on me that it looks like the entire purpose of my last post was to prepare for writing the capital “A” in this and nothing else. It did also occur to me to move the ironically misaligned “correct” to hide the fact that my guidelines slipped at the critical last moment without me noticing, but it’s better not to start down that road!

Lastly, since italic is really a cursive script I also should practise my letter joins. Might as well try a swash on the capital while I’m at it…

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I hope in my next post I’ll have some prettier examples. Once you get past the initial hump it’s really fun to see the amount of progress you can make, even though there’s clearly still a long way to go. I’m going to stick with italics for a while, maybe try and write smaller letters. It’d be really nice to incorporate these lessons into my regular handwriting, which is barely legible even to me!

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Posted by on April 24, 2017 in Calligraphy


Roman Capitals and The Odious O’s

Roman Capitals and The Odious O’s


Since my last entry I’ve had a bit of a change in direction with learning calligraphy – specifically, it’s going to take some pretty disciplined practice to get my lettering consistent. I think this is really the core of my issue with uncial and why I’ve had such little success with it, as well as why my Gothic is inconsistent.

So I decided to work on getting very comfortable with italic, and do it consistently, and then move on to regular Gothic scripts, before I tackle Batarde again, or indeed move onto any insular scripts. To help with this I followed The Calligraphy Pen’s general advice and got a book by Margaret Shepherd titled Learning Calligraphy on Kindle. This is a very readable book and in a lot of ways less obscure than Julien Chazal’s book, which I’ve been using up till now. For one thing, she pretty clearly addresses the issue fingers vs arm: keep everything free, but for small motions use your fingers, and for large motions use your arm. This seems blindingly obvious when you say it out loud and I’m a bit embarrassed for having been confused on the issue before, but there you go.

To learn the capitals of italic, it looks like one should first learn the Roman capitals. Once again I’m a bit annoyed with Mr Chazal, who was all “you’d better not start learning Roman capitals until you’re super good with everything else!” while it’s the first thing Margaret Shepherd talks about. To be sure, I’ve made the mistake of taking an author too closely at their word before, namely with Mr Chazal, and there is a thing or two about Margaret Shepherd’s that I think I’d rather get a second opinion on. But her style of teaching is very similar to Vance Studley’s book, and since the script styles she teaches are not particularly exotic (although, painfully, they do include uncial) I’ll go with her for the time being.

In the interest of obtaining consistency, why not begin with the dreaded O’s? For this I decided to undertake the boring but clearly necessary task of just writing whole pages of the bloody things. Here’s one:


A page of Roman capital O’s

I did this with a 2mm Brause nib at a module of 8 nib widths, and a pen angle of 20 degrees (I drew a 20 degree line in the top right to keep checking I wasn’t unconsciously changing my angle). As you can see it’s hardly perfectly consistent. When I complained about this to Sophie and wondered aloud if I’d be practising O’s my whole life she came as close to scoffing as I’ve ever heard her get, and told me I’d only done this for like, one night so stop complaining. In any case I feel a bit better about the inconsistency since even in Ms Shepherd’s book the O’s she presents are not exactly consistent.

Hopefully I won’t have to do pages and pages of every letter in the alphabet for every script I ever learn, but something tells me it will indeed come to that, and that it’s the cost of learning an art. Well, so be it!

Ms Shepherd wants the reader to be able to write S’s smoothly varying the pen from a 20 degree to a 45 degree angle, which I’ve not seen either Messrs Chazal or Studley say, so I’ll take it under further advisement for the time being but if it’s true I’ll probably have to practise those even more than the O’s (excuse the rhyme!). In the meantime it’s probably ok to reward myself with writing a few words in all-caps.


Roman capitals. I still have consistency issues but I feel better equipped to diagnose and deal with them them.

New ink

I recently got my hands on some Speedball Super Black India ink, and it’s definitely super black. It’s a lot thicker than the Higgins Eternal, and although Mr Chazal says “never to use it in pens” because it’ll congeal, I simply don’t believe him and went ahead anyway, especially since india inks like this appear to be commonly used in dip pens (definitely not fountain pens though). The Calligraphy Pen does suggest staying away from india inks with shellac (a binding agent) in them, probably for the same reason Mr Chazal recommends against them actually, but there’s no indication to me that Speedball’s formulation has any. To be safe I clean the pen immediately after using it anyway.

This ink really lasts, and it’s really black, which is just what I want. Although Higgins Eternal flows easily and is easy to clean, it shows clear lightness gradients especially in the larger modules along with a tendency to pool at the bottom of each stroke; I figure the Higgins is good for practice and the Indian ink for finished work. Since I’m doing pretty heavy practice now I don’t have much occasion to use the Indian (although the sample above is in Indian), but I look forward to being able to letter with it once I’m a bit more competent. Here is a small comparison of the two inks in some Batarde I did a while ago:


Batarde Gothic with the top written in Higgins Eternal and the bottom with Speedball India ink. Letter consistency aside, I think the tendency for the ink to pool at the bottoms of strokes is really obvious in the top one and while it’s still there in the bottom, the strokes are much more evenly inked.

That’s it for now – in my next post I’ll talk about lowercase italics.

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Posted by on March 30, 2017 in Calligraphy


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“Taking up arms” and Batarde Gothic

“Taking up arms” and Batarde Gothic

The hardest part of learning calligraphy has definitely been getting the right posture, because I tend to slouch when I write. Also, like pretty much everyone I know I write only by moving my fingers. But apparently you’re supposed to at least free your wrist, elbow, and shoulder (??). One site I found seems to imply you shouldn’t move your fingers at all, and write from the shoulder!

It’s not clear how seriously to take this. There’s at least one thread on the Fountain Fen Network about it, and people there are a bit incredulous about the idea of not moving your fingers at all. But it does look like you can get a happy medium where your whole arm is free to move, and your fingers do the fine control. So my biggest task, other than learning the scripts in calligraphy, is to consciously try to get used to this kind of motion.

Actually, it’s great for every script I’ve tried except for bloody uncial, which continues to be the bane of my calligraphic existence. In the sample below you can see that by the end my hand was pretty much giving up. It could be because the script isn’t clear if it wants to be rounded or straight, and so the hand has to work extra hard to be precise. If I try to reduce the action of my fingers and increase the role of my arm, my circles turns into triangles. Triangles!


Uncial: the Voldemort to my Lily Potter. Look at those awful Os!

Batarde gothic

I’m not willing to give up on uncial or derivatives of it, and I’d love to get going on some insular scripts at some point. But first I’ve been trying to get really nice and comfortable with Batarde gothic. I really like this script because it has an elegant logic to it, and as Julien Chazal puts it, a certain “whimsy”. It’s not as awfully regular as the more well-known gothic scripts like Textura, and I can see why Mr Chazal recommends it over the other scripts: I guess maybe it kind of forces you to be aware of the forms and how they fit together rather than following a strict ductus that doesn’t allow enough imagination to understand the script.

Anyway, I have a lot of fun with it. In the course of writing this I also found out firsthand why it’s important to “follow the module” – that is, to write the right letter size for the nib width.


Heraclitus. 2mm nib with the right module

The above picture is the right module: four nib widths to an x, and reasonable (though I didn’t measure them precisely) ascenders and descenders. The text looks reasonable dense but not overpowering, but as you’d expect the left-to-right spacing contributes as well. However:


Also Heraclitus, obviously. 2mm nib but with module too large

According to Sophie, this looks “comical”, which may also just be a reflection of my general skill level at this point. Here the module was something like six or maybe seven nib-widths to the x, and the letters look far more… anaemic. Higgins Eternal ink not coming through with a nice black finish isn’t helping either. But this is how you learn I guess!

The other thing I love about Batarde gothic, and I guess this is really true for any calligraphic script, is how it really looks better at a distance in a block of text. Again, this may just be because distance obscures errors, but I think this gothic in particular has a sense of mystique around it.

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Gothic batarde, somewhere in the middle of John 1

So that’s it for now! I’ll keep practising this guy, return a bit to uncial whenever I can sum up the courage, and think about learning lowercase insular. On that path, my goal is eventually Irish half-uncial. In the far distance I see gothic cursive, that illegible but sexy monolith of scripts…


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Posted by on March 17, 2017 in Calligraphy


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Beginning calligraphy

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.

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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


In this photo


In this photo you are holding Katniss, a little black furball of love and instinct. She sits serenely in your arms, knowing that is all she ever need do to be happy. She’s wearing a little baby’s sweater for the Purdue Boilermakers – the Athletics team there – in a little school-pride display neither of you – or me! – ever particularly cared for. I’m not sure, but I think you’re wearing a Purdue jumper too. It’s pink in its writing and grey in everything else. You’d think grey were a colour for us but it’s the colour of the skies we walk under in slow happiness.

So you’re both wearing Purdue merch in Philadelphia. It’s cold, a fact evident not just from your hoodies but from that plastic bag of catnip next to you. Somehow I can only picture Katniss, the little rug, eating that catnip with a fire crackling merrily away in the fireplace behind you, even though there’s no such thing anywhere in the house.

You’re smiling at me. A happy mother to a happy cat, waiting to marry a happy man. Your hair is just right – it flows across one eye and back, clearing your cheek and resting over your shoulder, like that of a nonchalant teen. Your head tilted in just that way to nestle Katniss close to you, simultaneously cocking it sweetly at me. Did you stage this? If you were self-conscious, you would have fussed. But you weren’t, and you didn’t. So you lived the life, in that brief moment, you wanted from me, and my eyes drank it up.

This room, messy as it is (yes, it is!) might as well be our coffee shop: you might be sitting in a wooden, smoothly polished chair, while a family discusses their daughter’s future behind you. I might be in one just the same, frowning over my latte at my tablet screen. Maybe the catnip is cookie crumbs from that little baked snack we share – and is that a fireplace on the back red brick wall there?

The things in common are you and me, and this is where we’re going. Hot drinks in cold climes, we can load through life together, working with each other and, in the gaps between the busy-ness, just a bit of coffee in between.

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Posted by on July 11, 2015 in Uncategorized