Calligraphy and hand lettering is writing turned into art. It is taking the written word to a whole new decorative level. It's adding impact to simple words with beautiful and creative style.
Hand-lettering and calligraphy is having a renaissance, perhaps in reaction to the proliferation of digital tools and media or perhaps it's that social media has really provided a showcase for beautiful creations. But, we have to admit, it gives you the urge to pick up a pen and create your own beautiful written pieces... but where do you start if you're a total novice?
This was a dilemma we recently faced. When trying to buy a couple of calligraphy books we noticed that they seemed more geared to people who already had a firm grasp on the basics.
So, through lots of research – and bugging our designer and in-house pen expert – we have gotten to the bottom of where to start and have included lots of links below to free tutorials, downloads and products that can help you.
Our beginner's guide to calligraphy and hand-lettering
What you'll need:
- Writing tool (pens and nibs)
- Some style guides/inspiration/practice books
First: A quick overview on styles and nibs
Calligraphy has many styles of lettering, influenced by; the shape of your letters, the angle of writing and the widths of upstrokes and downstrokes (thick and thin strokes).
What you can create (in terms of styles of characters) depends largely on the nibs you're using. There are two main kinds of nibs: italic nibs and flex nibs. You can also use brushes or brush pens for hand lettering.
Italic nibs create more formal characters, which allows you to create lovely Roman or Gothic style lettering.
Flex nibs are delicate and graceful and can create lovely, flowing styles. The ‘flex’ is delivered by the split in the middle of the nib, which more easily allows for both thin and think lines.
1. The writing tool options: Dip Pens, Cartridge-filled pens or brush pens
To get started, you'll need a writing instrument. There are two main options: a 'traditional' dip pen and a more modern cartridge-filled pen.
Dip pens & flex or itallic nibs
To really allow for the most flexibility of nibs and styles, dip pens with interchangeable nibs are key. The world is then your oyster – especially when it comes to accessing flexible nibs that allow for real variation in your strokes. Flex nibs or itallic nibs attach to a dip pen/pen holder, so you need to dip these nibs into ink repeatedly to write.
The downside of dip pens is that they can be messy and slower to write with due to the continuous dipping. But to really get into calligraphy, we think it's worth the trouble. They are also an economical option — you can get more nibs and styles due to sets available.
Using flex nibs requires a lot of practice and patience as pressure and consistency are key. To achieve a more modern calligraphy look, go heavy on the down strokes and light on the up strokes. The ‘flex’ is delivered by the split in the middle of the nib, which allows for both thin and think lines.
Cartridge-filled pens & itallic nibs
If you prefer a cleaner and more convenient writing instrument, you might prefer to opt for a cartridge-filled pen (where you will need to purchase the same ink cartridge from the respective manufacturer or use a converter if the pen allows).
Cartridge-filled pens only offer italic nibs, that have a blunt edge and don't have as much flexibility in their line variations, which makes the handwriting bold and boxy. However, you can use the angle of pen to create thick and thin lines.
Once you are accustomed to the holding angle, you can create certain styles of calligraphy easily; for example, Italic or Gothic styles. Italic nibs are available for modern fountain pens, which also means continuous ink flow isn't an issue.
The beautiful script we see behind Chinese characters and calligraphy writing is usually the script from a standard brush or a specialist brush pen.
There are so many characteristics behind a brush pen: various tip types, firmness, ink flow, elasticity, and fineness. We found this wonderful video from Kristen on YouTube who has exemplified brush letters and calligraphy so well. It has reiterated that practice is paramount and that there are so many types and styles you can create.
HIGHTIDE 'Penco' brush pens are a 'fude'-style brush pen that has a water-based ink and a traditional brush tip, all encased in a modern, brightly coloured pen body.
Tombow brush pens contain two tips: a flexible brush tip and a fine-point, hard nylon tip. These brush pens are available in an array of colours and are ideal for artists and crafters. The brush tip works like a paintbrush to create fine, medium or bold strokes simply by changing the pressure on the point; while the the fine tip gives consistent lines, borders, fine lettering and colour in.
Craft Design Technology (CDT) who combine modern design with Japanese heritage of traditional craft and technology, have brought out an exclusive fine quality brush pen that is available from Milligram.
This J. Herbin Crepen 'Pinceau' refillable paintbrush is very fluid and light-resistant with plenty of bounce. It is ideal for more advanced calligrapher and those with steady hands, we can't wait to get to this level!
If you're using dip pen or cartridge-filled fountain pen then you have a huge range of inks to choose from.
Dip pen inks are thicker - have a greater viscosity - than standard fountain pen inks, which means they last longer when writing with a dip pen. This means it's not advisable to use them in a standard fountain pen, however, as they will clog the feed. J.Herbin have an excellent, wide range of dip pen inks.
Pilot Pen Iroshizuku Ink
3. The paper
To show off your fine work, you’ll want to ensure you are using excellent quality paper. Regular printer paper, that's a lighter paper weight, isn't ideal as ink will bleed or feather on the page. Calligraphy pens will dispense a lot more ink onto the paper and a higher quality paper will hold the ink better. We’d usually recommend no lighter than 120gsm, unless you're using a specialist fountain pen friendly paper like Rhodia or Tomoe River.
If you’re not sure what kind of paper to use, it’s usually a safe bet to go for paper that is fountain-pen friendly. Brands like Clairefontaine, G. Lalo, Life Stationery and Rhodia are perfect for calligraphy writing and practicing. There are also specialist copy books, with practice styles, that you can use.
4. Styles and inspiration
This is really all about what you're looking to achieve. You might like a particular character shape, or want to craft a special print or inspiration. You may want to download some practice sheets or even trace over work you like to get a feel for it.
We found there was so much to share on this area that we've moved it to Part two of this post! Visit Part 2 of "How to get started with calligraphy and hand lettering".
Want more background on calligraphy styles, techniques and some practice sheets you can use to build you skill? Read our part two: how to get started with calligraphy and hand lettering.