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Calligraphy tips

Wanna try calligraphy now? Take a deep breath. Don’t even think about ornate gothic styles! And donít try it ’til youíre comfortable with the shoulder-motion, wrist-and-forearm-make-the-letters writing youíve been working on. If you wait, youíll be much more successful with calligraphy.

gothic styletDon't drool over this Gothic style (often called Old English, top), because it’s not for beginners. You can draw them, but that's not the goal, is it? The goal is flowing letterforms. A simple, flowing, attractive italic (bottom) is a much more sensible (and readable!) objective.

For calligraphy, you’ll want a chisel-point (italic) pen for the thick-and-thin strokes that make attractive letterforms. Platignum makes a nice one; so does Osmiroid; I have a Sheaffer with three or four interchangeable nibs. They’re cartridge pens and much easier for a beginner than dip pens. Parker has a Vector calligraphy set, Sheaffer a Prelude, and Rotring, Pelikan, and others have theirs. Filcao makes a nice set that comes with a regular fine nib as well as the chisel-shaped calligraphy nibs. Most of the kits, you can pick up for $50 or less. Individual pens, like the Sheaffer No Nonsenses, you can get for $5-$6 each.

copperplate stylesThese graceful, ornate copperplate styles require the use of an offset oblique nib (see "Joy of Flex," part two) to execute them correctly (and without tearing your wrist from its moorings).

A quick note about italics and stubs: Italic nibs have sharp edges to give a clean, crisp transition from thin to thick to thin. Stub nibs have the same square, chopped-off look when viewed straight on, but if you look at them from the side, you can see that tipping material has been added so the point appears much thicker. This will still give you line-width variation, but the transitions will be softer and less crisp than if you’re using a regular italic nib.

However, regular italic nibs can be difficult for beginners to use. Because their edges are sharp, it’s easy for beginners to catch the corners or edges in the paper and yank or tear. Very frustrating (for the pen, too, I would imagine!). Most of the brands listed above have taken this into account, so that their calligraphy pens have some softening on the edges to help you get over this hump.

Another popular nib shape is often called "cursive italic." This is an italic grind, but with the outside corners smoothed off so that, if you press it quickly to paper at exactly 90°, you’ll get an oblong footprint. If you did this with a calligraphy italic nib, you’d get a rectangular footprint. This makes it easier for people to use for regular cursive writing.

uncial stylesMany pen experts recommend testing a nib for flexibility by pressing it gently against your fingernail. The more quickly the tines spread and the lighter the pressure, the more flexible the nib. This nib, on a 1920s Conklin, is fairly flexible, spreading significantly with little pressure.

If you’re a leftie, you’ll probably want to try oblique nibs -- they’re cut on a slant to accommodate the awkward angles lefties must use to write from left to right. It’s easier for underwriters than hook-over writers to do this, too. Their hands don’t drag over the just-inked words. If nothing else, use cheapie throw-away markers for practice. You can approximate an oblique cut on a marker with a sharp razor blade or X-acto knife. (Thereís a book for lefties from Dover Publications, address at end: Left-handed Calligraphy, by Vance Studley. Marie Angel [also at end] addresses southpaws, too.)

Oblique nibs seem to have developed popularity, but I look at this pretty skeptically. Like the fad for Zoom and flexible nibs, I think it's largely a "me too" thing because frankly, not too many people either need or can use oblique nibs. If you’re right handed and trying to use a left oblique nib (the majority of oblique nibs), you have to cock your wrist at an unnatural angle to get the nib to contact the paper fully. If you hold your wrist more comfortably, only part of the nib will touch. Try putting the nib to paper (making a footprint, for example) while holding it in your fist. You'll see the odd angle at which it meets paper. The vast majority of people I"ve observed using oblique nibs don't use them correctly.

italic stylesThese two italic styles show that within a given style many, many variations can exist. Once you've developed your skill, you'll find that your italic looks slightly different from anyone else’s -- you'll have truly unique handwriting!

Most people first want to learn an italic style. Many "stroke charts" (charts that show which way to make what strokes and how to combine them to form the letters) exist; about my favorite overall is the trusty and inexpensive Speedball booklet. It has a good variety of styles, samples and examples, the letters are formed well (not always the case with instruction books, particularly those that come with calligraphy sets), and the charts are clear and self-explanatory. Should be available at any art store and most stationers. Practice combining the strokes, which will be similar to the ones youíve been practicing, to form the letters.

They’ll probably look awful at first. They’ll become more refined with practice. Above all, don’t give in to the temptation to let your fingers form the letters! It’ll look better at first if you do, but will undo all the hard work you’ve done so far. Long-term, it’s counterproductive. Be patient and keep at it, just like you did the loops and circles.

Soon, if you’ve laid all the groundwork, you should be whizzing along and writing better, if not beautifully; and if you can move into calligraphy, then you'll eventually be able to add "beautifully" to that, too.

Many calligraphy books are available from Dover Books, which seems to be virtually unknown except among teachers. Many of Dover’s books are republished; all are reasonably priced. Iíve liked all the calligraphy books Iíve bought from the company. Address is:
Dover Publications, Inc.
31 E. Second St.
Mineola, NY 11501-3582
516-294-7000

When I first started this site, Dover didn't have a Web site. Now they do: http://store.doverpublications.com. Tell them you want their calligraphy-book catalog. You’ll never get one if you wait to show up on their mailing list -ó they only send stuff to people who ask for it. Dover also has the classic Writing & Illuminating & Lettering, by Edward Johnston, which everyone should read just because. Some of my favorites are on the resources page.


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