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The joy of flex, part two

Reprint/copyright © Stylophiles, Feb. 2004 · pen images courtesy Riepl Imaging

offset oblique nib in holderThis offset oblique pen is made especially for use with copperplate and Spencerian scripts. The nib holder is offset to allow the writer to hold the pen at a comfortable writing angle while putting nib to paper at a much sharper angle than would be possible (or comfortable) otherwise. Looks like a medieval torture device, doesn't it?


Chances are, if you’ve purchased a flexible-nibbed pen with the expectation that it would make your handwriting look fantastic, you were disappointed. Popular belief seems to be that merely using a flexible nib (or stub or italic, for that matter, but here we’re sticking to flex nibs) will automatically confer beauty on your handwriting. Unfortunately, it’s not so. This is what I not-so-fondly call the flexible-nib myth.

Oh, flex-nibbed pens will make your writing look different, all right, and that may be all most people want. But "different" isn’t necessarily beautiful or better - or even more legible.

For instance, I have a correspondent who has small handwriting, but believes that a broad italic nib makes his writing better and a flexible nib makes it beautiful. What those tools actually do is close up every a, e, and o so they’re indistinguishable, and each d and b looks just like every h. I won’t even talk about m, n, u, v, and w. Suffice it to say that reading his letters is sometimes a bit of a strain!

Another correspondent likes to use flexible nibs exclusively, but she’s never wanted to learn a copperplate or Spencerian hand. This is fine; flex nibs can, if used properly, "dress up" regular handwriting. But while she makes nice thick/thin lines and some pretty swirls, no two letters have the same axis and the baseline has a scalloped shape, not the straight baseline our eyes need to read easily.

Sorry to bring the bad news, but truly beautiful handwriting comes from disciplined practice and the application of specific skills. Without those, a flexible or italic nib may be fun, but it won’t be used to its greatest advantage. The truth is, flexible (and italic) nibs are intended to do specific things. To get the most out of them, you have to learn the appropriate techniques - just as you wouldn’t blindly smack a hammer against a wall and expect it to hit nails without guidance, you can’t expect a pen to form beautiful or even legible writing without some direction - some technique, if you will - from your hand and arm.

Training and practice

These days, neither our eyes nor our hands know how to distinguish beautiful scripts done correctly from those executed poorly. Let’s say someone - we’ll call him Bob, though we mean no offense to any thusly named readers - has spent a little time learning the shapes of copperplate. He often expresses elation at the lovely letters he can now make. Because his untrained eye is unable to discern the subtle differences between the shapes he’s made and those he’s trying to replicate, Bob is stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place.

He can probably see that a professional’s script looks "better" than his, but can't determine why, and knowing why is vital to improvement.

Two characteristics are critical to good scripts: pressure and control. As mentioned briefly in part one of "The Joy of Flex," it’s not the breadth of the broadest part of a letter that’s the mark of a good calligrapher, but the delicacy and consistency of the finest line. To achieve that delicacy, Bob must consistently be able to control the pressure of nib against paper. And smooth, consistent control involves the use of shoulder and arm muscles (the shoulder girdle - the use of the large shoulder, chest, and arm muscles to provide smooth power and endurance, while the wrist, hand, and fingers perform more delicate guidance functions) as well as the hand. It’s not difficult to learn, but it does take time and effort to master the skill.

Unfortunately, the only way I know to develop this technique is to practice. This means that, like a grade-schooler of a couple of generations back, Bob’s going to make a lot of mistakes, ugly letters, and probably many blobs and blotches. Most adults, having become accustomed to being competent at most things they do, have a difficult time going back to that "beginner" attitude and allowing themselves to make mistakes.

I’ve no intention of trying to explain in this brief space how to wield a flex nib with flair and skill. I do hope to illustrate a few of the things Bob’s new flex nib will do, if handled properly, and what to look for both when using one and viewing other people’s writing.

Basic do’s and don’ts

First, any good script should have a straight baseline - all the letters should "sit" on the same line. All the strokes should be at the same angle. All the "x" heights - the main body of the letter - should be the same and you should be able to draw a straight line across the tops of the ascenders and descenders (e.g., top of h and bottom of p, respectively). And all the lines drawn across all those separate parts should be parallel. (Unless you’re doing flourishes, which allow you to exceed those upper and lower limits.)

Spencerian strokes done properlyFigure 1: When done properly, Spencerian strokes are parallel, of even width from top to bottom, at the same angle, on the same straight baseline, and executed with the same pressure.
really bad strokesFigure 2: Poorly executed strokes are at different angles, none of which is quite correct (the two on the right are closest). Angles don't match, baseline is crooked, pressure varies from top to bottom, and other details are wrong (see text).


We all have different writing angles, but for formal copperplate, one of the scripts for which flexible nibs were made, that should be at about 30-35° from vertical, or about a 55-60° angle to the baseline - an angle steep enough to make writing feel awkward, which is why the offset nib holder was developed. Thus, letters should be written at about this angle and vertical strokes should look something like Fig. 1, not Fig. 2. This is where most of us first go wrong. We aren’t taught any longer (particularly those of us who learned to write after the early 1960s) to write consistently, even with ordinary printing or cursive, so we don’t know how to look at our writing analytically and recognize our inconsistencies and mistakes.

If you note those details, you’ll see that the strokes in Fig. 2 are at different angles, only two of which approximate the 35° slope. Rather than being of even width throughout, the poor strokes show that, left to right, pressure is applied inconsistently after the stroke has begun; pressure is applied slightly after the stroke has begun and increases, widening the stroke throughout its length; pressure is uneven and the stroke wobbles; and pressure is released before the end of the stroke. The base- and top lines aren’t straight, either.

Next comes the pressure-and-control part. In properly done script, the thins are consistent and clean, the transitions to and from thick strokes are smooth, and the transitions occur at the same place for each letter. The last is, in my opinion and observation, the most difficult thing for modern students to get correctly - there are so many ways to do it wrong! In the examples below, note the baselines and X heights and carefully compare the tops and bottoms of the strokes and the spot where the thick-thin transition occurs. In the first, the strokes are fairly good - parallel going up and down, and with the transitions occurring just past midpoint on the downstroke or upstroke.

correct copperplate curved linesThese strokes are done correctly for copperplate or Spencerian. The thick/thin transitions are consistent, as are angles, curves, pressure, and other details (see text).
really bad curved linesHere, we have a beginner's attempt at the above strokes. It's easy to see, when comparing them to the correct examples, where and how they go wrong, but it can be devilishly difficult to see those things in our own writing. See text for detailed explanation.


In the group above, we have some common problems, which have been exaggerated for effect. Again, left to right, strokes are fairly parallel but pressure doesn’t start until after the downstroke has begun; strokes aren’t parallel, though the downstroke pressure begins at closer to the right spot; the o is too round and pressure isn’t released before the upstroke begins; the strokes are close to parallel but crooked, showing uneven pressure, and additional pressure comes on the upstroke just after it starts upward (a good way to break a delicate tine); strokes aren’t parallel and pressure stays on past the beginning of the upstroke. And just look at that baseline!

pen is mightier done badlyThis is a beginner's attempt at writing with an offset oblique nib. Line-width variation definitely exists, but not in any consistent fashion, and compared to the better example (green, below), it’s. . . well, pretty sad. Fortunately, the person who committed this atrocity also thinks it’s pretty sad, so we can make fun of it.
showing baseline on phraseHere, we've added a green line to show how the baseline rises, dips, and curves, more like a mountain range than a written line of words.
good pen is mightierAbove, the familiar phrase executed by a more experienced hand. Much easier to read, soothing to the eye, even, cleanly executed, legible -- and beautiful.


If copperplate is starting to look and sound a little more complicated than just picking up a flexible nib and writing . . . well, it kinda is. It’s not so much difficult as it is exacting, and it requires great attention to the tiniest details we’re not accustomed to worrying about, and then there’s that pressure-and-control thing . . .

You aren’t going to be able to pick up a flex pen and learn copperplate from these brief examples. (If you can, we’ll all want your stock-market tips, too!) This would take a lot more information, and more time, dedication, and practice than most of us want to put in. But they should give you a sense of what your flexible nib was meant to do, what it can do in the right hands, and equally important, what good copperplate ought to look like, so you won’t be overly impressed with less-than-prime examples.

normal writing with flex nib
normal writing with flex nibAbove are two examples of writers who frequently use flexible nibs in their everyday worlds. Neither has Spencerian pretensions, but both are reasonably legible and smooth. In the red example, you can see thicks and thins and a couple of graceful transitions; but this nib is too wide for the writer's normal handwriting. In the green example, there's less line-width variation and the writer depends more on flourishes than letterforms to gain distinctiveness. These are ordinary flexible nibs, not intended for Spencerian hands; they'll give lovely line variation but it’s difficult to do proper copperplate with them because of the extreme forward angle required.


A final note: Always, using your pens should be fun. If learning this kind of thing is just more effort than you want to put into it, don’t. Enjoy what your flex nibs will do within the sphere of your own interest and writing abilities. Just watch those baselines and angles, and try to make sure that your writing is legible.

full view of oblique offset penJust in case you wanted to see what the whole offset oblique pen looks like, I threw this in. Sorry, but yes, you have to master the art of dipping pens to use them.

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