Everything You Need to Know to Get Started in Script Calligraphy
By Molly Suber Thorpe
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2013 Molly Suber Thorpe
All rights reserved.
Supplies & Set-Up
BUILD A BASIC CALLIGRAPHY SUPPLY TOOL KIT, FIND NIBS THAT ARE RIGHT FOR YOU, AND GET ACQUAINTED WITH THE WORLD OF PAPER
The Essential Tool Kit
Using quality calligraphy supplies from the start will make your practice more gratifying and your work progress more quickly. You would never learn to play an instrument on one that was out of tune, right? Well, the same goes for calligraphy. Without quality supplies, you may quickly find yourself frustrated as you practice and mistake your struggles for problems with your technique, when in fact they are problems inherent in your supplies. This section will teach you the essentials for building a great supply starter kit, from pens to ink to paper.
Above all else, the number-one question I am asked by beginner calligraphers is how to choose — and where to find — the best nibs for a given project. Choosing nibs may feel overwhelming, because the sea of sizes and brands of nibs can seem endless. Without guidance, trial and error often seems like the best way to proceed. But do not despair. No nib is perfect for all purposes, so don't look for the "perfect" nib — expect to find a number of them that work for you. Presented here are tips for building your own collection.
POINTED DIP NIBS VS. FOUNTAIN PENS VS. BROAD TIP NIBS
All the techniques and projects in this book require flexible metal dip pen nibs with pointed tips. Do not be confused — these are not the same as pointed fountain pen nibs. As the name suggests, dip nibs are filled with ink by dipping them in an inkwell. Fountain pens are not dip pens — they have an ink reservoir inside the body of the pen that supplies ink to the nib. Also, when shopping for dip nibs, you will see lots of nibs with flat, slanted tips. These are broad tip nibs and are not intended for script calligraphy. For what you'll be learning in this book, you'll need to stick with pointed dip nibs only.
If you live near an art store that stocks an extensive selection of calligraphy supplies, lucky you! But if not, no worries: the best nibs are easily acquired by mail order online (see the Resources Guide for a listing of my preferred vendors). As a beginner, indulge! Buy a variety of nibs that you can test out and experiment with to find the ones you like the best. Fortunately, pointed nibs typically don't cost more than a couple of dollars each, so testing a number of them won't break the bank. Many calligraphy suppliers even sell sample packs with an array of different pointed nibs to try. The choice between two good-quality nibs often comes down to personal preference, writing style, and the size of the letters you're writing.
HOW THEY WORK
Pointed nibs vary considerably. Some are made of very flexible metal, while others are stiff. Some are long and hold a lot of ink, while others are small and need to be dipped in ink more often. The size of the tips also varies, affecting how fine is the thinnest line a pen can draw. Despite these differences, all pointed dip pens share the same basic anatomy and work the same way.
All pointed pens come to a fine, sharp point formed by the meeting of two delicate, tapered pieces of metal (usually steel) called "tines." When at rest, the tines are perfectly aligned with each other and touching, so that only close inspection will reveal the slit between the two. When pressed to paper, the tines separate and ink flows through them. The amount of pressure exerted controls how much the tines separate and, in turn, how wide the resulting stroke is. Strokes that transition from thin to thick — the hallmark of calligraphic lettering — are made by varying the amount of pressure exerted on the nib, as opposed to varying the angle of the nib against the paper, as is the case in broad tip calligraphy. Due to the construction of the pointed nib and its angle in relation to the paper, the thinnest lines occur on upstrokes (when we are not naturally inclined to exert pressure) and thicker lines occur on downstrokes (when more pressure is used). The amount of contrast between thin and thick strokes plays a large role in defining the character of an alphabet. Being able to control the pressure you exert in order to create the precise stroke thickness you want takes practice, but we'll get to that soon.
The more flexible a pointed nib's tines, the more easily they will separate, which translates to making thicker strokes with less pressure. Ultimately you should find a nib that has the right amount of flexibility for your personal writing style. Some of us are naturally inclined to exert very little pressure with our pen when writing, while others exert a lot of pressure. My own style is the latter — no matter how hard I try, I can't get in the habit of pressing lightly. This means that I generally prefer harder nibs because I feel more in control and am able to create thick strokes from a nib that "light touch" people cannot. In similar fashion, those with a light touch generally prefer very flexible nibs that make it easier to achieve thick strokes without having to exert much pressure.
For projects requiring very small lettering or elegant flourishes that don't call for thick strokes, a hard nib is usually the best choice. For making large lettering (and by large I mean letters an inch and a half high or larger), a relatively large nib with more flexibility will produce the best results. Remember that these are just guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules — it can be fun to experiment with different pen nibs to see the various effects they can create.
Before you can begin testing nibs, you'll need a nib holder. Nib holders come in many materials (normally plastic or wood), and start as low as a couple of dollars for the basic plastic variety. Nearly all art supply stores with a calligraphy section stock these inexpensive holders, and for most of us there is no need to buy anything very fancy. One benefit of buying nib holders that are as inexpensive as the nibs themselves is that you can own a lot of them and leave your nibs installed, rather than remove them every time you want to use a different one. (Taking nibs in and out of nib holders can bend or crack the nibs, shortening their life span.) At any given time in my own tool kit I have a dozen or more nib holders, each with a different nib installed, so I can easily transition from one pen to another mid-project and maximize each nib's life span.
STRAIGHT VS. OBLIQUE: WHICH ONE IS RIGHT FOR YOU
Two varieties of nib holders can be used with pointed pen nibs: straight and oblique. A pen holder's shape affects the angle of the nib as it touches the paper. Traditional styles of script calligraphy (like Copperplate) are written at a roughly 35-degree slant, which is why it is important to use a pen holder that is optimized for creating that angle when writing those classical styles. However, in contemporary calligraphy there is no "proper" angle, so the choice of nib holder comes down to physical comfort and how slanted you want your lettering style to be.
Oblique nib holders were originally designed for righties and straight ones for lefties; however, I am a right-handed calligrapher who only uses straight holders, and some lefties actually use oblique ones. If you're right-handed, I suggest you invest in one of each so you can experiment — it all depends on the angle of your arm and tilt of your paper as you write. If you're left-handed, see "For the Left-Handed Calligrapher" section (here) to learn which type of holder is best for your individual style.
Two important questions to keep in mind when choosing a nib holder are these:
* Will I be comfortable gripping this for hours on end? Many nib holders come with cushioned grips made of rubber or cork.
* Do I like the weight of it in my hand?
Depending on your personal style, you might like a nib holder with some heft to it, but for very open, airy styles, you should use a very lightweight holder that will contribute almost no pressure to the nib, enabling you to get the thinnest lines possible.
PEN HOLDER INSTALLATION
Installing nibs into holders can sometimes be tricky, and small nibs do occasionally require a little added force. If the end of your nib holder is smooth and flat with a circle routed out of it, insert the nib's body (the curved end) into the circle until it's far enough in that it doesn't wiggle. If the end of your pen holder has a hole with a metal rim and four prongs inside, then insert the nib between the prongs and the rim until it is very snug. Don't insert the nib between the prongs themselves because this will bend the prongs and leave the nib wobbly. If the end of your pen holder has two metal cylinders protruding from it, one snuggly inside the other, then insert the nib's body in between them.
Ink is the classic choice for calligraphy, and for good reason. First, ink is easier to use than other media, like paint, which has to be mixed to a particular consistency before it can be used. Ink is premixed, and nine times out of ten it's already the right fluidity for writing straight out of the jar. Ink is also the best choice for projects such as certificates that require archival, waterproof, lightfast lettering (just be sure that you purchase an ink that has these qualities — not all do).
DON'T MESS WITH PERFECTION
Many of the most popular inks used by calligraphers today have been around for centuries. Iron gall ink, for instance, which is my personal favorite, has been in use by scribes and illustrators since the twelfth century! Iron gall creates extremely crisp lines and the deepest, most beautiful shade of highly concentrated black I've seen in any ink. Just think — this ink flowed from the quills of Shakespeare, and the same formula is still used by calligraphers today!
SHOPPING FOR INK
The trick to getting good results with ink is to buy the high-quality stuff. Yes, there is a big difference, and you really get what you pay for. The best ones have high pigment concentration and provide smooth, thin, precise lines on nearly all papers. Calligraphy ink can be divided into two categories: waterproof and nonwaterproof. Waterproof inks are generally acrylic-based, which means they come in more vibrant, opaque colors than nonwaterproof inks. However, they are also thicker, so unless they're thinned with a little alcohol, they aren't good for making thin hairlines. Fountain pen ink is a poor choice for calligraphy because it has a lower pigment concentration and a thinner consistency than calligraphy inks. Poor-quality inks are watery, bleed even on good paper, and can't produce very fine lines no matter how small your nib or how good your paper.
I always keep my supply shelf stocked with high-quality ink in three basic, popular colors — black, navy, and brown — and turn to paint for other colors, but many calligraphers use colorful inks for all their lettering and mix them to create different hues. (I discuss the benefits and techniques of using paint instead of ink in chapter 3.) See the Resources Guide for my top ink picks.
Gum arabic (also called "gum acacia") helps ink flow smoothly from the nibs, makes a little ink go a long way, and extends the life of the nibs themselves. Before starting a project with unusually thick ink or paint, start by dipping your pen nib in gum arabic, then in water, and gently wipe clean. As you work, repeat the process intermittently as you notice the nib flow slowing, or if the nib starts catching on the paper as you work.
Gum arabic is a strange concoction. It's made from the dried sap of acacia trees and sold in two forms: thick liquid and chalky crystals. I prefer to buy the liquid because this is already the state it needs to be for use with calligraphy, but if you feel so inspired, you can mix your own by combining the crystals with cold water. Once a liquid, gum arabic does not last forever — after a while it will grow mold. Given this, and the fact that so little is needed, there is no point buying anything but the smallest bottle you can find.
No calligrapher's tool kit is complete without a set of good-quality drawing pencils. Artist pencils are ranked on a scale from very hard graphite to very soft ("9H" to "9B," respectively, with "HB" being smack in the middle). Soft pencils are darker than hard ones, and hard pencils, when used lightly, are easier to erase. This is important because sometimes you'll have to sketch out your text before calligraphing over it and you'll want a pencil you can erase without leaving a trace. (You'll also want an ink or paint that won't smudge when you erase over it, so be sure to do a test before creating your final design!) My favorite pencils for drawing lines are HBs. For sketching drafts ("mock-ups"), I prefer a combination of 2B (for thin lines) and 7B (for thick lines).
A GOOD ERASER
No, you can't use the pink erasers stuck to the ends of those #2 pencils left over from eighth grade. You need to buy a quality, soft, rubber eraser (they're almost always white and oval-shaped). A retractable stick eraser is also a good investment for jobs that require erasing with precision. Don't buy kneaded erasers or art gum erasers because their textures — sticky and coarse, respectively — can leave residue on the paper or smudge your calligraphy.
Artist tape is used to secure your paper to the writing surface, as well as protect an area of paper that you don't want to paint or calligraph (so that when the tape is removed the original paper is revealed). At least at first, I recommend that you tape your paper to your desk. After a lot of practice you won't need to do this as often, but if your paper isn't secured, it can start to shift as you work and before you know it, the straight lines you thought you were writing will be askew.
There are lots of brands of tape out there, so just be sure to purchase tape that is acid free (also advertised as "pHneutral"). These tapes peel off the paper without tearing it or leaving a sticky residue, and will never create acid burns or discoloration.
The World of Paper
Just like the variety of nibs on the market, the array of paper choices can be overwhelming at first. Many papers are great for calligraphy, but just as many aren't. Some are good for one type of project, but not another. If you find a paper you love but discover that it's not good for writing calligraphy, you can still incorporate it into your design by turning it into envelope liners or stickers, or affixing it to the back of the paper your calligraphy is on to make a border.
Despite the variety of papers available, there are some hard-and-fast rules to live by when choosing a good calligraphy paper. I use the following guidelines when picking out paper for my own projects:
1. Smooth paper is best, especially when you're still learning.
Pen nibs snag easily on fibrous or textured paper. Lately, recycled papers, like craft and handmade, have become extremely popular, and while they certainly look cool, their textures make them a nightmare of pen snags, ink splatters, and broken nibs. It's possible to use textured paper for calligraphy projects, but it can be frustrating, especially for the beginner, and I recommend steering clear of it while you're still learning.
2. Coated and cotton papers are usually problematic.
Ink and paint can bead up and roll off coated papers, while untreated cotton papers cause bleeding because they absorb ink and paint too well. Coated papers include nearly all metallic, shimmering, and glossy papers, while uncoated cotton applies to some letterpress and watercolor papers.
3. Thick paper is a safe bet; thin is a gamble.
As long as it fulfills the above requirements, thick paper is always more likely to work well than thin paper, primarily because thick paper is less likely to expand and warp from the moisture of the ink or paint. Cheap sketch pad paper is great for making mock-ups, but it's usually too thin to hold calligraphy without rippling. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Modern Calligraphy by Molly Suber Thorpe. Copyright © 2013 Molly Suber Thorpe. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.