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Italic and Copperplate Calligraphy: The Basics and Beyond

Italic and Copperplate Calligraphy: The Basics and Beyond

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by Eleanor Winters

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In recent years, calligraphy has evolved from an esoteric art form to an everyday pursuit for artists, students, and amateurs. This guide for novices with some experience offers the chance to advance to the next level. Well-illustrated, step-by-step instructions by an expert calligrapher explain every detail of the two most popular calligraphic alphabets. 


In recent years, calligraphy has evolved from an esoteric art form to an everyday pursuit for artists, students, and amateurs. This guide for novices with some experience offers the chance to advance to the next level. Well-illustrated, step-by-step instructions by an expert calligrapher explain every detail of the two most popular calligraphic alphabets.  Author Eleanor Winters introduces the Italic hand, which originated during the Renaissance, and the Copperplate style, which dominated European calligraphy during the eighteenth century. Her three-part approach begins with a review of the basics, advancing to variations in letter size, form, weight, and flourishes. It concludes with a wealth of advice on layout and design as well as inspiration for original projects.

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Dover Publications
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Lettering, Calligraphy, Typography
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Italic and Copperplate Calligraphy

The Basics and Beyond

By Eleanor Winters

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2011 Eleanor Winters
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-27513-0


Italic AND Copperplate / Italic OR Copperplate

Choosing between two beautiful and useful styles of calligraphy can be daunting. Before embarking on the study of calligraphy, beginners are frequently faced with exactly this choice. They may make their decisions by asking themselves some questions:

1. Which style appeals to me more?

2. Would Italic or Copperplate be more useful to me?

3. Which class is being offered at a time that fits into my schedule?

If you are equally drawn to both alphabets, and scheduling is not a problem, another question may arise: Why not learn both?

There are good reasons both for and against studying the two scripts simultaneously. If you have no familiarity with either Italic or Copperplate, and especially if you have never used a calligraphy pen of any kind, it is probably preferable to make a choice. Why? Since the two alphabets are written with very different pens, achieving the motor control for each is, of necessity, a separate process that requires exercise and concentrated practice.

We say "probably preferable" rather than "absolutely essential" because, with a reasonable amount of effort (and quite a lot of practice time), learning two sets of motor skills is certainly not out of the question. But most of us are circumscribed by time limitations, so even with the best intentions and a fully focused mind, learning to use the tools for Italic and Copperplate simultaneously can be quite difficult.

We therefore recommend that you, the beginner, make a choice. But which to choose? Choose the hand that you prefer. Thinking about commercial uses for calligraphy and/or calligraphy-for-profit at this time is fairly pointless. We will discuss how to get rich doing calligraphy (just joking) later in this book, but for the moment, be advised: you will not be going into business as a calligrapher quite yet. So look at some examples of Italic and Copperplate and make a choice.

But having said that, we are certainly well aware that many of you have already had some experience with both Italic and Copperplate and we would like to suggest that you can use this book in two ways: to pursue one set of instructions and exercises to advance your skills in either alphabet, or to alternate between the two. By comparing the results of similar exercises with different alphabets, you will enjoy the startling contrasts that result.

Let's pause to define the two alphabets and put them into their historic context.


Italic calligraphy, also called Chancery Cursive, was the handwriting of the Renaissance. It made its first appearance in the early fifteenth century, and flourished during the sixteenth century. Italic was used primarily as a correspondence and business hand, an informal script that was written more quickly than the formal contemporary manuscript hands, such as Humanist Bookhand and the late Gothic scripts, which were used in documents, illuminated bibles, and other church books.

Early examples of Italic come from the Chancery office of the Vatican, hence the names Chancellaresca Formata (formal Chancery script) and Chancellaresca Corsiva (the informal, linked style of Italic), but quickly spread through Western Europe. Among the most famous examples that are available to modern calligraphers are the writing books (contemporary "how-to" books that taught how to write Italic) of three Italian masters: Ludovico degli Arrighi, Giovanniantonio Taglienti, and Giovanbattista Palatino. Each of these writing teachers published a text book on Italic writing with glorious examples of the script, showing simple lettering as well as some wonderfully flourished calligraphy.

Arrighi's book, L'Operina, has been translated into English and reproduced in facsimile with the pages beautifully hand-lettered, in a close approximation of Arrighi's style, by the twentieth century American calligrapher John Howard Benson.

There are many other examples of sixteenth century Italic available for the student to examine. It is interesting to compare these earlier forms of some of the letters with our contemporary Italic alphabet. It is important to realize that the Italic hand of the sixteenth century remains elegant and easily legible nearly 500 years later.


Copperplate calligraphy, unlike other styles of writing, owes its name to a printing method, Copperplate engraving. The development of these letterforms, starting in the late seventeenth century and culminating with the English writing masters in the mid-eighteenth century (and indeed continuing well into the nineteenth century), were in effect a symbiosis between the shapes produced by the pen (or quill, actually) and the strokes that could be incised in a metal printing plate. In the hands of a master engraver, the hardness of the plate lent itself to curvilinear forms that were both rounder and more linear than the shapes of Italic letters, and the Copperplate alphabet developed a form, slant, and rhythm that has its own special character.

Various names have been given to this family of letterforms, the most common of which, to English speaking calligraphers, is either Copperplate or English Roundhand. A similar alphabet that developed in France in the seventeenth century is called Anglaise, but the forms we will be concentrating on in this book derive largely from the work of the English writing masters. Their artwork has been preserved for us in The Universal Penman, a compendium of extraordinary examples of penmanship dating from 1733 to 1743.

England's commercial preeminence during the eighteenth century called for a clear, legible, and rapidly written correspondence hand, and the clerks trained in Copperplate script were able to satisfy the demands of this flourishing business empire. Many of the examples of Copperplate that we study today were created by the writing teachers who were in lively competition with each other to attract students. We are fortunate to have examples of broadsheets (single pages of calligraphic prowess) as well as copy books to enable us to study Copperplate at its finest.


Tools & Materials, Light, Posture, Practice

Whether you are starting from scratch or reacquainting yourself with calligraphy, it's a good idea to read this chapter before you begin to write.

Tools & Materials

The materials required for basic calligraphy are simple and inexpensive, but not always easy to locate. All you actually need to get started are pen, ink and paper, but it is necessary to determine which products are good and which are not. If you go into an art supply store and say, "I'd like to purchase calligraphy materials," you'll be very lucky to get any of the tools of the serious calligrapher, as opposed to hobby kits and packaged sets. It's always best to be armed with some specific information so that you can request exactly what you need. (Whether or not the shop will actually have what you need is another question. Mail-order calligraphy suppliers are often a better source of calligraphy materials than local art supply stores.)

The materials below are recommended for both Italic and Copperplate, followed by the nibs and penholders you will need specifically for each alphabet.

Italic and Copperplate

Ink You will need to use a non-waterproof permanent ink. Non-waterproof ink, as the name implies, will not run or smear if water touches the writing, or if you run a damp finger over a letter or line of calligraphy. Waterproof ink is impervious to most liquids, but it is rarely a good choice for calligraphy because it tends to be too thick and gummy to achieve fine line quality. Worse, waterproof ink will often cause deterioration of your nibs because these inks contain shellac or other corrosive substances.

A permanent ink is one that will not be affected by direct light. Writing done with a nonpermanent ink will eventually fade if it is exposed to sunlight or strong artificial light; if you write with a permanent ink, this will not happen.

There are quite a number of inks available to calligraphers, but it is a good idea to read the small print on the package or in the catalog to determine that the ink is both non-waterproof and permanent. All too often, attractively packaged colored inks are waterproof; they will damage your pens and give you less than satisfactory results. (If you are interested in writing in color, see Chapter 13.)

Both Italic and Copperplate can be written effectively with the same inks (i.e., an ink that's good for one is good for the other). Because there are more very fine lines in Copperplate than in Italic—although Italic too is characterized by a fine, elegant "hairline" (fine line)—a thinner ink is sometimes pleasant to use for Copperplate. Some fountain pen inks are particularly nice for practicing Copperplate, but be advised that fountain pen inks are often non-permanent.

Paper Although there is a vast amount of paper available in art supply stores, at this point we're going to limit our suggestions to practice paper (i.e., paper that can be used for calligraphic exercise, as opposed to calligraphic art). See Chapter 14 for information about good quality paper.

In order to practice effectively, without undue frustration, you will need to find paper that is smooth enough that your nib doesn't catch or bump along on the surface, but not so smooth that it will skid out of control. Furthermore, you want a paper that won't absorb the ink or bleed.

Most papers available in pads labeled layout, visual bond, or marker paper should be good for both Italic and Copperplate. The advantage of this paper is that it is thin enough that you can put guide lines under the sheet you are writing on and the lines will be easy to see through the paper. Sixteen pound bond paper—this refers to the weight per 500 large sheets—which is generally the weight of copy machine or computer paper, can be just the right thickness to enable you to see your guide lines. If the paper is too thick to see the lines, you'll have to draw lines on every sheet. This is not too difficult to do, but it can be time consuming.

Very thin paper, such as tracing paper or architects' vellum, rarely has a decent writing surface for pen and ink. You can easily see your guide lines, but the line quality of your calligraphy will be poor.

We suggest that you use 11" x 14" practice paper. This is a medium-sized format, large enough so that you won't feel cramped, but not so large as to be cumbersome.

How do you know if the paper surface is good for calligraphy? It is very easy to test the paper. Simply dip your pen into your ink and make a stroke (line) or two on the paper. If the paper absorbs the ink, the paper is not good. If the pen slides out of control, as it will on a glossy surface, the paper is too smooth. If the paper grips the nib ever so slightly, that is, if you feel a tiny bit of resistance as you move the nib across the page, the paper is probably okay.

There is a wider range of paper surfaces that can accommodate the Italic nib than the Copperplate nib. Both hands can be written on smooth papers, but, for the most part, a more textured paper causes difficulties for the sharp, pointed Copperplate nib. Textured paper may not be a problem—and indeed may produce interesting and beautiful results—when writing Italic.

The bottom line? Choose paper that gives you the best possible results. If your pen catches and snags in the paper, if the ink splatters or your letters are out of control, try a different paper. For exercise and practice, work on papers that permit you the greatest control of your pen and, consequently, the best letters you can form.

Remember, too, that not every calligrapher likes the same papers. Your teachers' or colleagues' recommended papers may not work as well for you. By making your own tests, you can guarantee good results.

Other Recommended Materials Whenever you are working with pen and ink, you should equip yourself with some sort of water container (an old coffee cup, a small glass jar, a plastic container) and a cloth or paper towel. This should be part of your set-up, so that you never forget to clean your pens. It's a mistake to allow ink to dry and build up on your nibs. This will cause them to deteriorate and possibly corrode. It is easy to dip the nib into water and wipe it well with your towel. Do this on a fairly regular basis, every fifteen minutes or so when you are working, and every time you stop working, whether you are finished for the day or taking a break. If you keep your tools clean, and dry them well, they will last a long time.

Be sure to remove the nib from the penholder whenever you stop working. If you leave a damp nib in the penholder, it will rust.

Another simple and very worthwhile part of your set-up is a guard sheet. This is a piece of paper that covers the part of the writing surface upon which you rest your writing hand and perhaps your other hand as well. This protects the paper from the natural oils in your skin. By making a guard sheet part of your basic set-up, you won't inadvertently damage your writing paper by putting your hands or fingers on it.

For some of the work you do, you will also need a ruler and pencil. A metal ruler is a good investment because it usually sits quite flat on the paper, which enables you to draw lines more accurately than a ruler that is thicker, like a wooden ruler. A metal ruler and a cutting tool (a razor blade or craft knife) are used for cutting or trimming your paper. Thin plastic rulers are sometimes quite good for drawing lines, but can't be used for cutting.

A medium-hard pencil, such as a 3H, is good to have on hand for drawing lines; and a softer pencil—an HB for example—can come in handy for quick sketches and layouts. You should always have a few pencils and a pencil sharpener somewhere within reach.

And finally, an important part of your calligraphic set-up is carefully drawn, mathematically accurate guide lines. We'll discuss this in some detail in the following chapter.

Italic (only)

Nibs The materials that are unique to Italic are the nibs (pen points). Italic is written with broad-edged—sometimes called square cut— nibs of varying widths. Here are a few examples:


There are many other writing tools that can be used for Italic calligraphy, including quills, brushes, fountain pens, chisel-edged markers and even carpenters' pencils. For the purposes of this book, we're going to limit ourselves to dip pens, which are penholders with removable metal nibs. (An exception is Chapter 11, which discusses informal calligraphy written with some non-calligraphic tools.)

There are a number of brands of broad-edged metal nibs available. You will no doubt find some nibs easier and some more difficult to use, and will have better or worse results, depending on such factors as how hard you press and what kind of paper you are writing on. A more flexible nib, such as the Mitchell Roundhand series, needs a lighter touch than firmer nibs, such as Brause, Tape, or Speedball.

Our personal preference is Brause or Mitchell. The instructions in this book will sometimes indicate a specific nib or choice of nibs for certain exercises. In each case, however, you are welcome to try other tools to see which produce the best results. The guide lines at the back of the book are ruled for Brause nibs, but other nibs of the same width can be substituted.

Italic Nibs for Lefties Speedball, Brause, and Mitchell all offer nibs specially manufactured for left-handed calligraphers. Many lefties find these nibs, which are cut slightly obliquely to the left (see illustration on page 12), helpful in overcoming some initial difficulties in holding their pens correctly. A combination of a left-hand nib and paper slanted downhill to the right usually solves any problems left-handed students may incur.

Penholders Just about any penholder that holds your nib firmly is acceptable. When you insert your nib in a penholder, it should stay securely in place without wobbling or falling out into the ink. Penholders can be smooth, rounded, faceted, lightweight, heavy, plastic, wood, paper-covered, cork-tipped, very cheap, medium-priced, or extremely expensive. None of this matters as long as the penholder is comfortable to hold and the nib stays in place.

Be sure to dry your penholder after cleaning your nib (you generally clean the nib while it is still attached to the penholder), especially if the end into which the nib fits is metal. Remove the nib and store it separately.


Excerpted from Italic and Copperplate Calligraphy by Eleanor Winters. Copyright © 2011 Eleanor Winters. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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.

Meet the Author

A Professor of Art at Long Island University and a commercial calligrapher and lettering artist, Eleanor Winters is the author of Dover's Mastering Copperplate Calligraphy. Her calligraphic art has been exhibited in museums and galleries throughout the United States and Europe.

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Italic and Copperplate Calligraphy: The Basics and Beyond 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
NJCalligrapher More than 1 year ago
I have been using Eleanor Winters' books for over ten years as a reference guide and as a teaching aid for classes I give in introductory Italic and Copperplate. Ms. Winters' new book, which covers "the basics and beyond" of Italic and Copperplate, highlights the similarities and differences in these two popular hands with characteristically clear explanations and illustrations. I intend to use it as a textbook when I conduct classes at the intermediate and advanced levels. Although there are many introductory calligraphy books available, Italic and Copperplate Calligraphy: the Basics and Beyond fills a very large space in our calligraphy library, providing instruction, exercises, and examples for students who are ready to go beyond the basics. I have been waiting for the publication of this book for a long time, and I am delighted that it is finally available.