An Introduction to Modern Calligraphy Basics: The Tools
This lesson aims to teach the basics and “need-to-knows” about beginning modern calligraphy, which has seen a huge resurgence in popularity over the past couple years in everything from weddings to logos to home decor. One of my goals for the new year is to start posting more tutorials on the blog for creative individuals at the beginner level. This doesn’t mean you have to be an artist or designer to follow them (though of course you are welcome if you are!), just a creative-minded individual who’s doodled in their notebook a time or two.
So let’s get started.
What does modern calligraphy even mean?
Modern calligraphy put simply uses the techniques and materials of traditional calligraphy (pen holder, nibs, ink, etc.) but doesn’t follow the strict guidelines as to how to write in different script styles (such as Copperplate, Roman, or Spencerian). In modern calligraphy, you can make up any style you like!
For this tutorial, I will be focusing on pointed-pen modern calligraphy, which means that thick and thin lines are created by the pressure you put the nib to the paper as you write rather than the direction and angle you hold the pen. This type of calligraphy requires a certain type of nib. Which brings me to…
What on Earth do I need to get started doing modern calligraphy?
I know other calligraphers who swear by certain supplies might hate me for saying this, but from my own experience first starting out and trying new things, the exact materials you use don’t bear a huge amount of significance. I purchased the cheapo Speedball oblique pen calligraphy kit from Amazon and still use it today! There’s no point in buying expensive materials to start out if you come to decide that you don’t like modern calligraphy at all! One possible exception to this rule is ink. Your average craft store will likely only have a few kinds, mainly dominated by small containers of Speedball ink in different colors, which I’ve personally found to be awful probably because they’ve been sitting on the shelves for quite some time and have separated and hardened. Others swear by Speedball ink. I will tell you all the supplies that I use, but I encourage you to play around and try your own materials!
This list contains all the supplies I use for practicing modern calligraphy. You do not need all of it to get started! Even if you don’t have any of the supplies yet, you can get started with just a soft pencil (preferably not mechanical) and some printer paper and just start practicing the movements and the letterforms!
All the supplies listed below are linked to one of my preferred sites for buying art supplies. I would suggest checking a few for the lowest price before purchasing! If I don’t buy in-store, I typically purchase from one of the following: Amazon, Plaza Art, Paper & Ink Arts, or DickBlick. For simplicity, I’ve linked all the items to a listing on Amazon as every item can be found there, but it’s not necessarily the lowest price!
Higgins Eternal Black Ink: Higgins Eternal is a classic and well known calligraphy ink that is great for practice and those just starting out! Speedball Super Black India Ink is also a common starter ink that I’ve tried and have had decent success with.
Holbein Artists’ Gouache (in various colors): Gouache is one of my absolute favorite mediums to use. It is a paint that I liken most closely to watercolor with its ability to be watered down and used as a beautiful ink! It has a beautifully matte finish and comes in vivid colors. My favorites are pearl gold, jet black, and turquoise green but I also have the primary CMYK set which I use frequently as well.
There’s endless amounts of ink and paints out there to use and practice with, but I recommend you start with a black liquid ink. Mixing the right amount of water and gouache, water and watercolor, or water and an ink stick can be tricky business if you’re new to it, and it will help with troubleshooting problems if you don’t have to add ink to the potential problem list!
Rhodia Dot Pad 16.5” x 12.5”: I absolutely love my Rhodia dot pads and graph paper. The paper works great with the inks I’ve specified above and doesn’t buckle or get caught on the smooth paper. I purchased this large pad because I’m one of those people that hates to rip pages out of a sketchbook and I can fit in tons of practice on a single page with this size. That means I spend less time waiting around for the ink to dry before I can fold back the page and start on a new one.
Borden & Riley #37 Bright White Translucent Bond Paper: This paper is great if you prefer a dot or line-free paper to practice on. I simply use a sheet of pre-lined graph paper underneath that shows through the translucent paper to use as a guide for writing. Or, if I’m looking to create a looser style, I use no grid at all. It’s extra important on this paper to use a spare sheet of paper under your hand to protect the paper as you write. Any spare blank printer paper will do. Although I recommend doing this with any paper you are writing on, I’ve found this one to be especially sensitive to the oils in your hand which can cause weird things to happen when you write over it like the ink not appearing to “stick” to the paper.
8×8 to the inch Gridded Graph Paper: I recommend graph paper that has 8×8 squares to the inch because it forms a great and proportional guide for practicing calligraphy. You can practice straight on the paper (if it works with calligraphy ink) or use it under your translucent paper as a guide. Unfortunately the squares on the Rhodia pads are not to this scale, but the great thing about modern calligraphy is that you can make up the rules to the proportions and height of your letters to fit whatever style you like!
These are the three nibs I’ve used most frequently since beginning my exploration into pointed pen calligraphy. Now I’m far from an expert on nibs (there are literally thousands of different kinds), but I tend to like slightly more flexible nibs because they allow for wider strokes with less pressure. The Hunt 101 is probably the most flexible of the nibs, then the Tachikawa G, then the Nikko G. The Nikko and Tachikawa produce very crisp lines. The Hunt 101 can be very fun and create a lot of personality in the writing, but can sometimes be a little finicky releasing ink.
These is the cheapest, most basic black plastic pen holder you will probably come by and I’ve used them exclusively as I’ve been learning and teaching myself calligraphy. Bottom line: they work, they’re easy to clean, and they’re cheap. If you tend to get clammy hands like I do, you may want to look for a wood or higher quality penholder in the long run because this slick plastic could get slippery. Still, I would recommend it for beginners because of the price unless you know this is something you will be interested in for the long term.
The oblique holder I use for all my pointed pen (flex nib) calligraphy and the straight holder I use for all my italic (flat nib) calligraphy. The oblique holder looks scary, but it allows you to write at the proper angle to create thick and thin strokes. To my left handed friends: the oblique versus straight pen scenario is not so cut and dry for you. I have heard of people using the straight pen for what a right handed person would use an oblique pen for, but I’ve also seen others use the oblique pen fine. My recommendation is to get one of each and try out what you feel most comfortable with. I will be going over how to hold the pen in part II of this lesson.
Staedtler Mars Technico Lead Holder (and lead!): I love my Staedtler and it’s a great pencil, but honestly any pencil will do fine. When it comes to calligraphy, I’m only using this to create my grid lines on my dot pad or graph paper.
Palomino Blackwing Pencil: Another instance where I have found a specific brand I like, but any will do. A non-mechanical pencil that is HB or softer works great for practicing calligraphy before you even get your supplies. You can practice the motions and the letterforms and even the thick and thin strokes by pressing down hard or light as you’re writing.
Small Inkwell: When I first started calligraphy, I was brushing the ink or paint onto my nib with a brush because the vial, dish, or container I was drawing my ink from was either too large to dip into (I always ended up getting ink all over my holder) or too shallow to dip in. This may seem like an exaggeration and I promise you it’s not, but the best move I ever made was getting a small vial to keep my ink in so that I could dip my pens rather than brushing the ink on. It saves loads of time and frustration with trying to brush with your non-dominant hand and you don’t have to have your whole ink bottle open and drying out as you work. Any tiny plastic or glass container will do, but I recommend buying one made for calligraphy as it will be the perfect height to dip in your nib but not too far and should come with a lid for easy transport!
Small plastic pipette: A necessary addition to using an inkwell. There would be nothing worse than trying to pour from a huge ink bottle into a tiny vial and losing about half your ink when you spill it everywhere. Trust me.
Scrap Paper: To use as a guard to protect your paper from your hand as you work. Plain printer paper works great.
Paper towel or small scrap towel: To wipe up any spills, clean your nib, wipe your fingers on. I promise you will use this in some way or another, particularly as you are learning to use your tools.
Adjustable Table Lamp: Not a necessity, but can be helpful to have a consistent light source! I recommend an adjustable table lamp so that you can place it in the proper position as to not create any shadows where you are writing. For someone right-handed, you want to position the lamp in the left upper corner of your workspace pointing towards your hand. That way as you write, your hand or penholder won’t cast a shadow over where you are writing.
Ruler: For drawing grid lines. I love my metal, cork-bottomed ruler. I recommend a 12 or 18 inch ruler. I use 18” because it’s big enough for my Rhodia dot pad but small enough to not be unwieldy.
Overwhelmed yet? I hope not! As I said at the beginning, don’t panic that you don’t know or have the perfect supplies yet; all that will come in time. Luckily, it is easy to find cheap, beginner materials that work great and many that are of great quality. Starting out in modern calligraphy is not a huge investment, so don’t feel the pressure to get everything perfect like I did!
If you’re still feeling a bit lost or uncomfortable, the materials I use specifically for the upcoming tutorial are as follows: 2 ½ fl.oz. Higgins Eternal Black Ink, Tachikawa G nib, Speedball Oblique Penholder, Staedtler Mars Technico mechanical pencil, Dinky Dips inkwell with wood holder, and the last five items under “Other” section (no specific brand although I hear that Bounty is in fact the quilted, quicker picker-upper).
Next week, I will teach you the basics of holding the pen, practicing basic forms, and writing your first alphabet with modern calligraphy! So gather your supplies, and leave any questions in the comments so I can get back to you before we begin!