An Introduction to Modern Calligraphy Basics: Holding the Pen and Basic Strokes
Last week, I posted about the tools I use as a calligrapher and some of the tips and tricks I wish I had known when I was first starting out with modern calligraphy two summers ago. This week, I want to teach beginners who have never tried calligraphy before how to hold the pen, the basic strokes that create letterforms, and alphabet I use when doing modern calligraphy. If you don’t know what supplies you need or where to begin, you can check out part 1 of this introduction here.
Step 1: Holding the Pen and Nib Placement
Learning how to hold your calligraphy pen is a crucial step to modern calligraphy success that you might be tempted to overlook. Many times when first learning I would be having trouble with uneven strokes or the nib skipping on the paper and thought I was just using the wrong paper or nib or just needed more practice. In fact, it was my nib that wasn’t inserted correctly into my pen holder that was causing a lot of headache and not very pretty writing.
First you will need to know a little bit about the anatomy of your pen. The tool you will be using for pointed pen calligraphy to hold your nib is called an oblique pen holder. The little doohickey coming out to the side at the end of the pen is called a flange, and that is what holds your nib and enables you to write at different angles so that the pressure and direction of your downstrokes are consistent and parallel with the angle of the nib. You may also instead choose to use a straight pen holder depending on your natural hand position when writing or if you are left handed you may find it more comfortable and natural to use to get the correct angle. Disclaimer: I am right handed and although I may point out some tips and tricks I’ve learned for left-handed calligraphers, you may want to seek out more specific lessons for how to hold your pen from a fellow left-handed calligrapher. Youtube is a great resource. You might check out this video here on left handed calligraphy. Once you’ve learned how to hold your pen, the instructions below for forming strokes and letterforms will be the same!
Now let’s talk about nibs. The nib is the metal piece that you dip into ink and write with. For pointed pen calligraphy, we will be using a point, or flex nib, which means that the tip of the nib comes apart when you press it to the paper, creating the thick downstrokes in your writing. Those two pieces that form the tip of your nib are called tines. They are tough but can break or come apart over time after lots of use or applying too much pressure on them against the paper. You can find stiffer or more flexible nibs that make it easier or harder to separate the tines to create thicker strokes. I prefer somewhere in the middle. You can check out my most-used nibs and a short description of them here. Now the other most important part of the nib you’ll need to know about is the vent hole or breather hole. That is the hold in the center of your nib at the end of the slit. This hole serves dual purposes. First, it gives your ink a place to collect and feed continuously to the tip of your nib as you’re writing. Without it, the flow of ink would be very inconsistent and it would too quickly come off the pen and dump out into a blob on your paper. The second, and equally important purpose of the vent hole is to reduce the pressure on the tines as they separate on the paper during downstrokes. Without the hole, the tines would be more prone to breaking or splitting.
Now that you know the pieces of the puzzle, we can start putting it together by preparing and holding your pen. First, insert the base of your nib into your pen holder. You want the convex curve of the nib facing up at you, so that the side of the nib with the imprinted nib I.D. is readable. From a point where the nib is parallel to the plane of the flange, you will want to rotate the nib slightly inward, turning to the right (see picture below). This is a crucial step and varies to every calligrapher’s individual hand position as they write. The reason for turning the nib is because when you hold the pen, the plane of the flange will very likely be angled downward horizontally as well as vertically vertically from the base of the pen. The horizontal downward angle of the flange causes us to need to rotate the nib in the opposite direction to offset that angle. That way when you’re writing, the tines will touch the paper at the exact same time to create straight, consistent strokes. You may notice a jagged edge or curve in what is supposed to be your straight downward stroke otherwise. I know this may sound complicated, but trust me, when you get the hang of holding the pen and practicing strokes, you will easily notice when the nib is out of line and be able to correct it accordingly.
Step 2: Basic Strokes of Modern Calligraphy
Congratulations! It’s finally time to make a mark on paper. We will start by practicing some basic strokes that are used in almost every letterform you will make when writing pointed pen modern calligraphy. It’s important to practice these strokes often, until and even after they become second nature to you. It’s a good warm-up to any calligraphy session.
Learning the Strokes
I’ve highlighted eight commonly used strokes that I use when creating letterforms in this style of modern calligraphy. I’ve numbered them 1-8 so that later on you can see how I put the individual strokes together to form letters. Remember, the thick strokes are created when you are pulling the pen downward. The thin strokes are created with upward movements.
- Stroke 1: This is your most basic downstroke. Practice making a perfectly vertical stroke that is a consistent thickness the whole way down. This will teach you sensitivity to the pressure you are putting on your nib and help you create consistent strokes throughout your writing.
- Stroke 2: This is stroke, or a variation of it, is of the most commonly used strokes you will make. It is found in several of lowercase letters such as a, i, m, n, and u. Start by making a downstroke, then right as you get towards the bottom, start to release some of the pressure as you begin drawing your pen around and back upwards at an angle.
- Stroke 3: This is the opposite of stroke 2 and also very commonly used. This time, begin with an upstroke, putting very little pressure on the nib so that the tines are still touching each other. Then as you round the top, begin to add pressure and do a downstroke.
- Stroke 4: This is sort of a combination of 2 and 3. Create individual shapes to start, and when you begin to get the hang of it, try creating a continuous wavy line and see how consistent you can get it to look. Try to keep the angled upward strokes all at the same angle and the thick downward slopes all perfectly vertical.
- Stroke 5: Stretch out your stroke 4 to create an approximately 90 degree angle between your upward and downward strokes. Again, try creating a continuous line of this and see how consistent you can get it to be.
- Stroke 6: Stroke 6 is the shape I like to use to create the counter, or enclosed circular shape in a lot of my lowercase letters. Think about the a, b, d, g, p, and q. You can use this shape or stroke 7 to create round enclosed area. I prefer this slightly more funky shape to give my modern calligraphy a little bit of character.
- Stroke 7: In addition to using this stroke in place of stroke 6 for all the uses listed above, it is also necessary for your o and a good way to practice consistent transitioning from upward to downward strokes.
- Stroke 8: The final and most complicated of my basic strokes will help you get the feel for creating the ascenders and descenders of letterforms like b, d, or q. While you’ll never make this stroke exactly, it will help you get in a rhythm and practice your ascenders and descenders at the same time.
Applying the Strokes
Now that you have a bit of a sense for the pen and the motions your hand will be frequently making, lets combine a few of these basics strokes to make letters! I’ve added directional arrows to each stroke and labeled any strokes that are the basic ones you learned above (1-8) to help memorize the motions. If you only see one form, that means I created the whole letter without picking up my pen. If you get lost, start at the red dot and follow the directional arrows to understand how to create the form.
Awesome work friends! Now you know your ABCs of modern calligraphy! I don’t want us to get too far ahead of ourselves, so in part 3 of this lesson, I will show you my whole lowercase alphabet together, and two variations of a capital alphabet. I’ll also go over some variations you can apply to your letters and talk briefly about flourishing! So practice your strokes and your lowercase ABCs once you get comfortable with that. Let me know what questions you have; I’d love to answer them!
Practice makes perfect.
Practice makes better.