Learning Calligraphy

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Learning proper calligraphy has been top of my to-do list for ages. I’ve been storing up inspiration for ages, and even tried a spot of faking the effect, but nothing beats learning a skill properly. Master letterer Jon Contino is right when he says “Learning calligraphy will give you a much more intimate sense of each letter and it will help you to learn how to manipulate each one or many together to create a beautiful composition.” It really is the foundation for all typography and I find I have an even better appreciation for letterforms after just a month of practice.

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Josh bought me a nice Winsor and Newton set for Christmas, which was the kick that I needed to get started. I also signed up for American designer and letterer Melissa Esplin‘s online course, I Still Love Calligraphy, for extra guidance and encouragement. I’m just coming to the end of the month-long access period now.

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As you will have noticed if you follow my Instagram, it’s become quite an obsession and I spend a spare few minutes every day filling a sketchbook page full of more practices. I’m still very far from pro, but I can see myself improving which is great.

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The online course has been very useful to this novice. You get plenty of resources like videos, printable practice sheets and letterform guides, and there are several activities for which you can upload your work to get critique and suggestions from Melissa. It goes from the very basics of forming the thick and thin strokes right up to decorating your work with flourishes and starting to develop your own unique style. While it’s a very casual course with not too much interaction, I still think it’s worth the $95 for access to the resources and a structured learning approach.

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A major hurdle that took me a bit too long to realise was that the italic nibs in the Winsor & Newton kit were not right for the copperplate/roundhand style I wanted to emulate. Flat or slant-cut nibs are suited to traditional gothic and italic lettering styles, where the angle controls the thickness of the stroke. By contrast, copperplate nibs let out more ink when you press down harder (usually on the letters’ down strokes) to create the elegant thick-and-thin effect of more modern calligraphy. Another bonus is that being a lefty isn’t a disadvantage at all in this kind of lettering and I found I was able to follow right-hander instructions with no problem.

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I’ve had quite a few emails and comments asking how to get started, so here are my tips:

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You don’t need a specialised kit or anything fancy at all: just pop to any decent art shop and pick up some black india ink, a set of copperplate nibs and a holder, and a sketchbook with smooth, thin pages (layout pads are perfect). Check out this Amazon widget for all the basics if you don’t have a suitable shop near you.

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Before trying to develop a style of your own, it’s best to learn classic copperplate lettering so you appreciate how the letters are formed. It’s like doing a foundation in life drawing even if you want to make comic books. Start from the very beginning, learning how the pen makes thick and thin strokes and doing page after page of the basic strokes: upstroke, downstroke, sidestroke, ascender and descender curves. Then learn how each upper- and lower-case letter is formed and write each one out lots of times! You could use Melissa’s course or a book, or find some online resources for help.

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Calligraphy is such a portable hobby that doesn’t need much in the way of space or tools, so try to practice a little bit each day. I fill a page of my sketchbook between writing emails, while waiting for dinner, watching TV and so on.

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Look on the web for inspiration and try copying what you see. Obviously don’t publicly use or share a direct copy of someone else’s work, but it’s a great way to learn different styles and techniques. I’ve got lots saved on Tumblr and also love the Oh So Beautiful Paper blog.

I hope I’ve given you some tips if you fancy having a go at calligraphy yourself!

38 thoughts on “Learning Calligraphy

  1. we made our own pen in school by shaving sticks, so much fun and have been slightly obsessed with calligraphy since then. this is brilliant , love to see more, keep doing it x

  2. Great piece. I really need to work on the practice part. I found Melissa Esplin’s course a great start but haven’t had a chance to practice since then! I think your lettering is looking fantastic. How do you go about scanning it – I’d like to make a calligraphy logo for myself.

  3. I’ve been wanting to do something like this for such a long time. Your lettering is lovely & I can see how far you’ve come already in the photos – good work! That course looks fantastic too. I’m so tempted to sign up once my bank balance recovers from Christmas a little more.

  4. Thank you SO MUCH for your links and recommendations! Calligraphy has been on my own to-learn list for ages, but I’ve never found quite the right resource/never quite wanted to fork out for an overpriced Make Lounge-esque course. Thank you!

  5. This is a GREAT post. Thank you so much for making it! I would love to be able to write (do?) calligraphy, but it’s very intimidating. This post makes it a little less so. I am already thinking of going out to get a pen. Knowing (a tiny bit) about the difference between the nibs is useful, too.

    If this is your work now, I can’t imagine what it will look like as you progress. It’s really beautiful!

    Thank you so much for these links and helpful resources. I can’t wait to check them out.

  6. I’ve always really admired Calligraphy but haven’t tried it myself – my regular handwriting sucks. But I totally cheat & use fonts, Bombshell Pro is my favorite so far!

  7. Love this post!! I’ve been wanting to get into calligraphy for a while now, and I think you’ve finally given me the push. I’m getting the stuff this weekend and bookmarking this post!!

    xo,
    Mel

  8. Thanks for the top tips I’ve recently inherited some calligraphy books. You’ve made it feel much more accessible and inspired me to have a go.

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  10. Thank you for sharing this. I adore your hand written style, and I was so inspired I bought a mini set of calligraphy nibs and ink this weekend and will be signing up for the online course this week! Wish me luck :)

  11. I’m so glad I found this post! I’m trying to learn calligraphy on my own by reading up on as much info as i can from online resources. I find that practicing as often as you can really helps improve the way you make the script. :)

    i think your post is a must-read for those who want to get into the craft– especially the part about the nibs! I made a mistake of buying the wrong nibs for the script I want to emulate hah.

    xx Francesca of primpandpaper.com

  12. thanks for the great post.!
    So do you think it’s ok to start with nip pen and ink, learning copperplate for a starter ?
    I was going to start with felt pens and italic.
    I am Just a bit unsure, don’t know what I should start with.
    Thanks,
    Regie

    1. You can start with any pen or pencil learning to make the marks and shapes, but you’ll need a copperplate dip pen to get the thick and thin strokes.

  13. HI,
    I love your style of calligraphy and have inspired to try the copperplate style, I have always done italic. I live in the US and have trouble finding some of the supplies that you have (specific brands anyway). Your pen holder looks comfortable, do you know brand it is? If so, I will try to find it .

    Thanks,
    Julie

  14. Thank you for such a nice article. I am an art director and as almost any designer in love with typography. When I was a kid I used to doodle all day long graffiti and letters on my notebook. But I stopped when I went to college.
    Now, at 39 I think I will give it a try again, because it is so nice and I have a passion for it.
    Thank you for resources and boost.

  15. Love calligraphy and have always wanted to try it. One question though can you use a fountain pen with cartridges or is this more applicable once you’ve learnt the art? :)

    1. Hi Kirstine, I haven’t personally seen a fountain pen with a true copperplate nib before, but I’m sure they exist and it would make controlling the ink flow much easier!

  16. This is so fantastically helpful! Thank you so much!
    & your calligraphy is really beautiful, I especially love the little headers you’ve made. I’m sure they were done quickly but they’re very sweet :)

  17. Hi Katie!
    I stumbled upon your page tonight and am happy I did! I’ve been wanting to take up calligraphy for a while now, but have been intimidated with my being left handed! Do you use a specific set for lefties?

    i loved seeing your progress and hope 7 months later, you are still as in love with the art!

  18. Thank you so much for this post!! It is so informative and was just the “push” I needed to start learning calligraphy. I really appreciate that you included all the resources and links to what I need to get going. Thanks again!

  19. Hello! I’m super glad I stumbled upon this, because I’m a lefty as well. When you say “this kind of lettering”, what exactly did you mean? Also, did you get special calligraphy pens meant for lefties or do you just use the ‘normal’, righty ones?

    1. I mean copperplate as opposed to gothic style. Normal universal pens and nibs wok fine for lefties in this style.

  20. I have been wanting to learn for a while. My father is real good at it. Hes been doing it for as long as I can remember.I have the markers not the actually pen. I LOVE writing with cause you can fake it and make something look so fancy. I plan on learning real soon

  21. Your calligraphy set looks beautiful! Are they all separate or did they come together? I would love to know where I can purchase this.

  22. hi Katie i’m from a city in the coast of argentina it is called mar del plata and i’ve been searching for a caligraphy course in my town for a while now and i haven’t found anythign yet, it’s a small city and i think there are no caligraphy courses here so i’ve started surfing the web for some online courses but everything is way to expensive for me. With my country finantial situation it is imposibble for to pay for those courses. so i run into your page and i was wondering if you perhaps know any on line free course or something that might help me with my learning. i like your work by the way, thank you for your atention and sorry for my english. =D

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