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!