Hi, my name’s Louise. And I’m a stationeryholic. I also work as a Customer Service Advisor here at Cult Pens which is a pretty good job with lovely customers, and a great team, not to mention the pens! The ink! The paper! I’m surrounded by it all and it’s helped fuel a love for calligraphy, my experience of which so far, and how I got started, I’d like to share with you.
It really kick-started when Simon and Amanda gave me a pack of Artline Calligraphy Pens just after I’d first started; they were to test and generally have a play with after I’d mentioned I’d love to try calligraphy. Well, that was it. I practiced Old English and Blackletter fonts - the pens being perfect for that style - and I loved them, and still do. I’ve widened my practice to use all sorts of materials for all sorts of calligraphy now, 6 years later, but Blackletter scripts are still my favourite.
So, you too might be thinking about giving calligraphy a try. Firstly - and importantly as it will influence what tools and equipment you might need - you’ll need to think about what style of calligraphy you’d like to try. I like to break my calligraphy practice down into 3 main styles:
When you have an idea of which style you’d like to start with it’s time for the fun part: tools! It's worth investing in the right equipment as it really does make a difference, and good quality tools don't have to cost the earth. You won’t want lovely ink feathering across low quality paper, a rusty old nib scraping across the paper, or most importantly, the wrong pen for the job. Below I’ll talk about some of the pens and other tools I’d recommend for practice, and examples of how you can use them.
Brush pens are my first choice for this style. They have the benefits of being quick to use (simply uncap and go); the ink sits well on most paper; and they come in a good variety of sizes and colours. I like to mix up fonts and play around with this style of calligraphy. Modern calligraphy can be very relaxed and allows for lots of variation in terms of tools and styles of hand-lettering. An easy way to add interest to brush lettering, for example, is to keep a white or metallic gel pen handy to decorate and add extra details to your letters. Or simply dip your brush nib in some fountain pen ink and see how the colours change as you write. I used this method for this month's Penorama banner, dipping a purple Sakura Koi brush pen into some blue fountain pen ink and letting the blue ink colour change to purple as I wrote - you can achieve some fantastic colours this way.
Watercolour brushes are another great way of incorporating mixed media for calligraphy: the effects you can achieve with watercolours are never-ending. For water brushes just fill the pen with water and dip the nib into watercolours, or any other mixable ink of your choice, and away you go. Alternatively put a watercolour mix of your choice in the pen and mix away. As well as using watercolours for your calligraphy you can also use them in the more traditional way, for a lovely background or outline to your lettering. The Kuretake Irodori Kobako kit is a great starter pack, which includes 6 watercolours, a water brush pen and a flexible fibre-tipped Mangaka pen, perfect for modern calligraphy, hand-lettering and art.
Dip pens are really great fun! However, you do have to be a little more patient with some inks and nibs than you do with brush pens. Depending on the style and size of your writing, you might need to dip every other word or so, but the result is well worth it with practice. Dip pens also feel so elegant and classic, especially glass dip pens. They take a little more fuss and looking after than traditional fountain pens or brush pens - cleaning the nib when you're finished after every practice, and often in between, is essential to keep the nibs in good condition and some nibs, no matter how well you clean them, will always just need replacing after lots of use. They're usually fairly weak, which comes with being so much more flexible than standard nibs - a heavy hand could cause some damage, but it all comes with practice and learning how much pressure you can apply to which nib.
For cleaning dip pen nibs I like to use a nib cleaner like Diamine Nib Cleaning Solution, or Higgin’s Pen Cleaner. You can clean dip pen nibs in different ways. Simply wipe down the nib with a little solution and some kitchen roll after each session, or remove the nib from its holder and leave submersed in some solution for however long is needed, if the ink’s already dry and has stained the nib. Some nibs though, no matter how hard you try, will sometimes just need replacing.
It’s also worth noting the importance of pencils for calligraphy practice. They can help you shape words, get the correct layout before going over with your colour or ink of choice and of course they have the benefit of being easily erased without wasting a lot of ink and paper. Soft pencils are great as they help lend emphasis to the darker down strokes and lighter upper strokes that lots of styles of calligraphy use - 4B, 5B and softer are great.
For this style straight-cut nibs are great. Also referred to as italic nibs, I would recommend starting with fibre-tips for practice, before moving up to steel nibs. Like brush pens they're quick and easy to use, the ink sits well on most paper and they can take a fairly firm hand. Having said that, being fibre-tipped they do wear out after a lot of use, losing their sharp edges, and can be susceptible to knocks and chips. I always have a couple of these handy in my pen pot; I find them useful for practising new fonts and I always try to use a different pen each practice, to ensure they're being rotated and no one pen wears down through too much use - this way I've managed to keep some of my fibre-tipped pens in an almost new condition for years. In particular for this style Manuscript Callicreative pens are great fun: they’re available in a variety of tip sizes and colours, including metallic colours, and the duo-tip in particular is very handy with a straight-cut 3mm calligraphy nib at one end and a fine-liner of the same colour at the other, which is perfect for going over those fine details. Another pen worth a mention here is the Pilot DRL, available in 3 tip sizes. Its nib is lovely and sharp and it's a great practice pen for blackletter and other fonts.
Once I’m happy with fibre-tipped italic nibs and practising my font of choice, I move on to use steel nibs, and after some practice they’re now one of my favourite calligraphy tools. The Pilot Parallel Pen is especially good for putting down a very sharp line and is brilliant for any gothic, old English or straight cut calligraphy, and lots more. Straight cut nibs like these work wonders with all sorts of fonts. The Parallel Pen is available in 4 tip sizes; the largest - 6mm - is lots of fun, and you can mix inks beautifully to create lots of great effects. Pop a cartridge colour of your choice in the pen, then choose a complementary colour in bottle form (fountain pen ink only: you don’t want to clog up the nib and feed with highly pigmented waterproof inks), and dip away. You can keep dipping to create a real mix of colours or let the dipped ink fade out into the cartridge colour. If you've got two pens you can also put the tips together to mix the ink.
For a more traditional fountain pen system, but still using a steel straight-cut nib, Lamy and Kaweco are well worth a look. Lamy in particular provide spare nibs available to order, which are quick and easy to change, including calligraphy sizes 1.1mm, 1.5mm and 1.9mm. They are interchangeable on nearly all their pens. The Lamy joy comes pre-fitted with a calligraphy nib size of your choice; alternatively, if you’d prefer another Lamy pen of choice, contact us and we’ll get it sorted for you.
Pencils are a really good starting point for Copperplate or Spencerian to get used to the style of writing. They’re very italic fonts, Spencerian especially, and both can be heavily flourished. Pencils are great for these styles when practising as you don’t have to worry about dipping ink or smudging; you can just get started and erase and re-try if you need to. They’re my most used calligraphy tool at the moment as I’ve only recently started practising Copperplate and Spencerian, and I expect they’ll be in my calligraphy kit a while longer yet!
The ultimate tool for Copperplate and other classic cursive fonts are dip pens. They take a slow and steady hand and lots of practice, lots of repetition, but it’s well worth it in my opinion. It’s my mission for this year, to try to master them as best I can!
Speaking of which, practice. It’s so important to practise regularly to keep improving and discovering new styles, fonts, pens and more. Some can find it a bit daunting to start with but it's nothing a bit of practice can't help with - practice makes progress, and eventually you'll find what's perfect for you. Alphabets are a really good way to start practising - you can start to get a feel of which fonts and styles you like and are good at, and those which need improving, or just don’t suit your style at all. I go online to find alphabets or fonts to practise but if you prefer books there is plenty of choice out there. Manuscript's Calligraphy Manual gives a good overview of four basic fonts to get started with, and tips along the way.
YouTube is another great tool for watching others and how they practice and what techniques they use, but Instagram is my go-to calligraphy inspiration app; there are lots of accounts dedicated to calligraphy and hand-lettering, and a great stationery and pen-lover community in general. @calligraphymasters and @thepostmansknock are two of my favourite accounts but there are plenty of others to choose from.
Paper - good quality paper is essential for most calligraphy or drawing inks, which you will need to use with dip pens and straight-cut steel nibs that put down quite a lot of ink. If you use low quality paper with these inks you’ll most likely get feathering and bleeding. Rhodia notepads are my favourite for any hand-lettering: the paper is lovely and soft and perfectly takes nearly every ink I’ve tried. They’re available in a huge range of sizes and styles - a simple pad, a fancy notebook, Rhodia have it covered. Original Crown Mill and Tomoe River are well worth a mention for their excellent quality, particularly if you fancy something a bit fancier! We've also recently added Kuretake's Water Calligraphy Practice Kits to our stock and they're great fun. Using a water brush with either a fine tip or 3mm straight-cut nib, depending on which you choose, you can practise endlessly as the water fades on the provided paper after a minute or so. Great if you hate wasting paper practising.
Ink - brush pens are good to go and for water brush pens just add water and watercolour, or a mixable colour of your choice. For dip pens you'll need a well-pigmented ink, something which is going to cling better to the nib instead of sliding off into a puddle on the paper (which is what the majority of fountain pen inks might do as they're water-based dye). There are exceptions though, and some fountain pen inks can work well with dip pens. Experiment, that's the fun of it! I’d recommend Diamine Calligraphy and Drawing ink, for the quality, range of colours and brilliant price. J Herbin have some fun metallics and glow in the dark ink which are good fun to play with, and for a classic solid black Kuretake Sumi ink is perfect.
I've included some suggestions below for pens and other tools I've recommended in this blog, and some others which I haven't mentioned specifically but which are still well worth a look. Whether you're just starting out with calligraphy, or, if you've been practising for a while, there's something for everyone to try. If you have any questions or like the look of anything else you've seen on our site that hasn't been mentioned, please do let us know and we'll be more than happy to help!
Dip Pens and Ink:
8 March 2017