Dip Pen Workshop

Louise demonstrating calligraphyWe dipped our toes into the world of dip pens this week! And how strangely addictive they were too. Louise (aka Calligraphy Girl, or @inkcrafts) was our mentor and Helen @journalwithpurpose, Amanda, James, Amy and my good self, Anna, were her eager students.

So why a dip pen? Why use something that, after all, seems a little old-fashioned when there are so many all-singing, all-dancing calligraphy pens out there?

Because they're flexible! Well, not literally, although there are some flexible nibs out there, but flexible in terms of what they can do, and the effects you can achieve with them. They're also very customisable: you can use whichever nib holder suits your style, whether it's made of wood, plastic or even glass! (we'll come to those in a moment). Perhaps you prefer an oblique angle or a cork grip area, or like to have a range of different colours. But whatever you choose, you'll be able to fit a whole host of different nibs into it (not all at once, I hasten to add), which gives you the ability to create all types of lettering, from Copperplate and Old English to modern calligraphy (which is essentially a fancy adaptation of your own handwriting). You can add simple line drawings and flourishes as well, which all contribute to the appeal of beautiful lettering.

Well, that’s what Louise said, anyway. And we believe her, because we had a rather fun time trying out all sorts of nibs with all sorts of inks.

Very wet ink with a wide plate nibThere really does seem to be a nib for all occasions, from super-broad Plakat nibs, which are ideal for Old English (the sort of typeface you see on signs for 'Ye Olde Innes') to the finer nibs suitable for writing and drawing, all with a greater or lesser degree of flex. Sometimes they're described by the object they resemble, such as Pumpkin or Finger nibs. There's even one you can use to draw music staves. We used Brause nibs, which are works of art in themselves.

A candle flame being used to burn oils off a new nibIt's a good idea, when you have a nice new nib, to remove the protective oil before you embark on some lettering because if you don't, the ink will just slide off the nib. The best way to do this is to burn it off (just pass it a couple of times briefly through a flame), although you can also stick the nib into a potato (Michael's store of useful things stretched to a lighter, but strangely enough didn't include any root vegetables). You should also do this if you've been handling the nib, as natural skin oils are just as ink-repelling as industrial ones.

The tip of a glass dip penNo need to do this with Herbin's range of glass dip pens though. These are beautiful things: a length of moulded, coloured glass that ends in a twisted section to create a nib. Using them is very like writing with a normal pen, except it all feels that much more special. They hold an astonishing amount of ink, allowing you to write quite a lot before dipping, and are surprisingly robust. Try using one to write a letter for InCoWriMo.

Generally speaking, fountain pen ink is not usually recommended for use with dip pens, mainly because the ink is less viscous and has a tendency to slide off the nib and deposit a blob on the paper (which you can always use to create a spontaneous ink-blot type illustration of course). Having said that, some inks are fine, and we had great results using Herbin's Fountain Pen ink (with a bit of Iridescink Robert and Maureen thrown in as well).

It's essential to dip the nib far enough into the ink so that it covers the hole, otherwise you'll only be able to form a couple of letters before having to go back for more ink. With the broader nibs this is unavoidable to some extent, although the construction of Plakat nibs in particular means that they do actually hold a small reservoir of ink. And the broader nibs are brilliant for showing off glittery inks and those with a sheen! What's more, being able to make big bold letters using lots of ink is VERY satisfying: it's a bit like when you were a child in possession of a thick black marker pen and faced with a handy expanse of wall… but without the angry parent bit.

Various calligraphy supplies laid out on a deskHow to be a Dip Pen Superhero (Calligraphy Girl's Tips of the Trade):

  • Take care when fitting nibs - they're delicate and can be accidentally bent or twisted (that might create some interesting calligraphy!)
  • Warm up! Not a jog round the block but a few upward- and downward strokes, just to get the feel of the pen
  • Keep water handy - and away from your cup of coffee!
  • Try not to let the ink dry on the nib - it might be difficult to get it off
  • Relax and - very important, this - breathe! In, out… in out… that's it
  • Don't expect perfection straightaway - as with all skills it takes practice and patience
  • Always store your dip pens with the nib upwards
  • Experiment with different types and brands of ink to see which works best for you and your particular style
  • Always use good quality paper - Rhodia is my go-to, and the Brause Calligraphy Pad is great too!

14 February 2019


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