So…you’ve done everything you can to avoid lettering mistakes but you still have a spelling error, a pen blot, or the cat decided your loaded pen was an interesting “cat toy” and batted it over your work (calligraphers who own cats understand what I’m talking about!)
There are many methods of trying to fix lettering mistakes by scraping off the offending mark, using a “white out”, painting over it with gouache, or even going to the extreme method of “patching” with a solution of paper fibers but any of these methods rarely completely hides the mistake. If you can see the correction, assume everyone will see the correction.
Tip: Never try correcting directly on a final project – always test your method first on a scrap piece of the same paper with the same ink! This will help you decide if it is more efficient to spend time correcting a mistake so it will be invisible or if you should start over.
There are a number of variables that will determine the success or failure of corrections:
- type of ink (waterproof, non-waterproof, pigment, dye)
- paper surface (rough, smooth, textured)
- paper content (weight, sizing)
- tools and quality of correction materials
- skill level of applying the techniques
Correcting Mistakes Before They Happen
Correcting mistakes takes a lot of patience and a little bit of skill, so it’s a good idea to practice correcting mistakes using your favorite inks and papers so you will know in advance if a correction can be successful.
Note: There is no guarantee that any method will completely hide an error.
Correction Tools and Techniques
First we’ll look at some tools helpful for making corrections, and then we’ll look at three methods of correcting lettering mistakes:
- Changing an incorrect letter
- Scraping off errors and/or ink blots
- Painting over errors
Tools for Corrections
What you need:
- dip pen and nib
- your favorite ink or the ink you use for most of your work
- paper samples you would use for a final copy (e.g. watercolor paper or pen and ink paper)
- scratch pen nib
- gouache paint (opaque watercolor)
- small round (pointed) sable or synthetic brush
- soft brush
- mixing palette (a small saucer will work fine)
- small bowl of clean water
Note that we’ve added a few more tools to our calligraphy tool box:
Scratch Nib: These are used for creating scratchboard drawings and are available in most art or craft stores. They are excellent for using as a scraping tool because they are very sharp, have a smaller surface area than a safety razor blade and will fit in calligraphy pen holders. They are available in various shapes and I’ve found the pointed type (#112) works well.
Gouache Paint: Gouache is a water-based, opaque paint similar to watercolors. Paints usually are available in a variety of grades; typically student grade (low) or artist quality grade (highest). Try to get the artist quality grades as these will have the best pigments and are the most stable (e.g. permanent). No point spending time painting out a mistake only to have it eventually turn color!
Note: Paper correction fluids are formulated to work with standard bond papers and are not suitable for permanent lettering corrections.
Gouache paints can be purchased individually or in various color sets. A small set consisting of the primary colors (red, yellow, blue) with a tube of white and black would be useful if you are interested in expanding your calligraphy repertoire to include illuminated letters.
If you are only interested in gouache for corrections, a tube of white and a couple of tubes of yellows (e.g. lemon yellow, ochre, etc.) is all that is necessary. Note that papers are not normally pure white – particularly watercolor papers – and since the gouache white is a pure, bright white, a little yellow will be required to match various paper surfaces.
Tip: Take a sample of your papers to the art store when purchasing gouache – a staff member can help you select mixing colors to match your papers.
Brushes: Any small, round, pointed brush (generally in the #1, #0 size range) suitable for watercolor painting can be used with gouache. Brushes come in a wide variety of qualities from the finest, expensive professional quality Kolinsky sable to inexpensive synthetic fibers. A student quality red sable brush is preferred as the natural hairs are best for holding water, but a good quality synthetic brush can be also be used.
Tip: A good quality watercolor brush will retain the point after it’s dipped in water. If the brush hairs or fibers “splay” out (poor quality or worn out) and will not come to a point, replace the brush.
Soft Flat Brush: This brush is used for brushing off bits of ink from scraping and is also great for brushing away eraser crumbs. It’s not a good idea to use your hand or fingers as the oils might cause ink bits or letters to smear. Pictured is a flat 1″ Chinese Hake brush with goat hairs – very soft and inexpensive – perfect for keeping paper surfaces clean.
Mixing Palette: Palettes are used for mixing paint and come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and materials for a range of media. Any palette for water media is best, as wooden, acrylic or glass palettes are better suited for oil and acrylic painting.
Plastic, glazed porcelain or enamel is preferred - a plain, white saucer will work just fine (patterns and colors will interfere when trying to mix colors).
Plastic is very inexpensive (about a $1.00 and up) but some paint colors will stain the surface and be difficult to remove. Glazed porcelain will cost a little more (about $7.00 and up) but cleans up very well and will last for years.
Whatever you decide to use, inspect the surface to ensure it is smooth without any rough areas as these can damage the brush hairs.
Grab yourself a few paper samples and letter some mistakes – spelling errors, shake a few ink blots over it, how about a smear or two?
1. Changing an Incorrect Letter
Before discussing the more “invasive” techniques of correction, let’s look at the easy one! Because calligraphy is constructed stroke by stroke rather than written, sometimes you can be fortunate enough to be able to change the wrong letter into the right letter.
A good example would be changing the lowercase (Miniscule) Italic letter “c” to an “a”, “e”, “d” or “g”.
In this example, an “a” can be easily changed to a “d” by simply adding the ascender and blending it into the “a” downstroke.
This is the only method of correcting an error that would be completely invisible. The success will depend on the letter style, a consistent pen angle and how seamlessly one can “blend” strokes together.
It would be more difficult to turn the “a” into a “g” because the terminal stroke of the “a” would be visible, so we would have to attempt one of the more invasive techniques to hide the terminal stroke.
2. Scraping Method
This method utilizes the scratch nib – place the nib in a calligraphy pen holder and, holding the nib at an oblique angle, try gently scraping off the ink.
In this example, we are attempting to remove the bar from an Italic letter “e”. Try to keep from disrupting the paper surface as much as possible, especially if the paper has a very smooth surface (e.g. hot press paper.)
Scrape a little at a time pulling the scratch nib towards you, and using a soft brush to brush away any ink bits dislodged from the paper.
It takes a very light touch and holding the scratch nib at an angle to avoid digging into the paper. The success of removing the mark depends on how much the ink has soaked into the fibers.
This method works best with inks that sit on the surface of the paper and if the paper has a bit of tooth or roughness.
3. Painting over Errors
If your tests have determined that scraping will not remove the mark, you could try fixing any scraping marks adding a bit of gouache, or try painting out the error .
First, you will need to mix a color that will blend with your paper color. Squeeze a bit of white gouache onto your mixing palette, and load your round brush with a little clean water.
Tip: A new tube of gouache might have a bit of gum arabic at the top to keep it from drying out. Squeeze a little paint out the tube until the gum arabic is gone.
Remove any excess water by blotting the brush – the brush should be damp but not have any water dripping. If you are familiar with painting techniques, what we want is an almost dry brush.
Important: Remember with this technique you are adding water to your lettering, and non-waterproof inks will dissolve and spread if too much water is applied making a bad situation worse. Also note that some inks labeled “waterproof” might not be completely waterproof and dissolve as well. This is why it is important to test correction techniques before applying them to your final work.
Mix the tip of the brush with a bit of the white gouache, and paint a few strokes on your paper sample. If it is too white for the paper, squeeze out a bit of yellow (or whatever color you need to match) somewhere away from the white, pick up a tiny bit with the brush and mix it with the white. Paint a few test strokes again, and repeat adding and adjusting tiny bits of yellow and white until the strokes are invisible when dry.
When you have a color that matches your paper, pick up a little color with the brush and apply it to error by dotting the color over the ink – don’t swipe the brush back and forth.
You will notice that even though gouache is opaque, adding water makes the paint a little translucent so we will be building up layers of paint to cover the ink. In painting terms, what we want to do is a glazing or scumble over the error.
Let the paint dry completely, and repeat building up thin layers of paint until the ink is covered. If you need to recharge the brush, remember to keep the brush damp enough to paint, not soaking or dripping.
Once the ink is covered and dry, you can blend areas around the correction with a few more thin layers of paint if necessary.
Tip: Clean your brushes after painting using a brush cleaning soap and clean water. Let the brushes dry on a brush rest (or horizontally) before storing. Never leave a wet brush standing vertically as the water might dissolve or soften the glue holding in the brush hairs. Palettes can be cleaned with soap and water to remove any dried paint.
Keep a “Corrections” file
If you use a specific paper or if you have a selection of papers you use quite often (such as pre-printed certificates), try correcting mistakes using a variety of methods and make notes on the paper of what works and what doesn’t work.
Keep the samples, and if you make a mistake on a final copy, you have a handy reference to help you determine if the mistake can be corrected or if it’s time to do it over!
Correcting Work for Reproduction
Works that are destined for reproduction (e.g. invitations) are more forgiving as long as the correction will not be visible when printed. If you are providing a physical copy for reproduction check with the printer as to what methods or materials can be used that will not reproduce.
Digital copies from scans can be fixed or retouched if you are comfortable using a program such as Photoshop. An entire layout can be constructed in Photoshop and it is relatively easy to “replace” a spelling error or “paint out” an ink blot.
Tip: If you are sending a digital copy, make sure you contact the printer to find out what file type, resolution (ppi or dpi), color space, operating system (Mac or PC version) etc. they require. I have run into a few printers in smaller print shops that can only accept, for example, a Mac file for a particular program and sometimes they might even specify the version of the program they prefer – it will save a lot of time to ask in advance!
These are just a few methods of correcting errors. Experienced calligraphers might develop other methods based on their particular requirements, tools and materials. Just as in lettering techniques, correcting techniques require patience and practice. Familiarity and confidence with your tools, materials and how you use them will help you decide whether or not correcting is a reasonable option.