Calligraphy is usually written with a broad-nibbed device, whether it is a metal nib, a cut feather quill, a bamboo reed or a flat brush. The broad nib is what gives calligraphy it’s distinctive thick and thin lines and used to create a variety of different letter styles: Italic, Roman, Foundational, Gothic, Uncial, etc.
Although the same broad-nibbed pen is used to create each letter style, what gives each style it’s distinctive characteristics are the pen angle and letter proportion.
The above letter style samples were written using the same pen (Rotring Calligraphy Pen 1.9mm) but using different pen angles and proportions.
Pen Angle refers to the angle of the pen nib to the baseline of writing. The most common pen angles are 30° and 40°-45°. When beginning calligraphy, it is important to maintain the proper pen angle for the letter style written so the thick and thin lines are consistent.
Proportion refers to the letter thickness related to the size of the pen nib and is also a characteristic of letter style. The proportion is determined by holding the pen nib at a 90° angle to the baseline, then pulling the pen a short distance to the right to create a “block.”
This “block” is the basic measurement that is used to determine the correct proportions of the letter style with the selected pen size, and is also used to create guidelines.
For example, the Italic lettering style usually uses 5 pen nib widths for the x-height to waist line, and 3 pen nib widths for the ascenders and descenders with a pen angle between 40° and 45°:
Once you understand pen angles and proportion, it becomes fairly easy to look at a letter style and determine how it was constructed. Most calligraphy “how to” books will provide this information along with a ductus to help you construct the letters.