Archive for January 16th, 2009

Let’s rule some lines and practice some basic strokes!

What you need:

  • writing surface
  • pen holder, nib and reservoir
  • ink
  • dropper or brush (to load the reservoir)
  • graph paper, sketchbook or plain paper
  • scrap paper
  • ruler
  • pencil


  • eraser (white plastic type)
  • protractor

Writing Surface – any flat, untextured surface will do as long as you can sit comfortably for writing.  Some calligraphers prefer a slanted writing surface such as an adjustable drawing board or light table.  I’ve never used them myself for lettering small projects (up to about 16″ x 20″) but I do have a drafting table that I use for very large commissions.

Tip:  If you find you prefer to work on a sloped surface, consider investing in a portable drawing board.  There are many different types, styles and sizes – some have a ruler attached that is handy for drawing guidelines.

An inexpensive alternative to drawing boards and drafting tables is a piece of Masonite with a couple of pieces of wood glued to the back corners for “legs” to elevate the board to the desired slope.  Glue some rubber material or other “non-skid” material to the bottom of the legs to keep the board from moving while you are lettering.

It is also helpful to have a few sheets of paper under your work to give it a bit of a “cushion.”

Guideline Papers

Graph paper is excellent for practicing if you are using a nib size that fits well into the grid (about 2 squares high for 4 or 5 pen nib widths.)  The squares can be used to assist with maintaining the proper pen angle and is helpful for drawing straight lines.

Tip:  If you don’t have graph paper or can’t find a grid size to fit your favorite nib, you can generate a custom grid page in a pdf file for printing from Incompetech.

If you prefer to use guidelines for the exact size of nib you are using, the Scribblers website has a Guideline Generator that will create a pdf page of guidelines for printing.  Measure the size of your nib (in mm) then multiply the width by 3 for the ascenders and descenders and by 5 for the body measurement.  The “distance between lines” should be set to zero.  The generated page will show a bit of space between the lines but that is okay for practice.

Graph paper and automatic generators are fine for practice or using as a template for small projects, but eventually you will want to letter a project bigger than printer paper or use a pen size that just won’t fit the parameters, so…..grab your pen and let’s get started!

Ruling the Guidelines

There are only two things we need to know to draw guidelines:

  • the size of the pen nib (pen nib width)
  • the letter style

Most nibs will have the nib size (usually in mm) somewhere on the nib or the shank, or measure the nib with a metric ruler.

Letter styles vary in pen nib width heights for the body (x-height), ascenders and descenders (see the post on Proportion).  A lettering ductus will usually provide that information if you are using a “how to” calligraphy book.

For this exercise, let’s assume we are going to use the Italic letter style:

  • Ascenders = 3 pen nib widths
  • Body = 5 pen nib widths
  • Descenders = 3 pen nib widths

Note that there are variations of the Italic letter style and some styles use slightly different ascender and descender heights although the body (or x-height) is generally 5 pen nib widths.

Grab your pencil, ruler and a piece of unlined paper.

Step 1: Draw a straight line near the top of the paper (a few inches from the top) – this is your Base Line.

Drawing the Base Line

Drawing the Base Line

Step 2: Load your calligraphy pen, then holding the pen nib at a 90° angle, line up the tip of the pen with the base line and pull the pen until you have a “block” (pen nib width.)  Draw 5 blocks like a step ladder, making sure that the nib is starting at the top of the previous block – try not to leave any gaps between blocks.

Drawing 5 Pen Nib Widths

Drawing 5 Pen Nib Widths

Step 3: Let the ink dry for a minute, then line up your ruler with the top of the 5th block and draw a pencil line – this is the Waist Line.

Drawing the Waist Line

Drawing the Waist Line

Step 4: With your calligraphy pen (nib at 90°), continue drawing the step ladder drawing 3 more blocks starting at the waist line and lined up with the top of the 5th block.  When the ink is dry, draw another pencil line at the top of the last block – this is the Ascender Line.

Drawing the Ascender Line

Drawing the Ascender Line

Step 5: Returning to the Base Line, use your calligraphy pen to draw 3 blocks below the base line and lined up with the bottom of the first block.  Let the ink dry, then draw a pencil line at the bottom of the last block – this is the Descender Line.

Drawing the Descender Line

Drawing the Descender Line

We have now completed ruling lines for one line of calligraphy!  This is the guide that will show us how long the ascenders and descenders will be (e.g. l, p), and the height of the letters (x-height) without ascenders or descenders (e.g. a, o, m).

Completed Lines showing X-Height

Completed Lines showing X-Height

We usually want to do more than one line of lettering, so now that we have figured out the size of one guideline, we can measure  the width of the x-height, ascender and descender spaces and continue drawing lines down the page.

Since calligraphy doesn’t usually have extra spaces between writing lines, the bottom of the descender line will be the top of the next ascender line.

Tip:  One of the most common mistakes I’ve seen by beginners is starting to letter in the ascender or descender space instead of the x-height space.  To help avoid this mistake, lightly pencil an “x” at the edge of the x-height space as a visual reminder!

Page of Guidelines

Page of Guidelines

Basic Strokes

First we’ll practice some basic strokes on graph paper, and then on the ruled guideline page.  You can check how many graph squares approximate the size of your pen nib width by creating the “ladder” for ascenders, x-height and descenders.

These basic strokes are made with a 45° pen angle.  A 45° angle can be found by simply drawing a diagonal line in a graph square, or using a protractor and a ruler to draw the correct angle.  If you don’t have a protractor, you can print one out here.

Tip:  To write with the correct pen angle, hold the pen comfortably in your hand lining up the nib on the angle line.  With the other hand, turn the barrel of the pen until the full width of nib rests on the angle line.  Try not to turn your hand or wrist to get the correct pen angle.

Basic Strokes 1

Basic Strokes 1

Calligraphy is not “written” as in handwriting, but is “constructed” by drawing shapes that make up the letters in a particular order.

The first two basic shapes are drawn without lifting the pen from the paper.  The red arrows indicate the beginning and end of the strokes.  These strokes represent the thinnest (hairline) and thickest strokes made by your pen nib.

Next, try drawing a few straight lines.  The strokes will have a 45° angle at the top and bottom if the pen angle is correct.  Practice drawing the lines at 5 (x-height), 8 (ascenders and descenders) and 11 (for the letter “f”) pen nib width lengths.

Tip:  Start a straight, vertical stroke at the correct 45° angle by lining up the nib in the corner of a graph square to make a “triangle”, then using the vertical lines of the graph paper to help you draw a straight line.

The last stroke is a short horizontal line – again, notice how the beginning and end of the stroke have 45° angle.

Basic Strokes 2

Basic Strokes 2

One of the distinctive characteristics of the Italic letter style is the “oval” shapes of the letters.  This next set of strokes is to practice making the oval shape at 5 pen nib widths.

Start in a corner of the graph paper and pull the stroke down curving at the bottom.  Notice the width of the stroke – it is only about 1 graph square wide.  Keep the “oval” shape in mind when practicing this stroke.  Two of the most common mistakes are shown – making the stroke too round, or pulling out the stroke too far.

You can probably see by now that we almost have all the strokes necessary to create letters.  Practicing these basics will help you maintain the correct pen angle and shape construction.

When you feel comfortable practicing the strokes on graph paper, try them on your guideline paper!

More pen strokes and pen borders can be found at the Getting Positive about the Negative post.

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