One aspect of calligraphy that is sometimes overlooked is Negative Space. Understanding and becoming aware of what is happening inside and around your lettering is helpful in determining problems with letter forms and overall design structure.
Negative Space refers to the areas inside and around your lettering (the space inside the letters is called a “counter”). In the following example the black areas on the left is the negative space:
I know that just practicing strokes can get a little boring but they are useful to help “train the eye” to recognize the correct pen angle, negative (counter) space and letter spacing in words.
Basic strokes and ruling lines can be found at the Stroking the Rules post.
So let’s practice a few more strokes and then we can have some fun with them and work on understanding negative space!
What you need:
- calligraphy pen, nibs, reservoir, ink
- graph paper and/or guideline sheet
With this next set of strokes, we are adding thin strokes at the beginning and end called “serifs” and joining together the two strokes that make the letter “o”:
The first set is simply a diagonal stroke with serifs added. Try a few spaced a few graph squares apart, then try a row with each touching the previous stroke. Watch the negative space between each stroke to try and keep them consistent.
The second set is the letter “o” is constructed with two pen strokes in the order shown above. Start the second stroke a little inside the top first stroke and drag it a bit in the bottom of the first stroke. Notice the shape of the counter (negative space) inside the “o”.
The third set is a horizontal stroke with serifs. Try to keep the center bar straight – don’t make it too wavy.
The last stoke is a diamond shape made by keeping the pen at 45° and pulling the pen down at a 45° angle.
Now that we have a few more interesting pen strokes to play with, let’s combine them to make some pen borders. These borders will help you get familiar with constructing forms by building up pen strokes, and also help with visualizing spacing.
This is the pen border we are going to make:
It might look a little complicated, but it is simply constructed out of a few basic pen strokes. When each set of strokes is added separately, it is easy to make the borders consistent by watching the negative spaces.
1. Draw a row of the first stroke of the “o”.
2. Draw the slanted stroke with serifs between the first strokes.
3. Draw a curved stroke drawn from the slanted stroke.
4. Draw the horizontal stroke with serifs and end it attached to the top of the first stroke.
5. Add some “diamond” strokes to finish.
Try a few rows on graph paper, then try the border on a guideline sheet.
Here are a few more borders to try:
Think about how each border is constructed: What are the strokes used? What order would they be constructed? How is the spacing used?
Be creative and make up your own borders using basic pen strokes!
Understanding negative space is helpful if you are having problems with letter forms by looking at what is happening in the closed forms such as the “a” and “g”:
This works well if you have an exemplar to copy. Try isolating the shape inside the letter (counter) and “draw” your letter around the shape. This can be helpful particularly when learning a new letter style or for a beginner working on their own.