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One of the most fascinating aspects of illuminated manuscripts is the range and diversity of the borders.  Elements can include stylized and naturalistic foliate drawings, (flowers, ivy, leaves, buds), geometric shapes and pen sprays often growing from border bars anchored to illuminated initials.

This demonstration will look at a few basic structures and incorporate various common elements found in manuscripts to create simple borders with added layers of complexity as a starting point to either creating your own designs or researching manuscripts to recreate “authentic” styles.

The border designs in this demonstration are a simple Symmetrical Border, a Repeating Spiral Border and a Border Bar with Ivy.

I have also included references to a few manuscripts from the British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts for each design to give you an idea of the use, range and diversity of the elements.

Drawing Borders

What you need:

  • graph paper (refer to Calligraphy Resources page)
  • pencil, eraser
  • pointed pen nib and ink or fine point marker (e.g. Sakura Pigma Micron, Staedtler Pigment Liner)
  • tracing paper

We’ll start by working out basic structures on graph paper, but consider drawing these borders free hand to give a more dynamic, less mechanical look to your designs.

These designs use very simple shapes that are easy to draw.  If you don’t think you can draw, practice the shapes a few times – you might be surprised at how well you can draw!

Basic Shapes

The basic shapes to construct the borders are lines, circle, diamond, oval, hook and a squiggle:

Basic Shapes

Line, Circle, Diamond, Oval, Hook and Squiggle

We will also be using a simple flower, acanthus leaf and ivy:

Flower Construction

Flower Construction

Acanthus Construction

Acanthus Construction

Ivy Construction

Ivy Construction

Symmetrical Border

A very simple design containing a primary element (e.g. flower, leaf, etc.), a secondary element and pen sprays.

Manuscript References:

Lansdowne 851 f.54v
Yates Thompson 52 f.23v
Stowe 23  f. 62

Step 1:

On graph paper, draw a line for the center line.  Draw alternating long (first) and short (second) branches evenly spaced from the center line.  It might be easier to turn the paper vertically, and use the graph squares to help create symmetrical lines.

Step 1: Main Stem and Branches

Step 1: Main Stem and Branches

Step 2:

Draw diamond shapes for leaves on the ends of the long branches, and circles for berries on the ends of the short branches.  Try to make the leaves follow the direction of the stem.

Step 2: Leaves and Berries

Step 2: Leaves and Berries

Step 3:

Draw the hook shape (pen sprays) between the branches a little shorter than the berry branches, and following the same direction.

Step 3: Pen Sprays

Step 3: Pen Sprays

Step 4:

Above the berry circles, draw two short lines and finish with a squiggle stroke.

Step 4: Berry Pen Sprays

Step 4: Berry Pen Sprays

And we’re done!  Now we can transfer the design for painting or just add a few details.

Finished Border

Finished Border

We can make a variety of borders by simply changing the elements and pen sprays.  The border below uses the same structure and substitutes flowers for leaves, oval-shaped leaves for the berries, and berries for the hooks:

Border with Flowers and Leaves

Border with Flowers and Leaves

We could keep adding details such a pen sprays:

Border Variation with Pen Sprays

Border Variation with Pen Sprays

Of course, borders do not have to be straight – try adding some curves or have the borders “grow” from an object:

Border Variation

Border Variation

Repeating Spiral Border

A simple design that is easy to repeat around a page.

Manuscript References:

Harley 24 f.1
Harley 44 f.2
Harley 2966 ff.27v-28 – Symmetrical and Spiral Borders

Step 1:

First we’ll use the graph paper to plot out a spiral shape.

Step 1: Plotting a Spiral Shape

Step 1: Plotting a Spiral Shape

Step 2:

Connect the “dots” by drawing a curved line through each point.  Draw an acanthus leaf at the end of the inside line.

Step 2: Spiral with Acanthus Leaf

Step 2: Spiral with Acanthus Leaf

Step 3:

Trace the design on tracing paper, then flip it and copy it:

Step 3: Repeating the Design

Step 3: Repeating the Design

Step 4:

Now we can start building elements starting with a few evenly spaced nodes – these are simply a “curved” variation of the ivy shape:

Step 4: Adding Nodes

Step 4: Adding Nodes

Step 5:

We can continue adding elements such as berries and pen spray hooks:

Step 5: Adding Berries and Pen Sprays

Step 5: Adding Berries and Pen Sprays

Step 6:

Add a few details such as lines from the berries, and we’re done!

Step 6: Finished Repeating Spiral

Step 6: Finished Repeating Spiral

Border Bar with Ivy

Ivy vines and leaves are generally attached to border bars and initials.  These can be very simple or quite complex and often are combined with other elements and design styles.

Manuscript References:

Harley 2899 f. 34v – spiral design
Egerton 3035  f. 38 – alternating style
Egerton 3037  f.193 – simple symmetrical

Step 1:

Draw parallel lines about one graph square apart for a border bar.  Draw a second smaller width line outside the bar for the main vine line.

Step 1: First Lines

Step 1: First Lines

Step 2:

Draw a wavy line at the top and bottom extending the smaller vine lines.

Step 2: Extending Vine Lines

Step 2: Extending Vine Lines

Step 3:

At the bottom and top of the first outside line, draw a few scalloped shapes and connect to the inside lines of the extended vine lines.

Step 3: Extending Outer Lines

Step 3: Extending Outer Lines

Step 4:

Add a second vine at the center of the bar attached to the outside vine.

Step 4: Drawing Center Vine

Step 4: Drawing Center Vine

Step 5:

Draw alternating stems and leaves attached to the vines.

Step 5: Drawing Stems and Ivy

Step 5: Drawing Stems and Ivy

Step 6:

Draw section lines around the center vines and to separate scallops at the top and bottom.

Step 6: Adding Section Lines

Step 6: Adding Section Lines

We can continue adding a few details such as pen sprays on the ivy and vines, and the design is ready to be transferred for painting.

Finished Ivy Border

Finished Ivy Border

Painting Borders

Borders are usually (but not always!) painted and they are very easy and fun!   What you do depends on your design requirements whether it is a simple touch of color, elaborate layers with detailed white designs, incorporating gold leaf, grisaille, etc.

These are just a few simple suggestions using a limited palette of colors that are easy to paint.  Try substituting the Yellow Ochre with a metallic gold artist paint or metallic gold gel pen!

What you need:

  • round brush (medium and small)
  • mixing palette
  • gouache paint (Opaque White, Ultramarine Blue, Cadmium Red, Yellow Ochre, Raw Umber)
  • paper suitable for water-based media
  • pointed pen nib and ink or fine point marker (e.g. Sakura Pigma Micron, Staedtler Pigment Liner)
  • ink

Optional:

  • Metallic gold paint or gel pen

Start by using tracing paper and a pencil or another method to copy a design on to the painting paper.  After you having finished painting, you can outline the design using a pointed nib with ink or a fine point marker.  Try to make the lines thin and not too heavy or it will look too “cartoonish”.

If the black outline looks too dark, thin out the ink so it is a gray tone, or mix a bit of brown gouache such as Raw Umber for the outlines.

Sample Symmetrical and Repeating Borders

These borders generally follow the same steps when painting:

Step 1:

Paint any areas you want in “gold” first – either with Yellow Ochre or a metallic gold paint.

Step 2:

Paint the flat areas of color (e.g. red, blue).  If you are mixing a color such as green (Yellow Ochre with a bit of Ultramarine Blue), mix enough to paint all the flat areas so the color is consistent.

Step 3:

Use Opaque White to paint details in the flat colors once the paint is dry.

Step 4:

When the paint and paper are completely dry, outline the design if desired, and add in the pen sprays.

These are just a few suggestions and variations:

Sample Flower Border

Sample Flower Border

Sample Alternating Design

Sample Flower Variation

Sample Spiral Repeated

Sample Spiral Repeated

We could also use one color and paint a monochromatic design for a grisaille effect:

Sample Grisaille Style

Sample Grisaille Style

Sample Bar and Ivy Border

Step 1:

Mix up a bit of Yellow Ochre and paint center section, top and bottom scalloped areas on the bar.  You can also add a bit of Raw Umber and paint a few darker strokes to make it look like gold.  Paint a few ivy leaves around the border with the same color.

Step 1: Painting Gold

Step 1: Painting Gold

Step 2:

Bar and vine colors generally alternate, so we will use Ultramarine Blue and Cadmium Red to paint the top of the bar red, the bottom blue, and switch the colors for the vine.  Note that the vine color changes about halfway at the center gold section.  Paint the remainder of the ivy leaves alternating red and blue.

Step 2: Painting Blue and Red

Step 2: Painting Blue and Red

Step 3:

Mix up Opaque White, and paint a line down the center of the vines.  You might want to mask out the areas as discussed in the Calligraphy Layout: Designing a Certificate post.

Tip: Another method of painting straight lines without masking is to use short, connecting strokes rather than trying to paint one long, straight line.

Step 3: Vine Center Lines

Step 3: Vine Center Lines

Step 4

Using a small brush and Opaque White, add details to the border bars by painting straight lines in geometric shapes on the red bar, and curved line shapes on the blue bar.  You can paint these as simple or as complex as you like – try adding a few white dots in the shapes, painting double lines, etc.  Paint a few highlights on the edges of the blue and red ivy leaves.

Step 4: Painting Bar Design and Ivy Highlights

Step 4: Painting Bar Designs and Ivy Highlights

When the paint and paper are completely dry, outline the design with a thin line of black ink or brown gouache and finish up other details such as pen sprays.

Sample Bar and Ivy Border

Sample Bar and Ivy Border

These are just a few simple suggestions to get you started – try different structures, colors and elements with variations.  Study manuscripts to recreate an authentic border to match a particular letter style, or create something completely contemporary!

We’ve been spending time practicing our lettering, so let’s take a break and make ourselves an Award for all our hard work!

Simple Award

Simple Award

In this demonstration, we’ll go through the steps of design, layout, lettering and painting a simple Award certificate combining elements from the following posts:

The steps and processes in this demonstration reflect the stages I generally follow when creating a work that combines calligraphy and painting.  Depending on the complexity of the work, some steps can be combined, skipped or sometimes expanded if required.

This demonstration is just one method – as you gain experience with your projects, you’ll develop your own methods of what works best for you!

What you need:

Paper:

  • 8 1/2″ x 11″ paper suitable for water media.  A 90 lb. hot press watercolor paper works well.

Lettering:

  • calligraphy pen and 2 nibs – one broad (about 3mm) and one medium (about 2mm).  The demonstration uses 3mm and 2mm Brause nibs.
  • graph paper or guidelines for each nib size (see Calligraphy Resources page or Stroking the Rules post.)
  • ink

Layout and Design

  • graph paper (see the Calligraphy Resources page)
  • pencil, eraser
  • ruler
  • 3M Scotch Removable “Magic” Tape
  • scrap paper

Optional:

  • tracing paper

Painting

  • round brushes (one medium and one small)
  • mixing palette
  • gouache – blue, red, yellow and brown (Ultramarine Blue, Cadmium Red, Yellow Ochre, Raw Umber)
  • drafting tape or tape suitable for watercolor painting – test on a piece of your paper before using it to make sure it won’t damage the paper surface
  • clean water

Step 1: Lettering

First, we’ll letter the text on graph paper or guidelines in a Gothic style (refer to the Demystifying Gothic Lettering post.)  Write out each line separately using the 3mm nib for the letters “ward” (for “award”), and the 2mm nib for “presented to” and “for practicing calligraphy”.

We’ll be using a painted intial for the “A” in “Award” so we only need to letter the “ward”.  You can use either the initial in the Painting a Simple Initial post, use the one I designed for this demonstration with the drollery “dragon”, or draw your own!

Initial "A" with Drollery Dragon

Initial "A" with Drollery Dragon

Next, use a ruler to measure the “presented to” and “for practicing calligraphy” lines of lettering, find the center, and mark it with a pencil line.

Note: Lines are shown in red for clarity – use a pencil to lightly mark lines.

Marking Center Lines

Marking Center Lines

Print out or draw the initial “A” on graph paper or tracing paper.  Line up the lettered “ward” with the initial “A”, tack it together with removable tape and mark the center.  Note that only the letters “A” and “ward” are included when marking the center as shown below.

Marking the Center of Lettering with Initia

Marking the Center Line

Step 2: Layout and Design

We’ll use an 8 1/2″ x 11″ sheet of graph paper to work out the rest of the design, and then transfer it to our final copy paper.

First, draw a box with the lines 1″ from the top, 1 1/8″ from each side, and 1 1/2″ from the bottom for the inside border line.

Inside Border Line

Inside Border Line

Draw a second box 1/8″ all around the first box.  This will be the border bars.

Outside Border Line

Outside Border Line

Step 3: Acanthus Leaves

Now we can have some fun!  On one side of the border (we only need to do one side because we will transfer it to the other side) draw a circle about 2 3/4″ from the top of the paper over the border lines.  Draw another circle at the bottom corner.  From the first circle, draw a wavy line up the border and around the top, and a second wavy line down the border for the acanthus main veins (refer to the Calligraphy Design: Acanthus Leaves post.)

Drawing Border Circles and Acanthus Lines

Drawing Border Circles and Acanthus Lines

Draw the acanthus leaves, wrapping the leaves in front and behind the border lines.

Drawing Acanthus Leaves

Drawing Acanthus Leaves

Use the tracing paper to make a copy of the leaves and circles – we’ll use this to transfer the design to the other half of the final copy paper.

Step 4: Guidelines and Lettering

On your final copy paper (e.g. watercolor paper) with a pencil and ruler, lightly draw the border lines as in Step 2.  Find the horizontal center, and draw a vertical line down the paper.

We’ll draw our guidelines and complete the lettering first (refer to the Calligraphy: Avoiding Mistakes post for order of execution.)

Starting with the “Award” lettering draft, draw a light pencil line on the final copy paper about 2 1/4″ from the top of the paper.  Use removable tape to tack the lettering and initial on the paper so that the baseline of “ward” sits on the pencil line and the center line is lined up with the paper center line.  Add a light pencil mark to indicate the beginning and end of the lettering.  Remove the draft and draw the rest of the guidelines for “ward”.

Repeat with “presented to” with the baseline at 3 1/4″ from the top, and “for practicing calligraphy” with a baseline 5 1/4″ from the top.  Draw the guidelines and complete the lettering.

Centering Lettering with Baselines

Centering Lettering with Baselines

Step 5: Name, Signature and Date Lines

If you want to add a line for the name, draw a centered line about 5″ long and 4 1/2″ from the top of the paper.

The signature and date lines are 6 3/8″ from the top of the paper and the length of the “for practicing calligraphy” line with approximately 1/2″ space between the lines.

Step 6: Transferring the Design

Transfer the drawing of the initial “A” on to the paper (refer to Painting a Simple Initial for one transfer method.)

Transfer the acanthus leaves and circles to one side of the border.  Flip the tracing paper drawing and transfer it to the other side of the border.  If necessary, clean up any pencil lines and erase extraneous lines.

Paper with Transferred Design and Calligraphy

Paper with Transferred Design and Calligraphy

Step 7: Painting the Initial

We can start with painting the initial.  Mix up a bit of red gouache and paint the “A” with a medium brush.  The drollery dragon is outlined with a small brush using a mix of Raw Umber lightened with a bit of opaque white.  You can also add a few line details in the dragon as shown, add a few white dots inside the “A”, or change the “A” into a puzzle initial (refer to Painting a Simple Initial.)

Painted Initial

Painted Initial

Step 8: Painting the Border

Next, we’ll paint the border bars using an old painting trick to make sure the lines are straight.  Cut  pieces of masking tape and run the pieces down the outside and inside of the border lines.  Make sure the edges of the tape touching the pencil lines are flat without any folds or spaces to keep the paint from spreading under the tape.

Now you can paint over the lines!  Mix up a bit of Raw Umber gouache and paint in all around the border skipping the areas the acanthus leaves and circles cover.  Let the gouache dry for while before removing the tape.  Sometimes it might seem dry on top but the paper could still be damp.

Remove the tape, and when you are sure the gouache and paper are completely dry, add another mask of drafting tape, this time covering a bit of the painted edge on each side.

Masking the Border for Painting

Masking the Border for Painting

Mix up opaque white gouache, and paint around the border again.  Remove the tape when the gouache and paper are dry.

Step 9: Painting the Acanthus Leaves and Circles

We’re almost done!  Paint the acanthus leaves starting with Yellow Ochre (underside of the leaves) and then with Ultramarine Blue.  Add line details and highlights (refer to Calligraphy Design: Acanthus Leaves.).

Paint the red circles with the same color as the initial.  Add a few lines for highlights and we’re finished!

Wait until all the painted areas are completely dry and then carefully erase any pencil lines.

Now you can add your name (refer to Calligraphy: Centering Lettering in a Certificate), sign and date it!

This is just a simple, basic certificate.  You could continue adding details such as wrapping more acanthus leaves around the border, changing the border lines to something more complex, incorporating more drollery figures – be creative!

Acanthus leaves are an extremely versatile design element with calligraphy.  The fluid, organic shapes can provide a visual relief from dense blocks of text such as Gothic, add an element of color to monochromatic lettering, enhance a decorated initial or bring a sense of movement to a static layout.

Work In Progress - Acanthus Leaves Painted on Vellum

Work In Progress - Acanthus Leaves Painted on Vellum

Take a look around – you might be surprised at how often acanthus leaves are used as decorative design elements – not only in illuminated manuscripts, but in architecture, metal work, furniture, fabrics, porcelain, wallpapers – almost anywhere!

A fascinating insight as to how acanthus leaves were drawn and painted in manuscripts is in the 15th Century Gutenberg Model Book.  A digital facsimile with translation is available at the Gutenberg Digital site.

There are many styles of acanthus leaves in illuminated manuscripts, and variations can be found in borders, initials, backgrounds and other decorative elements.  Many wonderful examples can be found at the British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts (enter “acanthus” in the search box.)

In this demonstration, we’ll draw and paint a simplified “Gutenberg” style acanthus leaf.  The shapes are easy to draw and can be folded, twisted and turned to fit any design requirements.  But beware – once you discover how fun it can be to draw acanthus leaves, it might be difficult to stop!

Drawing Acanthus Leaves

What you need:

  • paper or graph paper (about 4 squares to the inch or print one out from Incompetech)
  • pencil
  • eraser

Step 1:

Draw a wavy line on the graph paper.  This will determine the basic form of the acanthus leaf and represents the “spine” or the main vein.

Step 1: Drawing a wavy line

Step 1: Drawing a wavy line

Tip:  Once you are familiar with drawing acanthus leaves, many of the steps can be combined with one pencil stroke to draw a more fluid line instead of breaking up the forms.

Step 2:

Starting at the base of the spine, draw the top half of the leaf with two lobes.

Step 2: Drawing the Leaf Lobes

Step 2: Drawing the Leaf Lobes

Step 3:

On the under side of the second wave, draw half a leaf with one lobe.

Step 3: Drawing Leaf with One Lobe

Step 3: Drawing Leaf with One Lobe

Step 4:

Draw the second half of the first leaf.  Extend the line from the spine to add a stem.

Step 4:  Completing First Section and Stem

Step 4: Completing First Section and Stem

Tip:   Drawing the leaf shapes by turning the drawing vertical instead of horizontal can help visualize the flow and proportion of the lobes.

Step 5:

Draw the upper half of the second leaf.  Add a line extending from the base of the first curve to the lower half of the second leaf.

Step 5: Completed Second Leaf with Extended Base Line

Step 5: Completed Second Leaf with Extended Base Line

Step 6:

Starting at the top of the last wave, draw the bottom half of the third leaf.

Step 6: Drawing Bottom Half of Third Leaf

Step 6: Drawing Bottom Half of Third Leaf

Step 7:

Draw the upper half of the third leaf, and then add the terminal shape.  Erase the lines shown in green.

Step 7: Completing Third Leaf

Step 7: Completing Third Leaf

Your leaf is now complete!

Completed Acanthus Leaf

Completed Acanthus Leaf

Next, let’s try drawing a leaf with a different spine shape to illustrate how easy it is to fit a leaf into a design.

Leaf Spine Shape

Leaf Spine Shape

Draw the leaf shapes as with the first leaf, and we have an acanthus leaf that would fit well in a border corner.

Corner Border Acanthus Leaf

Corner Border Acanthus Leaf

We could use our drawing as a pattern for painting, or complete it as a pen and ink drawing.

Pen and Ink Acanthus Leaf

Pen and Ink Acanthus Leaf

Tip:  Drawing acanthus leaves, particularly using pen and ink techniques, will help with painting details.

Painting Acanthus Leaves

Acanthus leaves can be very simple or extremely detailed depending on your design requirements.  We’ll start with a simple painting and then add a few details.

What you need:

  • Acanthus leaf drawing
  • Gouache – white and two colors (Ultramarine blue and Yellow Ochre for this demonstration)
  • Palette for mixing gouache
  • Paper suitable for water media
  • Brushes – a medium-sized (about #2 or #3) and a smaller brush (#00 or #0)
  • Pencil
  • Clean water
Tools for Painting

Tools for Painting

Three colors are generally required – one for the outside of the leaf, one for the inside of the leaf and an opaque white to paint details.

Color Pattern

Color Pattern

Step 1:

Transfer your drawing onto the paper.  Refer to the post Painting a Simple Initial for one method of transferring a drawing.

Step 1: Drawing Transferred to Paper

Step 1: Drawing Transferred to Paper

Step 2:

I generally prefer to start painting with a lighter color as it is easier to cover a mistake with a darker color.  First, paint the inside and tip of the leaf with the Yellow Ochre.  I usually paint up to the vein line leaving a bit of the paper showing instead of covering the pencil line.

Step 2:  Inside and Tip of Leaf Painted

Step 2: Inside and Tip of Leaf Painted

Try to follow the curve and direction of the leaf and lobes when painting.  Turning the work as you paint often helps when painting curves as it is easier to pull the brush towards you then to paint curves horizontally.

Step 3:

Paint the outside of the leaf and stem with Ultramarine Blue.

Step 3:  Painting the Outer Leaves Ultramarine Blue

Step 3: Painting the Outer Leaves Ultramarine Blue

Step 4:

Mix up a bit of white gouache keeping it rather thin so it is a little translucent, and using a very small brush, paint fine lines following the curves of the leaf and lobes.

Step 4: Painting Thin Lines with White Gouache

Step 4: Painting Thin Lines with White Gouache

Step 5:

Mix up a bit more white gouache that is more opaque, then paint a few lines to create highlights on the leaf lobes.

Step 5: Completed Acanthus Leaf

Step 5: Completed Acanthus Leaf

Our simple acanthus leaf is finished!

Now that you have a basic idea of how to draw and paint acanthus leaves, look at examples in illuminated manuscripts to see the variety of styles, colors, techniques and how they are incorporated into the overall design.

A demonstration using acanthus leaves in a certificate design is at the Calligraphy Layout: Designing a Certificate post.

We could still continue adding more details to this simple design such as dots along the vein, color modeling to add more depth and dimension, etc.  whatever you like – be creative!

Gothic lettering – sometimes referred to as Blackletter –  is often a favorite of beginner calligraphers as it lends a sense of formality to a work.  There are many variations of Gothic lettering in manuscripts – textura, prescissa, quadrata, rotunda, etc. – generally characterized by dense, vertical strokes and a variety of built-up serifs.

Historical Gothic styles are usually replaced with less mechanical, more lively variations (e.g. Compressed or “Gothicized” Italic) in contemporary calligraphy although understanding the structure and construction is a good starting point to developing variations.  A beautiful example of a contemporary variation of the Fraktur style by Denis Brown can be seen at the QuillSkill website – the style is so fluid and dynamic the letters almost dance off the page!

A well-executed Gothic can be elegant and beautiful; a poorly lettered Gothic is obvious and distracting as it is much less forgiving than other styles such as Italic or Uncial.

Gothic can be very easy if you apply a few basic concepts:

  • consistency
  • straight, vertical strokes
  • awareness of negative space

In this demonstration, we’ll use a very simplified variation of a Gothic style to practice the pen strokes and develop an understanding of consistency and negative space.

What you need:

  • calligraphy pen – dip pen and ink, calligraphy fountain pen or calligraphy marker
  • graph paper or guideline sheet (refer to Stroking the Rules post to create your own sheet for your pen nib size)
  • scrap paper

Tip:  A pen nib size of about 2mm – 3mm is easier to work with when practicing Gothic letters as it can be difficult to see serifs and counter spaces with very small nib sizes.  A stiffer nib such as a Brause nib might also be easier to work with than a flexible nib.

Pen Nib Widths and Pen Angle

Gothic is a very dense, compressed style and this can be achieved with a pen angle of about 40° and pen nib widths of 4 for the x-height and 2 for the ascenders and descenders.

Pen Nib Widths and Pen Angle

Pen Nib Widths and Pen Angle

Tip:  If you are having problems with the serifs, increase the x-height to 5 pen nib widths to give yourself a little more “serif construction space.”

Basic Strokes

We’ll first practice a few basic strokes and then use the those strokes to construct letters.

Basic Gothic Strokes

Basic Gothic Strokes

Stroke 1:

A simple straight stroke – try a row (about 3 to 5 at a time) keeping the distance between each stroke even with about a pen stroke of space between them.

Row of First Pen Stroke

Row of First Pen Stroke

Stroke 2 – Serif Stroke at Bottom:

Start a little below the waist line (about a pen nib width), draw the straight stroke and pull the stroke to the right one pen nib width before the baseline for a serif stroke.

Stroke 3 – Serif Stroke at Top:

Start at the waist line, pull the stroke one pen nib width to the right (serif stroke) and without lifting the pen continue to about one pen nib width above the baseline.

Stroke 4 – Serif Stroke at Top and Bottom:

Start at the waist line with a serif stroke (Stroke 3), continue a straight stroke and finish with serif at the bottom (Stroke 2).

Note: Serif strokes in Gothic lettering are usually built up with the pen and vary depending on the letter style.  The simplified serifs in this demonstration can also be built up by adding the serif strokes as separate pen strokes.

Building Letters

With these few basic strokes, we now have enough to almost build an entire alphabet with a just few exceptions. Letters such as the “a”, “k”, “s”, “x” and “z” will be discussed in the “Special Letters” section.

Note:  The examples were lettered using a 3mm Brause nib with an x-height of 5 pen nib widths and 2 pen nib widths for the ascenders and descenders.

Letters “i” and “l”

As you might have noticed, we have already written two letters with Basic Stroke 4 – the letter “i”, and if we extend the stroke to an ascender, the letter “l”.  The “dots” over the “i” and “j” are a hairline stroke with the pen angle at 40° or 45°.

Letters "i" and "l"

Letters “i” and “l”

Letter “o”

Next, we’ll build a letter “o” using Strokes 2 and 3.  This will establish the counter (negative space) for similar letters and also help with letter spacing.

Letter "o" and Counter Shape

Letter “o” and Counter Shape

Note the parallelogram shape of the counter space and try to maintain this shape as you practice the letters.  Common problems with Gothic lettering can often be identified and corrected by looking at the counters and negative space.

Common Constructions Problems and Counter Spaces

Common Construction Problems and Counter Spaces

In the above example of common construction problems, compare the counter spaces of each problem to the shape of the counter space in the exemplar letter “o”.  It is quite easy to see the problems if we look at the counter spaces and not just the pen strokes.

Practice a few rows of the letter “o” until you are comfortable with the serif construction and looking at the counter space.

Letters “n”, “m”, “u”

We’ll use Stroke 4 to construct the letters “n”, “m” and “u”.

Letters "n", "m" and "u" with Stroke 4

Letters “n”, “m” and “u” with Stroke 4

With these letters and the letter “i”, we’ll write out the word “minimum” to check the serif contruction, strokes and negative space.

"minimum"

“minimum”

This is also a good example of how Gothic can be difficult to read!

Grab two pieces of scrap paper, and place one covering the serifs at the top and one covering the bottom serifs.  You should see a row of fairly straight lines with even spacing (negative space) between the strokes.

"mimimum" with Covered Serifs

“mimimum” with Covered Serifs

Letter “h”

The letters “l” and “i” (Stroke 4) – remember to watch the lines, counter space and keep the serifs short with longer vertical strokes.

Letter "h"

Letter “h”

Letters “v” and “w” using Strokes 4 and 3.

Letters "v" and "w"

Letters “v” and “w”

Letter “b” using Strokes 4 (or the “l” stroke) and Stroke 3.

Letter "b"

Letter “b”

Letters “c”, “e” and “r” starting with Stroke 2 and adding a serif stroke.  Note the hairline extension of Stroke 2 at the bottom of the “c” and “e” stroke, and at the end of the second “r” stroke.

Letters "c", "e" and "r"

Letters “c”, “e” and “r”

Letters “g”, “j” and “p” extend Stroke 3 to descender length.  The “g” and “j” add serif strokes for the tails.  The “p” stroke adds a bit of a hairline at the bottom and the horizontal stroke (#3) is straight.

Letters "g", "j" and "p"

Letters “g”, “j” and “p”

Letters “y” and “q” with “y” a combination of Stroke 4 and the “j” stroke.  Note the hairline stroke at the end of the “q”.

Letters "y" and "q"

Letters “y” and “q”

Letters “t”, “f” and “d”. The “t” and “f” crossbars are under the waist line.  The second stroke of the “d” starts above the waist line and continues as the second stroke of the letter “o”.

Letters "t", "f" and "d"

Letters “t”, “f” and “d”

Special Letters

Letters “a”, “k”, “x” and “z” are constructed with modified variations of the basic strokes.

Letter “a” – the first “a” is a very simple variation using Strokes 2 and 4.  The Gothic “a” is constructed by using Stroke 4, then adding a shortened version of Stroke 2.  The thin line creating the “bowl” is done by using the edge of pen to draw the line beginning inside the top serif to the top of Stroke 2.

Simple "a" and Gothic "a"

Simple “a” and Gothic “a”

Letters “k” and “s”.  Notice the top half of the letters are above the center of the x-height.

Letters "k" and "s"

Letters “k” and “s”

Letters “x” and “z”. There are many variations of the “x” and “z” – these are simple constructions to fit with the rest of the letter style.

Letters "x" and "z"

Letters “x” and “z”

Now let’s try putting it all together in a quote by Richard Torregrossa:

Quote by Richard Torregrossa in Gothic Lettering

Quote by Richard Torregrossa in Gothic Lettering

The quote has more generous spacing between the words than is usually found in manuscripts to help with legibility.

Gothic lettering can be quite complex with compressed proportions and letter spacing, changes in pen angles, and built-up serif construction.  This simplified variation of a Gothic style is helpful as a starting point to become aware of how lettering is constructed by focusing on negative space and minimal serifs.

Once you are comfortable with basic construction techniques, look at images of Gothic lettering in manuscripts or at the British Library Digital Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts (enter “1300” or “1400” in the search box to see a variety and range of Gothic styles), or try combining Gothic lettering with a Simple Painted Initial.

If you have ever looked at images or have been lucky enough to examine old illuminated manuscripts, you have probably noticed the beauty and range of decorated initials – a simple painted letter, letters with intertwining white vines, acanthus leaves or geometric patterns, and inhabitied or historiated initials.

Although initials can become quite complex with many painted or drawn details, a simple painted initial is a good starting point to add focus, color and interest to a calligraphy project.

One style of initial that is easy to paint is the “puzzle” initial – an interlocking two-color design – usually red and blue in manuscripts although any two well-selected colors can be used effectively.

An excellent resource on manuscripts including detailed images is at the British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.  Enter “initial” or “puzzle initial” in the search box to see an amazing selection of painted and drawn initials.

Painting a “Puzzle” Initial

This demonstration will use the word “Alphabet” combining a painted initial “A” (sometimes referred to as a Lombardic style based on Uncials) with a simple puzzle design and lettering in calligraphy.

What you need:

  • initial letter – you can print out the sample below or draw your own
  • small round paint brush (#1, #0)
  • gouache paint (red and blue)
  • mixing palette
  • watercolor paper or paper suitable for water-based media
  • pencil
  • eraser
  • ruler
  • bowl of clean water
  • scrap paper

Optional:

  • dip pen, nib and ink if you want to add lettering
  • soft brush for brushing away eraser crumbs
  • 3M Scotch Magic Removable Tape
  • magnifying glass
Painting Tools

Painting Tools

Step 1:

Use your ruler and pencil to draw a horizontal line lightly on your paper.  Print out or draw an initial “A” similar to the sample.

Sample Initial A

Sample Initial A

Step 2:

Cut out your initial, flip it over and cover the letter areas with graphite using the pencil.

Graphite on Back of Letter

Graphite on Back of Letter

Step 3:

Turn the letter over and line up the base with the horizontal line on your paper.  Tack the top and bottom of the initial with removable tape.  Trace over the outlines with a pencil to transfer the design onto the paper.

Tracing the Initial

Tracing the Initial

Remove the paper, and if necessary, lightly reinforce the lines so they are visible.

Traced Initial on Paper

Traced Initial on Paper

Step 4:

This is the point where we would complete any lettering with ink before continuing – in this demonstration, we’ll be adding the rest of the letters.  More information on the order of executing lettering, painting and gilding can be found at the Calligraphy: Avoiding Mistakes post.

Letter a draft of  “lphabet”, cut out the draft, and tack it into position – about in the center of the initial “A”.  Pencil in the guidelines and complete the lettering.

Arranging Draft of Lettering

Arranging Draft of Lettering

When the lettering is dry, tack a piece of scrap paper over it to mask it during painting.

Step 5:

Mix a bit of blue gouache in the palette for the “inside” color (Color 1).  I prefer to start painting from the inside to the outside as it helps avoid smearing previously painted areas.

Color Pattern

Color Pattern

It often helps to turn your work as you paint so you are pulling the brush towards you instead of pushing the brush away.

Painting Blue Area

Painting Blue Area

Let the blue dry and clean your brush if you are using only one brush.

Step 6:

Mix a bit of red in the palette (Color 2) and paint the outside areas.  Try to leave a bit of paper showing between the red and blue sections.  If you make a mistake – don’t worry – you can clean up the lines with a bit of white gouache after the paint dries.  Painting is much more forgiving than lettering!

When all the painted areas are dry, carefully erase any pencil lines.

Completed Letter

Completed Letter

Now that you have a basic painted initial, look at historical examples in manuscripts and examples of contemporary work to give you ideas and inspiration to create your own unique initials!

Lettering with gouache can be an easy way to add a bit of color to your lettering projects.  Color inks are readily available but can sometimes be a little thin or transparent.  If you are looking for a more solid color, gouache is a nice alternative to ink and works well with a dip pen.

What you need:

  • dip pen and nib
  • tube of gouache (any color)
  • palette for mixing the paint
  • small bowl of clean water
  • small round brush for loading the pen
  • paper suitable for water-based media

A discussion of gouache, brushes and palettes can be found at the Calligraphy: Correcting Mistakes post.

Step 1: Any size and style of nib will do – I’m using a 3mm Brause nib with the reservoir on top.  Make sure the nib is clean if you have used it with ink, especially under the reservoir.  Since we are using gouache mixed with water, ink bits might dissolve and get mixed up with the gouache.

Step 2: Squeeze out a bit of your gouache color onto the palette, add a bit of clean water and mix with the brush until the paint is fairly “loose.”  Gouache dries quickly so we need to add enough water to keep it flowing from nib but not so much that the color is thin or runny.

Mixing Gouache

Mixing Gouache

Step 3: Load the brush with paint, then use the brush to swipe it across the nib reservoir to load the pen.

Loading the Pen Reservoir

Loading the Pen Reservoir

Add enough paint to fill from about 1/2 to 3/4 of the reservoir.

Loaded Pen Reservoir

Loaded Pen Reservoir

Tip:  You can also use a brush to load your pen with ink.

Step 4: Try a few short test strokes to get the paint flowing from the nib, then working quickly, try a few letters.

Gouache Letters

Gouache Letters

If you have a lot of lettering to do, make sure to clean the nib and reservoir if the gouache is beginning to dry before reloading the pen.

Lettering with gouache takes a bit of practice as it dries more quickly than calligraphy ink.  Familiarity with dip pen techniques using ink will help with gouache.  If you are having problems with dip pens, refer to the Troubleshooting a Calligraphy Dip Pen post.

When I was an undergraduate and graduate student at art school, spending money on art supplies was a required necessity – paints, brushes, canvas, papers, inks, copper plates, etching tools, all types of drawing media and the inevitable stacks of sketchbooks.

Although I didn’t mind the cost of decent art supplies (I’m a bit of an “art supply collector” anyway), I did balk at spending money on all the peripheral equipment needed to organize, store or haul around my art supplies, especially when I was teaching calligraphy or traveling around giving workshops.

Pen nibs, pen holders and ink can be relatively inexpensive, but artist quality papers, paints and brushes can run out a budget very quickly with not much left for studio amenities.

Since I was more inclined to spend my limited budget on a tube of beautiful, genuine azurite watercolor from Daniel Smith than a wooden art box to keep it in, I discovered making my own equipment or finding interesting items at garage sales and flea markets not only meant saving money, but also added a bit of charm, warmth and a personal touch to a studio.

Budget Studio

Budget Studio

Everything in the picture was picked up at garage sales, flea markets and auctions except the drafting table, chair and graphics ruler.  Note the wonderful old drafting table lamp picked up at a government surplus auction for about $2.00.

Of course, plastic containers and organizers are a great way of storing materials but as a visual artist, well, I don’t find them particularly visually inspiring.  I used them for a while until I found an old trunk and now I keep all my supplies in the trunk – lots of storage space with the added bonus of adding character to the studio (and keeping out the cats!)

Old Trunk for Art Supplies Storage

Old Trunk for Art Supplies Storage

Organizing Pen Nibs

I still use small plastic, divided cases (found in hardware stores) for storing pen nibs as they are very handy to separate nib sizes and helps avoid digging through a box of loose nibs to find the one #5 nib I don’t use very often.

Plastic Box with Dividers for Pen Nibs and Reservoirs

Plastic Box with Dividers for my Mitchell Pen Nibs and Reservoirs

Craft and art stores will carry divided cases, but shop around – a similar product at a hardware store is sometimes significantly less expensive.

Boxes for Pen Holders, Paints, Pencils, Fountain Pens, etc.

If you’re handy with woodworking, a very nice plan for a paint box or pen holder box can be found at the RunnerDuck Resources.

Not very good at woodworking?  How about an old wooden liquor box to hold those tubes of paint, pencils and pen holders?

Old Wood Liquor Box for Paint or Pen Holders

Old Wooden Liquor Box for Paint or Pen Holders

I can usually find a few of these and nice old cigar boxes on the garage sale circuit for pocket change – at the most a dollar or two for a larger box.

Old Cigar Box Case

Old Cigar Box Case

Brush Cases

As with paint, I would rather budget money for a high quality paint brush than a case to store it in.  A cloth brush case is preferred for storing natural hair brushes than a plastic case.  Sable brushes need to “breathe” a little and storing a damp brush in a sealed plastic container or case will cause the hairs to deteriorate.

A cloth roll up case is a better alternative for those expensive brushes.  Sometimes a suitable make-up brush case can be found, but if you have basic sewing skills it is quite easy to make your own.  I made mine from a modified make-up brush holder pattern similar to the one at Pins and Needles.

Brush Roll Up Case

Brush Roll Up Case

Note:  Unfortunately, the pattern at Pins & Needles has disappeared, so here is another pattern from Centsational Girl.  Increase the length to fit your brushes and it will work fine!

I simply picked up a remnant piece of quilted material, some edging for the seams and ties, and modified the pattern to make it a bit longer to accommodate larger brushes.  Not bad for someone who can’t sew!

Brush and Pen Rest

This is very useful especially if working with different nib and brush sizes on a project as it keeps the brushes and pens from rolling around.  Ceramic brush rests can be purchased from art and craft supply stores, but one can also be made from a couple of pieces of scrap wood.

Brush and Pen Rest

Brush and Pen Rest

Cut a few holes into the wood (or a piece of heavy cardboard) and glue a piece on the back to hold it upright.

Brush Rest Front and Back

Brush Rest Front and Back

It might not look as fancy as the ceramic brush rests, but it does the job and has lasted for years.

Art Supply Boxes

Great for storing and organizing supplies and a definite assest for the calligrapher or painter on the go!  Art boxes range from plastic craft organizers and tackle boxes to plein air (outdoor painting) pochade boxes complete with a built-in easel.

Plastic can be relatively inexpensive but a box for painting and particulary pochade boxes can cost hundreds of dollars as these are essentially a complete, portable painting studio.

I have found that most artist paint boxes are “overkill” for a portable calligraphy studio as easels, mixing palettes (generally for oil or acrylic), etc. are not necessary for carrying around supplies for lettering.

I was very fortunate as one day a former employer heard me lamenting at coffee break about the high cost of paint boxes and how unsuitable they were for calligraphy supplies.  He asked me a few questions and a couple of days later presented me with the perfect calligraphy box!

Calligraphy Supply Box

Calligraphy Supply Box

It measures approximately 11 1/2″ x 9 1/2″ x 3 1/4″ with four compartments and sturdy brass latches and handle.

I use this exclusively for carrying calligraphy supplies to classes and workshops – just perfect for pens, nibs, paints and a couple of ink bottles (thank you, Bruce!)

The dividers are set higher to fit into the box lid to keep supplies from rolling around and getting mixed up.

Dividers

Dividers

This is beyond my woodworking skill level – if you have the skills or know someone who can help you, a custom box is not only less expensive than a commercial box, but can be made to your requirements and specifications.

Tip:  If you are carrying around ink, put it in a plastic freezer bag in case the ink leaks.  This will save cleaning up all your other supplies.

A nice, alternative small calligraphy supply box can also be made from an old wooden cigar box.  Just attach a couple of hinges, latches, a handle, glue in some dividers, and you’re ready to go!

Calligraphy Pens

Making your own pens from quills, bamboo and metal can be fun and give you some unique lettering possibilities and custom nib sizes not available in commercial products.

Home Made pens

Home Made pens

More information on these pens can be found at the Fun with Pens post.

Papers, Ink and Paint

Papermaking is a way to recycle all those art papers you used for tests or discarded because of errors.  Hand made papers bring a unique and beautiful quality to calligraphy projects – deckled edges, including objects such as leaves or flower petals to the paper pulp, and textured surfaces.

Paper can be easily made at home with a blender, window screen and frame.  A detailed explanation on how to make paper is at the Pioneer Thinking site.

Ink, Paint and other art media such as oil paints, pastels, egg tempera, etc. can also be made, but these require working with dry pigments.  Many pigments are toxic and contain carcinogenic substances such as asbestos, mercury, arsenic, etc. and should not be attempted at home.

If you are interested in making your own paint or ink, take a class with an experienced, professional artist who can demonstrate the proper handling of materials and the use of safety equipment.

Be aware that many commercial art products, particularly professional quality, might be toxic and proper precautions should be taken before using them in your art projects.

An excellent book on the topic is Artist Beware by CIH, Michael McCann PhD and Angela Babin.

All the art supplies in this post are commercially available, but if you are working within a budget and would rather spend your money on quality pens, ink, paint and brushes instead of stuff to store it, consider making your own or recycling “vintage” items – be creative – you never know what useful object you might find at the next garage sale to personalize your studio!

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