Posts Tagged ‘Basic Pen Strokes’

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.



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.

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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:

Positive and Negative Space

Positive and 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”:

More Pen Strokes

More Pen Strokes

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”.

Counter (Negative) Space

Counter (Negative) Space

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.

Pen Borders

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:

Pen Border

Pen Border

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”.

Pen Border Step 1

Pen Border Step 1

2.  Draw the slanted stroke with serifs between the first strokes.

Pen Border Step 2

Pen Border Step 2

3.  Draw a curved stroke drawn from the slanted stroke.

Pen Border Step 3

Pen Border Step 3

4.  Draw the horizontal stroke with serifs and end it attached to the top of the first stroke.

Pen Border Step 4

Pen Border Step 4

5.  Add some “diamond” strokes to finish.

Pen Border Step 5

Pen Border Step 5

Try a few rows on graph paper, then try the border on a guideline sheet.

Here are a few more borders to try:

More Pen Borders

More Pen Borders

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”:

Negative Space inside A and G

Counter (negative) Space inside 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.

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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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