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Introduction to Calligraphy

Updated on February 14, 2009

Personally, I had terrible handwriting before I learned Calligraphy. And you know, at times when I don’t give a rat’s butt about how my handwriting looks (such as when I’m taking notes in a computer science course) I’ll still scribble. But when I’m writing a letter to a potential lover, or making a card for a relative, learning calligraphy has been amazingly useful. It’s cheaper than buying a gift, and generally, if you choose your words wisely, a beautiful hand-crafted card can mean a lot more than a box of chocolate from Wal-Mart.


Calligraphy is the art of fine handwriting, and the word itself stemmed from the Greek word κάλλοςγραφή (kalligraphia), literally meaning beautiful writing. Almost any occasion that requires a pen can be done with calligraphy. Writing a letter, invitations, posters, flyers, advertising... The list goes on.

What makes Calligraphy Beautiful?

Consistency of the piece is the key to the beauty in European calligraphy. However, the ART of fine handwriting is by no means a mechanical process. Computers can spit out more identically printed letters then any human can possibly hand-write. A computer has yet to learn to duplicate original art. (Oxymoron: duplicating originality.) The heart of Calligraphy is an artful expression, a meditation of strokes, a careful manipulation of the ink, and above all, the enjoyment of the simple task of writing.

How much will learning Calligraphy cost?

Money - However much you’re willing to spend. If you are only learning the strokes of letters, you need only two pencils, a rubber band to hold them together, and paper. But some of you, dear readers, might choose to use calligraphy as a profession. Basically, you pay for what you want. No pressure.

Time - Let’s face it: Most of us are not true geniuses. We are not born Michelangelo-s. Calligraphy takes practice and patience to learn. Some might pick it up right away; some might take a little longer. But rest assured, if you spend the time on calligraphy, you will learn it within a reasonable time. I started writing chicken-scratch that looks much like a doctor’s note, and after one summer of learning calligraphy by myself for about an hour a day, I learned enough to impress a girl and got a date.

Work Station Setup

You can write calligraphy anywhere. Literally, you can write on your kitchen table, your work desk, or when you’re painting on furniture. However, when you are working for an extended amount of time, a workstation will both get you into the mood for calligraphy and let you write comfortably. 

Learning the Alphabet All over Again (and Again.)

Because of the everyday need to write faster, our schools have morphed the strokes to suit the much faster speed of informal writing. In calligraphy, most letters compose of two to three strokes. A "g" in the Gothic hand can take about 7 strokes! 

European calligraphy is mostly written in a broad nib, and will not write the same way as a ball point pen. The broad nib is used for centuries, beginning from quills to metal nibs. Any material with a broad edge that you can dip in paint can be used as a straight nib, and you can take this as an advantage to artistic license. 

The angle at which the pen’s broad-edge nib is held compared to the horizontal line. Most of the alphabets have a nib angle between 30 to 45 degrees. When writing, try practicing holding your nib angle consistently through the whole letter. Might sound simple, but still takes a little practice.

Remember when we first learned to write? We were taught the order of the alphabet, and we learned it in that order. However, when learning calligraphy, grouping the alphabets into different letter groups make learning the strokes easier.

Example grouping (English Caroline Minuscule):

  • Letters which start with a downstroke: i, l, t, u, y, j 
  • Letters which start with a downstroke then arch: r, n, m, h, p, b, k 
  • Letters based on the letter "o": o, c, e, d, q 
  • Diagonal letters: v, w, y, x, z 
  • Letters which are exceptions: a, f, g, s 

When you are learning, don’t pressure yourself to learn the "correct" letter families. Use your intuition, and you’ll probably strike someplace similar. This method is for you to learn a new alphabet, and it is not extremely important to get completely correct unless you are a typographer.

The Order of Hands to Learn

I do not recommend going through by the historical order, since the hand’s complexity has no relation to when it was written. The easiest to learn is the English Caroline Minuscule, which follows with the writing we do today, and the strokes are simple enough understand. Also, Edward Johnson called this hand the Foundational Hand, because it is the simplest to learn first. After you have a grasp on the Foundational Hand, move onto Italics, then Roman Capitals. These hands are also clean and easier to learn. After you’ve mastered these three hands, move onto more difficult hands.

Learning the Basic Strokes

When you are writing, you should never push your nib. Pushing the nib would bend it, and often times spray a jet of ink to ruin your work. To avoid that type of disaster, you should always be pulling the nib towards you. Pull it downwards, from the top left corner to the bottom right.

As you learn a hand, follow the order of the strokes in when you are learning the font. The order of the strokes might not seem important at the beginning, but as you experiment with calligraphy, you will see that the order of the strokes will help you tremendously in the proportion of the letter.

Also, the order of the strokes on the same letters usually doesn’t change. Once you have learned the simple order of strokes, you should be familiar with it. Strokes follow a regular pattern, usually the stem, then from top to bottom with the exception of the capital "E" where the bottom stroke is made after the stem.

  1. The Vertical: Next to a dot, the vertical is the easiest stroke to draw. Straight up, straight down. 
  2. The Horizontal: The horizontal line is slightly harder to draw, but it doesn’t appear in many letters, and horizontal lines are usually shorter. Note that most often you will not change the nib angle for horizontal lines. 
  3. The Diagonal: Basically, the change in the slant of the diagonal will change the thickness. The key is to hold the nib at the correct angle, and PULL. Don’t ever push. 
  4. The (dreaded) Curves: Straight lines are pretty simple, but curves will definitely force you to practice. Draw a circle on a piece of paper with a pencil. Then use a square nib to do the same, holding the nib at 45 degrees. Begin your first stroke tracing the bottom of the circle from 10 o’clock to 4 o’clock positions. Then the second stroke to cover the rest of the circle, from 10 o’clock to 4 o’clock. Note how the "o" you just made naturally thin at the 10 o’clock and 4 o’clock positions. Those positions are how you will start most curves. When you are making a curve, picture a circle/oval in your mind, and begin tracing it at the 10 o’clock position. 

Different hands sometimes have special strokes that are not explained here. In that case, take a copy of it and TRACE. Trace it with a carpenter’s pencil or a marker. This is not cheating, because you’re not calling your trace to be a finished work. This is for practice, to get a feel of the hand. 

Loose clothing is best for breathing and sitting.
Loose clothing is best for breathing and sitting.

Relax + Loose Clothing

When you are about to sit down for an extended period of time, stretch and shake your hands and muscles loose. Relax a little before you begin, because you will then have a little better control over the pen, and your muscles won't fall asleep while sitting rigidly. Wear loose clothing. 

A good workstation setup: uncluttered, good lighting and a comfortable angle.
A good workstation setup: uncluttered, good lighting and a comfortable angle.

Desk Setup

  • An artist’s drawing board is the most ideal, preferably propped up at an angle to the desk. This is only for your own comfort, so you can always change the position into one you prefer, as long as you have a hard surface underneath your paper. 
  • Place a large (area wise) pad of tracing paper beneath the calligraphy piece you’re writing, because the extra padding will give your metal nib more flexibility on the paper, and make your writing a lot more comfortable. ‘ 
  • Use a cover sheet between the palm of your hand and the work, because hands tend to smear ink (or any liquid medium.) This coversheet can also be used as a guideline on the page. 
  • A desk lamp that you can clamp onto your drawing board is very convenient, especially when the lighting in your room casts a shadow on your drawing board. No need for a lamp that’s too bright, which would hurt your eyes after extended periods of time. 

Me with black hair sitting with a straight back.
Me with black hair sitting with a straight back.

Sitting Still

Your writing position can determine how long you can sit still. Sitting in a position that can stress your spine is not good, because it can cause back pains and cramps. Listen to your parents and sit up straight. However, even though your parents probably told you to sit up straight, they also probably didn’t tell you HOW to sit up straight. The best way to do this is to picture your head on the end of an invisible string, and dangle your body along that string while sitting down. 

Often chairs with back supports have cushions on the bottom, if not get one to protect your bum from the chair.

Note how the really awesome man is sitting with his back straight to the right.

Stretching before you sit down to write calligraphy can also help you sit for a longer period of time. Do what you feel will relax you. Alcohol is not recommended for beginners, but master calligraphers in Ancient China were known for their work after a few drinks as well. Calligraphy is a free art. Relax, but stay controlled.

A good way to hold the pen - keeps the nib steady and wrist flexible.
A good way to hold the pen - keeps the nib steady and wrist flexible.
A way for the left handers to hold their pen.
A way for the left handers to hold their pen.

How to Hold the Pen

Your grip, how you hold your pen, must be relaxed. Brute force will not make you a good calligrapher. You cannot make beauty with force. Holding your pen tightly will give you a sense of control, but you will tire yourself out, and your writing will lack flexibility and fluidity. Remember how once your elementary school (or kindergarten) teacher taught you how to hold your pen? They were right, believe it or not. I have tried many ways to hold the pen, and found the traditional way is the easiest on the hand.

Calligraphy for Lefthanders

There is no obstructions, and no shortcuts for left-handed calligraphy, but simply adjustments to your methods. Do not be discouraged simply because you use your left hand to write. Calligraphy can be done with both hands. 

Adjust your hand so that you will not smear the ink. The most usual way to do this is let your hand be below the line you’re writing on. In some extreme cases, you might choose to have your hand above the line.

The way you hold your pen will not resemble the traditional teachings, however, find a comfortable position, and after a few tries you will find the most natural way to hold your pen. 

Nibs can be sanded into an angle that can be used for lefthanders. However, after you sand it, you might want to sharpen the nib. You might also want to purchase nibs made specifically for left-handers. You can tell the difference, because instead of at a right angle, the nib would be oblique.


Hope this little tutorial gave you some insights into the finer details of learning calligraphy, so you can begin writing beautiful words beautifully. Perhaps it’s time to finally write a letter to your lover, now that you’re no longer afraid of your own handwriting. More of lessons like these to come.

Update: How to Make your own Quill -


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