Learning Calligraphy: 5 Things You Need to Know as a Beginner

Sunday, October 29, 2017

One of the things I really wanted to do on my 30 by 30 list was to Learn Calligraphy. I've heard from a few of you that learning calligraphy was on the top of your to do list too. After all, pretty lettering is everywhere these days!

My motivating reasons to learn? I wanted my bullet journal to look prettier, and wanted to have calligraphy for my wedding invitations but didn't want to pay someone to do it. I think overall, my year in learning calligraphy definitely paid off!


As you can see in the picture above, I used my newfound calligraphy skill to write the name cards for my wedding display. It's may not be perfect, but it was good enough to impress my guests, my wedding planner and most importantly, myself. What a sense of accomplishment, 30x30 to do? Check ✓!

So do you want to learn calligraphy but don't know where to start? Here's answers to the 5 questions that I asked myself when I was first starting on my calligraphy journey. Note: I'm going to be talking about "calligraphy" and "hand lettering" interchangeably because to me, my main goal was to learn how to write prettier.

1. What do I need to buy to get started in calligraphy?

The idea of learning calligraphy seemed so overwhelming to me. Partly because it feels so formal and serious. When I was writing my wedding invitations while listening to the Hamilton Soundtrack (I must have looped the entire album at least 15 times lol), I felt like I was a founding father writing the Declaration of Independence.


So to get over the mental hump, I started off with a medium I'm most familiar with: pens! The calligraphy pens that I used to get myself comfortable were the Tombow Fudenosuke Brush Pens. There's two kinds of tips: hard and soft. I found the hard tip easier to use because it gave me more control as a beginner. However, the soft tip was great for thicker downstrokes as you write since it gives you more bend and therefore taking up more space (more on that later).

Nib. Nib Holder. Ink. 
Alright, now that you've decided you'er going to be serious about learning about calligraphy, let's talk about nibs, nib holder and ink. I found the The Postmans Knock blog insanely helpful as I was learning about the different tools. I tried a few things before settling down on my favorites:

  • Brause 361 Steno Blue Pumpkin Calligraphy Pen Nib - This is the second nib that I tried. Originally I had the Zebra Comic G nib which supposedly is good for beginners because it's sturdier. Similar to the brush pens, nibs that allow more flex will be harder for a beginner to control. However, a few days into my calligraphy practice, I found myself gravitating towards the Blue Pumpkin because it really allowed me to be able to make better thin and thick strokes - and made me feel like I was actually writing prettier looking letters.
  • Oblique Nib Holder - I know that this pen looks intimidating for beginners. It's why I avoided it for my first pen and bought a straight pen to start. However, what I didn't realize was that this Oblique Nib Holder is a 2 in 1. You can either put your nib in the flange (the metal thing on the side of the pen), or straight nib holder (tip of the pen like a regular pen). So, you don't have to choose - just buy this one and try it both ways! I liked having the flange to rest my thumb on, which is why I liked using an oblique nib holder. An oblique pen also helps you write better at an angle, something that's characteristically "calligraphy".
  • Dr. Ph. Martin's Gold Ink - If you're getting into calligraphy for the "wow" factor, then you have to get gold ink. I love this ink because as it dries, it rises on the paper - giving your calligraphy an embossed effect on your paper. I used this ink on a dark colored envelope for my wedding invites - OBSESSED.
  • Black Ink - Can't be fancy and use gold ink all the time - so I ended up getting India Ink by Speedball to practice. I liked because it came in a container that I could use directly to dip my pen in. 


"Nice to Have"
  • Nib Cleaner - You can either wash your nibs in water after you're done and be sure to clean it with a paper towel, or just toss them into this solution. I found it easier to just dump it in here and let it soak until the next time I used my nib. Also really helped during my long calligraphy wedding envelope writing sessions where ink started to build up on my nibs.
  • 32 lb Inkjet Paper - This was recommended by The Postmans Knock to use since the paper is heavier than the average 20 lb paper. I used it to print all my practice sheets, and it gave me confidence to write more since the ink went on so smoothly - it really did prevent ink feathering/bleeding.

2. Which resources did you use to learn calligraphy? 

There's quite a few in person workshop where you can go to learn calligraphy from someone with legit calligraphy experience. But it often cost hundreds of dollars. I'm trying to learn calligraphy to save money, not spend it. So these super cheap internet resources saved me while I was learning. 

The first worksheet that I ever practiced with was this FREE brush pen worksheet from Lindsey (seriously, I love this site). It really helped me learn the fundamentals of brush lettering, concepts that I applied as I was practicing calligraphy. I used a TomBow Dual Tip Brush Pen to do these drills - if you're looking to go down this route, TomBow actually sells this Hand Lettering Kit that has the two Fudenosuke Brush Pens that I mentioned, as well as the softer brush pen for larger strokes.


So what makes calligraphy different than cursive? It really looks the same, however I learned that it's how you write your heavy thick downstrokes and light thin upstrokes that makes the different. It's practicing all the strokes which helps you write prettier and better calligraphy.

I did a TON of hand letting drills before getting into my calligraphy mainly because it was an easy way for me to practice my hand writing. I felt like I was back in elementary school practicing my cursive. This also gave me a chance to start flexing my writing muscles again. Since I never write anymore, I found my hand getting tired super fast. I promise the more you write, the stronger your hand muscles get, just like any other muscle that you exercise.

After I felt like I mastered my hand lettering, I started practicing my calligraphy with my nibs and pen. I did similar drills as the brush pen worksheet and wrote random words on a page. I watched a ton of instagrammers and tried to imitate their work. However, I still wasn't in love with my writing, so I decided to make the plunge and bought this Premium Calligraphy Worksheet Set {Kaitlin Style}. It's $5 well spent!

I found myself referencing this sheet a lot as I was addressing all my envelopes, and I felt like it taught me to incorporate a writing style that I wouldn't have been able to do myself.

3. How do you get the ink on the calligraphy nib?

Okay, now that I got some of the fundamentals out of the way. Time for some "dumb questions". The answer for these questions seem obvious now that I've been doing this for a while, but they are questions I asked myself when I first started (without many answers on the internet!). So, let's cover all the bases here for you since people rarely talk about these things.

There are a few ways to get the ink on your nib. The most common way is to dip your nib into the ink. Yes, I know, it's called "dip pen", so it seems obvious that you're supposed to dip your nib into the ink. Yet, I found myself wondering - most videos I watched, people already had their ink on their nib! So, if you're wondering as well, the answer is yes, you literally dip your nib into the bottle of ink. If your bottle of ink is too big, some people pour their ink into a container (like this).


Other ways that people get the ink onto their nib is by dropping it with an eye dropper. You'll see the gold ink that I'm obsessed with comes with a dropper. I've also seen people use a brush to drip watercolor to fill their nib with ink.

No matter what, you just make sure the ink fills up the vent hole in the nib. By having the ink cover that vent hole at all times, you're keeping a decent amount of ink on your nib so that you can write for at least 1-2 words without having to re-dip.

And yes, it actually is a bit tedious to have to re-dip your pen so often. You can try to put more ink on your nib, but when you have too much ink on your nib, you end up having a huge blob of ink go on your paper. It's a fine balance of having just the right amount of ink, and it does get better with practice.

4. How should I angle my nib while writing?

Once again, obvious now that I know how it works - but super confusing without someone saying it to me explicitly. So here goes. The way that you get super thick strokes on your down stroke, is by the action of your nib splitting apart. When your nib splits apart, the stroke looks bigger since the nib is wider.

So, the best way to angle your nib is to make sure that whenever you're making a down stroke and adding additional pressure to your pen, your nib is able to split apart. Here's an animation that I hope helps illustrate this:

Besides this, I would advise that you allow your pen to lightly glaze over your paper and not apply too much pressure. That way, you get a light flow of ink for thin strokes that makes calligraphy look so delicate and light.

5. The nib is scratching my paper, am I doing this wrong?

Putting a nib to paper is counter intuitive to what we've known by using pens all our lives. But using a nib to write is supposed to be a bit "scratchy" feeling. Like you're scratching a piece of paper with a piece of metal.

That said, there are a few things I found that helps make this feel a bit more natural. The first is make sure you burn the tip of your nibs when you first receive it. When a nib is made in a factory, there's some natural oils that's applied to keep it from rusting. So, by burning the tip with fire, you're removing that oil, helping your ink flow a bit more smoothly on your paper. This helps make your nib feel less "scratchy".



Also, when using different nibs (even if it's the exact same brand, etc), I did notice that some nibs felt more smooth than others. I feel like it's simply a result of how smooth the tip of the nib is. Sometimes a nib can feel extra scratchy if the tip splits unevenly. If you're really hating the way your nib feels after practicing, maybe switch to a new one to see if it's any better. I've found one nib that feels extra buttery soft as I write with it - and I keep gravitating to using it.

Speaking of switching nibs, I think you can keep using the same nib for a long time. I used mine to write at least 300+ wedding envelopes and found no issue of having to replace it yet.



By now, I think it's clear that I am by no means an expert and I still have a ton to learn. But, I did want to document all the dumb thoughts I had in my mind when I first started practicing calligraphy, but couldn't really find any answers to. Hope you found this information helpful!

Do you have any other tips that you think I should add here? Let me know and I'll add to this post!

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