This is a beginner’s guide, so you don’t have to know anything about calligraphy – or the art of “beautiful writing”, as it translates from the Greek (κάλλος (kallos) = beauty and γραφή (graphe) = writing).
Calligraphy is easy to learn, but like any craft, it needs practice. And actually, in this case practice is a lot of fun: it’s very enjoyable and calming to fill pages and pages with letters and curls and different words. I like to say practicing calligraphy feel like zen meditation to me – it certainly helps me to be more mindful of what I’m doing.
So now, on to the practical part.
Get the necessary supplies (paper, ink, nibs, guide sheet)
You’ll need a few essential supplies to get started. If you use quality tools from the beginning, everything will be much easier and you’ll see great results more quickly. Calligraphy isn’t very expensive, though. All you need in the beginning is a writing tool and a surface to write on. I’ll talk you through all the needed supplies and tell you in the end where to get them.
The first thing you’ll need is a nib.
Modern calligraphy is written with pointed nibs. These nibs have a pointed tip and are very flexible – this is what makes the letters look so interesting (this is also the factor that makes practice necessary).
There is an overwhelming variety of different nibs, but for the start, you can focus on one or two models until you become comfortable using those. I usually recommend the Nikko G for beginners – it’s a very reliable and sturdy nib.
You can read more about other suitable pointed nibs here.
Next you’ll need a straight nib holder – these are available in plastic or wood, and the basic models are usually fairly inexpensive. Make sure you get one that features a general holder (see below). To insert the nib, wedge the back end of the nib between the metal ring and the inner prongs (not between the prongs) and make sure it sits tight.
Now that you’ve got the nib installed, you need something to dip it in in order to write (hence the name “dip nib”). Usually ink is used for calligraphy, it comes premixed and works -in most cases- right out of the bottle. You can use dark India Ink or Sumi Ink. I’ve covered different ink varieties in this blog post.
As for paper, you’ll want to start practicing with a smooth paper that is a bit transparent, so that you can see your guide sheet underneath – Layout Paper does a good job. I use the Hahnemühle Layout Pad, it doesn’t bleed and the surface is very smooth so that the nib won’t snag. Normal printer paper is usually not a good choice, generally the ink will bleed to much on it. Certain printer papers work, however. You read read more about that here.
While layout paper is great for practice, later on, when you design your own projects, you should choose thick paper that’s not too textured. Bristol paper and some kinds of watercolor papers are a good choice.
In the beginning, you’ll probably want to use a guide sheet to keep your writing in straight lines. Guide sheets are available in a variety of flavors, you can download this one I’ve prepared for you, with slanted lines or without:
Lastly, you’ll need a bowl of water, a clean, soft piece of cloth and some rubbing alcohol or soap to clean your new nib before first usage.
Where to get your supplies
If you’ve got a big art supply store round the corner, lucky you, you can look at everything in person.
But, with calligraphy tools, ordering online is not a problem at all. There are several art suppliers who have an excellent selection of tools and paper available. I’ve compiled a list of my preferred suppliers here.
Preparing the nib and your workspace
All nibs have a chemical residue on them when they come from manufacturing to keep them from rusting. If you leave that layer on, the nib may act funky and cause problems when writing. Removal is easy: Dip the nib into alcohol or scrub it with soap and rub it with a cloth to remove the oily residue.
You’ll want to make sure that you can move your arms around freely and that you have enough room around yourself so that you don’t knock anything over when you move further down, or turn your paper, or dip into your ink bottle. When writing calligraphy, you’ll move your whole arm including the elbow, not just your hand. The best idea is to place the ink to your right (if you’re right-handed), so that you don’t drip on your paper. Place the guide sheet under your layout paper, fasten it with tape.
Try to breathe slowly, and sit as comfortable as you can.
Dip the nib into the ink so that it gets covered evenly, about halfway up the nib’s well (that little hole you see in the middle). Now you’re ready to practice some basic strokes and curves.
Practice the strokes & curves
To get a feeling for the nib and study its effects, it’s best to write very slowly in the beginning. A few general rules are:
* You hold the pen at approx. 45° angle from the paper
* You apply pressure on the downstrokes, and no pressure on the upstrokes.
* The weight of downstrokes is controlled by how much pressure you apply.
* Upstrokes should be consistent and thin.
Below is a PDF with some basic strokes & shapes for you to practice. Start with the downstrokes, then add upstrokes, then combine the two.
Basic strokes Exercise Sheet
Do those until you feel comfortable with the handling of the nib.
Practice letters and words
Now it’s time to construct letter forms.
You’ll notice that letters can be grouped in familiar looking shapes – for example the letters b, d, f, h, k, l, t share similarities (upstrokes), as well as the letters g, j, p, q, y, z (downstrokes), then there are the round letters a, c, e, o, and the letters m, n, u, v, w that are similar.
Practice all of these basic letter shapes, and how they connect together.
I’ve prepared a Basic Letterforms Practice Sheet which you can print out and reference while you’re writing.
It will take a long time to learn those letters, but be patient and stick with it – it’s worth it!
If you don’t want to simply go from A to Z, try writing your initials or your name.
Write the letters until you feel comfortable and don’t have to think about how to write – this is called building muscle memory. If you want to write whole sentences, you have to know how to write those letterforms in your sleep.
Practicing Different Styles
I’ve created four different worksheets with different calligraphic styles that have letters you can mimic and practice. You will get those for free if you subscribe to my newsletter! Just choose whichever you like best, or write a whole page of A’s, B’s, C’s to see how many variants you can come up with, and then practice one until you master it.
- No. 1: A basic round, classic style
- No. 2: a bit fancy, more dramatic style
- No. 3: a very elegant style, with a few flourishes
- No. 4: an informal upright script style
Subscribe to my newsletter below and get all of these practice sheets for free!
I’ve also created a free email course for those of you who are starting out which contains practical calligraphy tips and tricks, and you will get this course too (complete with a PDF guide) when you subscribe.
For those who want to go more in-depth, I have created premium workbooks for these styles with more detailed instructions. These 20-page calligraphy workbooks are a resource for calligraphy beginners who want to improve their skills quickly with a structured approach. You’ll get more guidance than in the free worksheets at a very moderate price. Each workbook contains: an introduction to the basic tools and techniques, practice worksheets featuring warm-up strokes, complete lower and upper case alphabets with numbers and symbols for one particular style, a resources guide and tips on how to practice, plus guidesheets. All of this comes in a handy 20-page PDF workbook ready for you to print out. You can read more and buy the workbooks here. If you’re not sure yet, go ahead and sign up for the newsletter first and have a look at the free worksheets.
Things to think of when you’re practicing:
- Try to keep your Downstrokes parallel
- Keep the x-height and the cap height consistent
- Ascender/Descender height
- Keep the Baseline consistent
- Even Spacing
Here’s a PDF with the basic vocabulary.
Splattering, Pen is snagging:
Don’t push the nib into the paper, it will catch on the fibers and the ink will likely splatter. Don’t apply too much pressure when writing upstrokes.
The ink wont flow:
This can happen if you hold the pen wrong – remember the 45° angle.
Sometimes it’s a combination of nib and particular ink: try putting the very tip of your nib into water.
After a while of writing, ink can clog up your pen. Clean your nib in water and wipe it off with a clean cloth.
When the ink is too thick, dilute your ink with a little bit of water (take a new container for this).
Important: keep practicing!
The most important tip that I can give you is to keep practicing (x3!), even short amounts of time every day make a difference. You will get better with practice over time, even if it doesn’t look like it after the first few minutes. You will get used to handling the pen, and you will see beautiful results if you keep consistent with your practice.