Like I already mentioned last week, it is essential to know the basic strokes in order to write well-formed calligraphy.

Today I want to give you an overview of the most important ones and give you instructions on how to write them. You can practice them on your own or with one of my 4 workbooks – all of them have a dedicated practice sheet for the basic strokes, and I’m happy to announce all 4 styles are available now.

I’m also currently demonstrating the basic strokes as short videos on Instagram – feel free to study the strokes there and join the basic strokes challenge.

Learning these principles is especially important for modern calligraphy styles that don’t follow as many rules as classic styles, so that you have a good foundation for your writing. We’ll have a look at those warmup strokes that every lower case letter can be constructed of.

So, let’s have a look at the basic strokes now:

1. full pressure stroke – downstroke & upstroke

This is the most basic stroke at all, a simple straight downstroke and its companion, the upstroke. Always apply pressure on the downstroke and no pressure on the upstroke, that’s how the pointed nib works – otherwise you’ll push the pointy nib into the paper.

Try to keep the stroke in a straight line and with squared-off edges.

2. underturn or pressure-release stroke

With this stroke you practice writing a curve while letting go of the pressure on the nib at the same time, hence the name: pressure-release stroke.

The shade is on the left side of the stroke, and it gets thinner in the lower part of the stroke just before the curve starts. By the time you reach the baseline, the stroke should be a hairline, which then makes a u-turn back up.

Try to keep the shade (thick part) parallel to the main slant.

3. overturn or pressure-release stroke

This stroke is a variation of the previous pressure-release stroke, it has a n-shaped curve.

You start at the base line with a hairline, make a curve and then start applying pressure, the stroke ends with a squared-off edge. Keep the curve and the up-and downstrokes the same width as the previous pressure-release stroke. The two strokes should complement each other.

4. combined pressure-release stroke or compound curve

This stroke is a combination of over- and underturn, merged into one stroke. All lines should be parallel and the two curves should have the same size with the same amount of negative space inside.

The compound curve is a bit tricky because you change the direction two times. Try to concentrate on the right slant first, particularly for the shaded line in the middle.

The thick-to-thin transitions should always be smooth, that means you gradually apply more (or less) pressure to achieve this.

5. long pressure release stroke

By now, you know the principle of the pressure-release stroke, this is a version with a long stroke starting at the cap height. Keep that stroke straight, like the full pressure downstroke.

6. oval

The oval is the key to all the letters in the alphabet. It’s a slightly slanted, narrow form with a shade on the left, the curves at the top and bottom match the curves on the previous pressure-release strokes.

When you write an oval, try to think of a slightly narrow round form that’s cut in half by the guideline and distribute the halves evenly around the axis.

7. lead-in and lead-out stroke

These thin hairline strokes are added at the beginning and/or the end of a letter, or between letters as a connection stroke. Hairlines are the finest lines you will make with your pointed nib, absolutely no pressure is applied, the nib just glides over the paper. Lead-in strokes are slightly curved.

8. descender loop


This stroke will define a lot of the letters that go down to the descender line. It starts at the x-height like a full pressure stroke, then you release the pressure gradually into the narrow curve and make a hairline that crosses the stem just before the baseline. The width of this is slightly narrower than the pressure-release curve.

9. ascender loop


This stroke is the companion to the previous stroke, think of it as a mirrored version that is written a bit differently. You start with a hairline lead-in, pause at the x-height and turn it into a narrow curve that ends in a full pressure stroke.

I’ve also collected a few different warm up exercise you can do to vary your basic stroke practice drills and study combining them:

Practice exercise 1: over- and underturn combined

In this exercise you’ll practice the pressure-release strokes some more and write them side by side. Keep both strokes at the same width and height. If you turn the paper, the strokes should look exactly the same.


Practice exercise 2: ascender & descender loop combined


In this exervise you write the ascender and descender loop next to each other to achieve harmonious, even loops. Remember that these strokes look similar, but are constructed differently.


Practice exercise 3: Hairline practice

In this exercise you’ll focus entirely on making thin, even hairlines. A common problem is that these hairlines turn out jittery and shaky. If you encounter this problem, try to do more warm-up drills and strokes, preferably with a pencil.

Practice exercise 4: long pressure-release strokes combined

In this exercise you practice the long versions of the pressure-release strokes some more and write them side by side. Keep both strokes at the same width and height. If you turn the paper, the strokes should look exactly the same.

Practice exercise 5: Connected loops

For this exercise, practice different oval shapes: solo ovals, overlapping ovals and looped ovals. This way you will practice consistent shading, spacing and pen control when writing curves.

A few general rules for writing basic strokes:

  • Write slowly
  • the shades (thick strokes) should be parallel to the main slant
  • make sure you hit the baseline and x-height/cap-height
  • focus on the stroke you’re writing

By practicing these strokes over and over, and by doing them alone and in combination as a warm up before you write letters and words, you’ll lay a good foundation and make faster progress with your calligraphy.

Feel free to join for the remainder of the Instagram challenge with the hashtag #practicebasicstrokes, or show the basic strokes practice page from one of the workbooks.

P.S. If you want more guidance, I’ll also cover these basic principles (and a lot more) in my upcoming online course CALLIGRAPHY ESSENTIALS that will be available again soon. It’ll take you from where this post and the workbooks leave off to absolutely beautiful modern calligraphy in six weeks! Sign up will be open on January 24.


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If you have any questions or comments on this topic, please feel free to contribute! Just leave a comment below.