Mastering Copperplate Calligraphy

Let me start by saying that I took the first steps with Copperplate calligraphy thanks to this book, and my copy is well-worn and actually full of ink stain because I had it lying near my practice sheets on my desk all the time. Eleanor Winters is an accomplished calligraphy teacher who has published a few books on Copperplate and Italic calligraphy.

Mastering Copperplate Calligraphy teaches all the necessary principles needed for understanding how this beautiful hand is composed, and also what you have to look out for to achieve graceful letterforms. In the second part the author goes over methods to apply what you’ve learned to actually writing your own pieces.

Since the Copperplate style has very strict rules on how it should look, it’s very well suited to be taught in a book – as always, learning from book can give you a good understanding or deepening of knowledge that you can maybe gain in a live workshop.

The book might be a bit old-fashioned in parts – it was written in 1989 before the age of computers, so a few of the methods shown in the book rely very heavily on manual techniques.

As an example: I don’t know anyone who still sits down with a ruler and a pencil and lines his guidesheets by hand – usually today’s students have the luxury of printing out prepared guidesheets which are available widely on the internet, particularly on places like IAMPETH.

But it’s still a good thing to know these techniques or at least have a reference in case you need to use them.

A historical overview

Eleanor Winters starts with an historical overview which explains how the term Copperplate came to be – and this is so interesting. It’s actually named by the technique with which penmen from the 1700s on could reproduce calligraphy copybooks for printing – to make it available for eager students who could then copy the writing techniques of the masters. This reproduction was done through copperplate engraving – the writing was transferred on a metal plate and then incised with very precise tools, to then be printed on paper and mass-reproduced in books.

Thus the name for the hand, which is also known (with little differences) by the name English Roundhand.

This step of transferring to a plate very likely helped with correcting manual imperfections, and it explains why old exemplars from these times look so perfect: they’re the product of not only a skilled scribe, but a master engraver as well, often resulting in nearly impossible-to-achieve ornamentation with geometric precision. Actually, this technique is not unlike the perfection of today’s precise vector lettering done on the computer, and I find both – historic exemplars and modern vector lettering, breathtaking to look at when they’re done the right way. There is of course such a thing as overflourishing.

As a guide for studying and practicing these historic exemplars are absolutely stunning, and it’s worth having a look at them before you dive into the first part of the book which shows all of the fundamentals of the Copperplate style.

Basic strokes and constructing letters

Starting with the tools and naming conventions, the basic strokes (the „principles“ as they’re also called), and then each letter of the alphabet, miniscules (lower case) and majuscules (upper case), grouped by similar letters. I know from my own teaching experience that this grouping of letters is a very effective teaching technique, as opposed to simply going through the alphabet from A to Z. It helps understanding how to construct the letters and make your writing more harmonious.

What I like is that the book actually shows (with pictures) what common mistakes you have to look out for, from the basic strokes to the most complicated letters, and it gives detailed practicing instructions that you will be occupied with for quite a while.

The book also takes an in-depth look at how to connect letters to write words, how to space correctly, and also shows some variations for writing certain letters.

Write your own pieces

In the second part the author shows how all the practice hours you’ve (hopefully) been putting in can be applied to writing longer texts and actual calligraphic pieces, she shows how to change the size of your writing, how to write out Copperplate on a page (like for a letter) and gives very basic layout rules for creating quotes, envelope and invitation calligraphy. These are all shown in a very traditional manner, you won’t find any special or modern layout ideas in the book, like for round or wavy layouts. This is actually giving me ideas on what to include in my next course on creating layouts for calligraphy.

The only thing that a book can’t provide is feedback from a teacher, so it’s purely for self-study and for those who feel comfortable at reviewing and critiquing their own work and mastering it all on their own – if you need more guidance, then an in-person workshop or an online course with feedback (like my course Calligraphy Essentials) is more suited for you.

That said, looking at and studying the letterforms is still so important for learning beautiful writing, and the book is perfect for that purpose.

I’m a firm believer that you should learn the basics before you attempt to to experiments and more loose stuff, so I recommend this book to anyone interested in calligraphy.

All in all, this is a well-rounded, detailed instruction and a book you can still come back to after years. As I mentioned, since Copperplate is such a rule-dependent script with very little experimentation in the beginning stages, and this can be taught very well in a book. As with every style, once you’ve mastered the basics you can experiment with variants and ornamentation – but this is not the focus here.

I sometimes reference this book when I need something a bit more formal, and I always enjoy coming back to practicing classic Copperplate. Mastering Copperplate Calligraphy is excellent for learning the correct principles and letterforms as a base for traditional and modern pointed pen styles.

Here are a few recent practice pages from me in Copperplate done in walnut ink:

What do you think about the Copperplate style? Have you tried it already? I’d love to know if you enjoy modern and historic styles. Leave a comment below to add to the discussion.

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