This is part two of a three part series on combining calligraphy with watercolor.

Creating a layout


I find it helpful to think of what you want to do before you start, especially when you work with expensive paper and want your calligraphy to look harmonious with the watercolors. I usually make a few sketches, and then write out my whole text in pencil on a piece of paper (in the end size), being mindful where I want the watercolor wash or edge to be. This draft can later be used with a light box to write your calligraphy on the paper. I have used a darker pen here to make clear where my text is. This can be especially helpful when you’ve created a full-size wash on thicker paper and have trouble seeing your pecil lines.

Watercolor can change quite a bit while it dries, so an effect that looked good when you painted it will sometimes morph into something else completely. I find this fascinating and at times a bit frustrating – it’s certainly the opposite of the very controlled art of calligraphy.

I always do a loose sketch first, then paint my watercolor parts, then do the calligraphy on top. Since some inks are not waterproof you could easily destroy your text if you did it the other way round. This is particularly true for washes that cover the whole page, not so important for the layered edge-effect I showed you.

Pencil sketch & using a light box

For the quote I want to do I have very lightly drawn some pencil lines on my watercolor paper to remember where I want the watercolor border to be. I have decided on creating a watercolor edge in several layers with a quote in the middle. I have chosen two blue-green watercolor tones for this that I mix: Turquoise and Jade Green, both by White Nights.

After I’ve painted the first layer, I wait a bit for it to dry and go over the bottom with a second and third layer. The paper isn’t too badly wrinkled (although it might not look too great in the pictures), so I can skip the step of flattening it over night and will simply do this when the calligraphy has dried. You might have to do this before inking your piece if you do a full page wash.

painting-the-wash1 painting-the-wash2 painting-the-wash3

I let everything dry for at least 10 minutes to make sure I can place my hand over the watercolor to write my quote. Then it’s time to add the calligraphy on top.

If you didn’t do a detailed sketch because you thought you’d figure out the text placement afterwards, now is the time to take measure of the place you’ll have for your text and make some sketches. Be sure to think of every detail you want included, and make several iterations of the draft until you think you have the best version.


This is a good time to have your pre-written text and a light box ready. The sketch should be exactly as you want it written on the page, because you’ll only have one shot at this – a watercolor wash is an original. It’s not as crucial for little things like place cards or gift tags, but for a large artwork or a one of a kind menu it’s best to get rid of as many variables as possible.

Now all I have to do is take my watercolor paper with the background I painted on it, fasten the sketch behind it, and take a lightbox and write the text over it. If you have done calligraphy for a while, you know the inking procedure (I always call it inking even if I don’t use ink, but thinned paint like in this case). Take your time, do some warm-up drills, breathe slowly and start writing. Take a break from time to time and stay focused. And remember that everyone has ruined an almost perfect piece in the last line at least once. Pay extra attention if you use textured paper which might catch on the nib easier and cause splatters.

I have chosen to use a beautiful Schmincke gouache in Parisian Blue for my calligraphy that I’ve mixed with water to the consistency of milk, you can of course use any ink or watercolor of your choice. I have written everything slowly and carefully and then let everything dry. This is my final artwork:


If you’ve prepared smaller-sized pieces of paper, like for tags or little place cards, and you know your writing style of choice, you can simply write on them without much preparation. New place card blanks can be easily produced again and usually you’ll have a few spare ones in cases of errors anyway.

Variantions & tricks

There’s really no limit to your imagination. With the watercolors you can produce blobs, stripes or patterns, bold multicolored, textured washes or elegant monochromatic ones. You can include your calligraphy in one uniform text block or play with the lines and edges that the color has given you. Here are a few more thoughts and tips from my desk:

  • When you write on a full-page wash (like my first example for the ombre wash in the last post) it is helpful to make your final draft with a really dark pencil or even in ink, as the watercolor paper (and the pigments on top) can significantly blur your lines underneath even with a very strong lightsource. My light box works fine with up to 300g (140 lb) paper, but everything else I’ll have to lightly write on the original paper with a pencil. Be very careful when you do this and don’t erase anything until it’s fully dried.
  • One fun thing I like to do is create my background wash and then write with metallic ink on a separate piece of transparent paper. This gives the piece a beautiful layered, ethereal look and takes a bit of the pressure out to nail it the first time. Transparent paper can have it’s own problems when being written on, my tip is to not take the really thin kind but some medium thick paper that can take ink without wrinkling.
  • You can also take an old toothbrush and sprinkle some acrylic paint or gold over everything, this can make for an interesting effect. Be sure to protect the rest of your workspace if you do this.
  • You can sprinkle the wet watercolors with table salt (or more grainy salt). It will produce an interesting effect as the salt will absorb everything the wet areas and intensify the color in the area where it landed. You can see this effect in the bottom area of this blog post’s featured image. Salt can produce unique patterns. You can brush off the salt after it’s dried.
  • Envelopes look beautiful with added watercolor, but I’ve yet to find the type of envelope that has thick paper that supports both very wet watercolor and delicate calligraphic writing. Dryer watercolor effects usually work better, but I’m usually very careful with testing before I attempt combining the two on an envelope. For a single envelope, you can work around this and simply fold an envelope yourself with paper you know works well. An alternative could be having only the envelope liner with a watercolor wash, this can look very elegant too and you won’t run into wrinkling problems.

I hope you have enjoyed this tutorial on how to make a calligraphy piece with watercolor elements.

Next week, I’ll talk about digital tools to make calligraphy and watercolor compositions. This can be helpful if you don’t have a lot of time to create both from hand.


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