Learn the basics—letters of the alphabet and numbers—of this cherished art form with expert flourish.

July 31, 2019
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On cards, invitations, and envelopes, calligraphy adds an elegance that hints at a different era. Times may have changed, but an appreciation for beautiful lettering has not. Because calligraphed letters may appear intricate, that doesn't mean they are difficult to create. The graceful letters of the copperplate-style alphabet are made up of a handful of uncomplicated pen strokes. Calligraphy can be used to express sweet sentiments on valentines, and to add a flourish to anniversary and birthday wishes, New Year's and Easter cards, and more. All you need to do is pick up a pen and start practicing.

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Tools and Materials

Before you begin, gather the following supplies: paper, ink or gouache, a pen, nib, and guide sheets. Calligraphy ink (such as Higgins Calligraphy Ink) is readily obtained at most art-supply and stationery stores; black is traditional for invitations and formal correspondence. Gouache (such as the Royal & Langnickel Gouache Color Artist Tube Paint Set) is a type of opaque watercolor paint that you mix with water (aim for the consistency of cream); it can be used as an alternative to ink, which can be translucent on colored paper.

Pen holders (handles with metal ends to hold the nibs) can be straight or oblique; try both kinds to see which works better for you (oblique may be more comfortable for right-handed writers). Fit the holder with a nib, or tip. A nib's concave, split design makes it flexible, allowing you to make thick and thin lines. (For many calligraphers, Brause Calligraphy Nibs are considered to be among the best on the market. And for beginners, the Speedball Calligraphy Fountain Pen Set is a good option.)

Guide sheets have horizontal and sometimes diagonal rules that help you space letters and align them consistently as you learn. On the final products, use a ruler and pencil to make lines on your envelopes or other paper; erase after the ink dries. Paper should be a plain-finish stock with a smooth, flat surface; ink smears on shiny stock, and the nib can skip or catch when pulled across a richly textured paper. Try Strathmore's 50 Sheet Tape Bound Calligraphy Pad. You'll also need a blotter to rest your pen and catch drips; you can use any soft cloth.

Practicing Pen Strokes

Dip the pen into the ink pot until the hole in the nib is covered. Tap the nib on the rim of the pot to remove any excess ink, then make a few strokes on scratch paper to eliminate the possibility of blotching and dripping. Make certain you have enough ink to make solid lines that don't bleed. When the nib starts to feel scratchy, re-dip your pen. Refer to the charts in the steps that follow to learn how to create letters and numerals. To begin writing, position your paper at an angle with the pen's tip aligned with one of the diagonal lines on the guide sheet. At first, the technique may require some getting used to. Unlike in cursive hand-writing, you must lift your pen from the paper once, twice, or three times during the course of making a single letter. This is because each letter or number is made up of a series of different strokes. Practice the strokes first, then practice combining them to make the letters.

Basic Lowercase Alphabet

Nine pen strokes can be used in combination to make most of the letters in the lowercase alphabet. To create thick strokes, add pressure to the tip of the nib. For fine lines, lessen the pressure. It's easiest to make thick strokes using a downward motion and thin strokes while the pen is moving upward. To make a dot (as for over the letter "i"), press the nib into the paper, allowing the ink to pool. Always lift your pen after each stroke. Once you are comfortable with the strokes, combine them to create the letters. Take a break every few strokes to sit back and check your spacing and form.

Capital Letters and Numerals

More free-form and less rule-bound than the lowercase alphabet, uppercase lettering allows you to give your script a personal flourish. Seven strokes are used in many of the letters. Many of these uppercase letters cannot be connected to the letters that follow them, which adds to their noble appearance. As for numbers, it's important to practice numerals if you'll be calligraphing dates-you'll want to break each number down into individual strokes.

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