Beginner's Guide to Pointed Pen Calligraphy | Getting Started
There are so many different types of calligraphy out there nowadays, especially now that this style of art is making its way back into modern life. People use it in a variety of ways and for a variety of occasions, from hand lettered wedding invitations, mirror seating charts, and custom cards to logo design, chalk menus and even tattoos! It's a wonderful way to add a personal touch and to impress a correspondence.
Calligraphy can also be created using a variety of tools such as pointed pen, broad-edge pen, brush pen, folded ruling pen, just to name a few! This blog post is going to be dedicated to providing a comprehensive guide to how to get yourself started on pointed pen calligraphy, accompanied with my own personal discoveries throughout my learning, some do's and don'ts and a few extra tips for my Canadian friends. Keep reading and enjoy!
Note: All products mentioned/reviewed in this post are my honest opinion and all links are where I purchased them personally, not sponsored/affiliated in any way.
What we will cover:
- Overview of materials and where to purchase them
- How to assemble the dip pen (a.k.a. oblique pen, pointed pen)
- Inks & how to prep them
- Paper types
- FREE learning resources & others
OVERVIEW OF MATERIALS
To get started, some materials you'll need include (but not limited to):
Where to purchase materials:
Because I live in Canada, some calligraphy supplies are very hard to find locally, so here are some online stores where I have purchased from in the past: JetPens, John Neal Bookseller, eBay, Amazon and Etsy
For my Canadian friends, I suggest checking out these local stores near you: DeSerres, Above Ground (at OCAD), Curry's Art Supplies, Michaels, Wonder Pens, The Paper Place, Midoco, Delta Art, Daiso, Muji
Straight vs. Oblique - Many have asked me the difference between a straight and oblique holder, and which one we should be writing with. The short answer is, it comes down to whatever you're comfortable with. However, in my experience, it's good to have both to use for different purposes. The main difference is that the oblique facilitates the angle of the nib which helps to apply an even amount of pressure and ink to the paper. For modern calligraphy and straight letters, it really doesn't matter if a straight or oblique is used, but the oblique is definitely better at enabling the 55-degree slant for Copperplate and puts less strain on the wrist when doing so.
For those who are interested in starting pointed pen calligraphy but have never tried it before, you don't need to invest in an expensive holder right away. Once you have confirmed your interest, I would then suggest an upgrade, since some fancy holders can go for as high as $100-200+. Until you've tested the waters and decided that you like calligraphy, I recommend purchasing an affordable oblique holder with an adjustable flange. Some are available on eBay and Etsy for less than $20CAD.
If you want to get started practicing ASAP, and find that shipping is taking some time, an alternative is to purchase the Speedball Oblique Pen Set (pen and nibs included), which is readily available on Amazon (US; Canada) or your local Arts and Crafts store for around $20 as well. However, you should be aware of one important design flaw which I will discuss in the Penholder section.
Note: Be sure to buy the appropriate kind of oblique; There is a left handed vs. right handed one, and the difference is in the positioning of the flange.
I. Anatomy of a nib
II. Types of nibs
For beginners, I highly recommend G nibs to start. This includes Nikko G, Zebra G, Tachikawa G (not in picture). These nibs are strong and sturdy, relatively flexible, and hold lots of ink. This translates to thick downstrokes and smooth upstrokes, without having tines get caught on paper or inks splattering, and can be used without re-dipping that frequently. Once you've had a good amount of practice and want to experiment with other nibs such as Hunt 22/22B, Hunt 101 and Leonardt Principal EF, you'll notice that these nibs are much more flexible and require a lighter hand to use. Don't worry, this comes with experimentation and practice!
With that said, preference of nibs really vary from person to person, so I encourage you to try a variety to find what you like best.
And once you've had a good variety of nibs to try, many delve into the realm of vintage nibs, which can be very exciting to collect and try!
ASSEMBLING THE DIP PEN
I. Preparing the nib
Brand new nibs are coated with a layer of factory oil to prevent them from rusting and getting damaged in transport. This means if you don't prep and immediately use the nib, you'll find that it won't write smoothly or at all. It's important to keep in mind that you only need to prep the nib up to its vent hole (Read about why below in "Dipping and Use"). It's not necessary to prep the body of the nib; In fact, doing so may cause the remainder of the nib to rust faster.
Here are a few popular at home methods for prepping your nibs for use:
- Toothpaste - A popular method of prepping the nib is using toothpaste, and this is the method I used from the beginning. Squeeze a bit of toothpaste onto a toothbrush and brush the inside/outside of the nib, then rinse with water. I didn't notice much of a difference when using whitening versus non-whitening toothpaste, but I heard the latter does not work as well. If you have both at laying around home, feel free to experiment to see which works best for you!
- Soap or dish detergent - This is another popular method of cleaning. Squeeze a bit of non-moisturizing soap or detergent onto a toothbrush and brush the inside/outside of the nib, then rinse with water.
- Ink - Surprisingly, I found that dipping my nib in black Sumi ink and rubbing off the excess in paper towel a few times does the trick. It isn't a foolproof way, but works on many nibs - Trial and error!
- Rubbing alcohol/acetone - A recently discovered method which I found to be the BEST way to clean my nibs because it is so quick and so easy! Simply use a Q-tip to dip into the liquid and give the inside/outside of the nib a thorough rub. Then rinse off with water.
- Potato - I DO NOT recommend this method! The reason is because force-jamming a nib inside a potato can cause the tines to snap and permanently ruin a nib. If you must try this method, cut the potato into thin slices and use that to clean the nib.
CAUTION: If you choose to use your hands/fingers, be careful not to prick yourself with the nib.
II. Inserting/aligning the nib
Nibs come in different shapes and sizes, so it's recommended that you purchase an oblique holder with an adjustable flange (usually made of brass so it's more malleable). Using a flange plier, you can easily shape the flange to fit a variety of different nibs, but it's recommended you own at least 2 oblique holders because frequently adjusting the flange can cause damage to the pen overtime.
A good guide that I found for nib-to-holder compatibility can be found on Jetpens.
Now that you're ready, insert your prepped nib into the flange gently with your hand and ensure the tip is aligned with the long axis of the pen staff as shown by the dotted line in the picture below. The reason is because this alignment allows for the most optimal balance when writing.
Why Speedball holders aren't ideal? If you're considering the Speedball oblique holder, understand that it has one small design flaw, and that is in the flange. Because the end is sealed, you can only insert the nib in as much as the flange would allow. For large nibs such as the Blue Pumpkin, this holder would not meet the optimal balance as mentioned above. See picture below for visual explanation.
III. How to hold your dip pen
Holding a dip pen is rather different from a regular pen. The ideal position is to hold it loosely and comfortably with 3 fingers - your thumb, index and middle, and let your ring finger and pinky slide across the page as your write.
Although I personally struggle with this position and tend to put my thumb over my index finger when I write, there are many benefits to using the above position in terms of fluidity and range of your movements. Correcting your habit and maintaining a good position from the beginning is key!
IV. Dipping and use
Every nib comes with a vent hole, and that is your guideline to how much you should dip. The rule of thumb is to dip just enough to cover the vent hole (See picture above). The reason is because over-dipping will cause ink to drip anyway or pool all over your page. This is also why I suggested to only prep your nib up to the vent hole, because it's really all you need to write with.
Be careful not to dip your nib too far into the ink or allow ink to seep into the flange as this may cause rusting and damage to both the nib and flange. However if this does happen, rinse off with water immediately and ensure you dry the flange as much as possible with a rag or paper towel.
While writing, make a habit of rinsing your nib in clean water and wiping it dry on paper towel every minute or so, or after you write every sentence. This is because ink will start to dry up while you write and after re-dipping a few times, you'll notice the hairlines may not be as thin, or the ink may not run as smoothly. By rinsing periodically, it's almost like you're "resetting" the nib to allow for a fresh start.
V. When to replace your nibs
When to replace your nib depends on much you write and how worn out it is. Signs that it's ready for a replacement include but are not limited to: If your nib is clearly broken, the tip is deformed, the nib is rusted, the nib is constantly snagging, or if you notice your upstroke hairlines are thicker than before.
VI. Cleaning and storage
Always be sure to clean your nibs fully after using them. Dried ink is not only hard to remove but also rusts the nib. Most inks, whether waterproof or not, can be easily cleaned off with water. Simply dip them in clean water and wipe dry with a paper towel. However, if you're having difficulty, rubbing alcohol or a store bought pen cleaner solution can be used to assist.
After your nibs are clean and dried completely, store them in a container or tin. I personally use a tin to store them. For those who live in very humid environments and have problems with their nibs rusting very quickly, I have heard of some who place their nibs inside a container with silica beads to fix this problem.
My favourite inks to use since I started calligraphy are: Sumi ink, Walnut ink, and Dr. Ph Martin's Bleedproof White. The only black ink that I use nowadays is the Yasutomo Sumi Ink. It is very opaque, writes smoothly, and dries with a nice shine. Walnut ink is great for practice as well as on finished work and its opaque-ness can be adjusted depending on how much you mix. I usually purchase walnut ink crystals in bulk and mix the ink myself, by combining the crystals with lukewarm water and testing out the consistency as I go. There's also pre-mixed walnut ink readily available in most Art stores. Finally, my favourite white ink is, hands down, Dr. Ph Martin's Bleedproof white. As the name suggests, this ink does not bleed and performs very well over coloured paper due to its opaqueness.
As for other inks, Finetec and Pearl Ex are my favourite metallic inks to write with. Finetec comes in solid pans similar to watercolor pans. All you need to do is add a few drops of water, mix it with a brush or waterbrush, and apply the mix to your nib. The process can be a little tedious, but the results are gorgeous! Pearl Ex comes in powdered form and I like to use the ratio of 4:1 to mix them into inks - 4 parts mica to 1 part gum arabic - plus water. I eyeball the amount of water and mix it to a consistency that I like by slowly adding more and more. If you've accidentally mixed in too much water and feel like your inks are runny, simply leave it out to air dry and the water will evaporate overtime. I will share more details on some of my favourite Pearl Ex inks in another post! Last but not least, for those who are really curious and creative, you can also use watercolour or gouache to mix your own coloured inks.
Find good paper to practice on, but don't invest in anything too expensive when starting out. All you need is something smooth and bleed proof that can take in your ink and allow your nib to glide across without snagging. Paper that is too textured will pull on your nibs, and too thin will cause your ink to feather, both of which can be very frustrating when you're just starting out. Here is a list of paper that I like to use for practice:
- Rhodia - Comes in plain, lined or grid format. It is very smooth and the most recommended by majority of calligraphers for practice
- Tomoe River FP Loose Sheets - This is a semi-translucent loose leaf paper that is super lightweight at 52gsm, half the thickness of copy paper. It is fountain pen and ink pen friendly, resistant to bleeding and feathering. I love using this as an overlay to practice and to design my final calligraphy pieces
- Borden & Riley no. 37 - This pad is also semi-translucent, so it's great for tracing and placing a guide sheet underneath when practicing
- Muji smooth paper - Be sure to get the smooth textured and high quality pack which comes in lined or grid. The recycled thin paper they have isn't as bleedproof and will cause feathering
- Cheaper option: HP Premium Choice Laserjet Printer Paper (Premium 32) - I like to print out guidelines directly on these for practice. Best part is they don’t bleed!
Finally I've aggregated some FREE resources that are readily available on the web (Credits to IAMPETH, Dr. Joseph Vitolo, David Grimes) that I personally used in the beginning:
- Script in the Copperplate Style by Dr. Joseph M. Vitolo
- The Zanerian Manual 1924 Download from David Grimes
I have created a few sets of FREE printable guidelines for you to download and use for your studies in a variety of x-heights (3mm, 4mm, 5mm and 6mm). You can find them in my shop HERE.
I also encourage you to take a look at The Flourish Forum, which has a ton of great resources and is a great calligraphy community in general. Specifically, Salman has created a great set of miniscule tutorials on this forum, which is accessible HERE. (Note: Need to sign up to see the pictures in this forum)
IAMPETH also has some great video tutorials by Dr. Joseph Vitolo demonstrating Copperplate majuscules and miniscules. I found these to be especially helpful in the beginning when I was studying exactly how to execute each letter. These videos are accessible HERE.
In the beginning, I only purchased one book, which is Eleanor Winters' "Mastering Copperplate Calligraphy: A Step-by-Step Manual" from Amazon. This book provides a bit of history, an equipment guide, and then into the basics for how to approach minuscule and majuscules. It also covers some advanced and commercial techniques.
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I hope you have found this beginner's guide helpful in jumpstarting your own calligraphy journey. I know I have covered a lot here and it may seem overwhelming at first, but just know that we've all started here at one point, and all it takes is a step forward in the right direction. One step at a time!
If there is anything that I have missed, or specific questions you would like to ask, please let me know in the comment section below and I would be happy to connect with you :)