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Introducing You to Calligraphy and the Art of Fine Writing

This guide offers some great tips in how to get started using different Calligraphy Pens, information on basic supplies, dip pen nib styles, and descriptions of the more common Calligraphy Alphabet Styles.

What is a Calligraphy Pen?

When searching online for a new calligraphy pen you may find that the results often will direct you to “fountain calligraphy pens”. This may lead to some confusion, and a newcomer to the world of calligraphy may not be aware of the difference between a calligraphy pen and a fountain pen. We therefore have put together this little primer so that you can decide for yourself which might be best for you.

Dip Pens:

The original calligraphy pens are otherwise also known as Dip Pens, stemming back to the early pens made from reeds or feather quills, used by dipping them it into the ink. A dip pen or nib pen usually consists of a metal nib mounted on a handle or holder, which can be made of wood, metal, feather quills or even glass. Generally speaking, dip pens have no ink reservoir; therefore the user has to continue to dip the pen into ink in order to continue writing.

Advantages of Dip Pens:

The dip pen has certain advantages over a fountain pen. It can use waterproof pigmented (particle-and-binder-based) inks, such as so-called India Ink, drawing ink, or acrylic inks, or many different types of inks which would destroy a fountain pen by clogging it up or causing corrosion over time. There is also a wide range of readily exchangeable nibs available so different types of lines and effects can be created. The nibs and handles are far cheaper than most fountain pens, and allow color changes much more easily.

Nowadays dip pens are not used for regular writing as they were before, having being replaced by the more commonly used fountain pens. However, dip pens are still appreciated by artists and are preferred by calligraphers for fine writing, since they can make great differences between thick and thin lines, and generally write more smoothly than other types of pens.

Calligraphy Fountain Pens:

The fountain pen was the forerunner to the modern day ballpoint pen in terms of being the implement used primarily for cursive writing on a day to day basis. The fountain pen contains its own ink supply that is then delivered to the pen nib from a replaceable ink cartridge or refillable reservoir.

The nib of a fountain pen has a rounded point that is suitable for flowing script with minimal pen lifts. In modern days, special Calligraphy Fountain Pens have been created, available with a variety of nibs, that mimick the writing styles of the dip pens. Although more limited in the number of nibs that are available, they are easier to use and practice with than dip pens, from a novice point of view.

Calligraphy Markers:

Broad edge Markers, available with a variety of felt tip nibs in various sizes, colors and shapes, they are used primarily for drawing , but can also be used for calligraphy writing. They are easy to use, especially for children, and there is no messing about with ink.

Pens are a calligrapher's most important tools.

Dip Pens that you dip into ink are the original way to write calligraphy and many people prefer these, since there is such a broad range of nibs available, they are less expensive and allow for more variations in the style of writing and switch colors. Fountain pens are less messy (the cartridges eliminate the need for bottled ink to dip into) and also beginners may find them easier to work with. If you do begin your study of calligraphy with fountain pens, you can switch over to dip pens once you have gain more experience.

History of Calligraphy:

The art of calligraphy is as old as writing itself and originates from man's natural instinct to communicate. The writing material of classic times was papyrus, used first with a reed brush, then a broad edged pen cut from the split stem of a reed.. Although paper was invented in China about 100 BC, it was rare in Europe until its introduction in the 15th century. Throughout the Middle Ages parchment was used for manuscripts by monks and scribes in the monasteries. Its finer surface encouraged smaller writing and the use of quill pens cut from birds feathers. Between 600-1800A.D. quill pens became the principal writing instrument, but required constant re-trimming by hand. The metallic pointed nib was not invented until the 18th century by steel makers in Birmingham, England who developed a technique, still in use today, to mass produce long wearing steel nib pens, and by 1850 quills for the most part had been replaced by wooden styluses with steel nibs.

Major influences have been the classic capital letters carved by Romans on columns and buildings, and the beautiful script produced by monks and scholars prior to the invention of the printing press. A cursive form of the square capitals was developed for writing purposes, first Rustica and then Uncial between the 5th and 10th centuries. The 9th century saw the adoption of the Carolingian Miniscule or little letters throughout Europe. Evolution of the Gothic scripts occurred as early as the 10th century and continued in Northern Europe until the 15th century. The elegant Italic scripts appeared during the Italian Renaissance.

Although demand for handwritten books was greatly reduced after the invention of printing, fine writing continued among the Renaissance masters. The style of scripts became finer and more complex. Copperplate emerged and the pointed nib replaced the broad edged pen. However, at the end of the 19th century, the Arts and Crafts movement revitalized many crafts including calligraphy. In particular, the superb work produced by Edward Johnston based on the study of early manuscripts was to lay the foundations for the calligraphy that we see today.

Basic Calligraphy Supplies:

Knowing that Pens are a calligrapher's most important tools. The most used styles of these are Fountain Pens and Dip Pens. Dip Pens that you dip into ink are the original way to write calligraphy and many people prefer these, since there is such a broad range of nibs available. Fountain pens are less messy (the cartridges eliminate the need for bottled ink to dip into) and also beginners may find them easier to work with. If you do begin your study of calligraphy with fountain pens, you can switch over to dip pens once you have gain more experience. Additionally, we also offer Artist Brush Pens for Brush Lettering Calligraphy, which are like broad edged markers.

Other suitable supplies : Bottled Ink for dipping Pens, Parchment or smooth surfaced calligraphy paper, Lettering Guide Sheets or pencils for making the rules are also helpful for the novice. (all of these products are sold on our website...)

Getting Started:

Calligraphy is concerned with the visual expression of words. Nostalgic Impression’s Calligraphy Sets will help you share in this rewarding activity, learning the basic techniques, developing your own style and then creating original calligraphic designs. As you gain in confidence and experience, an endless range of project opportunities opens up to you e.g. menus, name tags, wedding invitations, family trees and presentation certificates.

Calligraphy should be fun, so it is a good idea to practice using your own favorite texts - poems, proverbs and amusing quotations will add to the pleasure of your work.

There are many excellent books to show you how to develop your natural ability. However, the following guidelines have been prepared to help you get started right away.

Begin by sitting comfortably. You may find it helpful to work on a drawing board or similar surface angled at 30 degrees. You will need a pencil, smooth finish paper and a ruler. Start by ruling up a framework for your lettering. The height of a particular style is set at a specific number of nib widths, and varies according to the size of nib selected.

For practice, draw horizontal parallel lines about ¾” inch apart from each other on a piece of paper. Shake the ink bottle before use. Dip your nib into the ink and tap lightly on the bottle rim to free it of excess ink that would stain the paper when you first begin to write. Before tracing a definite mark, always try a rough draft to verify the right ink quantity and the absence of any foreign body on the tip. For a smooth and constant release of ink from nib to paper, the pen should always be held at a 20-45 degree angle.

When you have chosen a nib size and lettering style, make a scale on a piece of paper to establish the x-height of your letters. X-height is the height of lower case letters without ascenders (upstrokes) and descenders (downstrokes). Mark this down the edge of your writing paper, allowing the same space as x-height for ascenders and descenders. Now rule horizontal guidelines across the paper. Draw the lines in pencil so they can be erased when the ink is dry. Numerals may be either uniform or variable height, depending on the numeral and the style you select.

Design Considerations:

Your work should be legible and pleasing to the eye. Study the text then think about lettering styles and sizes, their weight and texture, the spacing of lines, margins and paragraphs. Make a thumbnail sketch of your design - to help determine general shape and balance. Try out different solutions and redraw one or two as a full size rough layout.

Spacing and Margins:

The spacing of letters and words, and adequate margins, are important to the balance of your layout. Arrange letters so they appear to have equal space between them - not equal distance. This varies with vertical, rounded and open sided letters. Space between lines depends on letter-style, but should be sufficient to ensure readability. Generous margins make the text appear well balanced and add visual interest. Use your judgment to determine suitable margins. Consider dividing the text into columns and blocks to aid legibility and add variety. Use white space as a design element to emphasize a word or phrase and introduce contrast.


Color can add variety to a design. It can contribute to a mood you wish to convey or highlight parts of the text. A second color can be used to infill lettering and borders drawn with a scroll nib.


Forget about the discipline of forming letters and enjoy yourself by creating repeat patterns so that you become familiar with numerous effects that can be achieved with your pen.

Work with bold fluid strokes

Avoid tightening your hand, wrist and forearm. Extend the hand motion to most of your arm. An upstroke will produce the finest line possible with a nib, while a down-stroke will make the broadest line possible.

Cursive Uppercase Letter Guide
Gothic Lowercase Letter Guide
Gothic Uppercase Letter Guide

How to insert a nib correctly into a dipping pen:

Nibs are inserted against the shaft (NOT in the middle of where the crossed shafts meet). This is usually counter intuitive, but it will hold much better when the nib is correctly inserted.

Click this link to learn about the different Dip Pen Calligraphy Nibs here

Calligraphy Alphabet styles:

There are several different alphabet styles that Calligraphy encompasses, and we have listed the most commonly found ones.

The Foundation Hand:

An ideal learning alphabet is the Foundation Hand. It is based on the Carolingian script, which flourished as the dominant European hand from the 9th to the 11th centuries. Proportions are: Capital height 6 nib widths, x-height 4 nib widths and an ascender/descender height of 7 nib widths. The nib edge should be held at an angle of 30 degrees to the writing line.

The Italic Alphabet:

The graceful Italic alphabet evolved during the Renaissance. It is characterized by a gentle slope to the right and the letters are compressed so that round letters form an ellipse rather than a circle. Proportions are: Capital height 7 nib widths, x-height of 8 nib widths. For most Italic hands the pen nib should be held at a 45 degree angle to the writing line.

Gothic or Black Letter:

This is a condensed style widely used from the 13th to 15th centuries. Extremely decorative but not so easy to read. There are more kinds of Gothic than any other hand.


The earliest Uncial is found in the 4th century, various forms of it were used from the 5th - 8th centuries. Its chunky appearance gives it unique character. There are only capital letters, so for emphasis and variety versals can be used with it

For more detailed information to the world of calligraphy, why not visit your local library or purchase a book to learn more.