Over the past few months I have taken to studying Spencerian and American Business cursive. This summer I have been extremely lucky to have attended a fantastic workshop with Master Penwoman Barbara Calzolari. At first glance the scripts look similar and easy to master however, once you actually get into them they’re anything but. The technical details in the scripts are mind boggling and that’s just if you’re approaching it as a right-hander!

First impressions like any other form of calligraphy your materials matter; a lot. It’s no different with Spencerian. For instance, you can’t use just any old nib lying about – here a few recommended nibs: The Nikko G, Zebra G, Gillot Hunt Imerial 101, Gillot 303, and the Leonardt EF Principal. All of the mentioned nibs are exceptional maybe apart from modern Gillot 303’s, if you come across vintage you’re onto a winner.* (As fortune would have it, at a recent Glasgow Scribes meeting another member off loaded vintage pointed pen nibs to me and among the bag there was a box of vintage 303’s - happy days!) When it comes to ink and paper you can use the same materials I discussed in previous blog posts. Rhodia papers, walnut ink, sumi ink, and iron gall are perfectly acceptable. Another little piece of info I found out - if using stick ink, Chinese is better quality than Japanese, who knew? As for business cursive Pentel Slicci 04mm are considered the best if not using an extra fine nib fountain pen. If you want to use a white pen for dark paper Pilot Choose Gel Rollerball pens are a good option.

The easiest way for me as a south-paw to approach Spencerian and American business is the same way I do with any of my pointed pen endeavours, at a 90 degree angle and penning the letters towards my torso. What I find most difficult with these scripts is achieving their fluid rhythm. When I first started learning pointed pen I used to do pen lifts after every. Single. Stroke. That’s not to say you can’t lift your pen when you go outside your direct line of vision you can but, within that your nib or pen shouldn’t really lift off the paper. That’s difficult for me; and that’s where and when your drills come in handy especially the famous cross drills exercise. I’m not a massive fan of drills simply because they bore me to tears but, I do get the sense that if you want to excel and progress in these scripts there’s no avoiding them…unfortunately. Along with these cross drills there are also finger movement drills and whole arm movement exercises to help instil muscle memory, the great calligraphers out there are not joking when they say they spend hours upon hours doing drills. Spencerian in particular is based on ovals.

When you go beneath the surface and start to really understand these two stunningly beautiful different but similar scripts you grasp the genius of Platt Roger Spencer. British/European penmanship and flourishing circa George Bickhman in the late 17th to early 18th century relied heavily on circles and depicted an elevated stylized form of handwriting; these examples were mainly produced for engraving and made beautiful penmanship accessible to only a select few who went to study the art. What P.R Spencer developed was revolutionary. The system is rooted in nature, with its ovals and graceful parallel lines taking the centre stage. His handwriting system, made up from a few basic strokes (7 principles in total) is considered by many as “the most beautiful style ever known”** and was taught to school children for nearly a century and has clearly stood the test of time. Everything is taken into consideration, even the angle of 52 degrees allows for maximum speed and ease to enable whole arm movement. He also understood that it is far easier for us to draw ovals than a perfect circle (an oval for whatever reason is far more pleasing to the human eye.) that’s what make the majuscules in Spencerian so elegant. The distinguished Master penman Michael Sull also commented (in an unexpected video call during the workshop) it’s also just as important to consider the negative space created by the lines to achieve a balanced, even letter. I feel that nothing is too insignificant to consider when it comes to these scripts and that’s what I love about them.

Lastly, as I don’t want to rattle on too long about but, the ideology behind Spencerian can be seen everywhere. Barbara Calzolari explained that it can even be demonstrated in figure skating and there is no better example than German gold medallist duo Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot the synchronisation in their routine mimic the graceful curves found in Spencerian majuscules. You only just have to look and you'll find in the most unlikely of places the building blocks of spencerian.

I’m only at the beginning of this journey but, I will do my utmost to learn and master these stunning scripts. It’s important to keep these scripts alive well past the renaissance they’re clearly enjoying at the moment.

(This post in hindsight has more to do with Spencerian than Business Cursive…it’s easy to get carried away with the former)

    *John Neal Bookseller stocks retooled Gillot 303’s and are reported to be far superior to previous models.
    **Quote taken from Theory of the Spencerian: System of Practical Penmanship.

The beauty of Ziller ink.

I recently just completed a commission piece which in preparation I automatically assumed I would using Iron Gall ink. Commission work and iron gall ink go together hand in hand, or so I thought. The commission piece was on handmade paper and I have worked a lot with handmade paper and know exactly how to handle it. However, the paper was proving to be nightmare I had done all the preparation with guidelines, and a light tracing of the design. All that was left to do was ink the piece - simple. I started to ink with the iron gall and it was an utter disaster. The ink was too watery, almost translucent there was almost an ombré gradient forming with each word being inked. With commission work there is an added pressure to get things perfect and this wasn’t anywhere near perfect. I moved onto the ever reliable Moon Palace sumi ink; another disaster. I was starting to panic now and decided to take a punt on Ziller ink.

And what a punt it was! I had seen my peers wax lyrical about Ziller ink and its properties. I ordered the Soot Black (£6.50 from Blots and Pens) and I honestly can’t praise it enough. Once dried, it’s completely waterproof which will come in handy when working with envelopes especially as we head into winter and the inevitable rain that will hit Blighty. No mixing is required just a shake of the bottle and it’s ready to go. It took to the troublesome handmade paper beautifully (Thank God) and I even used it with a mapping pen to ink in sunflower illustrations and again no problems. I have since used it on paper vellum and dare I say it, it was even better! No issues with disappearing hairlines producing strong deep black shades against the translucent vellum.

My only issue with Ziller ink is that because it is a bit on the watery side paper low on gsm – the ink will feather a bit. I suppose this isn’t a major issue just remember to use good quality paper or envelopes; it can however, (if you can be bothered) mix it with Ziller thickener which I’m assuming is a bit like gum arabic and will control the ink spreading. All in all, I think I have become a convert to Ziller ink and I’m a bit vexed that it has taken me so long to find it. The trouble is, Ziller ink has recently just added to their colour spectrum with some stunning pastel shades like ‘Peach Blush’, ‘French Lavender’ and ‘Wild Rose Pink’ all of which I’m greedily eyeing up. God help my bank balance!

How to Draw Modern Florals: A book review.

I can’t remember the last time I picked up a pencil to draw; it’s a skill in my armoury that’s very much in its infancy. I always take a notion to start drawing, I get so many days in and then I just give up…frustrated at my lack of progress. Yet, it’s one of life’s pleasures to while away a rainy Sunday afternoon sketching whatever comes to mind and have it actually look like what you imagined it to be like! For me, I always tend to doodle flowers (and the odd Disney character) but it’s always the same flower and I so, so want to incorporate flower illustrations into my work. I have decided to tackle this problem head on and have purchased “How to draw Modern Florals” by Alli Koch.

First impressions: WOW! Can I just say; whoever put forward the idea to offer this book spiral bound deserves a pay rise. It’s a little more expensive but, so worth it as all the frustration of trying to keep a book open while trying to study/draw/learn (calligraphy) is taken away. We’ve all been there; trying to balance two books on either side they normally go flying off somewhere, the book just snapping back (probably knocking something over…in my case a big glass of water or ink) the spine cracking ruining the book. So yeah, the couple extra pounds is definitely worth it.

Everything is broken down into such simple terms that even the least artistically inclined person in world couldn’t fail to draw a beautiful (impressive!) daisy (the first flower we’re introduced to). The beauty of this book is that each flower is broken down into two basic shapes; a ‘c’ and ‘s’; as Alli explains in her introduction everybody is capable of drawing a ‘c’ and ‘s’ and is confident that you the reader have all the necessary skills. The instructions that accompany each stage in drawing the flowers are clear and concise and before you know it you’re sitting in front a flower that actually looks like a flower! What I like about this book is that the flowers don’t have a cartoon or illustration appearance and I truly believe the more you practice these drawings the more life like they will become as your confidence blossoms. In total there are a staggering 24 floral tutorials including cacti. More than enough to start drawing the back garden!

The book then moves onto looking at the flowers on an angle, I have yet to get to this stage but having a quick glance there isn’t much in this section with only a few flowers getting an overview. I imagine by the time you get to this point in the book you have enough confidence to go it alone and make the changes to start drawing the flowers at different angles. We then go into the leaves section of the book and after making your way through the rest of the book this is the simplest and the easiest section of the book.

To finish, the last section covers flower arrangements looking at wreaths and bouquets. This again is a very short section but nevertheless everything is broken down into shapes and outlines teaching you to think about placement giving you a general idea as to what you want to create.

Making your way through this book you can’t help but feel encouraged to venture out to look at real flowers and think “I could probably draw that peony now and it’ll actually look like a peony! It is exactly what I was looking for when I decided to tackle my lack of floral drawing skills, I feel confident now I can start to include floral arrangements in my designs or; if notion takes me just to while away a rainy Sunday afternoon creating stunning floral arrangements.

A world of Inks

Ink can make or break calligraphy practice. The relation between your ink and paper should be the foremost thought in your mind when sitting down to practice. Some inferior inks can produce feathered shades and thick hairlines no matter what paper you use. When studying and practicing calligraphy it is important that the ink produces clean crisp lines because, understanding calligraphy is to master the distinct shapes that make up a letter. What you’re looking for in an ink (for practice and final pieces) is one that handles the transition from hairline to shade and vice versa in a clean-cut, well-defined manner.

(Always make sure you have clean ink, free of any impurities as any dust or fibre hairs will clog up the nib restricting the even flow of ink.)

Below are just some of my thoughts on some popular inks that I have used while learning calligraphy.

My go-to ink for any sort of prolonged practice is walnut. Walnut ink will produce superior results on almost any sort of paper – I have never had an instance where walnut ink has feathered except on the very lowest quality of papers. The beauty of walnut ink is, is that it isn’t abrasive so won’t attack your favourite nib like Iron Gall will; it can also be cut with water so it will last a lot longer and still maintain its exceptional qualities. I use Tom Nortons walnut ink for it's unrivalled quality, it's a bit more expensive but it comes ready to use. You can also purchase walnut ink crystals but, mixing the crystals to the right consistency can be tricky.

As beautiful as Iron Gall ink is, it contains copperas (iron sulfate) and will attack and disintegrate your nib normally within a couple hours of uninterrupted use. As it's an indelible and erosive ink, I personally would only use Iron Gall ink on commissions and projects that have to stand the test of time and if I had plenty of nibs that I had chosen to use for the intended project.

Sumi inks produce an intense, rich black akin to Iron gall ink with extremely fine hairlines like those produced by walnut ink and iron gall. I use Moon Palace Sumi ink which is a beautiful and highly sought after ink which dries with a slight sheen finish. The down sides to this ink are that it smells pretty badly (it gives me a bit of a headache) and if you don’t constantly clean the nib, over time that too will corrode. A truly beautiful ink to use but, for intensive practice I would give this one a pass.

J. Herbin fountain pen inks are limited in their colour choices but have 24ct gold particles so when dried they have a two tone appearance. I’ve found that they spread on the down strokes on most papers as you’ll see below. These inks aren’t really appropriate for long period practice sessions and because they are fountain pen inks they’re generally only for monoline writing as less ink is being used so there’s less chance of spreading/feathering.

If you want to add a beautiful pop of colour to your practice to break up the monotonous black or brown ink, I suggest using gouache. As it's opaque watercolour paint you can mix them so the colour options are endless and can be used on almost any paper without feathering. My favourite is Winsor and Newton gouache as it only needs to be mixed with water to reach the correct consistency with no need for gum arabic. Gouache also won’t corrode the nib and when mixed right will produce results similar to walnut ink.

To demonstrate some of these inks I have raided my collection and from the image you will be able to see the differences in the mediums I have mentioned above to compare and contrast. In my collection I came across two inks that I must have picked up over the years (Belt Qualitie and Signum) – I don’t have much experience with them but, decided to include them in this comparison mainly to satisfy my own curiosity!

For this quick comparison I have used Rhodia paper with a Blanzy 2552 nib (A vintage nib I purchased from a reputable dealer at a fair price!). All inks performed rather well apart from the J.Herbin fountain pen ink with the shade being less defined than the others, with a thicker hairline producing an overall rather sloppy finish – It could still be used, but carefully, and if you really wanted to have 24ct gold flakes laced throughout your calligraphy!

Whatever ink you choose it will ultimately come down to personal preference and how it performs on your chosen practice paper and nib. Without harmony among “The Three Graces” of the nib, paper and ink; calligraphy practice can fall apart or prolong your study without any real meaningful progress. Getting them right will set you up for intelligent, meaningful and hopefully enjoyable practice and study!

    Walnut Ink (Can also be picked up from Amazon and Ebay)
    Schmincke Gouache (Schmincke is another well respected paint manufacturer and popular amongst many calligraphers)

Practice Paper Uncovered

A question I get asked a lot is “What paper is suitable to practice on?” There are a multitude of options to choose from, from dedicated calligraphy practice pads to laser printer paper packs. I find calligraphy practice pads aren’t value for money as they only have around 20 sheets in a pad also, depending on the ink being used can be subject to ink feathering (spreading). In practicing calligraphy you’re going to go through a lot of paper so it’s important to choose a suitable paper stock that will aid your practice rather than hinder. When I first started I used sketchpads; I thought they were easily available, came in A3 size and cheap – a great option! What I didn’t appreciate was that sketchpad paper is rather rough (even with a zebra G), the nib would often catch and the ink would always feather on the down-stroke shades. It wasn’t an effective way to practice. The only thing sketchpad paper is good for (in my opinion) is: calligraphy practice with a pencil or hand lettering in pencil.

So here’s my super quick run-down on 4 great calligraphy practice papers.

My advice would be to always opt for a smooth matte paper; a particular favourite among calligraphers are the Rhodia paper pads, they are a bit more expensive but they handle ink extremely well. Easily available on the high street and online (they generally work out cheaper when bought online) they come in various sizes to suit your needs and have blank, lined and dotted options. Rhodia is great all-rounder; personally it’s my go-to practice paper for my more precise drills and exercises.

Along with Rhodia, Clairefontaine is another excellent choice; both are owned by the same company Exacompta and are considered by many to be the best paper stocks on the market. Clairefontaine paper comes in packs much like printer paper and is more cost effective than Rhodia however; this paper only comes in blank sheets so I would use this paper if you’re just beginning to get to grips in controlling the nib. The price for Clairefontaine paper varies from stockist to stockist – so beware of how much you’re paying for a pack. (Since starting calligraphy more options for Clairefontaine paper like excercise books have started appearing on British retail sites but again the price for these varies.)

An alternative to the Exacompta papers are the Navigator Ultra Smooth colour document packs. You can buy this paper in reams of 250 sheets at a higher weight of 160 gsm for under £10 and is far more accessible than the Clairefontaine paper. This was my paper of choice when learning calligraphy (after the sketchpad fiasco) and when the ink was dried I used them as warmup sheets to cut down on paper waste. I went through a lot of paper when I first started so this option was the most cost effective way for me to practice.

NB: With these papers mentioned above you will have to draw your guidelines on with a protractor and ruler.

If drawing guidelines is too time consuming and you want to use guide sheets and be able to see them easily, layout paper is a good option. Unlike the other papers mentioned; layout paper is extremely thin but is non-porous so is able to withstand walnut ink without feathering. Some stockists sell layout paper at exorbitant prices, if that’s the case I would use the layout paper sparingly or if it works out cheaper, buy it in A3 size and half the sheets to A4. I would use layout paper if I was short on time to practice or if I couldn't be bothered drawing out my guidelines.

It’s ultimately up to you whatever paper you choose it’s purely a personal preference but, time is precious and it’s no use practicing on paper ill- suited to your purpose. The right choice in paper can make all the difference to your practice, getting the wrong paper/ink combo can cause many a budding calligrapher to give up at the first hurdle. It’s so easy to make an ill-advised choice like I did with the sketchpads when starting out because; I didn’t understand the importance of the correlation between the paper, ink and nib. Good practice comes with a good set-up so choose your paper accordingly.

Top tip: If you don’t have access to a leather blotter to use under your practice paper, just use some old newspapers which will give the nib some bounce over the paper.

NB: These paper recommendations are on the assumption that walnut ink is being used as practice ink.

Vintage nibs debunked

With calligraphy enjoying a renaissance it’s time to clear up some myth’s surrounding vintage nibs. Nibs are disposable tools and they are just that, tools. Whatever nib chosen the chance is; it will have little effect on the quality of calligraphy produced. It’s fair to say that not all nibs are created equal but, vintage nibs are not the Holy Grail in calligraphy. Many new calligraphers’ chase down vintage nibs believing that they will improve the quality of their calligraphy to the point that, the nibs are skyrocketing to exorbitant prices. No nib is that good! They’re not investments but tools to be used and disposed of. There is no sense in spending £20 + for one disposable tool that could be worn out in a fortnight. Depending on what ink you use if could be worn out in a matter of hours. It’s just not feasible. There are many modern “Dream-Points” that are just as good if not better than their older counterparts. I’m not saying that you can’t under no circumstances use a vintage nib, you can; but only if you come across them at a reasonable price or say for instance if you’re browsing the wonderful flea markets of Paris!

There are plenty of exceptional modern nibs available on the market for under £3. If you’re heavy handed but long for thin elegant shades the Zebra G or Nikko G nibs are excellent nibs (the titanium covered Zebra G is a tank, will last for ages and is practically indestructible) or if you want the opposite and want dramatic thick shades the Brause Rose nib is definitely worth a try. The Leonardt EF Principle is considered as one of the best modern nibs on the market (favoured by a lot of calligraphers) and comes in at around £2.35. One of my personal favourites is the Hunt Imperial 101, it’s a great springboard to more flexible nibs as you become more light handed in your practice.

Depending on the kind of work you want to produce you have to choose your nib carefully. If for instance you want to scan and digitize your work a nib that produces a slightly thicker hairline is a better option than a nib that produces whisper thin hairlines that are likely to lose their quality or disappear entirely when scanned and digitised/vectorised. (Ink/paper also plays a factor in this choice but, experience will determine these combos)

My advice to a beginner calligrapher would be to buy a selection of nibs and experiment. Everyone is different. There might be a nib that you initially hate and can’t use but, after time as your skills advance go back to that nib and you might find it becomes your new favourite. Whatever nib you end up choosing it is only practice, practise, practise that will improve your calligraphy skills.

Recommended nibs:

Calligraphy 101: A Left Hander's Guide

When I first started out in calligraphy there were a lot of conflicting theories about how to approach the practical side of the art form. Some believe that calligraphy in the copperplate style should only be tackled with a straight holder; left or right handed a straight holder was the tool of choice. While there is no right or wrong answer for this I can only talk from personal experience. For months I struggled in vain to perfect my “Lines of Universal Beauty” and ovals to no avail. I understand that not all left handed people write the same; some are under writers, over writers and some that write up-side down. Over the years I have had a lot of left handed calligrapher’s contact me, asking how I approach my calligraphy and my response is always the same no matter how they write in everyday life. Calligraphy is not handwriting. It is a perfected art form to which we can only aspire to through hard work, dedication, study and practice. This is my guide to help you get started with calligraphy. Most of this advice can also be used for right handed people the only difference is in the paper position.

I can only tell you how I approach my calligraphy practice while it might not be for everyone, it is a well-used technique favoured by many left-handed penman including Master Penman John DeCollibus. When I switched to this technique my script came on leaps and bounds and I achieved more from my practice in a matter of days than what I had previously achieved over months.

First off, getting the right tools will solve a lot of headaches and months of frustration. For me, using a straight holder would always result in nibs getting caught in the paper (probably the most infuriating obstacle to efficient practice) and feathered shades. Not a look I was trying to achieve with holes all over the paper, ink splats everywhere (not to mention on my favourite top!) and wobbly shades I suggest using a right-handed oblique pen. It doesn’t need to be the most expensive top of the range oblique pen holder but, what I would suggest is not to simply buy the cheapest and by that I mean the plastic speedball oblique. I say this only because the speedball pen holders come in slightly different sizes with only one or two nibs that will fit correctly. Having an expensive beautiful pen holder with vintage nibs will make no difference to the quality of your practice and script. You must practice, practice, practice from exemplary sources and study them diligently.

Setting up your oblique pen
The centre of the nib must be in line with the central axis of the pen holder. If the nib over-hangs it will hamper your practice as it may feel unbalanced. The nib should sit securely in the flange without any wobble, most flanges are made of brass and can be adjusted to fit different sized nibs.

There is some debate as what kind of nib a beginner should use. Most beginners prefer to use the common G-nib either a Nikko-G or a Zebra-G. The tines on the G-Nibs are quite rigid and need a bit more pressure to create the shades. For an especially heavy handed beginner these can good at moderating the widths of shades. My personal preference from the G-nib duo is the zebra-g, to me it feels slightly sharper thus producing thinner more attractive hairlines. There is a version of the zebra-g available which is coated in titanium and lasts a lot longer than its counterpart. Good for continual practice sessions. To jump in at the deep end would be to use a more flexible nib such as the Hunt Imperial 101. Not too sharp so the tip snags on the paper as you try to moderate your strength, it’s a good all round nib and fairly inexpensive. Another very good nib to use but, a lot more difficult for a beginner to use would be the Gillot 403 and 404. Both very sharp and a light hand is need to get the best out these nibs. Up until now there has been some production problems with the Gillot nibs however, the company has started to retool them producing better quality nibs.

Preparing nibs
Firstly, check that the nib you’re going to use is suitable before putting it into the pen holder flange. The tines of the nib should be together and not slightly apart. One other tip is to run the back of the nib over the pad of your thumb if it glides effortlessly it is perfect to use, if it gets stuck in your thumb it’s no good. When nibs are produced they are covered in a thin layer of oil, this oil has to be removed before you can start practicing there are several ways in which to do this. One is to stick the nib in a potato then washed in a little water. Rubbing alcohol can also be used as well as quickly passing the nib through a flame. I don’t particularly like this method as it never really worked for me plus, if done wrong the metal can warp and waste a perfectly good nib. The final method would be to use salvia on a paper towel and wipe the nip then dry it off. It never fails. Penman of old would put nibs in their mouths and swirl them about to prepare them for use. You’ll know when the nib has been prepared properly as the ink will evenly cover the nib and won’t run off or accumulate in different parts of the nib.

The best ink to practice with at all levels is walnut ink. It is non-corrosive and can be watered down to make it last a lot longer. To do this, use a pipette to transfer some ink to a small jar and then in the same way add some water. This mixture can still be used on a variety of different papers and still produces excellent hairlines and won’t blob or spread/feather.

Paper and guidelines
Paper quality when starting to practice makes a big difference. Stay away from sketchpads of all kinds most of the time ink will just spread and it becomes an ineffective way to practice. Layout pads are very good for practicing especially when using with guidelines underneath. Rhodia pads are an exceptionally high quality paper and take walnut ink beautifully. A high quality printer paper may prove to be a more cost effective way of practicing. Look for paper with a high gsm marker Clairefontaine papers are very good but difficult to come by. Navigator printer paper is also very good to practice on and can be found in numerous stockicts. Unless using a light-pad, guidelines will have to be drawn on these papers to ensure that a 45 - 55 degree angle is maintained during practice. Difference in angle depends on personal preference or on what script is being practiced.

Sitting Position and Posture
It is of the utmost importance to sit correctly while practicing calligraphy to avoid aches and pains. Height is an important factor to take into consideration. Arms must be resting gently at a 90 angle on the table with feet firmly planted on the ground, straight back and sit on the front edge of the seat. Another important note to keep in mind is to keep your head straight, subconsciously with this technique I found that my head was tilting to the side, ending up with a crick in my neck.

Paper position
The image above shows the paper at a 90 angle to the torso. This allows you to clearly see what you are doing, easy movement of the pen and no smudging of ink. Try not to be tempted to turn the paper round; everything can be achieved at this 90 degree angle.

Once you have your set up to practice it is just a matter pulling you hand down (or parallel) to your torso exerting downward pressure to create solid shades and going up with a light pressure to create hairlines. The angle of the oblique is low enough that the nib shouldn’t catch on the paper freeing you hand and pen to glide across the paper. The flange should keep the desired angle needed.

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