Over the past few years, I have taught several beginners’ modern calligraphy workshops and answered countless calligraphy questions via email. Those experiences have taught me that there is a need for a blog post like this one: a post that shows you where to start learning from scratch! In this blog post, I’ll walk you through how to learn modern calligraphy in a few simple steps.
1. Master Faux Calligraphy
I believe that “faux calligraphy” — modern calligraphy created with a standard (ballpoint, gel, etc.) pen — is the best introduction to dip pen calligraphy. I advocate starting with faux calligraphy for two reasons:
- A standard pen is approachable and non-intimidating. You’ve been using it all your life, and can use it to start building calligraphy muscle memory that will come in handy later!
- Faux calligraphy isn’t just for beginners. No matter what your level is, faux calligraphy can come in handy for a variety of projects like place card below!
The newly-released TPK Beginner’s Modern Calligraphy Online Course starts by teaching you faux calligraphy. All TPK printable calligraphy worksheet sets also starts with a faux calligraphy section! It’s a great way to start because you become familiar with letterforms without having to navigate a new writing tool. Once you’ve been practicing faux calligraphy for a couple of weeks and feel comfortable with it, you are ready to move on to dip pen calligraphy.
2. Assemble a Modern Calligraphy Dip Pen Starter Kit
You can find a detailed starter kit guide in The Ultimate Modern Calligraphy Starter Kit post, but here’s a basic summary and links to what you need:
- 2 Nikko G nibs – You can read about why I think this nib is the best beginner nib in this blog post. (Wondering how to tell nibs apart? Look at the etching on the barrel of the nib. That will tell you what the nib is, e.g. “Nikko G”, “Brause EF66”.)
- 1 straight pen – I use Manuscript pens, which feature a universal insert, in my workshops.
- 32# laserjet paper – This paper is cost-effective and prevents ink feathering/bleeding.
- Sumi ink, plus a screw-top container to store the ink in. (You can also use India ink.) Both sumi and India inks are opaque inks with a smooth viscosity.
- “Art water” – Basically, just fill a cup with water. You’ll use this water to clean off your nib in.
- Non-fibrous cloth (such as a dinner napkin) – A paper towel will work as well, but the fibers may catch in your nib every so often.
If you don’t want to DIY your kit and want to treat yourself to something special, you can purchase a kit from The Paper Seahorse. I recently worked The Paper Seahorse to construct an Essential Calligraphy Kit (which includes everything listed above) and an Ultimate Calligraphy Kit (which includes everything above plus an oblique pen, a container for water, and a nib tin).
3. Clean Your Nibs
All nibs have manufacturer’s oils on them to keep them well-preserved as they are waiting to be sold. Before you use your nibs, you should clean the oils off. I generally stick my nibs in a potato to get rid of the oils! You can learn more about how to clean your nibs and why in this blog post.
Cleaning the manufacturer’s oils off of your nibs will ensure smooth, seamless ink flow. If you don’t clean the oils off, you will probably have issues with ink blobbing on your paper, or the ink may not write at all.
4. Assemble Your Dip Pen
Though you can use a Speedball plastic pen with a Nikko G nib, I recommend purchasing a dip pen with a universal insert. A universal insert has four metal “petals” and a rim; it should look like the photo below. A pen with a universal insert will be able to accommodate a variety of different sizes of nibs versus just a few nibs! To learn about different kinds of straight pens, you can read this blog post.
If your universal insert looks like the one below, then you need to push the petals back inward. Pens often arrive looking like this!
To learn how to push the petals inward, you can watch the short video below.
Once your’e all set, it’s time to insert the nib in the pen. The base of the nib should slip right under the split in the lip of the rim, as pictured below.
If that’s a bit confusing, it may help you to watch this video over nib insertion:
If you have correctly inserted the nib, it should feel secure; it shouldn’t wobble at all.
Your pen is now ready to write!
5. Hold the Dip Pen
Your grip on the dip pen will probably be similar to the grip you use for a standard pen. You’ll want to use your thumb and forefinger to pinch the holder, then keep your middle finger behind for support. You can allow your pinky and ring finger to lightly drag on the paper as you write.
6. Dip the Pen in Ink
Regardless of what nib you’re using, you should dip it to just above the vent hole (which is that hole in the center of the nib). You don’t want to go any further than that or else you’ll have too much ink on your nib, and it will pool on your paper as you try to write!
Once you dip the pen in the ink, give the nib a firm little shake over your art water to get any excess ink off.
7. Make Modern Calligraphy!
Okay, so this is where dip pens and regular ballpoint pens especially differ: when you are making modern calligraphy with a dip pen, you’ll want to keep the angle of the nib in relation to the paper constant. Never hold the pen vertically; instead, you should shoot for a 45 degree angle between pen and paper. If you hold the pen too upright, the nib will catch on the fibers in the paper and affect your ink flow. I know that the concept of using a dip pen can be hard to grasp without actually seeing it, so I made this short video to help you understand:
Before you take on any modern calligraphy projects, I would recommend completing the Beginner’s Modern Calligraphy Online Course. The course starts from scratch to teach you important calligraphy concepts and ensure that you don’t make common beginner mistakes! You can learn more about the course in the video below:
Teaching modern calligraphy workshops has given me a unique opportunity to understand beginners’ calligraphy problems and frustrations firsthand. Here is a list of six problems and their solutions:
- The nib catches on paper – Try holding your pen at a tighter angle to the paper. The more upright you hold the pen, the more issues you will run into trying to use it.
- Ink flow is erratic – Same solution as the issue above: try holding your pen at a tighter angle to the paper.
- It’s difficult to achieve a thick downstroke – Make sure both tines of your nib are evenly on the paper, and that you’re holding the pen correctly. It may be helpful for you to take a video course.
- The ink is bleeding – Ink bleed occurs with lower quality papers. Make sure you are using a high-quality paper (such as 32# laserjet).
- Your hand is shaking – See Calligraphy Troubleshooting: Nib Pressure and Shaking Hand.
- All other issues – See Five Modern Calligraphy FAQs.
Where to Go From Here
The important thing to remember — in modern calligraphy and many other things — is practice will develop your skill exponentially! Everyone starts somewhere, and this is where I started:
The best advice I can give about learning calligraphy is you have to enjoy your practice. Yes, use structured resources like an online course or a worksheet, but also let yourself have fun. As you start to get the hang of how to use a dip pen, take on engaging projects. Make mail art, calligraphy-centric projects (like this birthday card), and/or make place cards for the next gathering you have! As long as your practice is enjoyable, you’ll continue to hone your skills!
I hope that you enjoyed this beginner’s guide to modern calligraphy! If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments. Thanks very much for reading The Postman’s Knock, and enjoy the rest of your day!