Caitlin McKenna, owner of modern calligraphy studio The Brahmin Lettering Co, teaches us how to rediscover the lost art of beautiful handwriting.
When was the last time you actually broke out your best pen and wrote something by hand, be it a long note to a friend or a card to your granny? In the era of hasty emails, texts and WhatsApps, probably too long ago to remember. However, there’s light on the horizon. In what seems like an act of defiance towards the lack of personal touch in our modern, tech-driven lives, a newfound appreciation for modern calligraphy and other forms of hand lettering has started to blossom.
So put down the laptop, drop your phone and learn to love the lost art of beautiful handwriting. Here is my simple guide to the best tools and tips for getting started with modern calligraphy.
Book yourself in for a beginner’s modern calligraphy workshop
A workshop with some one-to-one tuition and guidance with a practised calligrapher is the best way to get started. Skilled calligraphers make it all look so easy – however it takes time to master and newbies can get frustrated when they haven’t nailed it immediately! Attending a workshop will give you confidence in the tools and all the little intricacies that go into learning modern calligraphy, from the best way to sit and hold your pen, to using different inks and developing your own modern style.
I run beginner’s modern calligraphy workshops across Scotland on a regular basis. Workshops are informal (we tend to drink a lot of hot bevs and eat a lot of cake) and guide attendees through the basics of modern pointed dip pen calligraphy. I also provide lots of tips, tricks and fun ways to bring more beautiful lettering into your everyday life, whether it’s creating prints, signage or prepping for a special event like a wedding. For more info on my latest workshop dates, visit my website.
Get the right tools
It’s tempting to jump into the deep end, but the best way to start a modern calligraphy practice is to start with a simple set of the best tools. Here are the contents of the beginner’s calligraphy kit I give to my workshop attendees:
Modern calligraphy is done with a flexible nib pen, which you can assemble with a wide variety of different nibs and a nib holder. The nib is the most important part of modern calligraphy and the anatomy of the nib you use really affects what your work looks like. When pressure is applied to any flexible nib, the two tines in the nib open up, resulting in thick downstrokes. Upstrokes require less pressure and are swift and thin.
In my opinion, the best nibs for beginners are the Nikko G and my personal favourite, the slightly more flexible Nikko Zebra-G. Both are reliable and excellent quality nibs that are easy for a newbie to control.
A straight nib holder
Next you need something to put the nib into – a nib or pen holder. Don’t be tempted to go for a fancy oblique nib holder right away! I have been practising for years and still prefer a straight holder to an oblique one. Straight nib holders are the easiest to get started with and work for both right and left-handers. A basic plastic nib holder like this one from Speedball, or a straight clip penholder similar to this one from Manuscript are the best holders for beginners.
My favourite ink is Kuretake Sumi ink. Originally used for Japanese Manga drawing, it’s the perfect ink for modern calligraphy – perfectly opaque, free flowing liquid onyx with a matte waterproof finish when dry. Can you tell I totally love it? Unfortunately shipments from Japan aren’t always reliable, so a good alternative is black Higgins Eternal Ink. It is slightly thinner and can bleed on some papers, however it’s a firm favourite with all calligraphers.
What paper you use for your practice is crucial. For a beginner, I recommend a smooth cartridge paper from your local art store of at least 120gsm or thicker. Avoid things like office printer paper – which is thin, causing ink to bleed – or heavily textured or handmade papers, whose fibres can snag in your nib, causing all manner of drips and splatters.
A sample alphabet & guide sheets
The web is rife with alphabets from different calligraphers. Feel free to visit the Calligraphy Resources section on my website, which has free printable PDFs of my modern calligraphy alphabet, calligraphy letter guide and practise worksheets as used in my workshops. Remember to print them on a good quality smooth paper.
You can find bits and bobs at your local art store, however I tend to buy my supplies online from speciality calligraphy suppliers Blots Pens, Penman Direct and Cult Pens. They have a great selection of holders, inks, nibs and other helpful tools to get you started in your calligraphy practice.
The web is rife with amazing calligraphers who will inspire and astound you with their talent. Here is a list of my favourite, must-follows on Instagram.
Fozzy Castro-Dayrit @thefozzybook
Anne Mertlich @wildfieldpaperco
Nicole Miyuki @nicolemiyuki
Victoria Rothwell @designhouseofmoira
Laura Hooper @lhcalligraphy
Anne Robin @annerobincallig
Alissa Mazzenga @feasting
Lindsay Letters @lindsay_letters
Lauren Saylor @afabulousfete
Forget yoga and adult colouring books, modern calligraphy is the new meditative experience. Get yourself a good table or working surface with plenty of room, a comfortable straight-backed chair, turn up your tunes, sit up straight and take a few deep breaths. Your forearm should rest on the table surface and movement as your write should come from your arm. Now…let go and have fun! If you get tired or frustrated, take a break. Modern calligraphy is all about self expression and individuality. Most importantly, it’s all about embracing a love of the personal, the handwritten and the handcrafted.
Words by Caitlin McKenna from Brahmin Lettering Co.
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Images © Katy Melling Photography