Letter by Letter: Working with Handwritten Text

I was delighted to be able to teach the course "Letter by Letter: Letterpress Printing & Handwritten Text" last summer. I got to reach back to my earliest memories in forming letters by hand, including practices from a calligraphy class I took in high school, and I researched what is happening in the contemporary lettering world today. New tools! Old tools used in a new way! A sugar-free candy zone for me. A great basic book is still the Speedball Textbook 24Th Edition. I had the 20th edition from 1972. The new one is much improved and a fantastic resource.

Here are some of the tools and approaches that got me into a new groove. The Pilot Parallel Calligraphy Pen  is made of two steel plates that hold the deep black ink between them, fountain pen style, in a cartridge. Wide strokes one way, thin lines the other. I ended buying two, the green cap (3.8mm) and the orange cap (2.4mm), but the whole set would have been cheaper per pen. Could not resist dying the pages with black tea for this one.


 It was fun to carve words into pieces of plastic eraser and use them as rubber stamps to add to the design. This was actually an old steel brush I had. A nib used with a pen holder from long ago and far away. Calli ink. The Pilot Parallel Pen is its replacement, I think.

Other great pens for styles that need chisel tips are the Elegant Writer (by Speedball) and the Itoya Calligraphy Doubleheader. The Sharpie brush pen can do a round Gothic. As can a Paper Mate Flair pen, and the non-brush end of the Tombow Dual.

I noticed this very distinctive M in some graffiti in Clarion Alley that hearkens back to an Arts & Crafts style. I found a version of this as a font used in the Klimt exhibition brochure: "Bala Cynwyd."



Fell in love with Ben Shahn's created lettering and attempted it myself with the Pilot Parallel Pen. So good for the thicks and thins.


Tested various black inks. Hard to see on the screen, but from left to right, top: Sharpie, Calli ink, FW acrylic pearlescent black, FW India ink black, Bottom: FW acrylic Payne's Grey, Windsor Newton Designer's Gouache. The Sharpie and the India ink were the darkest, although the Pilot Pen ink is quite juicy black as well.


Through a search I found the artist David Milan, who uses fat Crayola markers for beautiful script. His work is stunning. For me, the colors did not turn out as rich. Maybe the pens I bought were dry. I prefer using a Yasutomo Niji Water Brush with 12mm Tip, Medium. The Tombow dual brush pen is good, too. Pressure on the downstroke, lift on the upstroke.


The water brush and gouache also allow a nice fade out gradation that works well for layering. Here, in the background, I used the Yasutomo Niji Water Brush with 12mm Tip, Flat.


And back to the pointed water brush.


One of the keys to making it look halfway good: draw a baseline. I found that 20mm was a great height for my flat water brush, 15mm for the x height of my script. It will vary, depending on the width and size of your brushes. Well, there is much more to practice. In high school I practiced about three hours a day, particularly when babysitting and the kids were asleep. This past summer I tried to practice an hour a day to relax.


In doing so, I worked through almost four of the Grunge/Zen Journals from this post. And made a clamshell box for them as a demonstration box for the class. Instructions for the box are in Making Handmade Books: 100+ Bindings, Structures & Forms.