Introduction to Calligraphy

Master Eldred Ælfwald
© 2010 Eldred Ælfwald / J.T.Thorpe


  • pencils -- plain and colored
  • artist’s eraser
  • ruled T-square or ruler
  • drafting triangle
  • compass
  • metal nibbed calligraphy pens and associated inks
    • cartridge ink pens
    • dip pens
    • fine line pens in black, red, blue, and green
  • Bristol board, acid-free calligraphy paper,
    pergamenata in a variety of sizes
  • drafting or masking tape
  • paints--gouache, acrylic, or tempra
  • variety of good brushes
  • paper towels
  • samples of calligraphic styles

Optional (nice to have)

  • practice pens (cheap felt-tips ~ $1.60 apiece)
  • French curve
  • light table
  • X-acto knife
  • guideline transparencies
  • a book stand
  • plain typing paper (for practice or blotting)
  • graph paper (for layout design)

Very Optional

  • computer with Internet access
  • printer


Your work environment is very important! Good lighting, a comfortable and uncluttered area to work, and minimal distractions (e.g. no children, telephone, TV, pets, etc.) are key features. You will need a flat surface to work on--most books recommend a draftsman’s table that you can adjust the height and angle of. You can buy or make a light table that has the same properties.

A lot of us have pets, and I am no exception. Cats or dogs can wreak havoc on your work if you aren't careful. If you can keep them out of your work area, that is the best solution. Otherwise, be prepared by making sure your materials are secure from tipping over or accidentally getting scattered by a pet wanting some attention.

How I Calligraph

Once I have determined all my variables (who it is for, calligraphy style, and illumination), I do a quick layout sketch to determine how I will arrange my text and illuminations. Then, I lightly pencil in my illuminations and borders on my final paper. A handy tip other scribes have offered is to use colored pencils to indicate where you plan to paint that particular color.

I practice the first few lines of text on a scrap piece of calligraphy paper to ensure that I feel comfortable with the calligraphy style I have chosen and to test the ink flow of my pen. Once upon a time, I used a light table and transparent guideline sheets for my lines so I do not have so much erasing to do later, but over time, I have gotten comfortable with penciling in my lines on the page (which is period, by the way). I ink in all my text, changing colors and nibs as my pattern dictates. Once my text is complete, I let it dry completely before I go back and complete my illuminations. To make sure I do not smear my calligraphy, I place a folded piece of paper towel under my hand. Some inks will "reactivate" in the presence of moisture, so the oil from your skin can easily blur your work if you don't keep your hand away from your text.

Admittedly, I didn't always practice what I preach. I used to use a small portable light table that I would sit in my lap. After about 3 hours of work, I found myself curled in a little ball around the light table, hunched over my work. This usually had painful effects the next morning! I rarely use the light table now that I am comfortable with my skills--I don't usually need to make an accurate tracing of a design element that I can do freehand.

To lay out my scrolls, I look at examples of period texts and Beddingfield’s Heraldry has a nice representation of a Grant of Arms by Letters Patent that I used a few times for inspiration. There are a couple different schools of thought about scroll layout. First and foremost, leave enough of an unpainted border to allow the recipient to mat and frame your work! About 1/2" is ideal, but 1/4" is the bare minimum. After that, it is a philosophical decision as to whether you lay out the work in a centered, symmetric format or as a page from a book.


  1. Stay loose! If you are tense, your lettering may become uneven and shaky.
  2. Don’t rush! You have plenty of time to work.
  3. RELAX! Mistakes can be hidden as decorations—a very period solution!
  4. Good lighting makes you more comfortable about what you are doing.
  5. Take breaks—rest your hands every now and then to prevent writer’s cramp.
  6. Play some relaxing music. Nice, soft music will relax you and allow your style to flow better. Playing heavy metal at top volume is not conducive to good calligraphy—in most cases….J
  7. Use a cookbook stand to hold up your exemplar. I use an acrylic stand that holds the page openand flat--and because the the page is covered by the clear acrylic, I don't have to worry about accidental splatters getting on my books!
  8. Acrylic inks generally don't fade, and once dry, they don't smear.


Scroll layout can be a challenge, especially if geometry isn't your strong suit. Not all artists are comfortable "working inside a box". Also, if you are just starting out as a calligrapher and haven't gotten a feel for how much room you need for your text, here's a "cheat" that may help. This "cheat" assumes you are making an 8.5" x 11" scroll. Write out a line or two of text on a piece of practice paper. Go to the computer and find a computer font that matches the style you are using. Using your favorite word processor reproduce the text you are going to write in full. Adjust the point size of the font until it matches the size of the words you just wrote. Set the text margins to the dimensions of the area you plan on leaving open on the scroll and print it out. Take the printout and sketch in your illumination (just to get the spacing). Use this on your light table as a guideline for the layout of the final scroll.

Recommended References

Medieval Calligraphy, Marc Drogin
Illumination, Christopher Jarman
Using Calligraphy: A Workbook of Alphabets, Projects, and Techniques, Margaret Shepard
Illuminated Manuscripts, Guilia Bologna
Illuminated Alphabet, Timothy Noad
The Illuminated Manuscript, Backhouse
The Calligrapher’s Project Book, Susanne Haines