Using Calligraphy Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Using Calligraphy

3 Conversations

Sheets of paper with different examples of calligraphy through the ages.

Calligraphy is an art; an art based on making beautiful curves and lines. It's not just about writing to get an opinion clear, but to make it please the eye and also look divine.

The word calligraphy is derived from the Greek for 'good' or 'beautiful'. Some think it's the best name it could ever have.


About two thousand years ago, when the letter forms reached a peak of perfection, the Romans cut their alphabet into stone. Their letters looked rather decorative, because of their special way of cutting, with some thick, and some thin lines. These letters were majuscules (capital letters or upper case). It was some time before what we now call the minuscules (small letters or lower case) which we would recognise today, were used in manuscripts. Then, when paper and animal skins were used, the early scribes wrote with hardened feathers, cut into a pen-shape. The split broad-edge nib gave the letters their characteristic thicks and thins. We still use an adaptation of those early pens today and call them calligraphy-pens.


You will need one or more calligraphy pens, preferably with changeable nibs in different sizes, some layout paper, a sharpened pencil with a hard lead, and a long ruler and an eraser for removing the guidelines. Start with an extra broad nib; this will show your letters clearly. Gradually progress to the smaller size nibs when you are getting the hang of it.

  • Write on a board set at an angle of about 45 degrees. This is a comfortable writing position, and should prevent aches and pains in your back and neck. The angle of the board also controls the flow of ink from your pen. You can use a piece of wood for your board and rest it in your lap, or support it with books or something else; you do not have to buy an expensive board.

  • Pad your sloping board with white blotting paper or a couple of sheets of cartridge paper so that the writing surface is sympathetic and not too hard.

  • Fold a long piece of paper in half and use this as a guard sheet. Right-handers should tape the paper horizontally so that it is secure at both ends. Position the paper so that it is one inch below the most comfortable level for writing. Left-handers should set their boards up with the guard sheet again one inch below the most comfortable level of writing. Positioning the guard sheet at an angle for left-handers means that the wrist isn't strained so much. The guard sheet protects your lettering from ink spills and from any grease on your hand. If you do not use a guard sheet it often becomes difficult to write on the lower part of a sheet of paper.

  • Slide the paper you will be writing on underneath the guard sheet so that it can move up and down and to the left and right so that your hand stays in the same comfortable position all the time.

  • Right-handers should have a good light source from the left-hand side. Left-handers should have a good light source from the right.

  • Use the sharpened pencil and ruler to draw guidelines. It is worth taking the time to do this so that your eye becomes used to the relative heights of letters.

Pen Patterns

Making individual strokes and patterns is a good way to become familiar with your new calligraphy pen(s). Always hold your pen nib at the same angle through a sentence. If you change it, the type of writing will change also, so the result will look messy.

Calligraphy Styles and How to Use Them

Measure out the correct height for the guidelines of each calligraphy style by turning your pen so that it is horizontal and making a series of little steps downwards like a diagonal line on a chessboard. These are called nib widths. The little steps should just touch one another and not overlap.

The main body of the letters now should fit between the guidelines for x-height. Ascenders (parts of the letters which go up, such as on b, d, and f) extend beyond the guidelines for x-height, as do descenders on letters such as p, q and y.

Hold your pen at the correct angle for each alphabet style. As mentioned before, the letter-shapes change when your pen nib is at an different angle.

Holding your pen at an angle makes the thick and thins on the letters in calligraphy. Do not use your pen to exaggerate the strokes. This often makes the letters look silly.

  • Foundational or Round Hand - The x-height for this hand is four nib widths. Ascenders are seven nib widths in all. The majuscules are based on the letters cut in stone in Roman times.

  • Italic - These letters slope at an angle of five - seven degrees.

  • Black letter - This is an attractive style of lettering, but usually very difficult to read as there are few curves to the letters. It was used in Medieval times in highly decorated manuscripts. The majuscules have lots of diamonds fine lines and ticks on the sides of the letters. The fine lines are made by turning the nib so that it is vertical and drawing a line with the very edge of the nib.

  • Uncials - The height of these letters is four nib widths.

It is always quite messy and hard to learn calligraphy - but with patience and enough sheets you soon get the hang of it. Good luck!

Bookmark on your Personal Space

Edited Entry


Infinite Improbability Drive

Infinite Improbability Drive

Read a random Edited Entry

Categorised In:

Edited by

h2g2 Editors


h2g2 Entries

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more