Tutorial no. 5—Calligraphy: The Basics of Italic 2

The Basics of Italic: Stress

These tutorials on the basics of Italic began with a monoline skeletal letter to establish the basic forms. But Cancellaresca corsiva, the original Renaissance name for Italic, is traditionally made with a broad-edged pen. The broad-edged pen creates thicks and thins (stress) as it moves through space in different directions. This gives the letters much of their magic. (A good theoretical analysis of the effects of the broad-edged pen versus those of the flexible pointed pen can be found in The Stroke: Theory of Writing by Gerrit Noordzij (2005), the English edition of his 1985 book Der Streek).

The pen is held at a 45° angle to the writing line. For beginners, this angle should be maintained for all letters and strokes. (Advanced calligraphers alter the pen angle (abbreviated pa) to adjust the weight of the legs of N and of other letters with diagonal strokes. See Foundations of Calligraphy by Sheila Waters (2006).)

The Stress sheet shows the basic strokes from the Skeletal Forms sheet made with the pen at 45°. At this angle horizontal strokes have the same thickness as vertical ones; there is a strong contrast between opposing diagonal strokes; and curved strokes change thickness as they progress. The broad-edged pen affects the weight of the letters and the sequence and direction (ductus) in which the component strokes are made. English calligrapher Edward Johnston (1872–1944) established the idea of describing the weight of a letter made with a broad-edged pen in multiples of pen widths (abbreviated pw). (For Johnston’s ideas about the basics of broad-edged pen calligraphy see Formal Penmanship and other Papers edited by Heather Child (1971).) In Italic the body or x-height of lowercase letters is 5 pw.

In broad-edged pen calligraphy most strokes are pulled which means that they are written from left to right and from top to bottom. The arrows in the diagrams at the top and bottom of the sheet show the direction that strokes should be made. The bottom of the sheet repeats the basic Italic forms from the Skeletal Forms sheet as made with a pen held at 45°. (Note the addition of the s-curve in which the stroke moves from thin to thick and then back to thin again.) The key arch shapes involve pushing the pen at the outset of the stroke. This is made possible by the fact that the pen is moving in an curved diagonal line that minimizes the amount of friction between the nib and the writing surface. Pushing the pen occasionally is essential to making Italic a cursive style, though my sheets show it in its formal version (upright and with unconnected letters).

The middle of the sheet repeats the letters in groups from Skeletal Forms as they look when made with a broad-edged pen held at 45°. What is missing is the ductus for each letter. So I will verbally describe each one here.

l i t—Step 1. Pull the pen down vertically for the stem of each letter. Step 2. For the crossbar on t pull the pen horizontally. Make sure the right side is longer than the left one. For the dot on i pull the pen diagonally for a very brief distance to form a diamond. Note that the letters do not lie flat on the writing line, but instead stand on their toes. This is the result of holding the pen at 45°.

v w y—Step 1: for v pull the pen diagonally from upper left to lower right. Then pull the pen in the opposite direction: from upper right to lower left. For y simply continue the second stroke below the baseline (writing line). For w repeat the first stroke for the third one and repeat the second stroke for the fourth one. Do not make this letter (at least not now) in one continuous zig-zag stroke.

k x z—Step 1. For k first make an l. Step 2. Begin the second stroke as if it was the second stroke of an x but when you hit the vertical stroke change direction as if you had switched to the first stroke of x. For x repeat the instructions for strong but make the diagonals at a flatter angle. This second stroke is difficult as it goes across the body and there is a tendency to relax which twists the stroke so that it ends in a hairline. Do not do this. Maintain a consistent stroke thickness. z is made in one continuous stroke with two pauses: move horizontally from left to right, then change direction and pull down diagonally from upper right to lower left, then change direction again and move horizontally from left to right. Ideally, z has an upper horizontal stroke that is slightly narrower than the bottom one. (Similarly, the x should be slightly wider at its base; and the junction point of the k should be slightly above the midpoint of the body. These are all optical adjustments.)

o q c e—Step 1. These oval letters are made in parts. For o and the body of alternate q place the pen with the right side of the broad edge touching the waist line and then pull it down and slightly to the left and then curve it back to the right once you reach 9 o’clock and when you reach 6 o’clock curve upward until the stroke becomes a hairline. At that point stop. Step 2. Place the pen under the waist line again where you started Step 1 but this time, as you pull down, curve slightly to the right and aim to join up at the bottom with the first stroke. Keep the o oval and do not make it round. For the alternate q the tail is made as a third stroke: place the pen at the transition point from thin to thick in the lower right and pull it diagonally below the waist line and give it a little curve at the end. The length of the tail of q depends on the space available between lines and one’s own taste. There are no hard and fast rules. For c make the same first stroke as in o. The second stroke is a slightly curved horizontal one that resembles an eyebrow. Simply begin where the first stroke began but move to the right with a very slight arch. It should not be longer than the bottom curve. For emake a cbut curl the second stroke around and pull it back to the first stroke. As you curl it back be sure to keep the final part horizontal and therefore thick. Do not pull the stroke down diagonally as that will result in a hairline and a weak letter.

j f r s—These letters all have a slightly arched curve like cjpull down vertically and as you approach the halfway point of the line underneath your writing line and the next line turn the pen slightly to the left so that the stroke ends in a hairline. Then pull a slightly curved horizontal stroke from the left to join it. This is not an easy task as it is similar to threading a needle, but with practice it can be done. The key is to continue the first stroke in the air so that when you make the second stroke you are simply reversing direction and your hand and arm are already memorizing the movement—like a pendulum swinging back and forth. f starts like o with a slight curve before it straightens out. The second stroke is identical to that of c. The third stroke is the crossbar and it is the same as for t—longer on the right than the left and just underneath the waist line. sis a difficult letter since it is all curves. Start with the middle or spine. Place the pen just below the waist line with the right edge of the nib touching it and then move to the left and down very slightly—just enough to create a tiny hairline—before moving diagonally to the lower right; but as you get around 4 o’clock curve back to the left until the hairline appears—then stop. The angle of the spine will determine how wide sis. In Italic it should have a steepness similar to that of x. Since your pen is already near the baseline just swing it in the air (as with j) and make a slightly arched horizontal stroke from left to right that joins the spine. Finally, the third stroke is the same one as used in c and f. Make sure the bottom of s is slightly wider than the top for optical balance. This letter takes lots of practice. r introduces the important concept of branching. Begin with a vertical stroke as in i but when you reach the baseline do not stop. Instead, pause and then retrace your steps upward and, as you reach 10 o’clock, curve to the right under the waist line. The hard part of r is keeping the curve short since momentum has been built up. But the arm of r needs to be short since it has a lot of space under it.

n m h k—The remaining letters are the critical ones, those that give Italic its identity. This first group of them have the open “shark’s fin” arch from the Skeletal Forms sheet. Each one begins like r but the stroke, after the pause at the bottom, branches earlier away from the stem and once it goes up and touches the waist line it curls over quickly and comes back down vertically. This is all in one continuous stroke with a pause at the base of the stem and another at the apex of the arch. It involves pushing during the branching phase. h starts at the same point as l but otherwise is the same as n while m simply adds a second arch which requires two more pauses and a second push portion. When made correctly, n and h have two parallel vertical strokes and m has three. Write them at a confident pace—not too slow and not too fast. For k make h but, after reaching the apex of the arch curl back to the left as in e and then kick out diagonally after touching the stem.

b p—Make b as if making h but, just before the second downstroke reaches the baseline, turn and push leftward to close the arch. If there is no momentum to push leftward, stop and pull the stroke from the bottom of the stem, remembering to curve slightly upward to complete the join. p is a little bit more difficult. Pull the vertical stroke downward approximately halfway between the writing line and the next line of writing. Pick the pen up and begin branching from the writing line and follow the same steps as for b. Do not branch from the bottom of the stem.

u y—Begin ui, but curl sharply at the baseline and push upward and diagonally; then, at the waist line, pull back down vertically. The result should be n upside down. For the cursive y make u combined with j.

a q d g—All of these letters begin with a pushing stroke. This is difficult when the pen is not “warmed up”. To do that wiggle the pen back and forth as if running in place and then push it horizontally to the left; then turn downward as if making o but keep the stroke vertical instead of slightly bowed. Near the writing line curl up sharply and continue as if making u. That will result in a. Follow the same procedure, but continue downward with the final vertical portion and the result will be the cursive q. Make q but curve a bit at the end and then make a second curved horizontal stroke as in j and the result will be g. d is like p in that it should not be made in one continuous motion punctuated by pauses. Instead, make the first part of a, the closed upside-down arch, then stop. Pick the pen up and make an l that joins it. This letter often gives beginners trouble because it is made in two parts. But this keeps it from splitting apart if made in one continuous motion.

Because the broad-edged pen determines the height of the letters it is necessary to make guidesheets. To do that make a checkerboard pattern of alternating squares the width of the nib (pull the nib horizontally to make each one) until you have 5 pw. Measure this (in millimeters since they are finer than divisions of an inch) and rule out a sheet of paper with such intervals. Mark every fourth line with an x as a reminder to skip two lines not the usual one between lines of writing. Label the sheet with the pen size for which it has been made. Each pen or nib will need its own guidesheet. If the guidesheet is ruled out in ink carefully it can be used as a master sheet that can be slid under translucent paper (such as 16 lb ledger bond). Master sheets save time ruling lines before writing and time erasing them afterwards. Remember to leave a margin on all four sides of the master sheet.