How about a little Blackletter 101?

It was actually blackletter script that got me into hand-lettering. No matter what style I pursue, I always find myself coming back to the good old “gothic” school of letterforms. You might not think of this classic script style when you think of calligraphy or hand-lettering. But believe it or not, it’s incredibly popular and has a very rich history.

In speaking with a number of my followers, I’ve found there to be a lot of interest in exploring blackletter further. In response, I’ll be spending this month publishing guides and tutorials so that you too can get started learning this incredible style. And who knows… maybe there’s even a masterclass in the future?

If you’re like me, you probably prefer to just jump in and get your hands dirty. But trust me, you’re going to be much better off once it comes to applying the learning if you know the background behind it.

A Brief Overview of the Blackletter Styles

First off, let’s get our vocabulary straight. You’ve probably heard the terms “Old English” or “gothic” in reference to “blackletter”. All of this terminology is interchangeable and over centuries, has become common slang to describe the style.

The style itself originated in Western Europe. It dates back to the 11th century and was used as a common hand until the 17th century. After that, it continued to be used in the German language up until the 20th century.

And it’s still going strong!

So… “Old English” and “Gothic”?

The word “gothic” is a synonym for the word barbaric. In 15th century Italy, during the Renaissance, the blackletter style, along with other unpopular styles that shared rigid qualities, were referred to as “gothic”.

blackletter alphabet by jake rainis

It is speculated that this reference could be tied to back to the 4th century Gothic Alphabet. The alphabet was used by bishops and missionaries in bible translation.

In regards to the “Old English”, it was believed that the Old English language was written in blackletter style. This was later disproved, but the name stuck.

Bottom line, when you hear “Old English” or “gothic” being used to describe letters, it’s just a generalized slang referring to blackletter.

Wait… What is Blackletter?

I thought you’d never ask! Blackletter is simply a reference to a variety of calligraphic styles. There are many varieties (or “genres”) of blackletter, and within each style is even more varieties (or “sub-genres”) of that style.

When you distill it all down, you can categorize the main classic “genres” of blackletter into to the following styles:

  • Textualis
  • Rotunda
  • Schwabacher
  • Fraktur

There are several other less common styles, but we’ll focus on these for now.

Rather than trying to articulate the intricate difference of these styles in words, a better way to sum it up is with this excellent picture taken from Wikipedia:

Blackletter variations from Wikipedia

Variations of blackletter. Image credit: Wikipedia.

As you can see, there are some very drastic differences between the different styles, but there are also a lot of similarities. It is important to keep in mind that while one can distinctly categorize these, they can just as easily be meshed together.

Over the course of centuries, the earliest origins of these styles — wherever and whenever they were used — evolved and drew inspiration from earlier forms of each other. And we’re still seeing that evolution happen today (more on this in a later post).

Wrapping Up

Give yourself a pat on the back if you absorbed that history lesson. Now you know way more than most people about the blackletter school of calligraphy.

I can guarantee that this information is going to be helpful to you as you progress forth in learning blackletter. Not only will understanding the different styles aid you in being able to identify the different styles of blackletter, but it will also give you a great appreciation for the inspiration you draw from and the artwork you create.

Blackletter is a form of calligraphy and calligraphy is a discipline. A beginner scribe learns the basic fundamentals and develops their skills until they are seasoned enough to begin developing their own unique style.

Fraktur alphabet by Jake Rainis

As with any discipline, you too can become an accomplished blackletter scribe with your own unique style.

Now it’s time to get equipped with the right gear. In the next post, we’ll be exploring a variety of tools including markers, fountain pens, nibs/quills, and brushes. Before you know it, you’ll be well on your way to creating this classic script on your own.