Blackletter Watercolor Calligraphy

I’ve always liked working in color. Specifically, black and white — although some might argue that this doesn’t count. But in my never-ending quest to explore new tools and techniques, I’ve recently been in working with watercolor. And as it turns out, you can achieve some amazing visual effects.

I’m breaking this topic up into two posts. In this post, we’ll talk about the tools and materials you’ll need to begin blackletter watercolor calligraphy. In the next post, we’ll explore different techniques that you can leverage to get the most out of your own work.

Watercolor calligraphy by Jake Rainis

Materials

Before we get started, let’s cover the tools and materials that you’ll need to produce your own blackletter watercolor calligraphy.

Watercolors

Yes, you’ll need watercolors, believe it or not. Watercolor paints come in many varieties and forms. If you visit your local arts and crafts store, you’ll likely be overwhelmed by the selection. There are dry watercolors that come in little bricks as well as concentrated watercolor pastes. These can both be diluted to produce liquid pigment.

There are also ready-to-use watercolor inks that don’t require any dilution.
Any form of watercolor will do. However, for the sake of simplicity and convenience, I’d highly recommend you go go with liquid watercolors.

Ecoline Watercolors

Ecoline makes a beautiful and high-quality line of watercolor inks. You can buy the colors individually, or as a 10-piece set. They’re a little expensive, but they’ll last you a long time.

If you’re just looking to experiment and aren’t ready to invest in a set, check out Dr. PH. Martin’s concentrated and non-concentrated (Hydrus) water color inks. These are sold individually as well as in sets and are relatively inexpensive. They are also high-quality and can be diluted to last even longer (although, this is optional).

Dr. PH Martins Watercolors

Automatic Pens

Back in November, 2016, I wrote a blog post about automatic pens. I won’t go into depth in this post, so check that out if you’re unfamiliar with automatic pens.

When it comes to blackletter watercolor calligraphy, automatic pens are king. They hold a good amount of pigment with each dip and are capable of making crisp lines without stretching the ink too thin (this is an important aspect of watercolor — particularly if you’re planning to blend colors). Depending on how hard you press, you can easily produce thick layer of wet ink.

Automatic pen tip sizes
Automatic pen tip styles

Paper

When working with watercolors, you can’t just use any old paper. Chances are it will bleed and warp. Instead, you’ll want to use wet media paper, or ideally some proper watercolor paper.

Watercolor paper also comes in a number of varieties. You’ll need to experiment to find what works best for your style. However, I’d recommend starting with a medium or heavy weight cold press style of sheet that has a decent texture. This will be sufficient for holding your ink.

Other Tools

In addition to your ink, pens, and paper, I’d also recommend having the following on hand:

  • A cup of water. You’ll want to have a vessel of water handy so that you can dip your pens and your brush before you swap colors. This will prevent you from cross-contaminating your colors.
  • A brush. Any small paint brush will do. Having a brush on hand will make more sense once we get into the second part of this post.
  • Paper towels. Keep a roll of paper towels handy in the event of spills or splatters. If you’re clumsy like I am, you’ll thank yourself later. We’ll also be using paper towels in the second part of this post for some cool techniques.

Writing With Watercolors

Now it’s time to take it a step further and see what can really be done when you push the limits with these watercolor calligraphy techniques.
To get started, get your workspace set up with the following materials.

  • Watercolor inks
  • Automatic pen
  • Water vessel
  • A brush
  • Paper towels
Ideal watercolor calligraphy workspace

Color Blending

One of the coolest aspects of watercolor is how you can blend shades together to create beautiful gradients. Not to mention, it’s incredibly easy.

Abstract watercolor calligraphy by Jake Rainis

When blending colors, you’ll want to do so when your letterforms are still wet. This allows the newly applied ink to blend with the previously applied ink.

To blend colors, follow these steps:

  • Apply your stroke or letterform to the paper with one color.
  • Dip your brush into water to ensure there’s no other pigment stuck to it.
  • Dip the brush into a new color.
  • Gently dab the stroke or letterform.

The colors should race into each other and create a beautiful visual effect. If this doesn’t happen, it’s because your stroke or letterform was not wet enough.

When it comes to color blending, it’s best to work as fast as you can (without compromising quality and precision) or break your piece up into several segments.

Color Reduction

Try taking a brush that is wet with water and paint within the stroke or letterform to reactivate the watercolor. This will allow the colors to blend once again when a new pigment is applied. However, if you don’t blend the color further, it will lighten the previously applied pigment.

Reduction watercolor technique

This is a great way to create a gradient variation within your stroke or letterform. Additionally, you can do this to a dark color to lighten areas of the stroke or letterform — and then apply a lighter color.

Watercolor calligraphy by Jake Rainis

When utilizing the color reduction technique, try dabbing the stroke or letterform with a clean sheet of paper towel. This will lift excess color and leave the dabbed area with a lighter shade of the color.

Texture

Watercolor is a magical medium and because of the pigment’s water base, it’s easy to achieve some neat textural effects.

Paper Towel Blending

Blend some colors together, but use a generous amount of ink — almost to the degree that it’s pooled within the stroke or letterform.

Now take a clean paper towel and dab that color blended area. The result should be a lightened version of the blended colors with the splotchy texture of a paper towel.

Blended watercolor calligraphy by Jake Rainis

Water Splattering

This is one of my favorite effects. When your piece is finished (but still wet), splatter some water on to the composition. Then, use your brush to blend color into the water droplets.

Textured watercolor calligraphy by Jake Rainis

Salting

Salting? Yeah! My brother taught me this one. If you’ve lived in a part of the world where things freeze during the winter, you’ve probably put salt down on walking areas so people don’t slip. Salt melts ice and absorbs water, even at freezing temperatures.

You can apply this science to your watercolor calligraphy as well. Get some household table salt and sprinkle it on to a relatively thin coat of watercolor ink. Wait for the ink to dry, then gently brush the salt off. You’ll be left with a cool cauliflower-like texture.

Textured watercolor calligraphy by Jake Rainis

Video Demonstration

I was going to create a video to demonstrate the powers of watercolor calligraphy — but I must give credit where it’s due. I learned the majority of these techniques from Francesco Guerrera (AKA @fralligraphy)’s video tutorial and there’s no way I could possibly top it. Enjoy!

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