Broad Edge Calligraphy Technique – A Comprehensive Guide to Stroke Control and Pen Manipulation
This post is a revamped consolidation of all of the intricate flat pen calligraphy techniques I’ve learned over the years. I wanted to have all of these learnings comprehensively detailed in one place to make it easier for serious calligraphy artists looking to improve their skills with advanced pen techniques to learn quickly. If this sounds like you, then look no further. These teachings *will* make you a better calligraphy artist.
Breaking Out of the One-Dimensional Approach
Remembering back to when I first started writing with a flat pen, I was fixated on the idea that blackletter (and other broad edge) scripts were produced by holding the pen at single, steady angle (e.g. 45º). Upon studying other calligraphy artist’s work, I was often puzzled and confused by how they were able to achieve strokes that appeared to deviate from this “hard and fast rule”. For example, look at this alphabet:
If you’ve followed flat pen calligraphy tutorials (blackletter or otherwise), you’ve probably been taught to hold your pen at one single angle. Depending on the direction you pull the pen, you produce a thick line or a thin line. If you were to attempt to recreate the above alphabet with a single pen angle, the result would be close. But it wouldn’t be dead on.
I recall carefully examining old english fonts, before I even knew that these weren’t true calligraphic forms — just typefaces that were based off of them. There seemed to be so many strokes that just didn’t feel possible with a flat pen, regardless of the angle I was holding it at. Looking back, I’m not entirely sure why I thought it had to be that way. Perhaps you’ve been there too.
With a flat pen, such as a Pilot Parallel or an automatic pen (or even a brush), our minds are initially conditioned to think of the lines it produces as thin and thick — at least when we start. However, once you become comfortable manipulating your writing tool in different ways, you’ll break out of this one-dimensional thinking and new worlds will open up for you to explore. And after a serious amount of dedicated practice these seemingly impossible strokes actually become a reality in your work.
Understanding the Capabilities of Your Pen
If you hold your pen at a 0º angle and draw a straight line to the right, you produce the thinnest line the pen is capable of. Holding your pen at the same angle while drawing a straight line down, you produce the thickest line the pen is capable of.
Likewise, drawing a half circle at a 45º angle will produce a stroke that transitions from thin to thick, and then back to thin.
These strokes represent the foundation of the letterforms we learn in flat pen calligraphy. We train our minds to think of our pens as a mechanism to control width in order to achieve these strokes. This is the one-dimensional approach I’m talking about. And there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s actually a great way to learn the fundamental basics.
But there are other dimensions that might not seem obvious at first. What happens when you apply uneven pressures on your pen? What happens when you actively rotate the pen while you’re writing? How can you diversify your strokes by layering different shapes to give them unique character? This is what will make your work truly unique. Let’s get to the good stuff.
One of the most difficult aspects of learning any sort of calligraphy is drawing a controlled straight line. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? You just put the pen on the paper, and pull it towards you as steadily as possible.
The truth is that it takes many hours of dedicated practice to be able to control a pen like that, particularly when writing blackletter or other styles of gothic fonts. This might not be the most exciting part of pen manipulation. In fact, it might not even seem like pen manipulation, right? Well, in a sense it is — manipulation is *control*. And after all, you must learn how to control your pen if you want it to do what you want it to do!
Begin by ensuring you’re comfortable with downstrokes and executing them consistently every time.
4 Steps to Executing Straight Downstrokes
There are several tips and techniques that you can leverage to improve your consistency when performing straight downstrokes.
Position Yourself to be Comfortably Stable
One factor to drawing a well-executed stroke is ensuring stabilization. You want to make sure you’re not straining your body in an uncomfortable or unbalanced way that might inhibit your writing ability.
In my post about calligraphy posture, I wrote about optimizing your calligraphy output by practicing good positioning habits while writing. This includes maintaining a straight posture while keeping both feed planted on the floor, and not hunching over your work too far. Your elbows should be able to bend at a right angle (90º) with both forearms resting on your writing surface.
You should hold your pen as close to the nib as possible without your fingers getting in the way. This allows you to hold the pen firmly with control and precision without gripping it too hard.
Finally make sure your torso is not twisted at an angle. You want to be facing your work straight on. If you’re an overwriter, or write in such a way that you twist your wrist or rotate the page, that’s fine. Just make sure your body is resting in a comfortable, planted position that absorbs the pressing of your pen. Bottom line, you should feel comfortable and not experience any strain.
As I’ve said many times, there’s nothing wrong with using guides. It’s not cheating.
For straight downstrokes, you don’t need any sort of special guide. Just use a ruler to draw lines that are perfectly perpendicular to the baseline of your page. Alternatively, you can use gridded paper.
Maintain Angle Consistency
Wobbly downstrokes are typically the result of holding the pen too firmly or not holding the pen firmly enough. I find the more I pay attention to maintaining a consistent angle, the straighter my line turns out. It’s okay to finish your stroke, then go back and clean up the edges. Once more, there is no cheating when it comes to making a perfect stroke.
Make sure you’re not inadvertently twisting the pen’s nib as you draw your downstroke. If you’re executing on a straight line, even the slightest shift in angle can produce an inconsistent line.
Use Your Eyes
I would obviously not suggest closing your eyes while doing calligraphy! However, we often tend to focus too much on the nib of our pen as we’re writing instead of focusing on where the pen will end up.
Once you become comfortable holding your pen with the right amount of firmness and can maintain its angle, start directing your attention to the future of your stroke. In other words, look a couple centimeters ahead of where you are at during your stroke up until the point in which you complete the stroke.
Understanding pressure manipulation technique with your writing is absolutely essential to advancing your work, so start here. The diagrams herein depict a Pilot Parallel, but the information applies to all broad edge writing utensils (dip nibs, automatic pens, chiseled markers, flat brushes, etc).
With the exception of a brush, the edge of of your broad edge writing utensil might not seem so flexible. But it is. And it’s more resilient than you might think. If you push hard enough (you’ll quickly get a feel for how hard you need to press), it will flex and warp. If you’re not working with a brush, think of your pen or marker like it is a brush from now on.
Depending on how hard you apply pressure to your “brush”, you can actually achieve a spectrum of different stroke widths regardless of what angle you hold the pen at.
It is important to remember that even though you can manipulate the angle of a pen to achieve any stroke width, applying pressure allows you to achieve diversified stroke widths no matter which angle you hold the pen. This aspect plays a substantial role in the organic life and expression you can bring to calligraphy letterforms.
To get a feel for how pressure can be achieved, start with scrap paper and draw some downward strokes. As you’re pulling the pen down, start leaning more weight towards one edge of the pend (and subsequently, less weight on the opposite edge). This will cause your pen to lift ever so slightly in a way that disrupts the continuous flow of ink to one side of the stroke.
Exploring Pressure Techniques
Let’s explore how applying pressure work in a real world scenarios. I’ve broken down pressure applications into four common scenarios that start easy and gradually get more difficult.
If you’ve spent time doing calligraphy, there’s no doubt you’ve come realize that learning letterforms requires practice — lots and lots and lots of practice. These techniques also require hours of practice, so don’t get discouraged if you can’t execute them right away.
This technique is all in the name. Starting with your pen at 0º angle, pull the stroke downwards starting with an adequate amount of pressure. As you progress through the stroke, gradually release the amount of pressure you’re applying on the right side of the nib while maintaining the pressure on the left side.
This results in a sharp “spike”. Looks easy, but it definitely requires practice. I would recommend doing 20-30 of these before moving on. It might seem excessive, but practice makes perfect.
Of all the pressure techniques you’ll use, this is the one you’ll likely use the least. However, this exercise is a great way to become comfortable controlling the variable pressure on your nib, so be sure to practice this one in abundance. It’s also a great warm-up exercise.
You’ll see this technique quite often in Fraktur majuscules. A good example is the shark downstroke step of the “P”.
A finishing release is when you adjust the pressure on you nib at the end of a stroke. As we discussed above, you can achieve any width your pen is capable of depending on the angle at which you’re holding it. But with the right pressure application, it doesn’t matter what angle you’re holding it at.
Applying this philosophy at the end of your strokes can add unique edge and character to your letters.
The finishing release utilizes the same concept as a gradual release. As you progress through the stroke, you adjust your pressure. However, in this exercise, work at a traditional slanted angle (30º-45º). As you round out the end of the stroke, adjust the pressure quickly so that one edge of the nib is lifted to achieve the sharp tail.
In the image above, these letters utilize a finishing release on the horizontal strokes as well as the large curved half-circle of the “E”, the downstroke of the “f”.
The execution of a pressurized stroke generally happens quickly. If it’s done too slowly, the stroke is disrupted and looks unnatural. Keep this in mind while you’re experimenting at different speeds. You’ll find that the pressurized strokes will appear cleaner the faster you’re moving, which lends to to their gestural and expressive quality. However, if you’re not comfortable working that fast, you might want to practice without the pressure exercises until you’re at a point where you don’t need to concentrate too much on the stroke’s basic form.
Controlled flaring is a great technique to add linear filigrees, flourishes, and other decorative elements. The side of the nib you manipulate the pressure on will depend on the actual stroke, you’re tying to create.
In the image above, these controlled flares are in isolation to demonstrate how they are created. Here’s an image of these same flares within majuscule letterforms:
These flares can be found throughout more expressive versions of Fraktur alphabets (particularly the majuscules).
Once again, speed is factor here. Think of these controlled flares as quick little bursts. It helps to imagine the pen’s edge scraping off of the surface at the end of the stroke. Following through until the nib leaves the page will yield better results then ending the stroke with the pen still touching the surface.
Gestural flaring requires more practice, but it’s perfect for adding organic, expressive flourishes. These use the exact same pressure applications as a controlled flare, but are typically done in a quicker motion.
The element of speed ends up producing a much more natural and organic style of stroke. Personally, I like to add these gestural flourishes to my majuscules.
Remember that practice makes perfect. As with learning any sort of broad edge calligraphy technique, you’ll need to constantly experiment and try new approaches before getting comfortable. In the case of learning pressure techniques, try experimenting with different grips and pressures to see what works best for you.
You’ll also find that your results will differ when you try different inks and papers. For example, less viscous ink will produce streakier flourishes and allow you to work faster because the pen is able to glide more freely — particularly on smooth paper.
Finally, remember that flourishing should be done to enhance the composition, not to cover up mistakes or impair legibility.
Angle Manipulation & Stroke Twisting
Rotating your writing instrument as you apply a stroke isn’t exclusive to any one type of calligraphy. For example, check out this video from Calligraphy Masters (and subscribe to their channel — it’s amazing).
In this video, you can see how Nicolo Visioli rotates his brush as he begins and finishes each stroke. This results in an impressively precise letterform. This is a beautiful example of angle rotation.
Evolving the Approach to Blackletter
This technique can also be utilized in blackletter calligraphy. However, depending on how you learned blackletter calligraphy, it might require a slightly evolved way of thinking. At least, it did for me personally.
For many aspiring calligraphy artists, their initial immersion into blackletter begins with the Textura (AKA Textualis) alphabet.
As I touched on prior, when learning this style of alphabet, we meticulously train ourselves to maintain a consistent pen angle. In maintaining this angle to produce our strokes, we achieve a rhythmic uniformity throughout our letterforms. And as we now know, constantly conditioning ourselves to write at a consistent angle cements the idea that our pen should only move in a limited number of directions.
Once more, this training is crucial in learning traditional blackletter calligraphy. However, when it comes to introducing the notion of angle rotation, we need to learn how and when to break out of our comfort zones and abandon the rule of angle consistency.
Learning Angle Rotation
The concept of angle rotation is not a hard one to grasp. As we apply a stroke, we simply twist the pen to the desired angle. Sounds simple, but it’s easier said than done.
A great exercise to begin practicing angle rotation is with a physical guide. Find a circular item such as a coin. Use your non-writing hand to hold the coin in place and slowly draw a circle with your pen around the coin starting from the top.
Keep in mind that your pen should be at a 90º (straight up) angle when you start. As you round the first quarter of the coin, the pen should rotate another 90º. The pen should continue to do this for every quarter of the circle.
Not too hard, right? It’s certainly helpful to have a physical object guiding our stroke. Once you’re comfortable with this exercise, trace that coin with a pencil. Then complete the exercise again by following the drawn guide without the coin.
Because you can’t rely on the presence of a physical guide, such as the coin, this exercise is more difficult. You’ll find you need to train your hand muscles to carefully manipulate the pen accordingly while in the middle of a moving stroke.
You’ll also find that you probably won’t be able to complete the stroke in one gesture. For me personally, it took stopping and continuing my stroke 6-8 times to complete the circle. Don’t worry, you don’t need to be able to draw a perfect circle right from the start. Aim to reduce the amount of times you need to pause the stroke to readjust, but don’t get frustrated.
Just continue to practice and get comfortable with the technique. And once you’re comfortable, make your circles bigger and bigger until you develop a subconscious sense for how your pen should rotate.
A Real-World Example
Angle rotation techniques can be utilized in traditional blackletter calligraphy. As you practice and develop your blackletter calligraphy skills, you’ll begin creating your own unique style of letterforms. This is a perfect opportunity to apply angle rotation.
Personally, I use often use angle rotation techniques on my majuscule letters. For example, check out this majuscule “B”.
In the first “B” above, I did not use stroke rotation. In the second iteration, I rotated my pen on the curved stem to reinforce the letterform’s “backbone”. While the difference might seem minor or trivial to the untrained eye, it’s these small details that can reinforce the strength and powerful presence of a word or alphabet.
Angle rotation can also be applied to abstract calligraphy. In the image below, you’ll notice different circles throughout the work. These were created the same way we created circles in the coin exercise. As you can see, circles are a great way to balance a composition.
Twisting a Straight Stroke
Twisting a straight stroke is similar in execution to stroke rotation, except it’s done on a straight stroke instead of a rounded one.
The idea behind a twisted (or a “multi-angled”) stroke is that your pen does not stay at the same angle for the entire duration of the stroke. Instead, the angle fluctuates throughout the stroke (generally between 15º-20º above or below the “root” angle, which is usually around 40º degrees). The result is a more organic letterform with nuanced curves. You would not be able to achieve this effect otherwise because the slight pen manipulations create an intrinsic curve within your strokes.
In essence, the technique is straightforward and might appear easy when looking at the digram above. In actuality, it can be quite difficult to get the hang of if you haven’t trained your fingers to twist the pen ever so slightly mid-stroke.
If you’re new to twisting or rotating the pen mid-stroke, then I would strongly recommend breaking the approach down into three phases of practice.
It’s worth noting that if you are already comfortable writing blackletter calligraphy with a chiseled brush, you might find this technique easier to learn with a brush (as opposed to a hard pen nib). The bristles are more forgiving and expressive. On the other hand, if you’re more comfortable with a pen, then use that. It’s best to focus on learning one new thing at a time.
Loosen Up and Experiment
Nothing too complex here. Take out your pen/brush and begin warming up. Begin drawing straight lines and while you’re mid-stroke, begin twisting the writing instrument counter-clockwise 15º-20º.
The point here is to start working those finger muscles in a way that you haven’t before. You might also find it helpful to use vertical lines as guides.
Twist Both Ways
Once you begin to get the hang of it, start turning the pen clockwise during the second half of the stroke.
Do your best to visualize the stroke before you actually draw it out. When the stroke begins, it should gradually get narrow (turning counter-clockwise). Approximately halfway through the stroke, the line should be at its most narrow. From here, the line should get thicker (turning clockwise).
Introduce Quads (“Diamonds”)
Time to put the technique into practice. Stroke twists are very common in advanced Textura Quadrata, so let’s start there.
Begin by drawing a top quad serif (the “diamond”). Next, draw a vertical line using the stroke twist technique you’ve been practicing. Finally, finish off the bottom quad.
You’ll want to pay close attention to how these strokes interact with their surrounding quads. Look for the rounded connections on the left and right sides of the quad as it meets the stem. Perfecting these is difficult, but the clean consistency it can bring to your letterforms is worth the mastering.
One final note; if your strokes are spotty here and there, just touch them up with the thin tip of your writing instrument. I’ll say it again… It’s not cheating!
You probably haven’t heard of “stroke building”. That’s because it’s a phrase I made up (I think). When I say the words “stroke building”, I’m referring to the process of layering different strokes on top of each other to flesh out the body of a letter form. This approach is something I’ve seen other calligraphy artists do. But as far as I’m aware, there’s no existing vocabulary to describe it.
So there you have it — it’s a term now, okay? And you actually started doing it in the previous exercise when you applied quads to your twisted downstrokes.
Here’s an example of what I’m referring to when it comes to building strokes:
If you study the image above, you’ll notice darker parts of the letters where different strokes overlap. Specifically, this is most noticeable in the sharper points of the letters. These sharp edges can’t be achieved with a single stroke.
Stroke building is a fantastic way to give your letters unique character. And when it comes to blackletter calligraphy, giving the letterforms a sharp, mean looking edge compliments the style.
Stroke Building Recipes
When it comes to stoke building, the possibilities are endless. The process is also quite simple once you get the hang of it. There isn’t a strict science as to when and where you layer extra strokes on top of your existing ones.
Once you’re familiar with the technique, stroke building will come naturally and you’ll apply it to where it feels most natural. However, as a jump off, let’s talk about some of the most common anatomical aspects of letterforms and see how stroke building can applied in those contexts.
Stems & Ascenders
Vertical uniformity is what gives blackletter script its visual rhythm. The majority of letters contain vertical strokes (AKA “stems”) and these parts of the letter often have stroke building opportunities.
Check out the following image of the minuscule letters “i” and “l”. Each letter has two treatments; a regular specimen (left) and a specimen that utilizes stroke building (right).
When building upon strokes, it’s done in two or more movements. In other words, you put one stroke down, then add to it again after you’ve lifted the pen.
To achieve the effect, draw your first stroke as you normally would. Now, to build on that stroke, maintain the same pen angle as the original stroke and finish off the point with a new stroke.
For example, with the top of a vertical stem, your second (building) stroke will start off slight to the left of the stroke and move downward and to the right until the left edge of your nib meets the edge of the initial stroke.You could also build off the bottom of the stroke by adding another stroke that leads into the bottom curve of a letterform.
Arcs & Shoulders
Arcs and shoulders are the horizontal pieces of a letterform and they can be built upon very similarly to a vertical stroke (stem).
Like the stems image above, the following image contains 2 sets of the letters “h” and “e”. Again, each letter has 2 versions (regular and with stroke building). As you can see, both letters contain a horizontal stroke.
To build upon the stroke from the left side, position the pen (again, with the nib at the same able) above the beginning of the stroke and move downward and to the right until the right side edge of your pen meets the top of the initial stroke.
This takes a little more practice and effort, but you can also build off of the right side of the stroke, although this works better in certain letters. Starting inside of the letter, move downward and to the right until the write edge of your nib aligns with the end of the horizontal stroke.
Stroke building can also be done by “sketching” in the stroke. It doesn’t need to utilize your entire pen. If you’re looking to achieve just a little bit of edge, draw it in with the corner of your pen.
Descenders come in a couple of different flavors. For example, a “p” tends have a straight vertical stroke, while a “g” has a curved swoop. Both scenarios present different stroke building opportunities.
For a straight descender, you can give it an edge on the right side of the bottom of the stroke. Starting from inside of the stroke, move your pen downward and to the right until your nib aligns with the angle of the initial stroke.
It helps to think of it like an upside down stem, so if it’s easier, you can also turn it upside down and build on the stroke in the same way you would with an “i” or an “l”.
Curved descenders have several opportunities to stroke build and you can mix and match them to your liking. I’ve included several in the picture above. They’re added in the same way — just make sure you’re maintaining a consistent angle!
Like I mentioned, stroke building is an incredible way to give your letters a unique, sharp edge. However, like any technique, use it conservatively. Stroke building should enhance your letters, not save them.
You should never rely on a technique as a crutch to make your letters look better. Just make sure you don’t let your fundamental best practices slip in the interest of reinventing your letters.
Now Revisit Your Alphabets
Hopefully you’ve been able to take something new away from all of this information. And if you have, you should immediately put it into practice. Revisit each letter in the alphabet and use some of these new techniques to add unique character to your letterforms. Be patient while doing this. You’ll only get better with time.
If you’re looking for a fun challenge, you should consider the #52Letters challenge I started a while back. Learn more about it at 52-letters.com, but here’s the gist:
- One letter a week for 52 weeks (takes a whole year)
- Weeks 1 through 26: lowercase a through z
- Weeks 27 through 52: uppercase A through Z
- Share your progress online with the hashtag #52letters
The challenge originally started in January of 2018, but artists around the world have been starting doing it at random points in time, so just mark a start on your calendar and get going!