How to Create a Consistent Alphabet
Isn’t it mesmerizing when you’re looking at other artist’s calligraphy work and it almost looks like a font because they’re able to produce a perfectly consistent alphabet? This is truly the mark of someone who has spent countless hours improving their craft.
As aspiring calligraphy artists, this is something that we all aim to achieve. It’s the consistency and perfection we strive for.
Believe it or not, learning how to produce a consistent alphabet is something that can be taught, at least from a fundamental standpoint. Applying those teachings is a whole other feat of its own! However, knowing how to approach your work with an aim for consistency is the first step to achieving consistency.
In this post, we’ll cover the criteria necessary for creating a consistent alphabet.
Criteria for Consistency
Consistency is the rhythmic backbone of all typography. This applies to calligraphy too. A system must be put in place and exercised throughout in order to make all of the letterforms looks visually cohesive with each other.
I’ve broken this post down into 8 different aspects. Study them carefully and try to keep them all in mind with each letterform you produce. The deliberate application of these factors will make a world of difference in your work.
It’s a lot to keep in mind all at once, but it will become easier with time.
1. Guide adherence
You’ve probably seen this image in previous posts (or a similar image elsewhere) of a calligraphy template.
These guides act as a spacial “house” in which all of the letterforms live. When we adhere to the following typographic rules and apply them to this system, we establish a foundation for consistency:
- Letters a, c, e, i, m, n, o, r, s, u, v, w, x, and sometimes z all span between the baseline and the x-height.
- Letters b, d, f, h, k, l, and t have ascenders. This means they span between the baseline and the ascender line.
- Letters g, j, p, q, y, and sometimes z all have descenders. This means they span between the x-height and the descender line.
Ensuring that all letterforms exist in their respective space is major aspect of establishing the horizontal rhythm you’re after.
2. Letter Uniformity
If you were ever to type a word where each letter had a unique font, it would obviously look a little weird. However, even if you were to make each letter a similar looking san-serif font (like Arial, Helvetica, etc.), it would still lack consistency, wouldn’t it? Even though the fonts may be similar, there are still little nuances within the letterforms that differentiate that font from others.
In this scenario, calligraphy is no different. Just because you’re writing in a gothic blackletter style doesn’t necessarily mean that your letters are truly uniform.
Gothic calligraphy has many different foundational influences. Studying them carefully, understanding their differences, and learning to capture their unique character will play a major role in achieving a consistent alphabet.
3. Letter Spacing
Even if each letterform itself is perfectly composed, the space in which it exists relative to surrounding letterforms with either enforce or impede the consistency you’re after.
In typography, positioning letters to be visually satisfying in relation to each other is known as kerning and tracking.
Unfortunately, this is a tough thing to systematize. In other words, we can’t just say “make each letter a certain amount of space apart“. The reason is because the kerning and tracking between any two letters differs based on those letter’s negative space.
Kerning and tracking is a whole other topic of it’s own. My friend (and extremely talented lettering artist) Sarah Dayan covered this topic at length. I highlight recommend you check out her post “Kerning, Leading, Tracking: A Crash Course“.
4. Stroke reuse
When learning calligraphy, one of the best approaches is to abstract repetitive strokes from the alphabet. For example, you can see that this basic textura alphabet of minuscules is pretty much comprised of just several strokes. Each letter of the alphabet is the result of using different combinations of these strokes.
Take the time to intimately dissect the alphabet you’re trying to reproduce consistently. Group the repetitive strokes into different categories and practice them in isolation. If a particular letter looks off, it might be because you’re using the wrong combination of strokes.
Ironically, in studying the above image, it occurs to me that the “x” and the “z” lack consistency with the other letters. These should be revisited to optimize uniformity!
5. Counter Space and Letter Width
Counter space (or negative space) is the space around the around the letter that isn’t made up of strokes. For example, the inside of an o or an a.
How big these areas are, combined with how thick your strokes are, is what determines the overall width of your letterform. When practicing the majority of calligraphy styles, the alphabet can be broken down into three width groups:
- Wide: m, w
- Standard: a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, k, n, o, p, q, r, s, u, v, x, y, z
- Thin: i, j, l, t
Each letter should occupy the same horizontal space (share the same width) as the other letters in its group.
Determine whether your letters are going to be narrow, standard, or wide before you start. Once you write the first letter, use that one letter as a reference for how wide your other letters should be.
Assuming you’re using the same pen, your stroke will almost always be the same size. Therefore, it is important to keep an eye on how wide the negative space in your letter is in comparison to other letters of the same group.
6. Consistent Pen Angle
Keeping a consistent pen angle is crucial to any sort of flat pen calligraphy. All gothic blackletter styles use flat pens, so make sure you establish your angle before you start and stick to it throughout.
Most gothic styles can be achieved with a pen angle of 30º to 50º. It doesn’t really matter which angle you choose just as long as you’re using the same angle throughout the entire composition. These degree increments might seem small, but if you study your work closely, even a 5º discrepancy between strokes can impact overall consistency.
Until you get comfortable applying the same pen angle to each stroke, you might want to consider using a guide. Remember, it’s not cheating and it’s the quickest, most effective way to learn.
7. Studying Each Letter
Part of having the ability to create a consistent alphabet in your calligraphy is the intimate understanding of each individual letterform as well as an overall understanding of that style’s entire alphabet.
In order to achieve this deep understanding, each letter must be practiced hundreds, if not thousands of times. This deliberate practice commits the alphabet to memory so that you’re not visually referencing letters as you go.
As a result of drawing the letterforms from memory, you will be able to get into a state of uninterrupted focus. This rhythm is important during the execution of a consistent alphabet.
8. Stick to the System in Place
Rules are meant to be broken. But only sometimes. And when it comes to consistency, it’s best to stick to the rules in place.
When creating a composition, try to resist the urge to add embellishments such as flourishes and filigrees to your letterforms. With more experience, these are elements that you can begin to incorporate. However, these tend to add an organic dynamic to your work that isn’t complimentary to uniformity.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and a place for these decorative aspects. But just remember that they won’t fix inconsistency — they’ll just reinforce it.
What are you struggling with?
I hope you found this helpful. Creating a consistent alphabet in calligraphy is not easy. Nor was it an easy topic to write about.
I’m curious to hear the areas in which you struggle with consistency in your calligraphy. Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. Let’s continue the conversation. I’d love to help in any way I can.