How to Create Circular Calligrams

Whether you’re familiar with the word or not, you’ve probably seen a calligram. Calligrams are essentially pictures or shapes that are comprised of calligraphy or handwriting.

Tree calligram by Joni James

This is an example of a calligram by Joni James.

Circular calligrams (or “mandalas”, which is a word that means circle in Sanskrit) are becoming very popular on Instagram — and for good reason. Their beauty is visually pleasing and they’re incredibly fun to make. Not to mention they make great gifts or wall art.

Abstract Mandala Calligram by Jake Rainis

Abstract Mandala Calligram

Today, I’ll show you the techniques you’ll need to make impressive calligrams. Let’s dive in!

Getting Starting

Surely, you’re familiar with writing on a straight, flat line. You’ve been trained to read and write that way your entire life! But because of the slants and curves, one of the more difficult aspects of creating a calligram is writing in unfamiliar contexts. Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it. It just takes some practice.

Tools

Some people can draw perfect circles. If that’s you, feel free to jump ahead, you freak of nature. If you’re like me and can’t draw perfect circles, you’ll need a drafting compass. If you’re going to buy a new compass, go big. This way, you can create calligrams of all sizes.

If you’re planning on going really big (like on a wall for a mural), get yourself a Rotape Measuring Tape Compass. This is basically an anchored compass arm attached to a roll of retractable measuring tape.

Drafting Compass Tool

Drafting compass
Rotape Tool

Rotape tool

Drawing Guides

Before you put any guides or ink down on the page, you’ll want to to determine what kind of calligram you’ll be making. For demonstration purposes, let’s pretend you’re doing a two ring calligram and both of those rings are the same size:

Double circle calligram example

When you draw your guides, you can use the same ratios you’d use for laying out flatlines. For example, if your ratio is 2:4:2:2 (ascender height, x height, descender height, and line space), your guide would look like this:

2:4:2:2 calligram template sketch

2:4:2:2 calligram template sketch

To begin creating your guides:

  1. Use a pencil to mark a small dot in the center of your page.
  2. Take a ruler and, draw a straight line through this point.
  3. With the measurements on the ruler, mark dots along this line that represent your line ratio (2:4:2:2).
  4. Put the anchor point of your compass in the center dot, and use the ratio dots you created in step three to adjust the compass width. Lay the circular lines down.
Calligram template setup step 1
Calligram template setup step 2
Calligram template setup step 3
Calligram template setup step 4

You have successfully created a solid calligram template. However, if you want to make your life even easier, you can add vertical guides. To do so, simply take your ruler and draw a straight line through the center dot at several different angles:

Adding the vertical guides to the calligram template

Adding the vertical guides

Trust me, these vertical guides will come in handy. You now have a 2 line template. To demonstrate how you lay your letters out, take a look at the following diagram:

Example of lettering layout on calligram template

Example of lettering layout on calligram template

Executing

Now that you’ve created your guide template, you’re ready to get started. Select the tool of your choice and make sure you have enough ink to carry you through the whole piece. If you don’t plan ahead, you risk running out of a certain color in the middle of the piece. Not fun.

Start from the outer ring and work your way around. Remember, every subsequent letter you draw is going to be at a slightly different angle than the previous. Use the vertical guides you drew to align your letter stems accordingly.

If you’re doing this on paper, rotate the paper as needed to make the angles easier for yourself. You won’t be able to do this on a wall, instead, re-orient yourself to get your letters as accurate as possible. If you find yourself bending your head upside down, take breaks. I’ve made myself dizzy quite a few times doing this.

Once you finish up the outer ring, make sure your work is completely dry before moving on. Otherwise, you’ll risk smudging. Once it’s dry, continue working inwards on your calligram.

That’s really all there is to it. Working on curves and slants takes practice, but you’ll get the hang of it.

Calligram by Jake Rainis

Advanced Techniques

When it comes to making calligrams, the possibilities are truly endless. In addition to this post, I’d recommend exploring other artist’s work for inspiration. There is some incredible talent out there. But in the mean time, let’s cover some more advanced approaches you can take when creating your own calligrams.

Go Abstract

Personally, my favorite kind of calligrams to make are ones with abstract blackletter calligraffiti. If you follow my work, you’ll find a lot of abstract treatments. These pieces are comprised of fundamental blackletter strokes. However, the strokes are put together in abstract patterns to create visual interest.

Abstract Mandala Calligram by Jake Rainis

Abstract Mandala Calligram

I plan on putting together some tutorials on how I create these patterns, but I’d encourage you to try your hand at some of your own abstract patterns and see what you come up with!

Multiple Ring Sizes

In our example from the previous post, we created a two-ring mandala. Both of those rings were the same size:

Double circle calligram example

These are great, but you can take your calligram even further by mixing ring sizes. Try creating a four-ring calligram where each ring is a different size than the one adjacent.

You can also try using different nib sizes to add more dynamic rhythm to the composition:

Mandala calligram with 2 different ring sizes by Jake Rainis

Abstract Mandala Calligram

Ring Flourishes

Use your letter’s ascenders and descenders as opportunities to sprinkle in flourishes. These flourishes help break up white space and can also contribute a sense of gesture to an other wise rigid set of circular rings.

Calligram with flourishes

Add Some Color

Why not?! Try mixing together some different color combinations:


If you happen to be using a Pilot Parallel, you can create an “ombre” effect in your pen strokes by touching the tip of your pen to another Parallel that contains a different color. Or just dip it into a different container of ink. The colors blend elegantly and create beautifully organic gradients.

Ombre effect

Ombre effect

Levels, Jerry! Levels!

Sorry, I love Seinfeld.

If you dilute your inks, you can create different levels of opacity with your strokes. These levels create an awesome illusion of depth and layers.

Abstract Mandala Calligram by Jake Rainis

Abstract Mandala Calligram

Creating Texture

One of the beautiful aspects of calligrams beyond the impact of each stroke uniting together to form a rigid shape is the feeling you can give it by adding some simple texture.

Muddle-up your calligram by splattering some pigment on top. You can do this by shaking/flicking pens or markers on top of your finished work. You can also achieve tiny little splattered specks by blowing on the tip of your pen. Sounds crazy, but give it a shot.

Textured abstract calligram by Jake Rainis

Break Out of the Circle

We’ve been talking about mandala (circular) calligrams, but you’re certainly not limited to circles. Try some other geometric shapes (or even combinations of geometric shapes)!

Geometric calligram by Jake Rainis

Show Me the Calligrams!

I want to see your calligrams. Send me an email at yo@jakerainis.com or tag me on Instagram at @jakerainis. I’d love to check out your work and see what you come up with!

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