I’m always experimenting and trying new techniques to make my calligraphy more interesting and unique. Recently, I was playing around with putting my composition on angles and I had the idea to try tilting the vertical axis of my letterforms to create italic blackletter calligraphy.
If you look up italic calligraphy, you’ll find examples of Chancery and bookhand style scripts. You’ll also see a lot of Copperplate and Spencerian calligraphy. However, you won’t find much in the way of gothic blackletter.
Blackletter is known for it’s strong and rhythmic vertical uniformity. In researching its history, you’ll find that much of its evolution revolved around legibility and writing speed. Tilting the vertical axis of a blackletter letterform looks cool — but it certainly doesn’t make it any easier to write. This is likely the reason italic blackletter calligraphy isn’t “much of a thing”.
Chances are you’re not writing blackletter out of a utilitarian need — you’re doing it for artistic purposes! So if you’re interested creating italic blackletter calligraphy, then read on.
Understanding Blackletter Systems
If you’re familiar with typographic systems, the following diagram should be pretty straight forward. If not, refer to this post for a quick primer.
This is the general structure of a guide line on which you’d write. When it comes to blackletter, you’re also dealing with 2 other angles.
The first is the vertical axis. This is the backbone of your down strokes and it’s 90º (completely vertical). Therefore, when you apply a down stroke, it’s a straight line from top to bottom.
The second is the pen angle. This is the angle at which you slant your nib. In traditional blackletter, it generally falls in the 35º – 45º range.
You likely don’t need to draw these guides as it’s generally easy enough to draw a vertical straight line that sits perpendicular to your other guidelines. And after a while, you get used to holding your pen at a consistent angle. However, these guides become much more useful when italicizing your letterforms.
Adapting Blackletter to Italics
Drawing a 90º vertical align that is perpendicular to your other guides is easy enough to do without having a vertical guideline. Drawing consistently at a tilted angle is far more difficult.
Once again, it’s the rhythmic uniformity that gives blackletter its strong qualities. If they fall out of rhythm (the downstrokes fall at different angles), the piece begins to look sloppy.
Therefore, it’s important to maintain a consistent down stroke as well as maintaining a consistent pen angle.
Let’s revisit our original guide with some newly applied angle guides.
In the example above, the vertical guides are now tilted (at a 75º angle). The pen angle guides are also tilted to be a little more flat (at a 30º angle).
It’s worth noting that there’s no real formula for determining your pen angle. You should do whatever feels comfortable and gives you your preferred result. For the purpose of demonstration, I adjusted the pen angle by the same number of degrees as the vertical access (a difference of 15º).
That’s all there is to it. Not so complicated right? The important thing to shoot for is consistency. And there’s no better way to encourage consistency than by using a rigid set of guides.
Getting Started with Italic Blackletter Calligraphy
I personally like to make my own guidelines with pencil on a clean sheet of paper, apply my calligraphy in ink, and then erase the guidelines leaving a finished piece. However, I’ve created a guideline template for you to practice on:
This guide is comprised of a 2:4:2 ratio with a 3.8MM nib width. The vertical axis is increased by 15º, which means the letters tilt to 75º. The pen angle is aligned at 30º. I would recommend practicing with a green Pilot Parallel as it will fit these templates perfectly.
To utilize these guidelines, tilt your pen to match the pen angle guideline at the beginning of each stroke. And as you execute each down stroke, ensure that it runs parallel to the vertical axis guideline. That’s it!
I hope you enjoy applying your letters in an unfamiliar context as much as I have. It’s always good to try new things.