Learning Blackletter Alphabets (Free Downloadable Guides)
It was actually blackletter script that got me into hand-lettering years back. No matter what style I would pursue, I would always find myself coming back to the “gothic” school of letterforms. You might not think of this classic script style when you think of calligraphy or hand-lettering. But believe it or not, it’s incredibly popular and its rich history predates scripts like Copperplate or Spencerian by centuries.
Years back, I posted a series of posts that dove into learning Blackletter (specifically in Textura and Fraktur styles). Since then, I’ve written many posts on blackletter technique. I’ve also published a series of workbooks dedicated to learning each style of the four styles of blackletter. Upon revisiting those posts, I realized the content was lacking in regards to what I’m now able to offer instructionally. As a result, I decided to compile all of those posts into this single big one. And that’s what you’re reading right now.
Blackletter 101: A Primer
First off, let’s get our vocabulary straight. You’ve probably heard the terms “Old English” or “gothic” in reference to blackletter. All of this terminology is interchangeable and over centuries, has become common slang to describe the style.
The style itself originated in Northern Europe during the 11th century. It evolved as it spread throughout Europe until the early 1900s. Interestingly enough, the rigid vertical structure was written to mimic the architecture of gothic cathedrals (hence the name “gothic”). This style of architecture is not meant to be confused with the actual Gothic tribes from or the Gothic alphabet. This particular alphabet was used by bishops and missionaries in bible translation many centuries earlier.
In regards to the “Old English”, it was believed the Old English language was written in blackletter style. It was later disproved, but the name stuck, at least in our modern era. This was arguably due to a blackletter font called “Old English Text”, which is often found in newspaper headline text.
I could go on about the history and evolution of blackletter, but it’s well beyond the scope of this article.
Different Styles of Blackletter
Blackletter is simply a reference to a variety, or school, of gothic calligraphy styles. But to distill things down for the sake of simplicity, you accurately categorize the main classic varieties of blackletter into to the following four styles:
- Textura (also known as Textualis)
- Bastarda (also known as Batarde)
This tends to confuse or overwhelm people when they first attempt to learn blackletter because it becomes tough to understand the differences and why there are so many variations of each of these four core styles. Why? Well, simply because it evolved over time, across lands under different rule, through the instruction of people that were all trained differently, and with access to different tools and materials.
But don’t overthink it. Here’s a simple and roughly loose way of explaining:
Textura, a rigid and vertically structured form of blackletter started in the 11th century in Northern Europe. Shortly thereafter, Rotunda emerged in Southern Europe. Rotunda is inspired by Textura, but features many round forms. Over the centuries when it became more common for the everyday person to learn to write, Bastarda. Hence the name, it’s truly a bastardized version of Textura and Rotunda, often written quickly (which results in more flow of gesture and expression). In the 1800 and 1900s, German blackletter evolved into Fraktur (from a hand called Schwabacher), a more formalized and rhythmic rendition of Bastarda hands. This was the font used by Hitler and the Third Reich. Those assholes inevitably tarnished the hand’s reputation.
Once again, it’s hard to sum up centuries of history in just a couple of paragraphs, but hopefully this gives you a high-level understanding of blackletter’s origins and it’s four core styles. Let’s get to the fun part.
Blackletter Tools of the Trade
In this day and age, writing blackletter is much easier than it used to be. There are many tools at our disposal and what works best for one person might not work best for the next. You could use brushes, pens, markers, or even classic quills. However, the key factor is that your writing utensil is “broad edged”. Also referred to as a “flat”, this style of edge is simply one which can produce thick and thin lines, depending on the direction it is moved.
I have an entire post on broad edge calligraphy resources. If you want to dive deep, it contains everything you need to know.
However, if you’re just getting your feet wet or experimenting and are unsure of where to start, look no further than the Pilot Parallel. This pen comes in four sizes (I recommend the 3.8MM). It is incredibly versatile, easy to maintain, and inexpensive. With just a little care, it will last you for many years.
What about paper? Don’t go crazy with paper when you’re just starting out. If you’re using basic ink, almost anything will do. If you notice some bleeding, use a thicker paper (bristol or any kind of mixed media marker pad will work just fine).
Blackletter Guide Preparation
Working with a guide is not cheating. For most, it’s a crucial aspect of enabling the execution of consistent letterforms. Without going too far into details and the philosophies behind guide creation, just know there are no hard and fast rules.
When it comes to broad edged calligraphy, guides are measured in “units”, where one unit represents the width of your writing utensil. For blackletter calligraphy, a 2:4:2 ratio guide is appropriate, particularly for what we’re doing. A 2:4:2 ratio means your x-height is 4 units while your ascender and descender heights are 2 units. Your letters will sit on the baseline.
Lowercase (minuscule) letters will be as tall as the x-height, unless they have an ascender, in which case the letterform will reach the ascender line. Likewise, if they have a descender, that descender will reach the descender line. Uppercase (majuscule) letters sit on the baseline and extend all the way up to the ascender.
You can certainly make these guides yourself and even experiment with different ratios of your choosing, but I’ve also created a 2:4:2 guide sheet that you can print out to save time. This guide sheet is based on a 3.8MM unit, which is the width of the second largest in the Pilot Parallel pen series. This is the tool that I recommended in the previous section.
Before We Begin
You’re primed and prepped to get started. This is where most people experience paralysis. What style of blackletter are you supposed to learn first? Should you copy an alphabet? How do you know if you’re practicing the best technique? These are all questions I asked when I first started. And after many years of practice, the best answer is simply to just start.
To give you a good understanding of how to approach every style or variation you come across, we’re going to build towards learning two drastically different alphabets. This might seem like a lot — and it is! You’re going to be learning the extent of what your pen is capable of when it comes to composing strokes. However, this is the fastest way to develop your pen skills and gain an understanding and appreciation of the nuanced differences that make each rendition of a blackletter alphabet unique.
Before we jump in, just remember: calligraphy is hard. It is essential that you remind yourself of this when you get frustrated or fatigued. You can learn the basics in a matter of hours. However, mastering the execution and developing the muscles takes countless hours of practice. There’s no silver bullet. Just a whole lot of practice. Practice, practice, practice.
Blackletter Minuscule (Lowercase) Strokes
Hold your pen (or the blackletter tool of your choice), at an angle of 40º to 50º. With a few exceptions, this is the angle at which you will create most of your letters from. Holding the pen in this manner allows you to achieve different line widths depending on the direction in which you move your pen.
So simple, yet so important! You’ll find a quad (a diamond shape) of some sort in many letterforms, so make sure you get comfortable, as it is also the basic for many horizontal stroke variations. There are two varieties of diamonds; regular and elongated.
These diamond shapes are simple, but they take a little bit of practice. The key to making a perfect diamonds is to ensure that the left and right points are horizontally aligned. To create one, place your pen on the paper while making note of where the left edge of your nib is touching the paper.
Picture a line that goes horizontally across your paper right through that point. Now slowly pull down and to the right (at the same angle your pen is tilted) until the right edge of your nib is at that imaginary line.
Elongated diamonds follow the exact same technique, but when you pull down, you do so at an angle that is less than that of your tilted pen. In other words, move it further to the right than you are moving it down.
As a general rule of thumb, downstrokes are always thick. A large majority of the Textura style is made up by different combinations of these strokes, particularly the lowercase alphabet.
To achieve these strokes, firmly hold your pen and pull in the appropriate direction (very rarely will you push a stroke in blackletter). Be sure not to twist your pen. Maintaining a consistent angle is the most important part of a down stroke.
Once you’re comfortable with a basic downstroke, try mixing diamonds into them.
To begin with a diamond, follow the diamond technique, but when you finish with the diamond, don’t lift your pen. Instead, pull straight downwards.
To end with a diamond, pull your stroke down, but don’t pull it all the way to the baseline. Instead, stop about a diamond’s height shorter and pull your diamond out to the right.
Now let’s try some more advanced downstrokes. At first glance, these look pretty easy (and maybe the will be for you), but up until this point, the strokes you’ve practiced have been rigidly straight. Those straight strokes are common Textura, but in later iterations of blackletter (like Fraktur), the strokes bend much more.
These vertical strokes are all achieved by moving your pen down straight (or at a slight bend like the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th example in the above image).
The last stroke in the above image is by far the hardest. Notice how it tapers off to a point as it gets towards the bottom? This technique requires hours of practice before it becomes natural. It can be achieved by applying more pressure on the left of the nib and less pressure on the right side of the nib as you finish off the stroke. It can also be done by gradually rotating your pen counter-clockwise as the stroke progresses, ending in a vertical point.
Horizontal strokes in Textura are relatively easy. To perform a basic horizontal stroke, place your pen and pull it horizontally in a straight line. As always, make sure you’re holding your pen at a consistent angle.
To make a curved horizontal stroke, adjust the direction you’re pulling ever so slightly so that you can achieve the curve.
When it comes to giving strokes more of an expressive and sharp Fraktur-style edge, you’ll need to finesse the pen a little more. In the following diagram, the first stroke move the is similar to the straight horizontal Textura stroke, but nib is moved upward at the beginning and end of the stroke to give it those sharp points.
The second stroke in the image above is executed much in the same way as the first, it’s just more of a fluid motion. As soon as you begin the stroke, move the pen up, over, down, then back up, finishing with a sharp point at the same angle in which the stroke began.
The third stroke (labelled “fill”) is something I refer to as a “flare”. These flares can be achieved in a single pen stroke if you flick the nib at the right angle while flexing it with the right amount of pressure. Again, this takes a a great deal of practice. Even after years of writing blackletter, it’s still a skill I’m personally refining. But you can always fake your flares by drawing them in with the edge of your nib. Don’t worry, it’s not cheating!
Learning Blackletter Minuscule Alphabets
If you’ve made it this far, give yourself a pat on the back. Learning basic strokes individually is not a particularly enjoyable or rewarding process, but it’s crucial to being able to develop letterforms. The good news is you’ve learned all of the strokes you need to create a variety of different styles of styles of blackletter. And to put your hard work to use, let’s do so right now.
Throughout these exercises, we spoke of Textura and Fraktur alphabets. The earlier exercises of each stroke category (strokes with more rigidness) are more pertinent to the Textura alphabet, whereas the the more expressive strokes are geared towards Fraktur.
I’ve created guide sheets for both of these alphabets that you can download and print out to aid in your practice. These guides are also based on a 3.8MM unit, so if you’re using the green Pilot Parallel, these should match up exactly with your pen nib. But if you’re using something else, these guides can still be a a helpful reference.
Here’s an example of what one of the guide pages look like:
Note: I created each of these alphabet guides at two different points in time, so the guide structure might look a little different at first glance, but the mechanics are identical.
Yes, there are 26 letters here, but once you know a couple of them, you know all of them. Nearly every letter is a combination of downstrokes and diagonal strokes. You’ll notice many of the letters in the textura minuscule (lowercase) alphabet follow the exact same pattern. For example, a, c, e, g, o, and q all start with the same vertical stroke and their second stroke is the short horizontal “diamond” that meets the top of the stroke at its edge. These repetitive patterns are extremely helpful in learning the alphabet quickly.
Here’s how I would recommend practicing:
Step 1: Start by Tracing
Don’t be afraid to trace — it’s not cheating, okay? This is how you learned to write when you were a child. There’s no quicker way to get comfortable with these letters.
I’ve set the guide sheet up in a way that allows you to start by tracing. Like the minuscule guide, each line slowly gradates from black to completely transparent. Begin by tracing and as you start to familiarize yourself with the feel of each letterform, you can rely on the guides less and less.
Step 2: Draw from Reference
When you feel comfortable enough to draw the letters without tracing them, get a fresh practice sheet and use it to draw your own letters. But keep the other guide sheet in front of you. Reference those letters as your draw yours.
You’ll need to draw each letter many times before you’re able to memorize them. Then you’ll need to draw them each many more times to get them perfect.
Step 3. Draw from Memory
When you’ve engrained each letter into memory, print more practice sheets and put the reference guide away. Draw the entire alphabet and then go back and check the guide to see how accurate you were.
At this point, you can start introducing minuscules and writing words and sentences. Here’s a couple sentences that utilize all of the different letters of the alphabet:
- Jaded zombies acted quaintly but kept driving their oxen forward.
- A mad boxer shot a quick, gloved jab to the jaw of his dizzy opponent.
- The job requires extra pluck and zeal from every young wage earner.
- A quart jar of oil mixed with zinc oxide makes a very bright paint.
Blackletter Majuscule (Uppercase) Strokes
Majuscule alphabets are substantially more complex. While they share similar repetition (here and there) to their minuscule counterparts, there are considerably more variations. As a result, they’re much harder to learn and master. However, if you’ve spent some quality time with with the minuscule alphabets and are feeling ready to advance on to the majuscules, let’s do it. If not, don’t worry. This section isn’t going anywhere!
These strokes should be pretty straightforward, given your practice. The tapered strokes here, which you’ll see often in the Textura majuscules are actually quite similar to the vertical strokes in the minuscule Fraktur alphabet.
The tapered stroke begins and ends in a point. To perform this stroke, begin slightly off to the right of where you want the body of your down stroke to be. As always, be sure to maintain a consistent angle. Starting with a point, pull inwards towards the body of your stroke, and then down. As you reach the end of the stroke, end in a point by pulling out and to the left.
Downward “strokes” with serifs are actually multi-stroke pieces of a letter… and you already know how to do them! They’re just combinations of vertical and horizontal strokes from the previous lesson. Start with the top chiseled horizontal. Release. Perform the downstroke. Release. Finally, perform the bottom chiseled horizontal.
Here are some common contexts in which you’ll see these strokes:
Diagonals follow a similar form to basic downward strokes, except they’re done at an angle. If you’ve been practicing, you shouldn’t have any trouble recreating these. However, getting the angle just right will require some trial and error.
Some common contexts in which you’ll see these strokes:
It’s important to get a feel for creating varying line-widths with a single pull stroke. Crescents are a great way to master that feeling. You got a little taste of this with some of the horizontal strokes.
Hold the pen firmly, and starting from the top, pull out to the left towards the bottom of the stroke while maintaining a consistent angle. As you round the thick part of the stroke, pull towards the end of the crescent. If you did everything right, you should have a sliver with two tapered ends and a thick middle.
The full circle is done in two strokes. The strokes are actually identical if you were to flip the second stroke upside down. To create the second stroke, start at the top with your nib touching where the first stroke begins. Pull downward and to the right, rounding out the stroke and pulling into the left where the first stroke ends.
Again, here are some common contexts in which you’ll see these strokes:
In the previous image, you can see these strokes in the context of Textura letterforms, but they’re also just as common Fraktur letterforms:
Hairlines & Other Miscellaneous Strokes
Abstracting majuscule alphabets is a little more difficult than with the minuscules. The fact is many of the majuscule letterforms are comprised of their own unique strokes. Or, even if they reuse a stroke from another letterform, it might appear in a different placement or at a different size.
The good news is you’ve really gotten solid look into what your pen can do, so anything else you see should be relatively easy to figure out for yourself. But here are a couple more common stroke exercises to help get you warmed up even more.
Hairlines often appear as little decorations or filigrees, but are occasionally used as structural lines in letters such as “N” or “X” in the Textura alphabet. They’re also quite frequent in the Fraktur majuscules and while they might not be structurally integral, the letters wouldn’t be the same without them.
The best way to achieve hair lines is to tilt your pen nib on its side, drawing with one of the two corners.
And finally, a couple of odd, yet common stroke combinations that you’ll find in the Fraktur majuscules.
Start from the left of the below image. The first stroke looks a bit odd on it’s own, but you’ll see how it comes together in several different letter shortly. Start with the long vertical (labelled “1”). Position your pen’s nib at a 40º slightly below the ascender line. Move upwards and to the right briefly, but then quickly loop around and bring it down a single unit about the baseline.
The second stroke begins directly to the left (about 1.5 units) of where the first stroke ends. It’s one of those “squiggle” strokes, so move the pen slightly upward at 40º and loop back down, continuing down through where the top of this stroke meets the previous stroke until the bottom of this stroke meets the baseline. Then finish it off with that upward curl at 40º.
The second exercise from the left should look familiar to you. It’s comprised of two of the basic strokes from the minuscule alphabet. You’ll also find this series of strokes throughout the majuscule alphabet as well.
The third and fourth exercises are pretty self explanatory. Begin with a hairline stroke moving straight upwards until you get towards the ascender line. Finish off the stroke with the respective horizontal (third exercise) or diagonal (fourth exercise).
The diamond is optional, but it certainly adds to the visual complexity of your letter.
Here are some examples of letters using these miscellaneous strokes. That unique combination are pretty prevalent, right?
Learning Blackletter Majuscule Alphabets
You must be pretty sick of practicing strokes. If so, I don’t blame you. But you’ve made it to the fun part. Now it’s time to put it all together.
Just like the minuscules, Ive also prepared majuscule guides for a Textura alphabet and Fraktur alphabet.
Begin by printing out the guide sheets. As you go through, focus diligently on the angles of the strokes as well as the negative space. Maintaining consistency with the negative space will help your letters look uniform when you begin putting them together.
Just as you did before, trace the guides carefully, and as they fade out, reference them visually until you’re comfortable creating each letterform from memory.
Practice. I really can’t express this enough. It takes an incredibly long time (10,000 hours?) to master something. But it should also be fun.
Look for opportunities to practice regularly. Your brain and hands will grow quicker if you develop a routine rather than picking up the pen a couple of times a month when it feels convenient.
But after considerable practice, you’ll be looking for ways to take your work to the next level. And there are so many opportunities to do so. Different letter variations, stroke techniques, compositions, etc. Check out the Resources section for all of this content and more. I’ve spent years writing this stuff and it’s helped thousands of aspiring calligraphers.
Finally, if you’re taking this seriously and are really looking to fast-track your learning, consider checking out my printable e-books. There are a total of four (one for each style of Blackletter; Textura, Rotunda, Bastarda, and Fraktur). They go much further into depth than this tutorial and even though you’ve learned a basic Textura and Fraktur alphabet in this article, the Textura and Fraktur alphabets in these books are considerably different and far more advanced. Those two in particular are great next steps.
I hope you’re not as frustrated as I was when I started blackletter calligraphy. Unfortunately, I did it all by eye without guides. It was for this reason I decided to create my own, so hopefully they’re helping you out. If you have any hangups or suggestions, I’m all ears. Shoot me an email firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know how they’re working for you. Keep up the good work!