Parallel Pen Techniques — Controlling Pressure

With a flat pen, such as a Pilot Parallel or an automatic pen, our minds are conditioned to think of the lines it produces as thin and thick — at least when we start. However, once you become comfortable manipulating the pen in different ways, new worlds opens up for you to explore. In this post, we’ll cover the Parallel pen techniques pressure control.

These techniques work the same for any sort of flat pen with a solid nib — and even a flat brush.

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.

Thin, thick, and mixed strokes

Thin, thick, and mixed strokes

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. Now let’s take it a step further and introduce the aspect of pressure.

Flexibility of the Nib

The nib of a Parallel pen or an automatic pen is quite resilient. It is made of two strong, but relatively flexible slabs of metal. In exploring Parallel pen techniques of pressure application, it might help to think of the nib as a flat brush paint brush — but much more rigid.

Depending on how hard you apply pressure to this metal “brush”, you can actually achieve a spectrum of different stroke widths regardless of what angle you hold the pen at.

A diagram to visual different pressure applications

A diagram to visual different pressure applications

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 any stroke width 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.

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, 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.

1. Gradual Release

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.

A gradual release stroke

A gradual release stroke

This results in a sharp “spike”.

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.

If you’re writing blackletter, you might use this technique to create a sharp stem in the letter “p”.

Majuscule P with a gradual release downstroke

Majuscule P with a gradual release downstroke

Finishing Release

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).

Finishing release in letters E and f

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.

Controlled Flaring

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.

Decorative filigrees using pressure

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:

Decorative filigrees on majuscule letters A and B

Gestural Flaring

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.

Gestural flares on majuscule letter K

Final Tips

Remember that practice makes perfect. As with learning any sort of Parallel pen 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.

Now go forth and have fun! As always, feel free to reach out if you have any questions!

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