Last week, we talked about the different schools of script and their histories. You want to jump in and start making letters now, right? We’re almost there. Before you get your hands dirty, let’s go over some things you’ll need to know before getting started.

Letter Anatomy

You look at letters everyday, but can you speak the language? You don’t need to be an expert at what makes a letter a letter, but familiarizing yourself with the lingo never hurts, particularly if you need to actually talk about letters and refer to specific aspects of them.

I’ve created this simple illustration that points out the common pieces of letters. Feel free to refer to it throughout your learning.

Diagram of the parts that make up a letter

The anatomy of letters.

The Tools

You don’t need anything fancy to create beautiful letters. You’ll get a lot more joy out of lettering by experimenting with different tools and systems. But don’t be afraid to start with your average household pen or pencil.

Writing Utensils

There are an infinite amount of specialty pencils, pens, brushes, and markers that you can use to draw and write. Certain tools are more suitable for certain styles. You should try new things to find out what works best for you.

Here is a list of my favorite tools to use for script lettering:

Pentel Stylo Pen

This is a great tool to start off with and is perfect for experimenting with elegant script. It’s inexpensive and high quality. The nib writes like a felt tip pen, but is unique in that the width of your line will change depending on how hard you press.

Crayola Broad Line Marker

Wait, the same ones you had when you were a kid? Yep! Believe it or not, these things are awesome for script lettering. They have a firm, yet soft pointed nib that can give you a variety of line-weights depending on you hold it. These babies are cheap and they can really take a beating.

Pentel Fude Brush Pen

Brush pens are tough to learn with, but once you get the basics down, you can achieve some very expressive styles. Unlike other brush pens, Pentel Fude has a resilient brush tip that will stay pointed and last a long time.

Speedball Traditional Pen and Ink Set

A quill that you dip into ink — just like old times! No modern pen can compare to the quality of line you can get with a quill. But be warned, it takes a while to get the hang of using one. I would recommend against starting with this. It can be very frustrating to learn how to use a pen while you’re still learning how to draw the letters.

Again, if you’re just starting off, there’s nothing wrong with using what you already have.

Grid systems and guides

Perhaps you’ve wondered how a master penman can make such perfectly consistent work. One major factor is that they’re using guides to make the composition mathematically precise.

There several major factors that go into making your letters consistent with guides:

Consistent line height and spacing

All of your lines should be the same height, and the space between them should be consistent.

Diagram of the parts that make up a letter

In traditional Roundhand, different variances in line height and line spacing were defined in ratios. For example, a 3:2:3 ratio means that the ascender-height is comprised of 3 units of measurement. The x height is comprised of 2 units of measurement, and the space between the lines is comprised of 3 units of measurement. Don’t overthink this — just keep your compositions consistent throughout.

Consistent x-height

Simply put, all of your lowercase letters should be the same height. The exception to this rule is letters with ascenders (and the letter “t”, which has a slightly taller stem).

Consistent letter angle

Also referred to as the axis. All of your letters and words should be slanted to the same angle. In traditional Roundhand, the angle is around 55º, but you can play with different angles to give the composition unique character.

IAMPETH has a free downloadable PDF that contains several pages of practice guides with a variety of ratios.

Beginner Exercises for Roundhand

This might sound silly, but when you start learning letters, it’s helpful not to think of them as letters.

Think of letters as lines that make up different shapes. Learning all of these shapes in isolation makes putting together letters very easy. If you take this approach, you’ll be amazed by how fast you can pick up the alphabet.

Start with the following exercises to get accustomed to how to make the shapes that the letters we’ll be learning in the next post are comprised of.

Full Pressure Stroke

This is pretty simple. Press down to get a thicker, darker line and draw from the top of the ascender-height down to the baseline. The line should be parallel with the axis.

Examples of full pressure strokes

3 full pressure strokes.

Pressure and Release Strokes

These strokes contain varying full pressures and low pressures.

Examples of full pressure and release strokes

4 variations of pressure release strokes.
  1. Start with a full pressure stroke, but as you move down past the x-height, begin lightening the pressure of the stroke and gradually curve the stroke back up right as you meet the baseline. Keeping the pressure light, complete the stroke at the x-height. Make sure the upward part of the stroke at the end is parallel to the downward stroke from the beginning.

  2. Repeat the previous exercise starting at the x-height instead of the ascender-height.

  3. Similar to the previous exercise, only flipped upside down. Starting with light pressure from the baseline, draw upwards. As you reach the x-height, curve around and begin applying pressure as you move back down to the baseline. Again, make sure the second half of stroke is parallel with the first half of the stroke.

  4. This is a combination of #2 and #3. Begin with number 3, but as you come down to the baseline, loop back up as you did in #2.

Oval stroke

This one is important, so make sure you practice it the most. Starting at the x-height, apply pressure and moved downwards towards the baseline. As you approach the baseline, lighten the pen pressure and loop back up to close the oval loop.

Examples of oval strokes

3 consistent ovals.

Your axis should evenly intersect the oval.

Lead-in stroke

This is the hairline stroke that will lead into your letters. This line should gradually slant up from the baseline to the x-height.

Examples of lead-in strokes

Lead-in strokes are the beginning strokes of many letters.

Descender loop

Starting with a full pressure stroke at the x-height, move downward past the baseline until you reach the ascender-height of the line below. As you approach that line, lighten the pressure and loop back up crossing back over the stem just below the baseline.

Example of descender loop stroke

A descender loop stroke.

Ascender loop

This one is a bit weird and will not feel natural at first. Start with a lead-in stroke. Pause when you get to the x-height and then curve the stroke off to the right, looping upward towards the ascender-height. As you approach the ascender-height, loop back to the left and proceed with a full-pressure stroke down to the baseline.

Example of ascender loop stroke

The three parts of an ascender loop stroke.

Pro Tip: As you might have noticed, thin lines are drawn when moving the pen upward while thick lines are drawn while moving the pen downward. An important rule of thumb to remember is to only apply pressure on downward strokes.

Next Steps

If you’ve followed to this point, give yourself a pat on the back. It’s not the most glorious aspect of learning script, but the hard part is behind you. Now it’s time to start making beautiful letters.

Next, you’ll take everything you’ve learned so far and apply it to actually creating the alphabet. I’ll show you the right ways to practice and with a little work, you’ll be able to create beautiful calligraphic scripts.