Understanding and Creating Blackletter Calligraphy Guides

In this article, we’ll discover what blackletter calligraphy guides are and how they can help improve consistency within your blackletter or flat-pen calligraphy work. You’ll also learn about line anatomy and how you can leverage different calligraphy guideline ratios to apply unique aesthetic qualities to your compositions.

Whether you’re just practicing Blackletter calligraphy or you’re about to lay the foundation for a large piece, you’ll probably want to lay out guidelines to help ensure your work follows a consistent typographic system. I’m not talking about lesson-based tutorials or books, I’m talking about templates with drawn lines in which your work will sit atop of. These guidelines will aid you in maintaining uniformity throughout your entire composition.

This might be seem arbitrary or unnecessary… but try writing a sentence on a blank piece of paper. Chances are, your line begins to slant or become wavy as you progress. Perhaps each word or letter is vertically offset ever-so-slightly from the previous. Are the descenders and ascenders the same size? Probably not.

Writing freehand with no guides
Writing freehand with no blackletter calligraphy guides

With careful focus, you might be able to mitigate some of these common side-effects of writing without guidelines, but this will inevitably draw attention away from your actual work. Calligraphy guidelines remove this tedium, which makes the process more enjoyable. And if you follow the template you’ve laid out, consistency is guaranteed.

Writing with guides
Writing with blackletter calligraphy guides

Isn’t That Cheating?

Definitely not.

Perhaps you’ve seen some of the “experts” on Instagram or YouTube write freehand without guides. And with enough practice, you can do this too. However, it doesn’t make the work any more authentic and I can assure you they did not start that way.

Can you draw a perfect circle freehand? Most people can’t. I sure as hell can’t, and even if I could, I’d still trace a circle or use a compass because it’s easier and requires less eyeballing and guesswork.

Don’t make life harder than it has to be. Draw guides!

Tools for Drawing Blackletter Calligraphy Guides

Before we dive in to the nitty gritty, let’s touch on tools briefly.

You don’t need anything fancy… just a pencil and a ruler will do. And of course, an eraser to carefully erase the guidelines out of your finished piece when you’re done.

However, if you’re looking to streamline the process, there are two items I’d recommend adding to your tool belt.

30″ Aluminum Graduated T-Square

30″ Aluminum Graduated T-Square helps ensure your lines are parallel to eachother (assuming you align and anchor it accordingly). Aluminum is recommended because it is a resilient material and will last forever. Plastic tools tend to split and snap easily and can be more difficult to clean if there is dried ink or paint stuck on them.

30" Aluminum Graduated T-Square
30″ Aluminum Graduated T-Square

Rolling Ruler

Rolling Rulers take a little practice to get the hang of, but they make creating guidelines a breeze. Essentially, it’s a straight-edge ruler with a built-in… inner ruler. You draw a line, and without lifting the roller, glide it along the page to the desired space (which is indicated by markings on the inner ruler), and draw your next line. Very handy.

Rolling Ruler
Rolling Ruler

Guideline Anatomy

A single baseline on which your letters sit can suffice in some cases, but robust a blackletter calligraphy guide generally consist of more than just a baseline. If you’re familiar with basic typographic principles, this should look familiar. But if you’re not, it’s quite simple. Consider the following diagram:

Annotated Blackletter calligraphy guideline
Annotated Blackletter calligraphy guideline

The structural body of all letters sit on the baseline. And if it’s a minuscule (lowercase), it will generally reach up as far as the “x-height” (this can also be referred to as the “m-height”). This rule hold true for letters like “a”, “c”, “m”, or “x”, among others.

There are two exceptions to this rule; letters with “ascenders” and letters with “descenders”.

An ascender is present when one of a letter’s stems (vertical strokes) reaches above the x-height, all the way to the ascender guideline. For example, “b”, “d”, “f”, and “l” are all letters that have ascenders, since they contain a stem that reaches above the x-height.

Ascenders and descenders
An example of an ascenders and a descender

Likewise, a descender is present when one of a letter’s stems reaches below the x-height, all the way down to the descender guideline. Letters “j”, “h”, “p”, and “q” are all letters that have descenders, since they contain a stem that reaches below the x-height.

When it comes to majuscule (uppercase) letters, they also sit on the baseline and depending on the alphabet style, some might have descenders. But unlike their minuscule counterparts, all majuscules occupy the entirety of space between the ascender guideline and the baseline.

Guideline Spacing

Now that you understand how blackletter calligraphy guides are constructed, you should be able to understand how different letters of the alphabet will exist on those guidelines. Yet, you might be wondering just how much space exists between the baseline and the x-height, or just how tall an ascender is.

The space between these individual lines is just as important as the lines themselves, particularly when it comes to any sort of flat-pen calligraphy, such as blackletter.

Defining a Spacing Unit

This vertical spacing is measured in units, and with proportions of those units representing the space between two lines. How big is a unit? One unit represents one nib-width of your pen. For example, if you’re writing with a 6MM wide nib, then your spacing unit is 6MM.

Pilot Parallels, which are common (and highly recommended!) fountain pens for writing flat-pen calligraphy come in four different sizes, measured in MM. Likewise, these width measurements would represent a spacing unit.

1 nib width = 1 unit
1 nib width = 1 unit

Note: This approach applies exclusively to flat-pen calligraphy. When it comes to pointed-pen calligraphy such as Copperplate or Spencerian scripts, you can still use ratios (although the ratios will differ drastically), but they are measured in metric units such as centimeters.

Using Ratios

Taking the spacing unit size into account, you’ll want to apply these to a ratio which defines how many spacing units exist between each guideline. One of the most common ratios for blackletter calligraphy guides is 2:4:2.

Annotated 2:4:2 grid

A 2:4:2 ratio means:

  • The space between the ascender and x-height line is two spacing units (e.g. 2x nib width of 6MM nib = 12MM)
  • The space between the x-height and baseline is four spacing units (e.g 4x nib width of 6MM nib = 24MM)
  • The space between the baseline and descender is two spacing units (e.g. 2x nib width of 6MM nib = 12MM)

While a 2:4:2 ratio is common, other ratios can be used as well! For example, any of the following ratios could work:

  • 3:4:3 Ratio
  • 2:3:2 Ratio
  • 2:5:2 Ratio
  • 1:3:1 Ratio
  • Etc.

Typically, the ascenders and descenders should occupy the same vertical space for best visual results, but there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to working with ratios. Experiment and see what ratios look appealing to you.

You’ll just want to consider how it impact a line of script aesthetically. For example, a 3:4:3 Ratio would make your ascenders and descenders quite tall, resulting in an elongated letter whereas a 2:5:2 ratio would make the body of the letter that exists between the baseline and x-height significantly larger than the descenders, which would look stumpy in context to each other.

Depending on how far you want to experiment, you might also consider working in ratios with half spacing units.

Spacing Between Lines

Now let’s say you’re working on a multi-line composition… How far should the lines be spaced? Should we use units?

You certainly can, but you don’t have to.

The spacing between lines can depend on many factors and it’s ultimately up to you to determine what looks appropriate for style and legibility. What’s most important is that if you have more than two lines, the spacing between each of them should be consistent so the overall composition looks uniform.

Here are some factors to consider when deciding how much space to add between your lines:

  • If the lines are spaced close together, are descenders in one line going to interfere with ascenders in the next line?
  • Will there be flourishes or other decorative elements between lines that need to be taken into account?
  • If the lines are spaced further apart, will the composition read as one piece or will it be fragmented?

With that said, don’t overthink it too much. Deciding upon linespacing will become second nature once you do it a handful of times.

Vertical Guides for Letter Width and Spacing

You might want to consider adding vertical guidelines in addition to horizontal guidelines.

90º vertical guidelines can be incredibly helpful for ensuring all of your vertical stems are truly vertical and perpendicular to the baseline.

Most calligraphy artists naturally write with their surface slightly rotated to one side to ease the strain on their wrists. This is generally the result of habits developed throughout their lifetime from an early age of practicing basic penmanship. While this might be more comfortable, it can make executing a perfectly perpendicular stroke throughout and entire composition more challenging.

Vertical blackletter calligraphy guides can help control letter-width consistently in
Vertical guides can help control letter-width consistently

In addition to alleviating this problem, vertical guidelines can also be used to help maintain consistency in the space within letters, between letters, and between words. To do this, space each vertical guideline one nib width apart. Having these guidelines close in proximity and consistently spaced will remove any guessing as you work through your piece.

Tips for Drawing Calligraphy Guides

At this point, you know everything there is to know about drawing calligraphy guidelines for your work. But drawing calligraphy guidelines can be cumbersome and time-consuming. And quite honestly, boring. So before you get started, here are some tips that you might find convenient.

Free Practice Calligraphy Guide Template

If you’re just looking to practice, the template that I’ve created are perfect for printing, photocopying, or tracing.

Download Blackletter calligraphy guides
Download free Blackletter calligraphy guide template

The template is built in the common 2:4:2 ratio and sized for a 3.8MM nib. This is the size of the green medium-large Pilot Parallel, but you can also get away with relatively similar sized nib too. 

Pilot Parallel 3.8MM (AKA: The green one)
Pilot Parallel 3.8MM (AKA: The green one)

Alternatively, you can make your own custom template and duplicate it as needed.

Light Box

If you’re going beyond practice and want to create finished piece without printed guidelines, consider a tabletop light box. These are thin adjustable lights designed for tracing. The light they cast is powerful enough to go through paper and “project” the guides beneath the page you’re writing on. This way, you can create a guide once, reuse it, and you won’t even have to erase drawn guidelines on your finished work.

Artist Light Box
Artist Light Box

Note: Effectiveness with a light box will vary depending on the paper thicknesses you’re working with.

T-Square Trick

Once you get into the swing of working with calligraphy guidelines, you might feel comfortable abandoning exact measurements in favor of loosely eyeballing your ratios. If you’re familiar with how a line ratio fits into the width of your T-square, you can bang out lines quickly with the following steps.

  1. Align your T-square at the top of the page and draw a guide on the top part of the ruler as well as the bottom part of the ruler.
  2. Move your T-square downward to where you think the ascender height should be (~2 units) and draw two more guides (top and bottom part of the ruler). The top guide represents the ascender and the bottom guide represents the descender.
  3. Move your T-square downward another ~2 units and draw two more guides (top and bottom part of the ruler). The top guide represents the x-height and the bottom guide represents the ascender of the next line.
  4. Move the ruler down so that the top of the ruler is on the bottom guide that you drew step one, which is actually the baseline. Draw a guide on the lower side of the ruler, which will represent the baseline of the next line.

If you followed correctly, you’ve just drawn two entire lines of guides. Here’s what it should look like.

You can repeat this exercise all the way down the page and have an entire page of calligraphy guidelines in no time at all!

Don’t go crazy trying to measure perfect units. Once you get comfortable, the unit size won’t matter much. What is more important is that the ratios of each line are consistent with the next line.

Conclusion

That’s all there is to it. Now you have a great foundational understanding of typographic systems and how you can easily apply that system to your own practices to guarantee consistency throughout your work.

I hope this was helpful. If you have an questions, please don’t hesitate to shoot me an email!

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