learn lettering

10 Simple Tricks to Start Brush Calligraphy

I’ve shared my favorite tips for hand letterers before, and while hand lettering and calligraphy are definitely related, they’re more like cousins than twins, so it’s time for some beginner calligraphy lovin.

Brush calligraphy is a style of writing where you use a brush, brush pen, or brush marker to produce varying pressure to create thick or thinner strokes in each letter. (Hand lettering = the drawing of letters. See, cousins!).

Despite it’s growing popularity, brush calligraphy can still seem super intimidating to beginners. Things like fearing bad handwriting or not having the “right” tools has turned off more than one future calligrapher.

Whether this sounds like you, or you’re just looking for some simple + straightforward tips to get started in brush calligraphy, I’ve put together a list of my top 10 simple tricks to start brush calligraphy…

01 Work with what you’ve got

This one may seem pretty straightforward, but I hear of so many people putting off brush calligraphy because they don’t think they have the right tools to start. While fancy pens and markers are a huge plus (I list my faves here!), you can start with something as simple as a Crayola marker, or even a very sharp pencil.

The key is to focus on the technique – applying pressure for thicker downstrokes (or the parts where the letter goes down) and thinner upstrokes (the part where the letter goes up).

Once you’ve gotten comfortable and want to invest in a nicer pen/marker, remember you’ll need to wear it in a bit before it gets the result you really want.

02 Start with lines + guides

I’m a HUGE fan of Rhodia dot and grid pads, and use these religiously for my own lettering and calligraphy. However, you can achieve the same results with any ruled or plain paper.

The trick is to draw out your lines. Remember that lined paper you used in elementary school when you learned how to write? It had a bottom line, top line, and dashed line in the middle – that’s what you want for your lettering!

I like to draw 4 lines (as opposed to the 3 I just mentioned) because it gives me a space for any descenders, or letters with parts that go down below the main line (ex. g, j, p, etc). This way everything is nice and even.

If you’re looking for more bouncy, modern calligraphy, I still recommend drawing out your lines. It’s a “learn the rules so you can break them” deal.

03 Make a mantra

When I first started calligraphy, I would repeat to myself “thick, thick, thick” every time I went down, and “thin, thin, thin” every time I went up. It sounds silly, especially when you say it out loud, but it works!

Find something that you can repeat to yourself as you write and use it as your mantra.

04 Watch your angle

Whether you’re using a Crayola marker or expensive brush pen, the trick to getting the right pressure lies in the angle at which you hold the pen. The generally accepted rule of thumb is about 45 degrees, but really this just translates to “as close to it’s side as you can hold comfortably.”

05 Help your hand

This is one of my favorites, and least mentioned, tricks of the trade. Use a small piece of paper (I usually use a folded up piece of scrap paper) under your hand while you’re writing. This not only protects the side of your hand from ink smudges but helps your hand glide smoothly across the paper!

06 Pick up your pen!

Brush calligraphy isn’t pointed pen calligraphy. You’re using a marker, not ink, so there’s no reason why you can’t pick up your pen between each letter. I’ve seen so many students get frustrated when their hands tire out and words get shaky at the end, but that’s because they’re trying to write a word in one full motion.

I think a lot of this comes from videos on social media, where people see calligraphers and letterers writing in hyper speed, so it looks like they’re writing words out in a matter of seconds. In reality, though, they’re taking their time and picking up their pen between every few letters (or sometimes even every letter!).

07 Take your time

Speaking of which, taking your time makes a huge difference. Again, hyper-lapse videos make it seem like you can write a word in calligraphy as quickly as you scribble your signature. But the key here is hyper-lapse. Those videos all over social media are sped up to make the process look shorter.

There’s no race, so take your sweet time.

08 Don’t sweat the small stuff.

The devil is in the detail, and as you get better at brush calligraphy I absolutely DO urge you to pay attention to things like how your thick and thin strokes connect and the shape of your loops.

However, when you’re starting out it’s too easy to get caught up in keeping each letter “perfect” and stressing yourself out.

Go with the flow, and don’t sweat the small stuff.

09 Ditch the tracing guides

This is a pretty controversial stance, as many brush calligraphers learned using tracing guides and offer them as a helpful tool, but hear me out before you click away.

Tracing guides are great, BUT there comes a point where they hurt more than they help. Before you try to mimic someone else’s writing, get comfortable with your own. That way you’re more focused on the technique and less focused on making a letter look identical to someone else’s.

That being said, once you’re feeling comfortable with the technique, take a look at styles and even fonts you like and try to incorporate them into your own letters.

10 Practice makes really damn good.

Perfection might be a load of crap, but really damn good is totally attainable. The trick – practice! Once you’ve gotten the hang of your technique and aren’t constantly focused on what to do with your pen for each stroke of a letter, it’s super fun to just sit back with your Rhodia pad and brush pen and doodle All The Words with some Netflix in the background and a glass of wine in your hand.

Just write. Write out words that come to mind, names you think of, even quotes you love. Write, write, write. With even just 10 or 15 minutes a day you’ll start to see improvement sooner than you think.

And that’s it! Using these 10 simple tricks will not only help brush calligraphy seem more accessible (I’m looking at you, “But I have bad handwriting”-ers!), but help take out some of the frustration and stress than can come from learning a new skill.