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Calligraphy Tips

Wonderful advice for the Scadian Calligrapher from Master RanthulfR, OL, KSCA

When not doing the SCA Master RanthulfR is Randy Asplund Science Fiction Artist having done various book illustrations, CCG cards and has does medieval style books, manuscripts and illuminations.

Tips for the SCA Calligrapher


Master RanthulfR AsparlundR, OL, KSCA

mka Randy Asplund, © 2012



Lord Ian asked me if I would contribute an occasional article on scribal arts for the website. I am writing a pretty extensive book about how books were made in the middle ages, called Secrets of Forgotten Masters. That book is really about the exact way artisans made books before 1500, but without giving it all away, I agreed that I could contribute bits about how a modern SCA scribe can do a better job and improve their work, regardless of whether they are using medieval tools, materials & techniques, or modern ones.


I'm going to start with a little article about calligraphy, written Q & A style for simplicity. Calligraphy is one of the most challenging things for an artist to learn. I'll confess that it took me years to learn to do it well enough not to feel embarrassed whenever I showed my work to anybody.  But I was learning the hard way, -teaching myself. Along the way I was given a few great tips by some very wonderful people. My hope is to give you some great tips to help you in that same way.


The following advice is aimed mostly at right-handers, but there is some good stuff here for lefties, so if you are left-handed please sort through and consider how you can adapt it. I think you'll learn many useful things. In the meantime, on my web site; www.RandyAsplund.com you can find some really interesting articles including the 3rd Edition of the Middle Kingdom Scribes' Handbook (Go to: http://www.randyasplund.com/pages/articleexhibit.html ) In its Appendix B you will find a chapter entitled “The Sinister Scribe,”  by Aleksandra de Acciptre (mka Sondra Venable).  She describes a really great left-handed way to hold the pen in order to make strokes in the same direction and order as a right-hander.


 Q1: My hand hurts after I calligraph for a while. What can I do to prevent this?


A: There are a few different reasons this may be happening. Most likely it is how you are holding your pen. I see a lot of people using grips that look more like a fist with a pen sticking out, or like a bird claw with a death grip on the pen, all scrunched up. Look at the many illustrations of medieval scribes holding their pens. Almost all of them show the pen being held between the tip of the thumb and the tips of the first two fingers. The two fingers are extended with a slight curve, not curled up.  There are some good reasons for this, and many will be found in the answers below.


The medieval scribe wrote with a very light touch. Both the bird quill and the reed pen require only the lightest touch on the page to make the ink flow. Are you squeezing the pen hard? If you are, then try the medieval grip and relax. It is very important that your hand is relaxed when writing. If you find yourself clenching, make a conscious effort to periodically remind yourself to relax. With less strain and an extended hand you should not be having pain.


I know a lot of you out there learned to hold the pen and pencil very differently from what I am telling you, and that it feels alien to hold it the medieval way. I've given this advice to people and seen them refuse it. They would rather fight with the pen and do it the hard way than learn the easy way that is more ergonomic and allows them to make medieval pen strokes correctly. Well, of course it will feel strange at first. Like learning any new thing it requires a little patience and practice before it feels natural. My advice is to open your mind to a new way and give it a chance.


Q2: I want to calligraph, but my hand shakes. What can I do?


A: I hear this a lot. Many people think that because their hand shakes or is otherwise a bit unsteady, they cannot do calligraphy or illumination. For most people though, this is not true. There is a way, and that way is through bracing. The tip I am going to give here will also help people without the shakes make smoother and smaller letters in general.


First, learn to hold the pen in the natural way described above. With that in mind, consider that the closer you brace the pen to the page, the less the shaking from your hand will be able to transfer to the tip. To do this, pick up the pen and hold it as described, then place your hand on the page so that the heel of your palm rests on it. You may curl the fourth and fifth fingers underneath, and that will allow you to get close enough to the page to rest the tip of your second finger lightly on the surface.  As you write, the heel of the hand may come up from the page from time to time, but that second fingertip should not.


You rely on that second fingertip to hold the pen at the exact same height from the page. It is the foundation of your bracing. Your first finger rests on the second finger, which being in contact with the page so close to the pen tip, reduces hand shakes.  You can be holding the pen more between the thumb and first finger, transferring the pressure directly down onto the second finger as it rests on the page.


I'm a guitar player, and keep the nails of my right hand a bit longer to pick the strings. I have noticed that having the second finger's nail longer caused it to contact the page when using the method described above. The bonus from that is my smooth fingernail has much less friction on the page than my skin, so I can actually use it to glide on when I want to make longer braced strokes.


Another thing I try to do is to make small motions with my whole arm. As the heel of my hand rests on the page, a push or pull from my whole arm makes a vertical motion. I actually let the bones of my hand move over the fleshy part for the short distance required. This still allows good bracing, a smooth stroke, and means I don't have to use any finger manipulation to make a nice line. I use a writing slope, so gravity holds my elbow downwards, always ensuring my arm moves at a proper up and down motion. Since my arm moves and not the fingers, there is less strain on the hand.


Q3: What's the difference between a medieval pen and a modern dip pen or cartridge pen?


A: Well, the medieval pen was a bird quill or a tubular hardened reed. Both were cut with the expected nib shape and both had a slit to help convey ink to the page. But when the page is flat on a table, it means that the pen can't hold so much ink. One must dip more often. If it is overloaded, the ink falls onto the page and makes a mess.


The modern metal nib dip pen has a clip reservoir to hold the ink up inside while you write. The modern cartridge pen has a tank and feeds ink at a rate that will not run. As far as the pen is concerned, the reason the professional medieval scribe could load more ink was because when the page is set on a writing slope of somewhere around 45 degrees, the pen is then be held at an almost horizontal position,  and therefore the ink won't drop out suddenly.


Modern cartridge pens usually flow much better, giving great control, but don't generally use opaque colored inks. Many colors sold as ink for dip pens are also transparent. The white of the page makes this less obvious, but it does make a difference on papers with color textures imitating parchment, or on actual parchment. Medieval colored “inks” were often (not always) opaque due to pigment based colors.


Q4: I have a modern metal point dip pen. How do I use it?


A: It probably came coated in an amber lacquer. The first thing to do is remove that. The lacquer interferes with ink flow. The best way is to soak the nib in some lacquer thinner and wash it off, or you can burn it away with a candle flame. If you burn it away, be careful not to get it too hot or you will lose the temper of the metal. Getting it really hot (glowing) and letting it cool slowly makes the metal soft and useless, and quenching it from that hot to cold in water will make it so brittle it will break.


Once you have the lacquer off, notice whether it has a clip reservoir. You want to buy the type that has a reservoir that slides off because you can clean it easily. Always clean your nibs when you finish using them or they will rust. I tell people to avoid Speedball brand nibs because their reservoirs are permanently attached and they will be harder to clean. Also, since the removable kind slide on, by sliding them either closer or further from the point you can adjust how much the tip will splay. If you can't adjust it back towards the handle a bit to make it splay more, then you may have trouble getting pigmented inks (larger pigment particle size) to flow. You might not be able to use paint through it (see Q:5 below). Also, if the reservoir can't be removed for cleaning, how will you get it clean enough to switch to colored ink?


The real difference between a modern metal tip dip pen and a medieval quill is the pressure it takes to get the ink to flow. A quill requires only the lightest touch to the page, but the metal pen nib usually requires more pressure. And because these (especially Speedball) nibs are made of thicker metal sheet (a quill is cut to a razor edge), many scribes use a whet stone or fine sandpaper to sharpen the metal edge more like a knife in order to get those fine, crisp hairlines. This, in effect, creates a blade that tends to dig into the paper. Most people find it very difficult to push a stroke with that. Many scribes therefore pull almost all of their strokes.


When a metal nib is pulled, there is a downwards pressure against the page that causes the nib to splay slightly, and ink flows. Unfortunately, that same pressure causes two problems. The first is that same pressure causes the nib to burry itself into the paper when you try a push-stroke, which leads to a sudden snapping forward, sending a flick of ink over the page. The second problem is that it can actually tear up paper fibers and loosen them enough that when a second stroke passes through the first wet stroke (such as when crossing a “t”) the pressure of the pen causes the point to grab fibers and drag them, usually resulting in a big sweep of color out where you don't want it. To avoid this, some scribes wait for the ink to dry and then go back to add second strokes, but that can cause other problems, like missing some strokes.


Fortunately, there is a better way to prevent these two disasters and still use a fine honed edge. The reason they happen is the scribe is pulling with a constant pressure, but actually, that is unnecessary. All one needs is enough pressure to cause the ink to flow down the nib. Once it is down to the tip, the pressure is no longer necessary. The nib doesn't really need to be moving to do that. So if you press downwards (not forwards!) and get the ink to flow to the tip at the beginning of the stroke, it is there in enough quantity to allow you to relax to a feather touch and pull the stroke. Since the stroke was made without pressure, the paper fibers were not cut or yanked out, so you can now cross that “t” or draw that flourishing line back through the first stroke.


An example: Litera bastarda small case “d” consisting of a small left side bow, a hairline at the bottom of the bow that loops around the right and towards the left top, where it becomes a full width diagonal staff of the “d.” To make this letter with a metal pen requires what I just described -and a pushed stroke! Obviously a pushed stroke can't have any pressure or it would bury into the paper and flick ink.


Here's how you do it. Start at the top of the bow. It is like a lower case “c” stroke. Press down to make ink charge the tip, then pull the curve down to make that left bow. When you get to the bottom you won't have enough ink for the next step, so press down and charge the tip again. Now a little puddle of ink sits at the bottom of the stroke. Before it soaks into the paper, rock up onto just the left corner of the pen tip and using only that corner, draw a hairline looping up to where the top of the “d”'s staff will start. When you get there, go down flat on the whole nib edge again, and press to recharge the ink at the tip. Now you can pull down the staff of the “d.”


To cross an “f” or a “t”, charge ink before the vertical stroke, then after the stroke lift, position at the start of the horizontal stroke, charge again, and make the cross.


This press-to-charge method is a great way to start wet ink flowing when you begin a new letter. Most scripts have some kind of serif (decorative hairline, diamond, triangle or other shape) starting the letter.  A lot of scribes rub the nib sideways, back and forth on this to get the ink to flow, when all they had to do was press down a bit. Rubbing back and forth just loosens or cuts paper fiber. The only reason it works is that you accidentally also press down a little.


Q5: Some scripts, such as Insular Minuscule, have the pen angle rotate during a stroke. How do I do that?


A: If you are holding the pen between the thumb and first two fingertips, simply roll the pen body by moving the thumb back and forth. Make very sure that your hand is at an angle so that the flat edge of the nib stays flat on the page and doesn't rock up onto a corner. This takes practice. If the line narrows, it might be because you rocked up on a corner with so much pressure that one side of the slit is in full contact with the page, but the other is not.  Sometimes I will hold the pen without rolling in the fingers, and instead I will swing my elbow out to the side. This rotates the tip, but again, the tip must remain flat on the page.



Q6: I want to write with colored inks. I see red a lot, and sometimes purple, blue, green, and even gold and silver. My colored cartridge pen doesn't have opaque colors like I see on real medieval pages, and my metal dip pen won't apply my paint very well. What can I do?


A: Your cartridge pen has transparent ink colors because the inks are usually soluble dyes that must be very fine in order to flow through the head. Many colored inks are available for metal dip pens but they are also usually transparent. However, a metal nib pen with a removable cartridge can be adjusted to use paint. The difference between what the word “ink” means and what the word “paint” means is pretty gray (pardon the pun). Usually we think of an “ink” as something that can be used in a pen, and “paint” as something that is usually used with a brush. If you must define them, this simple definition is probably best. Both real definitions are “A coloring matter suspended in a binding solution.” There is no practical difference, and that is pretty useless.


For example, when we take lamp black soot and bind it with gum arabic and put it into a jar, we call it “Non-Waterproof India Ink,” and it was the common ink used in the muslim world for calligraphy in our period. If we take the same stuff and put it in a tube or dry it as a cake, we call it watercolor paint. Its the same stuff. Medieval red ink in texts was usually vermilion pigment bound with glair or gum arabic, written with a pen. But the exact same thing is called tempera, watercolor or gouache when used with a brush.


Let' be smart and make a better definition. I like to say that “ink” is either a soluble dye or a pigment ground fine enough to flow from a pen, and that paint can be an ink or a color ground more coarsely. Why does it make a difference? Because some pigments cannot be ground fine enough to be used from a quill. The upshot is that if you want a color to flow from a pen, it must be really fine on a microscopic scale.


This doesn't mean that only soluble dyes can be used. Pigments like ultramarine, pale azurite and malachite, vermilion, red and white lead, and even the coarser gold and silver metals were used from pens regularly. The medieval scribe typically used them from a quill, not just to write with, but for most linear applications in the illumination. “Wait!” you might say, “Doesn't that scratch off the lower paint layer and clog the tip???” Actually, it does not, because the quill requires only a feather-light touch (oops, yes, another pun), so it passes quickly over the lower paint layer without lifting color from it. When a quill is used to apply “paint” type inks, the slit of the nib is cut a little longer to allow it to splay wider, thus conveying the heavier bodied color that would clog a nib with a shorter slit.


How do we get that to happen with the metal nib dip pen? Well, if you bought the kind that has the slide-on reservoir, you can either remove the reservoir or simply slide it back towards the handle a bit. This should allow bodied pigment type inks to flow freely to the tip. It may also allow the metal nib to flow better over paint layers so you can apply white lines, but that requires more skill and a touch more binder in the paint layers below. That extra binder will help cement that color down. But remember, the longer something wet like a pen or brush sits on top of a paint layer without moving, or the longer a drop or line stays wet on top of a colored paint layer, the more time the moisture has to loosen the color in the paint layers below. Pressing to charge a metal nib's point no longer works so well over lower layers of watercolor, gouache, or tempera paints because the pressing can dig down into the lower paint layer.


What's the best solution to using opaque color on the page or over painted layers? The best answer is to use a feather quill. Its the perfect tool for this for the above reasons. If you want to do it right, learn to draw with a quill and pigmented color. If you want to cut corners and do it a less precise way, use a long pointed round brush instead of a metal nib pen. You'll need to be really careful with strokes to make them long, even, uniformly opaque, and without thick and thin variations, but it can be done. I will caution you about one thing though, try never to use a good brush for doing dots. Dots were made with a quill point. Those Celtic dotted lines and fills- all done with a pen. Its MUCH faster, and it won't ruin the tip of your brush.


Q7: How can I write so my back doesn't hurt so much when I'm done?


A: Your back probably hurts because you are hunching down over the table. The medieval calligrapher held his pen and page a couple of different ways. In the East, scribes typically wrote on a board situated on their lap. You can sit on an armless chair, or on the floor cushion against a wall and have back support. This method was sometimes used in Europe, but the classic calligraphy practiced by the medieval scribes was sitting upright in front of a writing slope that was about 45 degrees. Now, I know a lot of you are going to just go ahead and write on the horizontal of a regular table anyway, but it is worth looking at what the advantages are of writing in front of a 45 degree slope.


But we often see pictures of desktop writing slopes that are shallow, only about 15-20 degrees. Shallow slopes also sometimes appear attached to a writer's chair, but most especially they appear in later period illustrations as small, shallow slopes sitting on desks. These were more for writing shorter things like letters. Even shallower angles allowed the user to look straighter onto the page as they worked on it, which helps one to see the right angle to make strokes and to hold the pen at an easier angle for making tip rotations, but they don't do so much for your back. If you wan to write for long hours, like a production scribe of the middle ages, then you want to be sitting more upright. The steep, 45 degree slope allows this.


The steep slope also has other advantages over the table top. One of the best is the use of gravity. Your arm feels which way is up and down, and thus can orient strokes more correctly. This becomes a lot more obvious on a 45 degree slope, where this sense really helps.


One of the best lessons I ever had was from Mistress Elizabeth Karien of the Four Winds. She had me sit in front of a slope and hold my arm out with the pen. She had me put the page in front of my shoulder, not in front of my face. Then she had me put my eye over my shoulder. She told me to allow my arm to drop along the page and I could feel that my pen made a very vertical stroke. Let the weight of your arm guide your arm. I have also found it good not to let the skin on the heel of your hand slide on the page. Just let the flesh roll down with the arm. You make a short, very straight and vertical line. Ah-hah! The trick to even gothic textura quadrata (blackletter) is revealed! The trick is that one's motion needs to go with the natural mechanics of the body, and not to fight them by trying to move in unnatural directions. I realized that this simple principal extended to many different aspects of both writing and painting!


From there, I discovered many pivot points on the arm, hand, and even the torso, but we needn't get too detailed right now. Let's keep it simple. As I sit in front of that 45 degree slope, I see straight on at what I am doing, which also makes a huge difference. My arm moves up and down at my side, and my back can remain straighter against the chair if need be. This kind of straight-on posture made all of the difference. No longer hunched over a table, I could see exactly what I was doing, and it was comfortable!


Q8: Even with a good posture and a writing slope, my lines are zig-zagging. How do I fix that?


A: The cause can be from a couple of things. If you have a modern metal tip pen, you may be pressing too hard as you write. Since most medieval scripts are written with the pen edge rotated to 30 degrees, 45 degrees, or even rotating during the stroke to vertical, the applied pressure may be causing the pen to slip in the direction of the slanting edge (to he left). You may be compensating by trying to pull the opposite way. The combination produces either a curve or a wiggle.  The cure goes back to using a light touch on the page as you draw the stroke. See above regarding a light touch to get ink to flow.


You can also get the same problem when working with the art in front of your face rather than your shoulder. It can happen when working on a table top or on a slope. If the art is in front of your center, then your arm necessarily has to cross your body to make the stroke.  But pulling the stroke towards you is off-set by the natural inclination to pull towards your shoulder. This creates a tendency to bend the line to the right, which you try to compensate for by trying to move to the left. As I said above, the natural arcs of your body joints do influence the calligraphy.


On a table top, some people compensate by turning the page so the top leans left, meaning down-page is now towards the elbow or shoulder. That's what I do if I don't have a slope available. If you try this, your eye gets a little confused and the compensation often causes a lean to your letters anyway. You can get away with this roundabout compensation if you practice enough, but it seems to make more sense to me to preferentially use the methods I described above.


Q9: What comes first, the calligraphy or the illumination? My Signet wants painted blanks with no calligraphy.


A: In almost all cases of medieval work (there are exceptions) the calligraphy comes first, followed by drawing, followed by gilding, followed by painting. The reason your Signet may ask for illuminated blanks is because it takes longer to paint a scroll than to calligraph it, and it can save time to have that part of a scroll done before a recipient name and award text is needed.


The reason medieval scribes wrote first was because it is usually impossible to pre-determine where the openings for initials, large illuminated letters opening chapters, and other illuminations would fit in. By writing first, the scribe could let the calligraphy go as long as necessary, and just leave open spaces for the art. Another reason to do the calligraphy first on a scroll is related to that. The SCA scribe may have an extra long or shorter text than usual, or being less practiced, they may find themselves using too little space on the open area inside the borders, or worse, they may find that they are forced to compress the script or even leave things out because they have run out of room!


The best reason to do the text first is because it is almost impossible to fix a calligraphic mistake so it is unnoticeable on paper. You can sometimes hide it better on parchment, but it will usually show if it is of any size. I had a professor in art school who said “A great artist never makes mistakes, he just covers them up.” Well, you can cover a mistake a LOT easier when it is part of the painting than you can in the calligraphy stage. If you mess-up the calligraphy by writing the same line twice it means pitching the paper. Not a problem if you make the same size error in the illumination. And do you really want to have to toss the already painted page of someone else's illuminated blank?


Some people find pre-illuminated blanks to be really useful, and worth the expected occasional waste of art. Personally, I find that much less acceptable than expecting Their Majesties to be considerate enough to give scroll assignments with enough time to have them made. But in truth TRM's don't always even get award recommendations until close to an event, so at that point it becomes a question f someone getting a scroll or not, so we have the blank again.


Q10: How can I anticipate a scroll text length?


A: The best way is to practice writing out the text ahead of time, using the same script. It will vary in actual used space until you become consistent. And that just means practice. But I have a great way to speed up ruling out the guide lines. You know you are going to do a lot of a particular type of scroll like AoAs for example.


There is a great medieval inspired trick for laying out a lot of these with the same column width and number of ruling lines. Simply measure out one text block that works out for you, and then using a heavy pin or needle awl, prick guide holes on the top and bottom edges of the page to mark the column line placement. Then prick a series of holes up one side of the page for the text line spacing. If you don't have a drawing board with a ruling bar that slides up and down, prick a second set on the opposite side of the page. Use this page as a template for all scrolls using this configuration and scale of text.


To use it, simply prick through the template onto a short stack of scroll pages. In this way you make several copies at once without having to measure anything. When finished, you line up a ruler to the guide holes and draw the lines. Its pretty fast and pretty historically accurate.


Q11: How do I leave room for a Kingdom Seal, and why is this modern thing there in the first place?


A: The Middle Kingdom, and most other SCA kingdoms, use a rubber stamp ink seal on their award scrolls. In the MK we either leave an open space for it, or if we do not, the typical method is to overlay the seal onto the text. The space left blank for the seal is usually at the bottom of the scroll somewhere, but it can be anywhere, including a round opening in the middle of the text block. One problem with this is that although the seal is round, it is on a larger square block. That makes it impossible to see the open area for it, and because of this, the seal is seldom centered well inside that space. The standard Middle Kingdom seal is 2” diameter, but recently seals of other sizes have been introduced. Please check with your Signet to find out what size the Kingdom seal will be.


To answer why the seal is there is more difficult- It shouldn't be.


What? Weren't medieval documents sealed? Yes, of course. This was common. Medieval documents were sealed by having a wax or lead mass attached to cords or ribbon that wove through piercings of the document, or attached to integral slices of the parchment document itself. These masses were sealed with a design. When the SCA was young, the notion of a document having a seal made its way into SCA culture, but wax seals were expensive and hard to come by, so rubber stamps were used instead. These were the days of bed sheet T-tunics, sweat pants, and tennis shoes. We had different standards when the rubber stamps became common.


But are they still appropriate? The following is a personal opinion by me, Master RanthulfR, and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the person who created this web site.


I say “No, the rubber stamp seal is one of the most glaringly wrongful and modern things we do, and I believe that as a Society we should all decide to abandon them entirely.” Why?


1) The seal is not the SCA legal confirmation of an award. All it takes to legitimize an award is to have it proclaimed in a court with a seneschal present, and to be published in the kingdom newsletter. That's it. You technically don't even need the monarch's signature. Therefore, a seal at all, including a rubber stamp seal, is superfluous. A metal or wax seal is desirable, but not having it is not a problem, especially when most of the scrolls in the SCA are designed to look like book pages rather than actual grant of title or land.


2) Usually the rubber stamp seal is completely destructive to the artistry that it obscures. It is a pollution of the scribe's intent and efforts to make a period looking artwork. Even if the scribe leaves a space for the seal as part of their design, they did it because they felt forced to make that compromise to aesthetics and historical imitation. The seal is placed by the Signet, who not being the creator, often puts it in the wrong place. I've seen scribes put a note on their art directing the Signet to use a particular open space, but the Signet still sealed over the calligraphy or parts of the illumination. I personally feel that this is an insult to the integrity of any artist's work.


3) Seals in period were never rubber stamps. If they aren't necessary, they ruin the art, and they make it look as period as big black sunglasses on a Duke, why use them at all?


I wish to start a movement in the SCA, starting with you scribes, to get rid of these ugly, modern, disrespectful rubber stamp seals. Its not good enough to put a Post-It note on the scroll directing the Signet to use the rubber stamp on the back. It will still usually end up on the front, right where you really didn't want it. Let's get rid of them altogether. If you agree that we can do better by letting go of this stupid and insulting tradition, tell people. Tell other scribes. Tell your Signet that you do not want the rubber stamp used to mar the appearance of your scroll. Tell them why. Ask them to get permission from TRM's to retire all rubber stamps in favor of using either a real seal or none at all. If it comes down to it, consider telling them that you will stop making scrolls for them as long as they use the rubber stamp on your artwork. Its up to you, because a change for the better won't happen unless you all start to put your foot down and just say “no.” If you all say no, then what choice would they have?