How to Hold a Calligraphy Pen

Angles shown as a clock face

04/01/2023

This article will give you insight into how to use a calligraphy pen, starting with how to hold a calligraphy pen for best results.

What Is a Broad-Edged Calligraphy Nib?

The broad-edged, or chisel-shaped, pen is the main tool for traditional calligraphy. Calligraphy hands such as Uncial, Carolingian, Gothic, Italic, and Foundational, as well as their many variations, use a broad-edged nib. This type of nib has a flat surface at its tip, rather than a sharp point. 

Most calligraphers today use nibs manufactured with metal but, historically, quills cut from feathers or pens cut from reeds have used the same shape. 

Different cuts of broad-edged calligraphy nibs
Different cuts of broad-edged calligraphy nibs

The diagram above shows the three most common shapes of this type of nib: a square cut (also known as a straight cut), a right oblique cut, and a left oblique cut. The right oblique cut is preferred by most right-handed writers, although the square cut can also be used. The left oblique cut is often identified as a left-handed calligraphy nib, and some left-handed calligraphers make use of it. However, in my teaching experience I have found that many left-handed writers actually prefer the square cut.

Edward Johnston’s Influence on Calligraphy

This article uses illustrations by Edward Johnston in his publication, “Formal Penmanship.”

Johnston (1872-1944) was a British calligraphy teacher, largely known as the father of modern traditional calligraphy. His close examination of methods of creating calligraphy with a broad-edged pen had tremendous influence on how we learn calligraphy today. He is also credited with starting the 20th-century revival of interest in calligraphy, particularly in Europe and the United States. Johnston also designed typefaces, and is particularly well known for the typeface and logo used throughout the London Underground system. 

What Is Pen Angle?

One of the most important aspects of Johnston’s teachings pertains to “pen angle.” The broad-edged pen should be held so that the calligrapher can keep the flat edge at the front of the nib at a particular angle in relation to the horizontal writing line. This angle is called the pen angle. 

Holding a flat calligraphy nib properly will allow the pen to do most of the work of making the different stroke shapes in calligraphy.

A 0° pen angle means the flat front of the nib is held horizontally, along the horizontal writing line. A 90° pen angle would be if the flat front of the nib were to be held vertically, straight up and down. All other pen angles are when the pen is held at a tilt, between 0° and 90° from the horizontal line.

Angles shown as a clock face
Angles shown as a clock face

In the diagram above, the horizontal writing line (0°) is shown as if a line were to be drawn  between the 9 and 3 on the face of the “clock.” A 90° (vertical) pen angle would be as if a line were drawn between 12 and 6 on the face of the clock.

To hold the pen at a 30° pen angle means the pen is held so that the nib’s writing edge is at a 30° angle in relation to the horizontal writing line. An easy way to quickly establish that 30° angle is to imagine the flat edge of the front of the nib is facing the 11 on the clock.

The next images show a comparison between holding the nib with a 0°, a 30°, and a 45° pen angle.

Thickness of the widest strokes at 0, 30, and 45 degrees
Pen angles of 0, 30, and 45 degrees

What Does Pen Angle Do?

The nib will create different shapes and thicknesses depending upon the pen angle at which it is held, and the direction in which it is moved. At a 30° pen angle, the broadest stroke will be made when pulling the pen straight back toward the 5 on the clock face, because the whole width of the flat shape is coming into contact with the paper. (Writing surfaces other than paper can be used, but here we will call it paper.) 

Similarly, the narrowest stroke of the nib will be made when pushing the pen straight across toward the 2 on the clock face. In this direction, only the thin, flat edge is coming into contact with the paper, creating a very thin straight line, which is called a “hairline stroke” (or in Johnston’s illustrations, a “hair stroke”).

The diagram below shows the difference between using a 30° and a 45° pen angle, and making a diagonal stroke (its thickest stroke) when pulled straight back.

Thickness of strokes at 30 degrees and 45 degrees
Making the widest (diagonal) strokes at 30 degrees and 45 degrees

Holding the pen at a constant pen angle and moving it vertically, horizontally, at different angles, and in curves, will yield different thicknesses, as well as tapering thins.

Horizontal, vertical, angled, and curved strokes
Vertical, horizontal, angled, and curved strokes

The diagram below shows the different stroke shapes and thicknesses that can be made while maintaining a 30° pen angle and moving the pen in the directions indicated by the arrows. The pen angle stays constant. 

Don’t twist your wrist while writing – the movement comes from your hand and arm, not your wrist.

Shapes of calligraphy strokes made in different directions
Shapes of calligraphy strokes made in different directions

How Does Pen Angle Affect Calligraphy?

When we study different calligraphy hands made with the broad-edged nib, such as Italic, Foundational, and Uncial, one of the first aspects that we identify is what pen angle the calligraphy hand uses, because a calligraphy hand’s standard pen angle can vary from hand to hand.

Writing letters using different pen angles
Writing letters using different pen angles

The two versions of the word “roman,” above, show the impact the pen angle has on letter shapes. One thing you will notice is that the straight downstrokes at 0° are thicker than the straight downstrokes at 35°. Also, when the pen is pulled straight across from left to right at the bottom of the letters, at 35° it creates a thicker serif shaped like a foot, while at 0° it creates a thin serif.

The pen angle is revealed not only in the little diagram to the right of the words, but also in the strokes themselves. Look at the top of the “r,” the “m,” and the “n” in both words, where the strokes of each of the letters have started, at the left top edge of the letters (where the calligrapher has placed the front of the nib on the paper when starting to write each letter). The 35° pen angle is evident in the top word, and the 0° pen angle is evident in the lower word. 

For this reason, it is important to watch how you are placing your nib on the paper – that is, at what angle your pen is held – as you write each letter. So, if you are lettering a calligraphy hand that uses a 30° pen angle, you will hold the nib at that angle the entire time you execute each letter. This will give your strokes the visual consistency that is the hallmark of beautiful calligraphy. 

Look also at the inside space of the letters – what calligraphers call the “counter space” – to see the impact of the pen angle. Notice the difference between the inside shape of the “o” and “a” in particular.

How pen angle affects stroke shape
How pen angle affects stroke shape

Shown in the image above are additional examples of how the pen angle impacts stroke shape and letter shape. The lower shapes are all the same strokes but they look different because of the differing pen angles (as shown above the shapes in the image).

How To Visualize Pen Angle

The "double pencil" exercise
The “double pencil” exercise
Simulating different oblique cuts of the pen nib
Simulating different oblique cuts of the pen nib

A helpful exercise to understand how the broad-edged pen works is the “twin points” or “double pencil” technique. Two pencils can be attached together with an elastic or twine to simulate the two “corners” of a broad-edged nib. They can be positioned to imitate a straight cut or an oblique cut nib. This exercise allows you to see how the pen nib creates the thick and thin strokes.

The pencil points simulate the width of a broad-edged nib
The pencil points simulate the width of a broad-edged nib

Hold the double pencil so that the two points rest upon the desired pen angle – in this case 30° – and practice making a few letters. You’ll be surprised at how this helps you see how the strokes are created and understand how the pen works.

Placing the pencil points at an angle
Placing the pencil points at an angle
Moving the pencils in particular directions
Moving the pencils in particular directions to see thicks, thins, and tapering
Drawing letter shapes with the pencils
Drawing letter shapes with the pencils to visualize thicks, thins, and tapering

Have some fun with this “fancy skating” technique, as Edward Johnston called it, using the double pencil, and gain insight into how to use a calligraphy pen.

Making calligraphy strokes with the double pencil
Making calligraphy strokes with the double pencil

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4 Comments

  1. Doneilia Bush

    Thank you for your guidance. I am 59 yo and is just now starting my interest in calligraphy. It is a week now since starting with a pencil and any notepads I can find. I am thankful for you teaching me about not moving my risk. I hope to continue learning about ways to better my technique.

    Reply
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