Calligraphy Rules: Contrast

Calligraphy Rules: Contrast

Calligraphy is the art of writing beautifully.

While beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, one of the characteristics that makes calligraphy look beautiful is the variation between thin and thick lines. This contrast between thick and thin lines can go from non-existent (monoline or monoweight) to very high indeed. 

Contrast in line weight is achieved in different ways, depending on the tools you use.

For broad edge or chiseled nibs and pens, it depends on the angle you hold and move them at. For example, the Italic hand is written at a 45 degree angle from the baseline. Capitals and cross-strokes are often varied and made at 30 degrees. It takes considerable practice to keep the nib-angle steady as you move your hand across the page. 

Shown below, the thinnest lines is achieved when the pen is held at and follows the 45 degree angle. Italic calligraphy is written with a 5 degree slant, so holding the pen at 45 degrees and pulling the nib downwards creates those tight curves as seen in the "i", the flat upper left corners, and the in- and exit strokes in the "contrast" letters. 

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For pointed nibs or brushes, it depends on how much pressure you apply when making the letter.

To understand which strokes are supposed to be lighter and which heavier, you need to know how to write cursive. With the exception of the x, all upstrokes and cross-strokes are light, and all downstrokes are dark, or heavy. (The x is written with two downstrokes, but the first one is light.)

This is sometimes also referred to as “weight”, or you can think of it as the amount of ink that is put down.

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The most common mistakes I see is a capital A with the weight on the left side, or capital N and M with weight on the outside lines. Think about how your forefathers used to dip their goose quills into the ink wells to write. Pressing down hard on the quill while moving it upwards on the page would have had the ink splatter everywhere. So they had to use a light touch.

Since handwriting was a skill that was most effective if it could be used with relative speed, your forefather the penman wouldn’t want to have to lift the pen unnecessarily, but instead create letterforms in as few strokes as possible.

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So the A would have started in the bottom left corner going up (light), and come down on the right side (heavy), and they may not even have lifted the pen to make a cross-stroke, but instead make a loop from the bottom right to the mid-left, then down and over again (all light, so as not to cross two thick lines and smear the wet ink). 

As for the capital N, the outside legs would follow the slant line, and be connected by a diagonal, heavier downstroke in the center. The capital M intersects the slant line, which means both upstrokes and both downstrokes are parallel, and at slightly steeper angles, so that the slant falls in the middle. 

Lettering or calligraphy that shows no contrast is called monoline, or monoweight. Tools to write monoline include the Speedball B series nibs, a sharpie, a gel pen, or any writing tool with a round nib. All lines will have the same diameter and equal color. 

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OK, one more thing before we go - if you remember the "light up - heavy down" rule, you can create a contrast calligraphy look by manually adding weight to any monoline piece - just go over the downstrokes to make them thicker! ;-) 

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Your turn - do you have a favorite? 

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