Penmanship & Calligraphy: Where to Start

3 Nov

Have you ever gotten a note from someone that was both thoughtful and handwritten? I know I have, and I probably saved every single one. No matter the handwriting, whether big and loopy or small and abrupt, the handwriting is unique to the person writing. It’s a lot like a fingerprint.

If you’re at a spot in your life where you might want to work on your penmanship a bit, then you are in the right place. Or maybe, you just want to do justice to your nice pens and paper. Over the next few weeks, we’re going to talk about penmanship and calligraphy. And this first post? It’s all about where to start.

Where to Start

What is the difference between penmanship and calligraphy? Penmanship is your specific and unique style of writing. Calligraphy is taking a particular style of writing and basing your strokes directly off of that. It’s that simple.

So to start, we’ll focus on penmanship. Know that you have a unique style of writing and the purpose of working on your penmanship is not to erase that uniqueness, but perhaps just to work the craft a little bit more. Spending time on your penmanship results in a style of handwriting that is even more uniquely you—it’s just polished. Think of some of the great painters. They all had a unique way of working with their paintbrushes and paint. They all spent time on their craft. They all had a very distinctive style that was all their own.

You’re all great painters; you just haven’t worked on your craft enough. But the goal of penmanship is not to copy someone else’s style—it is to refine your own.

What Tools Do I Need?

You’ll need a pen and some paper. And no, you don’t have to use a calligraphy-specific pen, any pen will do. I keep plain white notecards and envelopes in my desk drawer at all times for basic correspondence. I also love Rhodia’s Dot Notepads for writing little bits and bobs and for practice. My favorite journal paper can be found in the Moleskine Volants. I love this paper with ballpoints, fountain pens, and pencils equally.

Does the Type of Pen Matter? Does the Type of Paper Matter?

A random piece of my handwriting to analyze the penmanship.

The answer is both yes and no. Personally, when I write something important, I use ‘important’ tools. I pick up a fountain pen rather than a cheap plastic ballpoint pen. There are a few reasons for this, the most important being that a nicer pen will generate a better flow of ink and can show more variation in your strokes. If you write with a ballpoint, the intricacies and nuances of your natural handwriting very often become lost. The same is true for paper. If you are using standard computer paper, you are more likely to run into problems (like tears, bleeding ink, and smudges). Nicer paper is actually designed to hold ink and deal with the point of the pen scratching the surface of the paper.

Finally, it is good practice to find some of your recent handwriting and take an extra minute to notice the details. For me, it’s a to-do list I made last week (pictured). This is my writing in its natural state, written just for me. I will take a look at this and look at some of the letters I naturally (and therefore comfortably) tend to embellish a little. This is what you should do with your writing. Look at your tendencies.

Next time, we’re going to talk more about penmanship and calligraphy from a historical standpoint and where it stands today.


10 Responses to “Penmanship & Calligraphy: Where to Start”

  1. Marguerite W. Meara November 3, 2011 at 4:57 pm #

    When I was growing up, having good penmanship, separated the flax from the seed. My parents instilled this in me. My career led me to being a draftsperson, where I learned, this gift, set yourself apart. I take great pride in my handwriting, as I am able to show my uniqueness and individuality. Pens, crayons, pencils, markers are the essential path to be able to exprees one’s self. Wish I could have handwritten this ;0))

  2. Betsi OHara November 3, 2011 at 5:12 pm #

    I am excited about this series of posts. I have fairly good penmanship but there is always room for improvement. When I see anything that someone has written with beautiful and even letters, I want to make mine better. This is right up my alley and I am looking forward to reading and putting into practice the lessons!!!
    Wally the Swamp Rat

    • europeanpaper November 3, 2011 at 5:19 pm #

      We agree! There is always room for improvement. We are so pleased to have Cole on board and think this series will benefit many people (including the rest of us at EPC!). Cole’s Penmanship & Calligraphy series will be showcased every other Thursday for 5 more articles in the series, and she’s got a couple goodies tucked in as she goes, so it’ll be special for old and new readers each time!

    • Cole December 30, 2011 at 7:52 pm #

      Betsi & Marguerite—thanks for reading! Hope to see you in the comments of other posts in this series.

  3. David Lane January 11, 2012 at 1:18 pm #

    I guess I am the ringer – I learned calligraphy from my high school teacher back in Grade 8 and was a paid calligrapher all the way through high school and university. I have not picked up my quills in a long time, but I use a fountain pen all the time and good paper for as much of my communications as possible. I am looking forward to reading the rest of the articles. And from my perspective, the paper always matters.


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