An online italic calligraphy class with John Stevens

I recently finished a wonderful five-week online class with John Stevens. Take a look at his work and you’ll see why anyone would be lucky to study with him. The class was entitled “The Italic Letter”. I had not studied italic calligraphy, per se, for quite some time.

We began with a look at “basic” italic (ha!) and a close look at the basic shape of the strokes. Here’s one of my earlier study pages.

a page of basic italic text with a particular form of finials
A page of basic italic calligraphy with a particular style of ascenders and descenders

We considered the placement of lettering on the page, and …. well, so much more. Here are two study sheets, one a block of text and the other a study in two weights.

The third sheet is a block of text, considering ledding and layout.

a page of italic in two weights
A study of italics in two weights
a page of italic as a block of text
A block of italic text
Then we began looking at going smaller. Here is one sheet of diminishing sizes, and another at the smallest size I could manage.
a page italics from fairly large to tiny
Using various pens, I worked my way down from about 4mm to a pointed pen modified to a very small broad edge.
Just about the smallest italics I could manage, with a penny to give you an idea of size.
Just about the smallest italics I could manage, with a penny to give you an idea of size.

John will be repeating the class soon. I highly recommend it! Sign up for his newsletter to be notified of new classes.

Italic practice, after a break

Time passes, I travel, I do other things, and suddenly I realize it’s been awhile since I practiced any lettering. Sure, I’ve done an edition of 1-5/8″ x 3″ books with tiny capitals lettering in it, and finished a baby quilt, and done some lettering on mirrors. None of that “counts” towards lettering practice — as is proved by the uncertainty and inconsistency of today’s practice lettering. I’m preparing for a long piece, and this must improve!

Italic through the years

Italic through the years - 1984 through the present
Italic through the years – 1984 through the present

Last month I was commissioned to write out the Kipling poem “If”. Since 1983 I believe I’ve written this poem out at least once every other year. I don’t always keep an image of the poem, but I do have 3 images here, from 2002, 2007 and 2015. (You can click on the image for a closer look.) I usually do the poem in italic, for several reasons. First, it is very long and so I choose something that flows easily from the pen. Second, it is very long and yet people do want to have it framed; so the lettering must be fairly small. Third, even though, and especially because, it is very long, people want maximum legibility. Fourth, a compressed hand is better than a wider hand because two columns of two verses each makes for a good standard frame proportion. Fifth, even though I think a book hand would be a good choice of lettering style, most people don’t think of book hand as “calligraphy”. {sigh}

That 1984 hand running up the left side looks pretty damn good for someone who had been lettering for less than 2 years. The 2002 version of the first verse looks a lot less attractive. The lettering was much smaller, the paper more difficult for me at the time, the slant was clearly problematic, and I think the stress of getting all that text down on a page with consistency and without errors was still a challenge. In 2007, I was in art school and not doing much lettering, and it shows. In the 2015 version, I spent a good deal of time trying out inks on the paper (see here), and still … my consistency could be improved.

Looking at this montage of lettering from 1984-2015, it’s not particularly clear that I’ve progressed, even though I’ve got to think I’ve learned something in the intervening years. I’m reminded of the a quotation (which I can’t find now) that goes something like: “What is learned after the age of 40 can’t be communicated.” Truth or comforting fiction?

Quotation – gratitude or pride

Our local calligraphy group here has been choosing a quotation a month from ten qualities that make up what Dr. Barbara L. Fredrickson calls a “joy portfolio,” helping to build resilience in the face of hardship:

  1. Joy
  2. Gratitude
  3. Serenity
  4. Interest
  5. Hope
  6. Pride
  7. Amusement
  8. Inspiration
  9. Awe
  10. Love

We’re at month 8 (or 9, I’ve confused myself as to whether the numbers represent work months or due dates), and I’ve only got a couple of completed. So this month I going to attempt to finish all the unfinished quotations.

I had thought to use the quotation below for “gratitude,” but I’m having trouble finding a quotation I like for “pride,” and this might work for that. I double that either of these is the final version, although they are the 3rd and 4th versions if you count the plain-white-background version as a 2nd version. The backgrounds are scans of watercolor studies (or, if not study, serendipity) that I’ve painted in the past. Maybe I’ll post the 1st version, which was as much finished thumbnail as a draft. So much for progress: I still don’t have a finished piece.




Exemplar as an exercise in humility

Developing an exemplar is one of the most humbling exercises that a calligrapher can undertake. Having spent hours on this one, a number of thoughts tumble (my original typo “thumble” seems apt) through my head, in no particular order:

  • In most of my work I usually choose Roman capitals to go with italic minuscules, and it shows here. Which leads me to the specific note …
  • G: pick an oval, won’t you? That G bears no resemblance to the C or O or Q.
  • D: doesn’t have much base.
  • U: there’s an awful lot of skinny in the connecting stroke.
  • F: looks like it’s mid-jump on a pogo stick; that’s a paste-up error.
  • M: has a heavy top left shoulder.
  • W: has an awkward join on the right bottom corner; I’m usually better about that.
  • Z: well, I don’t know what exactly, but the base is not straight and it looks wooden; perhaps I should have flattened the pen angle a bit more on the horizontals
  • L: although I didn’t spend much time on kerning, the L is noticeably too close to the M. It’s all crowded but I wanted them as large as possible but still fitting on a letter-size page.
  • J: also wooden, except where it’s wavy when it shouldn’t be.

Sigh. Well, I do like the P and R … That leaves only 24 letters that need work.

I used a partially dried-out 5mm Zig marker so that students can see how the letters are being made.

2015-02-06 italic plain caps exemplar

White gouache on black Artagain paper


Today was not a day for inspired lettering. But I showed up anyway. That’s what it’s all about (all hokey pokey aside). Maybe the muse will be there tomorrow when I show up. And I will show up.

Details of the crime: It was done by the C-2 Speedball nib with the White Schmincke Calligraphy Gouache on the black Artagain paper. The side crime was done by a Mitchell Roundhand #4 nib with Luna silver pan watercolor, mostly to make a comparison of coverage between white gouached and metallic watercolor.

I didn’t use any guidelines, but I did frame the text area using a Fons and Porter white fabric marking pencil, which I like for dark paper and painted backgrounds. The point stays sharp and the eraser that comes with it works well without damaging the paper. Not all of the 9″ x 12″ page is shown. I will eventually bind this folio into a notebook with other lettering trials.

Daily lettering – Mohawk Superfine and italic as texture

A little materials testing, a little more abstraction …




Moving towards a two-dimensional , flat all-over pattern. I tried to keep the pen-angle, pen-width size, letter order and shape intact, abandoning word spacing and changing only the direction. Sometimes I broke the rules to preserve the texture, but sometimes the broken rules were inadvertent.