Letters from Victoria: The Art of Calligraphy

Calligraphy Tools

Our Editor-in-Chief Phyllis Hoffman DePiano reflects on her new year’s resolution to learn the exquisite art of calligraphy. To read more of her personal essays, visit her blog.

One of my new year’s resolutions is to learn calligraphy. I had a lesson several months ago, but before I could go to step two, I had to practice, practice, practice. Well needless to say, I have not had the next lesson. Our teacher said that we should practice lettering every day, even if we only have a few minutes, until it becomes natural. I am in awe when I watch her pen move on the paper and see the decorative letters that form.

The Essentials
To get started, you’ll need a pointed nib, a straight holder, an oblique holder, a variety of inks, bleedproof marker paper, and, of course, a good eraser!

 Calligraphy Steps

Choose a nib and a nib holder. Nib holders come oblique or straight. I use straight, but oblique helps some people get the angle of the nib right. My favorite nib is the Brause EF66, but a Nikko G, which is less flexible, might be more suitable for a beginner. Place the nib in the holder, and then burn the nib with a lighter for a second or two to take off the chemical residue. (The residue keeps the ink from sticking to the nib.)

Calligraphy steps

Sit straight in your chair. Think about working from your elbow and your shoulder rather than from your fingers and your wrist. Hold your pen with an easy grip, without pressure and without squeezing your fingers tightly together. Hold the point of the nib perpendicular to the paper. Then bring your hand down to the paper, and let the pen fall to rest in your hand. That should create a good angle for nib to paper (roughly 45°) and position the pen correctly in your hand. Dip your nib in ink (beyond the well or the opening in the middle of the nib), and begin with some practice strokes.

Calligraphy Steps

Start with downstrokes—little parallel lines going straight down. With the downstroke, you put pressure on the nib so that it creates a heavy line. The tines of the nib should separate to do this. Try some curved downstrokes. Then try upstrokes (you should use absolutely no pressure). This creates hairlines, or very thin lines. Diagonal bottom left to upper right is a good upstroke to try. Now combine downstrokes and upstrokes to get the feel of actually forming letters. A wavy line is a good example. Or a curlycue. Repeat, repeat, repeat—that is the only way to get comfortable with the pen.

 Once you feel comfortable with your downstrokes and upstrokes, you can try creating letters. I like to start beginners with a very basic, traditional alphabet and let them expand from there.

Have you tried calligraphy? I’d love to hear your stories!

Previous articleHoney Crème Fraîche Cake
Next articleFriday Five: Winter Essentials


  1. Years ago I started learning calligraphy on my own. I have always loved the feel of a pen in my hand, and as a child, would copy book passages just to write. Beautiful penmanship is almost a list art now. I haven’t done much calligraphy in recent years, but now that I’m retired, I hope to use it more. It fascinates me.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.