Tag Archives: layout

Teach Yourself Calligraphy

FullSizeRenderTeach Yourself Calligraphy was described by one reviewer as doing ‘exactly what it says’. It is, of course, always best to learn calligraphy from a good tutor, but for many people this isn’t possible. This book, then, could be the next best thing! It consists of the main four alphabets – Uncial, and minuscules and majuscules (capital letters) of the Foundational Hand or English Caroline Minuscule, Gothic Black Letter, and Italic. It starts by considering tools and materials, what to look for, and how to look after them.


IMG_2194But it isn’t just writing individual calligraphic letters, it is also putting those letters into words and the words into phrases. So there are clear explanations of how to space letters in words, the best spacing between words, and then between lines to get the most pleasing effects.





IMG_2195And then, most people don’t want simply to write out words, but to use their calligraphy in different ways. So there are ideas, and clear and precise instructions, on how to make bookmarks, cute little boxes, bags for gifts, wraps, folds and envelopes.






IMG_2198Some people like to use their calligraphy to make books. So there are also instructions on how to create simple single section books of various types, with lots of different ideas. And for those who want to produce a hard-backed book with covered card covers, Teach Yourself Calligraphy shows you how to set out the book’s text (page design), how to sew the pages together, and how to put those pages into a hard cover with a spine.




IMG_2196There are also lots of ideas for using calligraphy for invitations, menus, wrapping paper and matching gift tags, mementoes and cards.






IMG_2197And for those who want to write out poetry and prose as broadsheets, there are clear guidelines on how to start with the text, the best layouts, how to transfer a rough to a best piece of paper, how to use colour (with a clear colour chart for reference), how to lay a wash, use pastels and gouache, and so much more.

With 124 pages and a pleasing square format, chapter headings are: tools and materials; writing calligraphic letters; greetings cards and bookmarks; wraps, folds and boxes; celebrations; writing little books; poetry and prose; and a glossary.

To get your own signed copy for £10 + p+p with your name written calligraphically, please contact me via my website.



The stages in creating a simple commission

HymnCalligraphy is a broad church, and just as there is a place for complicated, ‘designed’ pieces, with layered and textured backgrounds, and blocks of text of differing sizes and styles to create an exciting piece of work, so there is a place for pieces where the lettering is foremost and the design allows the meaning of the words to be paramount. One such piece was a commission I had earlier in the year – to write out a favourite hymn to mark a couple’s ruby wedding anniversary.

text 1It started with the whole hymn, and the client had the idea of laying the hymn out with the above verse in the centre and the remaining verses arranged around this. I experimented with writing styles and sizes of nibs, and then wrote out all the verses. I was in a bit of a flourish-y mood while I was doing this, but not all of these would make it into the final piece!


text 2So it was then time to cut up the verses and arrange them so that they looked as good as they could. The larger verse went in the middle, and the other verses were arranged around the edges in what I thought were the best places. However, there was a change of colour between the background paper and that which I was using. This, and the cut edges, often distract the eye, so if I had been going ahead with this design, I would have written it out again on a sheet of paper just to ensure that it all worked, before writing it out as a final piece.

Hymn 3That verse at the bottom bothered me. It made the shape strange, and, in my view, detracted from the central verse which was to be the focus. I removed the verse and it looked so much better.




red and blue textAt this stage, the client decided that, actually, it was only the main verse that was wanted. We had thought of writing the text in ruby red to mark the particular anniversary, but this could have looked a little plain. I suggested mixing two colours in the pen, which gives a variegated effect, as in a poem I wrote out on vellum, right. (The poem was ‘Kite’ which is why there is a black curvy line throughout the text – this was the tail of the kite.)This can be quite challenging to do, and it doesn’t help rhythm and flow, but it does emphasise two individuals coming together with a shared life (well, it does in my view!). I also rather enjoy the challenge of maintaining a consistency of colour and tone.

HymnRather than have the whole verse written out like this, the client selected certain words which meant a lot to him. So it was a little complicated to use the same nib, wash it in the middle of writing a line to use the two colours for one word every line, wash it again to go back to the red, but that’s what a calligrapher is for! I also suggested a very simple leaf decoration on the left-hand side, to add a touch of interest, but not to detract from the words.

A new Book of Hours (well 6 pages!)

Page from Book of HoursOver the years I have produced a number of props for television programmes and films, and have also been filmed writing as historical figures with a quill or pointy pen, or demonstrating what I do – illumination with gold and egg tempera, and writing on vellum with quills – as well as being filmed as myself – a scribe and illuminator. Being commissioned to produce six pages for a mock-up Book of Hours for the BBC series of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall was a really interesting job to get.

The skin from William Cowley was a dream – both hair and flesh side – and I chose sections that had a clear scattering of brown hair follicles so that there would be no confusion that it was paper ‘pretending’ to be vellum.

Screen Shot 2015-01-02 at 13.47.25This is a short film clip of the various stages of the book and how it looked once it had been pasted into the book itself.

testing writing



I tested the skin to see how much preparation it required (for all the information you need about using and preparing vellum and parchment, see my video, 3+ hours long on everything to do with manuscript crafts and modern materials), and then experimented with pen nib sizes and letter height so that I could replicate the writing. Once these were determined I was able to rule guidelines and see if my test preparations worked for writing.

The pages are based on the Hours of Joanna of Castille, but the designer has added gold and coloured side panels, and imported mediæval animals and motifs to add interest to the pages. The Hours are quite small – page size is 105 x160 mm (4 x 6 ins approx) – which means that the lettering is tiny – about 2 mm high.

There were two main ways of producing these six pages. One is to start from scratch with the text, and design and lay out the pages, inserting larger initials, designing the motifs and so on. This is rarely a real choice because it adds often more than twice as much to the time, which I certainly didn’t have. The other is to copy an already existing manuscript, which is indeed what I did.

Design transferredI traced the whole page, including the text, to get a sense of the rhythm and form of the script, but decided not to transfer the tracing of the lettering, as this results in rather static rhythm. It did need a lot of concentration to ensure that line endings were reasonably consistent. They looked very even in the original. However, when I was working on the pages I realised that line endings weren’t that consistent in the Joanna Hours. The tracing outline is secured here (right) by red paint – minium in mediæval manuscripts – I use traditional techniques as much as possible.

Book of Hours textI drew lines for the text and wrote out the first page which was actually the second one. It is always better to start not at the beginning if you can, as your writing is often tighter and more cramped when you first set out, and this shows if it’s right at the start. I was fortunate in that I had a transcription of the text; some of it was difficult to decipher, for example, domum or domiun (my Latin wasn’t good enough to translate as I went along). The letter i was rarely dotted, and, with wear, the tiny joining strokes at the top of an n and at the base for a u meant that these letters were difficult to distinguish. This transcription made a huge difference. The red rubrics were written as I went along, but I left spaces for the larger painted initials, and completed them after the writing.

Then it was on to the painting.

tiny monketI very much enjoyed painting the little animals, though these were less than 2 cm high.

There was a monkey (right), a rabbit (below), squirrel and two peacocks (one of them is below the rabbit on the right).














The squirrel eating a hazel nut was fun to paint.






And every mediæval manuscript needs a snail!

Book of HoursThere were also strawberries, thistles, roses, and blue and pink flowers of slightly indeterminate nature.


Book of Hours gold baseThen it was on to the gold. There wasn’t enough time to use the traditional mordant of gesso, so I used a modern medium, raised it slightly, and then applied real 23·5 carat gold leaf. Gold leaf on anything other than gesso is never as wonderfully shiny and smooth as in traditional manuscripts, but it will certainly look really illuminated as the pages are turned in the series.

Book of Hours pagesIt did look reasonably shiny, though, but as the book was going to be ‘aged’ and rubbed to looks as if it had been in the family for some generations, I didn’t worry too much about taking care with the gilding.


These six pages were sewn into one gathering, and this was then tipped into an already bound book which was aged to look as if it had passed through a few generations.


Luck be a Lady …

Wooden cubeIn my view, calligraphy doesn’t always have to be two-dimensional. I really like pieces that aren’t hung on a wall, and making calligraphy books is a favourite. I had a different idea from a book, though, and that was to make some calligraphy dice, not just any old dice, but ones made with slunk vellum (very fine skin), with real gold leaf covered dots, and with the numbers written with a quill. First, I needed some wooden cubes which could be covered, and once I had these, the experiments started.


Wooden cubes covered with paperThe problem with using slunk vellum, though, is that it is by nature very thin, and so the darker wood could be seen easily beneath the skin – not a good look. I experimented with covering the wood with paper. The paper itself needed to be reasonably robust otherwise it too would show the wood through. However, none of the covering styles I experimented with were suitable as the skin still showed through what was beneath – the folds in the covering paper. In the end I simply used archival quality PVA and pasted this on one side of the wood. I then placed this on a square of paper slightly larger than one side of the wooden cube, and pressed and held down. When dry, I used a knife to trim off the paper close to the edges of the cube, so there were no folds at all that could show through.

Strips of slunk vellum with pencil linesNow to setting out the dice. I experimented with various layouts, and needed to ensure that whatever style I chose, I could fit in numbers such as 6 and 1, which have three letters, as well as the number 3 with five letters (normally no problem, but I was working on an area of just over 2.5 cms (one inch), and the lettering was to be written as circles within that, so an even smaller space!). When I was happy with my design, I cut two strips of slunk vellum, treated it carefully (see my DVD for more details of treating skin for writing and gilding and lots more [download the order form]), and used a sharp 4h pencil, compasses, stencils for the circles and a straight edge to set out each face of the dice. Rather than working with small squares of fiddly and curling up vellum, I kept them as a strip for ease.

L b L 4I made a new batch of gesso (my DVD again), and laid it with a quill, making sure that each dot was round and stood proud of the skin surface. I use a scientist’s crucible for both gesso and pigments and ink, rather than a usual flat paint palette, as the former has a smaller surface area for the moisture to evaporate. Traditionally (!), we use the end of a paintbrush to stir the gesso, as the ingredients for gesso need to be constantly mixed. Using a quill to lay gesso usually means that there are fewer air bubbles, and this was the case in this instance.

Partly gilded dotsWhen the gesso was completely dry, I polished the dots with a burnisher (you might be able to see the shine on the dots of the top vellum strip). Then to lay the gold leaf – this was 23.5 ct, almost pure, gold leaf. I got up early one morning, because laying gesso needs a certain amount of humidity, and set to. Gilding the dots was a little fiddly, but no more so than in some other jobs I had done. The curved-bladed knife is to scrape away excess gold when the gilding is complete.

Writing completed on the vellum stripsAnd on to the writing. I used a quill, recut so it was sharp (yup, that DVD again!), and wrote the letters and numbers in Chinese liquid ink and in ultramarine Schmincke Calligraphy gouache (the best to use for calligraphy). I had planned for the two dice to look different, one with blue numbers and black lettering and the other with black numbers and blue lettering.

Finished illuminated dice


When the writing had dried completely (always leave at least half a day for this on best pieces), I erased all the guidelines, and then carefully trimmed each square using a straight edge and metal rule. Finally, and really carefully, I pasted each side of the dice, and firmly placed the appropriate square of illuminated vellum securely. Usually I would use a bookbinder’s bone folder to press the surface down, but this wasn’t possible with the gilded dots. I allowed the finished dice to dry and here they are.

And why ‘Luck be a Lady’? Well, those of you who are as firm musicals fans as me will know that this was sung in Guys and Dolls by Sky Masterson. The first line in his song ends with ‘tonight’, but I wanted luck to be a lady for more than just ‘tonight’!