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Italic calligraphy

Lean, assured and always dynamically stylish, italic calligraphy looks like a model alphabet
wearing a Milanese suit. Not surprising, given that the name 'italic' refers to the origins of the
script in Italy.
Today, hand-written italic alphabets remain ever-popular for quotations, wedding invitations, art
calligraphy and improving handwriting style.
This page offers you general practical information about how to write and recognise italic letters.
You may also be interested in the more specific italic lettering page for detailed guidance on how
to form individual italic letters, practice exercises etc.

If you look at the above illustration, you will see that an italic calligraphy alphabet shows:
a distinctive lozenge shape to the body of letters a, b, d, g etc
elegant, narrow branching strokes forming the shoulders of letters such as b, h, m, n, p etc
quite long ascenders and descenders
usually a slight slant to the right, about 5 degrees
a cursive, running quality and an upwards flick at the finish of many letters
a contrast between heavier pressure on the downstrokes and much lighter pressure on the
some characteristic letter forms: for example, a and g are plain and open; ascenders often
have a slight flourish

You will also find when you look around that italic calligraphy can in fact refer to many, rather
differing calligraphy alphabets. Italic is the name of a family of scripts, not just one exact form.
But all italic alphabets will show four or more of the above characteristics, and especially the first
Usually, italic calligraphy is written about 5 nib-widths high. This means the height of an italic
letter is a little greater in proportion to the nib-width than many other calligraphic letterforms.

Calligraphy - Italic

So you may wish to change to a narrower nib if youve previously been writing gothic, roundhand
or uncial or else, if you want to keep on with the same nib, rule a page of wider guidelines to
write on.
Keep your pen angle at 45 degrees. This is important for forming the branching strokes.
You will also notice in the illustration of 'a' above, and on the more specific 'italic lettering' page,
that quite a few italic letter-forms involve pushing the pen nib to the left a little, or upwards from
the baseline.
Now, you may be thinking, "Wait did she say pushing the pen? But I thought we were supposed
to lead the nib across the page and never push it!"
Yes, that is the rule. It is the general rule, in order to learn how to handle a square-ended nib for
writing well-formed calligraphy scripts. Once your hand has learnt that general rule and you can
use it instinctively, you can start to bend it. Italic calligraphy is more cursive than other forms of
calligraphy and to write it fluently does occasionally require pushing the pen, carefully.
(Of course it is possible to write a slower italic by forming the letters in separate sections without
pushing the pen. Keep a careful eye on the 'counter' or white space inside the letters if you do
this so it doesnt become lumpy or too angular.)

Some more basic principles for writing good italic calligraphy:

You can alter the appearance of your italic calligraphy simply by altering the amount of white
space you leave between letters in a word, even if the letters are the same size:

Spacing is always important but in italic calligraphy especially so. The subtle, regular forms of
italic letters are sensitive to irregular spacing and proportions. (Dont imagine that the examples
you see on these pages are always perfect examples of how to space!)
Good spacing is not just about having the same amount of space between letters. If you draw
each letter in an imaginary box of the same size, you will find that the words look uneven and
distorted. Because italic calligraphy is a mixture of straight and curved lines, the rules for spacing
have to do with the relationships between the curves and the straights:

Calligraphy - Italic

As you can see, letter spacing controls the white space in between letters. Separately from that,
the actual width of italic letters in relation to their height is another important consideration. This
is about the shape and size of the 'counter' or white space inside any letterform:

Personally, I find that to write a pleasing italic alphabet requires more practice and warming-up
exercises than gothic and roundhand. Possibly others would disagree and say that all scripts
require a warm-up first. That's a good routine to get into. But italics more than gothic or uncials
do demand confident, rapid formation of the letters with the whole hand.
So dont criticise your own italic calligraphy too harshly if you dont like it straight off. As in
fashion, cooking or DIY, it takes a little work behind the scenes to bring off simplicity and
elegance at speed.
Practice exercises include writing rows of ms and ns ('arcades') and many 'a's and 'o's, trying to
get them the same each time.

(These will come up again in the italic lettering pages!)

Your hand, arm, shoulder and eyes need to feel relaxed, focused and coordinated.
Try to build up a rhythm with the downstrokes. Concentrate on moving your whole hand while
forming letters, not just your fingers.

There are more tips and illustrations for writing specific letters, and for analysing your italics, on
the next page.
When your hand has thoroughly learned the 'feel' of the letters, you can more confidently
produce the easy-looking, fluid strokes which distinguish italic calligraphy from any other
calligraphic style.

Calligraphy - Italic

Italic lettering, and how to form italic letters

Originally developed for use by clerks and secretaries in the Popes office, italic lettering now
lends itself to many more worldly purposes.
Because it is elegant and legible, italic is most appropriate for writing out longer calligraphic texts
such as sonnets, passages of prose, invitations etc.
Italic calligraphy is a little more decorative than roundhand, but maintains a very regular
appearance. This is partly to do with the letter-forms themselves and partly about factors such as
spacing and proportions.

So, anytime you want people to be able to read easily what you have written, and at the same
time for them to notice that the writing is beautiful and a little formal, consider using italics.

Italic lettering step-by-step

If you haven't already seen it, you might be interested in the
some general practical tips on how to write the script.

'italic calligraphy' page, which gives

This page now goes into the nitty-gritty of exactly how you form italic lettering. There
are several basic movements which you will use again and again for similarly shaped letters.
Learn these and not only will your italics improve, your everyday handwriting may well benefit
So, have you got your calligraphy pen and practice paper ready? Five nibwidths measured and
ruled? Let's start.
You may already have seen the illustration of an italic letter 'a' on the 'Italic Calligraphy' page.
(You'll see it again further down this page.) However, we're not going to begin with 'a'. Instead,
we're going to get straight into the fundamental structure of an italic alphabet: the downstroke.

Notice that your downstrokes should all be parallel. For different letters, they begin and end in
different places above, on or below the baseline. But each time the stroke is slightly slanted off
the vertical, and is also parallel with every other downstroke.
The downstrokes above are not very slanted. They could be more so.
Note here too that there are different acceptable ways to start and end a downstroke. Sometimes
they begin with a little 'tick' from the left, sometimes with a thin slant from the right. The main
Calligraphy - Italic

thing is to use a tiny motion of the nib one way or the other to get the ink flow cleanly started for
a well-formed letter.
Don't mix methods within the same passage of italic calligraphy!
Of course it is just 'i' and 'l' that are formed of only a downstroke. Other letters need
a horizontal line or cross-stroke to complete them, so practise drawing smooth horizontals

Don't worry about 'g' and 'b' for the moment. They come up later on with their complicatd
curves. I just wanted to show you that horizontals are important for several letters. The italic
forms to practise right now include just 't', 'j' and 'f'.
Notice that the 'tails' on descenders, for 'j', 'f', etc, are formed by joining a cross-stroke to a
downstroke with a slight curve into a thin line. Although the strokes are almost at right angles to
each other, they do not join by forming a sharp corner.
Once you can draw a short downstroke and a horizontal, it's time to combine them in a different
way again by using a branching stroke. This 'branch' is a key element in italic lettering.
Here it is in its simplest form to write an italic letter 'r':

Notice how the same branching stroke forms the 'r' when stopped high, but if carried on down
forms an 'n'. Equally, a slightly narrow italic letter 'n' without a final flick is the first half of an
italic 'm'. See how in the final 'm' there are two 'n's joined together? (I've drawn a red box
around the second one.) Italic lettering is very much about repeated shapes.
In the illustration above, I have shown the branch drawn right from the bottom of the letter at
the baseline up 'through' the first downstroke. This method gives a more cursive feel to the letter
and will help you to write italics more rapidly and fluently in time.
To push the nib up you must hold it very lightly, keeping it always at 45 degrees, and 'skim' it
gently up across the page into the branching point. As the pen stroke begins to curve diagonally
up to the right, separating from the downstroke, you can let the nib 'bite' the page a little more.
Once you are into the next downstroke, put normal pressure back on the nib.
So the rule is pressure right off for upstrokes, light pressure on for downstrokes.
However, if you find it difficult to do upstrokes at all, you can start your branching higher up, as

Calligraphy - Italic

The first 'm' is drawn with the more cursive upstrokes. The second is drawn with diagonal strokes
starting higher. Try to make sure your arches are smooth with no sharp internal angles where
they meet the downstrokes.
Once you have got the hang of drawing branching strokes, a couple of other italic letters come
within reach:

The italic letter 'h' as you can see is an 'n' with a high ascender to start with. Make sure the
second, shorter downstroke is parallel with the first.
The 'k' should start its branch just like an 'n' or 'h', then tuck sharply in to form the bow. Draw
the leg out so its foot strikes the baseline a little back from the furthest point of the bow. This
helps gives the body of the 'k' a slight slant, in line with its ascender and the rest of the italic
Two more letters formed using the italic 'branch' are 'b' and 'p'. They are just the same except
that one has an ascender, the other a descender. Here is 'b' to start with:

When drawing an italic letter 'b', form the branching curve quite narrow at the top and let it bulge
out a little, gracefully, before curving back in again towards the base.
The horizontal joining stroke should not be too long and square or your 'b' will look clunky.
Here is 'p', for which exactly the same rules apply:

Okay, I realize that I didn't mention that little 'tail' on the downstroke of the 'p'. It makes it fit
with 'g', 'j' and so forth.

Calligraphy - Italic

(For a flourish on ascenders in italic lettering, you can draw a horizontal off the top of the letter
towards the right, just like the tail on the 'p' in reverse. Then the 'b' would be an exact duplicatein-reverse of the 'p'.)
Now for a different kind of branching stroke:

These two italic letters look quite simple to draw but make sure your pen is at 45 degrees and
that you have a slight slant on your downstrokes so that you get a good contrast between the
thick and thin.
Again, the version I show uses an upstroke. If you have trouble with that, stop the curve of the
letter-form before it starts moving upwards, and draw your downstroke to join with it.
Branching strokes should be practised a lot. Now is a good time to learn about arcades. These
are exercises consisting of rows and rows (and pages and pages) of scallop-shapes like multiple
'n's and 'u's:

It is also very useful to find sequences of italic letters like 'minimum', 'nilulinul' or 'munumini' and
to write these repeatedly to practise transitioning from one form to another within a line of italic

(This is excellent handwriting practice, by the way.)

Enough munumini? Enough branching strokes? Never fear, you will be back to practise them
some more before long :-)
Let's get onto some curved letters:

Calligraphy - Italic

Notice with these three that the same basic movement is used to create the first curved stroke.
Remember that italic lettering has a slight slant, so the bottom curve of these letters should be
positioned a little further to the left than the top curve. That is decided when you make the first
stroke. Draw it to fit an imaginary slanting line.
After drawing that first curve, 'c' has a short, quite straight top.
By contrast, 'e' loops round very tightly with a longer hairline diagonal to meet the downstroke.
Make sure your 'o' is not circular but oval, and also slightly slanted. Imagine it is made of two
tiny circles, one on top of the other and offset to the right. Draw round these two tiny circles and
you'll get the slanting oval 'o'.
Drawing line after line of 'o's is another valuable exercise. I won't illustrate it here. You can
imagine all those zeros easily enough. (Draw a '1' at the beginning and visualise the page as next
year's income ... )
Now for another rounded letter made of two offset circles:

This is another letter which it pays to practise again and again. (Maybe I have said that for all the
italic lettering so far. It's true.)
There are two main pitfalls with 's' as an italic letter. One is to make the finishing-strokes too
horizontal and straight. This makes the 's' look spiky. Another danger is to make the first snaky
wiggle too wide and horizontal. This leads to an 's' with no slant to it -- a roundhand 's' instead of
an italic.
When you are reasonably happy with 's', it's a good time to move on to a whole new family of
italic lettering forms:

To form an italic letter 'a' you may push the pen back a little from right to left to start with. Bring
it round in a smooth lozenge shape, with a slightly pointy base somewhat over to the left. (This is
what gives the body of the letter its slant.) Add a cross-stroke at the top and a crisp downstroke
at the same slant as the rest of the letter (and any other italic lettering on the page).
The same technique applies to 'd', with a long descender instead of a short downstroke:

Calligraphy - Italic

Try to get the descender of 'd' to overlap the upstroke perfectly. The bottom half of the letter
should look just like an 'a'.
(The 'd' looks a bit smaller than the 'a' here, but it's just the way I saved the graphics. It's still 5
nibwidths high.)
Same again, with a descender this time and a tail, for 'g':

And as you can imagine, it's if anything even simpler to draw a 'q' in italic lettering:

That takes care of quite a few letters.

Try to make sure that 'a', 'd', 'g' and 'q' in your italic lettering have the same basic body-shape as
each other.
Also, you should notice that the curve of the first stroke in these letters also closely resembles
that of 'c', 'e' and 'o'.
There are four letters left. I think of them as 'the pointy letters' but it is probably better to call
them 'diagonal' letters as they are composed mostly of straight diagonal lines. Let's start with
two that closely resemble each other:

Don't go overboard with the curve on the last stroke. It's pronounced but shouldn't be bulgy.

Calligraphy - Italic

Also, make sure that you draw your downstrokes on 'v' and 'w' closer to the vertical than the thin
upstrokes. By contrast, the upstrokes should be more angled across to the right. This again is
about getting a slant onto all of your italic lettering.
Last two letters!

This form of 'x' is really quite gratifying to draw. It is elegantly easy to form but looks fabulous
with its little 'ears'.
As with 'v' and 'w', make sure that the first, thick downstroke of 'x' is closer to the vertical, and
the thin cross-stroke is more slanted at an angle. Otherwise, if both lines are at the same angle,
the 'x' will look too upright compared with the other, slanted forms in your italic lettering.
By contrast with 'x', 'z' in italic is rather plain and surprisingly difficult to slant properly. Practise
makes perfect ...

I think and hope we have now covered the alphabet.

Capital letters in italics is a whole other subject. I hope you will soon have a chance to practise
those from another page on this site.

Calligraphy - Italic


Calligraphy - Italic