I’ve been learning calligraphy for almost 3 years now. Though I wouldn’t describe calligraphy as just a hobby, I’m still in the learning stage of this skill. So today I want to share some calligraphy books that I think are a must-read for beginners to calligraphy. I should state that these choices come from my experience of learning calligraphy.
I think a lot of people work under the assumption that you need to have nice handwriting to be good at calligraphy. I’m here to say you really don’t. I’ll insert an image so you can see what my calligraphy was like when I started. It’s only very recently that I took a workshop for calligraphy, almost everything I’ve learned have come from the books I will mention below.
Even if you don’t want to turn calligraphy into a job, it can be a great hobby. There is something really special about getting a handwritten item, especially in the digital age. I know from experience that people appreciate handwriting. It’s more personal compared to something written on the computer.
For this list, I’ve tried to pick a range of books. I know modern calligraphy is very popular right now and it can look very nice. But some books about modern calligraphy gloss over the learning calligraphy part to get to the fun bit. These projects look nice, but I feel based on my experience its a good idea to learn the basics of calligraphy before putting it into practice.
5 Must Read Calligraphy Books For Beginners
Free Calligraphy Books
Okay, so there is the thing you need to understand about calligraphy. It is essentially a fancy form of handwriting. Before computers were invented having nice handwriting was a very desirable skill. To the point where there were entire art schools dedicated to teaching people different forms of calligraphy. Most of these schools released books which would teach you very specific forms of calligraphy.
You have to understand that just like with fonts, where there are many different typefaces, the same occurs with calligraphy. You can find books which will teach you specific calligraphic scripts. Not all, but many old books can be found on the Internet Archive and these are what people at the time used to learn calligraphy. Some are just passages which you were meant to copy, trying to replicate the forms. But others were complete guides which taught you that specific form of calligraphy.
Most of these books can be downloaded from the Internet Archive so you can read at your own pace. Some you may need to “borrow” similarly to a regular library. I downloaded a few guides and had them printed and bound into a document. But they work just as well as reading from the computer.
One of the guides I downloaded was “Lessons in ornamental penmanship by CP Zaner”. This is a form of American penmanship where the hairlines are a much more consistent width compared to something like Roundhand where there is a lot of contrast between the thick and thin strokes.
Mastering Copperplate Calligraphy by Eleanor Winters
Mastering Copperplate Calligraphy might come across as seeming a little old fashioned. It was published in the 80s so I guess to some it is old. But when you think about the entire history of writing going back to hieroglyphics, copperplate is relatively new.
Now Copperplate isn’t a distinct calligraphy script, it has become a catch-all name for this style of writing. But I think this book, in particular, is very good for beginners who want to learn how to put strokes together. The thing you have to understand about calligraphy is that there are a few basic strokes which make up every letter that you write. Modern calligraphy books are great, but they tend to gloss over learning these strokes.
I think when it comes to modern calligraphy its really important that you learn how to create these basic strokes and how they work together to form letters. Any form of writing works on these same principles. If you look at any typeface the letters are made up of a few basic shapes. Take E and F for instance, they are almost identical but the E has another bar at the bottom.
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This is because our modern typefaces came from the lead type which was originally based on Roman letters. So a typeface is made of shapes which all fall under the same rules, change these rules and that is how you take Garamond and turn it into Futura.
Modern calligraphy works on almost the same principles. You have a script and change the rules slightly, you make the space between letters bigger compared to copperplate, or change the x-height of some letters. I think its best to learn something like copperplate and how the strokes go together before you start to change things up. It makes sense if you think about it. You have to know the rules before you start changing them.
That was a very long-winded way of saying if you want to learn how to write letters in a roundhand script this is a great place to start. But once you have learned the basics you can go from here and start putting your twist on calligraphy.
Modern Calligraphy Workshop by Imogen Owen
Modern Calligraphy Workshop was one of the first calligraphy books I bought when I started learning. As an introduction to modern calligraphy, I think it’s fine. It does a great job of explaining the basics of typography and how you can use these rules to put your spin on modern calligraphy.
Though I think it doesn’t spend enough time teaching you how to put letters together, instead there is a lot of example scripts which you can learn through copying. Which is fine, copying a script is a perfectly valid way to learn calligraphy and some of the most well known historical calligraphers learned in this way. But I don’t think you should just learn from copying a script.
One thing I will mention about this book, in particular, is that there is no mention of using a grid to lay out your letters. If you look at most calligraphers they will use some sort of grid so their letters are all at the same angle and in a straight line. Though this isn’t so important with modern calligraphy, using a grid was one of the things which really helped me improve my calligraphy. If you do want to download some grids for practising calligraphy the best place to get free ones is IAMPETH.com
Calligraphy Style by Veronica Halim
Calligraphy Style is the book I wish I had read first when starting calligraphy. Though it doesn’t go as in-depth compared to Mastering Copperplate it has a great little section at the start of the book which will teach you the basic calligraphy strokes and how these can be used to make different letters. It goes on from there to teach you how to use these basic strokes to do modern calligraphy and even has a section on how to join letters together. Yes I know calligraphy is all about joining letters together, it seems simple but is quite complicated so this section is very helpful.
The rest of the book is made up of a series of how-to guides. It has a huge range of projects which you can use your new calligraphy skills on. Some of these projects are quite basic, like cards and tags but they look very nice. I can almost guarantee you’ll never want to buy gift tags again after learning how to make your own. This book very much focuses on calligraphy projects you could use for weddings. But I don’t think that is a bad thing. There is still information you could take from these projects and apply to other things you may want to work on.
I know I’ve said all of these calligraphy books are must-reads. But this book is particularly good and one I would highly recommend. Also, the photos in this book are very nice, I know this doesn’t make a difference but I thought I would mention that.
By Hand by Nicole Miyuki Santo
By Hand is a book you’ll want to pick up if you’re interested in brush calligraphy. I’d also highly recommend following Nicole on Instagram because she is very good at what she does. I’m not a huge fan of brush calligraphy, I have nothing against it. But as I’ve mentioned in previous posts its something I find very difficult compared to pointed pen calligraphy.
By Hand doesn’t go into a huge amount of detail on how to do the basic strokes. But I don’t think this is as much of a problem. Modern brush calligraphy isn’t as precise compared to pointed pen calligraphy. You have more leeway on how you put the strokes together.
A large part of the book is made up of projects you can do using brush calligraphy. But these projects work sequentially. Starting with a project using the basic strokes and building on these fundamentals with each subsequent project. If you want to learn brush calligraphy this is a great place to start.
I also just want to mention the visible binding on this book. It won’t matter to most of you but the binding on this book is very nice. I should also mention that currently, you can’t purchase By Hand in the UK. If you do want to get a copy you’ll need to buy it from the US Amazon store. This isn’t lockdown related in any way, it just isn’t easy to find outside the US.
And there we have it, 5 of my must-read calligraphy books. If you don’t want to buy any books I’d highly recommend checking out the Internet Archive for calligraphy books. Most books will be very old but they are what modern calligraphy is based on so can be worth a look.
I might be a little biased here, but I think calligraphy can be a great hobby to get into. Its surprising just how much you can learn from a few books. Before anyone says they would never be able to learn calligraphy, please go back and look at my first attempts. It is one of those hobbies where a little bit of practice can make a huge difference.