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I’m Nirjhar Mondal, a doctor by profession and calligrapher by passion!
Some of you may know me by my social media handle @calligranir. I’m an Indian calligrapher from Kolkata.
In this post, I will be sharing my knowledge and experiences with the Foundational Hand.
We shall discuss everything necessary about the basics of a beautiful calligraphy script.
This Foundational hand tutorial will teach you these things-
- A brief history of the Foundational Hand
- Tools needed
- Structure of letters
- Understanding letter groups
- Composition tips
- Tips to improve your writing
- FREE downloadable practice sheets
Before jumping on the details let’s get back in time a bit for better
History of the Foundational hand
The Foundational as a calligraphy script was developed by the British scribe Edward Johnston.
The origin of modern Foundational hand is based upon 9th and 10th-century manuscripts written in Carolingian script.
It was a fluent, cursive hand with fewer pen lifts than most of the historical scripts.
These letterforms have been used as the basis of many scripts including the modern Foundational hand.
Why is learning the Foundational Hand crucial for every calligrapher?
Because of its clean geometric structure, these letterforms provide an excellent basis for understanding the formation of (other) minuscule alphabets.
That’s why a proper understanding of the letterforms of the Foundational hand will help you to write many other related scripts.
As Edward Johnoston said in his book – Writing & Illuminating & Lettering (1906) –
The best training is found in the practice of an upright round-hand. Having mastered such a writing, the penman can acquire any other hands -sloping or angular- with comparative ease.
If you want to learn more about the history of the Foundational hand, be sure to check out this article from theshapeofletters.com
Tools needed for the Foundational hand
For the Foundational hand, you need a broad edge nib.
Round hand dip nibs from William Mitchell are my favorite for this particular script.
There are a various number of sizes available; however, my picks are –
- no 3 (1.2mm)
- no 3.5 ( 1 mm)
These are my favorite nibs for practicing the Foundational hand.
2. Straight holder
A short round-bodied straight nib holder works just fine.
I use an inexpensive Brause straight nib holder.
You can also check out this set from Mitchell – it offers both the holder and multiple nibs together.
If you are just getting started, perhaps a simpler alternative would be to use Pilot Parallel pen.
A good calligraphy paper should resist bleeding & feathering and reproduce colors well.
I prefer to use watercolor papers ( 200 gsm and higher) for most of my works.
These papers can be-
You can use any of the above depending on the effect you’re looking for.
As for regular practice you can also use any sort of paper as long as it doesn’t bleed – always aim for sharp hairlines.
Fountain pen inks from brands like –
A simple regular ruler works just fine.
However, i would recommend getting a rolling ruler as it’s much quicker and easier to create your guidelines.
HB pencils should be used for ruling because it’s easier to erase.
Kneaded eraser – works great for light pencil marks, and doesn’t leave any pieces like a regular eraser.
And most importantly- your hand.
Quick note – Dip nibs come with a protective coating that prevents it from rusting.
You have to remove the covering before use as it repels ink while writing.
In this post Edgar mentions a couple of ways you can prep your nibs.
Structure of the letters in the Foundational hand
The letters can be divided into several parts by some horizontal lines that represent letter proportions.
Consider the following diagram-
- Most of the letters fall between x-height and baseline.
- However, some letters (e.g., h,k) extend beyond x-height up to the ascender guideline.
- Likewise, there are some letters (e.g., p,q,y) which descend beyond the baseline up to the descender guideline.
The letter ratio
Letter ratio means the distance between the guidelines that determine the overall aesthetic appearance of the letters.
Traditionally, this ratio is measured in units where one unit represents the nib width of the pen you’re using.
For example, if you’re using a 2mm nib, then each unit will be 2mm.
For the Foundational hand, usually, a 2:4:2 ratio is used.
Which means –
- The space between ascender and x-height is 2 unites
- The area between x-height and baseline is 4 units
- The space between baseline and descender is 2 units
Once you feel comfortable with this ratio, you should start experimenting with the spacing to add versatility in your writing.
The pen angle
As you can see in the image above, the pen angle stays consistently on 30 degrees.
There are just a few letters like w, v, x, that may be written with a steeper 45 degree angle.
Spacing between words
For consistent and proper spacing between the words, leave a space that is of the same width of small letter ‘o’ of the script you’re writing.
In the beginning, you can mark the space with a pencil to get an idea.
Spacing between letters
The space between words is the same (the size of the letter ‘o’). But space between letters isn’t equal –
- Space between two straight-sided letters (e.g., db, ll, ii) is maximum
- Space between two curved letters (e.g., oo, bo, pd) is minimum
- Space between one straight-sided and one curved letter (e.g., lc, no, pt) lies in between.
This may seem a little difficult to understand first but becomes quite easy with practice.
Keeping the proper spacing between the letters is very important in the foundational hand to maintain harmony.
Spacing between lines
Spacing between two consecutive lines should be such that the descenders of the upper line do not clash with the ascenders of the lower edge.
Consider the following diagram –
So, until now, we have learned the letter structure, ratio, and different kinds of spacing.
Now, let’s see how a draft ruling looks like –
Almost half of the total letters of the Foundational hand are based on the letter ‘o’.
It’s the key letter in this script.
Consider the following diagrams to understand how the letters are related to the letter ‘o’.
These are the letters based on the letter ‘o’.
Now let’s have a look at the construction of the stem and the serif that will be frequently needed in the Foundational hand.
The stem can be added with part of the letter ‘o’ to create a variety of letters.
Here is an example –
Starting to write
We are going to divide the letters into some groups so that it’ll be easier to learn their shapes.
All the letters in a particular group share some common features.
Here is how i would advise to divide the letters in groups.
Group 1 –
- Letters o, c and e
Group 2 –
Letters d, b, p and q
Group 3 –
- Letters h, m, n, and r
Group 4 –
- Letters t and u
Group 5 –
- Letters l, i and j
Group 6 –
- Diagonal letters k, v, w, x, y and z
Miscellaneous letters –
- a, s, f and g
Let’s arrange all of them in alphabetical order.
Layout and composition
Layout and composition denote how you arrange the letters to create a strong visual impact on the viewer.
There are innumerable ways of arranging the letters, and each calligrapher has his/her own unique way of composition that distinguishes them from the rest.
It’s impossible to get an insight into the elusive art of composition at the first go, but with sustained practice and evolving experience, you’ll be able to compose in a better way.
Here are some easy ways of composition that you may try –
1. Reduce negative spaces around your writing
Suppose we’re going to write the following quote-
‘It’s easy to look sharp when you have not done any work.’
Now, we can arrange the words in many ways like-
It’s easy to look sharp – 18 letters
when you – 7 letters
have not done any work – 18 letters
Or, it can be-
It’s easy to look – 13 letters
sharp when you have – 16 letters
not done any work – 14 letters
In the first example, the words are not adequately arranged that created unwanted empty spaces in the middle.
2. Using colours and gradient
With watercolors and gouache, you can create many colors by mixing and can make color gradients also by dilution depending on the Theme.
3. Alternating scripts
The Foundational hand has an elegant, delicate appearance, and you can alternate it with a bold script like Fraktur or Neuland for contrast.
How to improve my writing?
- Always make proper ruling first before writing. Whether you’re doing a casual practice or some serious work, make a habit of drawing the guidelines first.
- Practice the letters as groups ( as shared previously) rather than in alphabetical order. In this way, you can easily replicate the strokes from memory without looking at the guide sheet.
- Work on a big scale so that you can understand the errors in letterforms and spacing
- Commonly, you may get stuck in one or two letters as you’re
learning it new. In that case, better not to repeat the same letters over and over again.
Try to correct them while writing with other letters.
- Gradually start experimenting with the letter ratio, try different
compositions and colors. Experimentation with new ideas is very crucial in your calligraphy journey. But learn the basic rules properly first before deciding something new, as it is said-
‘Learn the rules like a pro, so you can bend them like an artist.’
FREE downloadable Foundational Hand worksheet
With the help from Lettering Daily, I’ve also created some free downloadable practice sheets in order to help you get started.
The practice sheets contain the whole minuscule (lowercase) alphabet, and it’s divided into letter groups (like mentioned above) to make it easier for you to practice.
A few notes about the practice sheets –
- The nib size you need is 2.4 mm – for example an orange Parallel Pen or a Mitchell 1.5 size.
- Use proper paper – one that will not cause bleeding.
Simply drop your email below, and you will get instant access to the Lettering Crate. You will be able to download these along with all the other practice sheets currently available.
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Thank you for stopping by and reading this tutorial.
I hope this resource is going to be helpful on your creative journey.
Remember – the Foundational Hand will provide you with a very strong basis for further learning of many other calligraphy scripts.
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Thank you for joining for another tutorial, and until the next time –
About the author
Hi! I’m Nirjhar Mondal, a Doctor by profession and a calligrapher by passion. I started calligraphy since my high school days as a recreation in my leisure time. Later when I entered my profession as a doctor, calligraphy became my only stress buster, a medium where I can express my imagination. I am entirely a self-taught calligrapher. I never had any formal training; I learned mainly by studying the work of the masters on social media. I practice a variety of broad edge and pointed pen scripts like italics, foundational hand, Neuland, Roman capitals, copperplate, etc.