HOW TO GET STARTED WITH THE FOUNDATIONAL HAND

cover for foundational calligraphy tutorial
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Hello everybody!

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-

  1. A brief history of the Foundational Hand
  2. Tools needed
  3. Structure of letters
  4. Spacing
  5. Understanding letter groups
  6. Composition tips
  7. Tips to improve your writing
  8. FREE downloadable practice sheets

Before jumping on the details let’s get back in time a bit for better
understanding.

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How to get started with the Foundational Hand - Lettering Daily

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.

How to get started with the Foundational Hand - Lettering Daily

A page from The Ramsey Psalter of 10th century which served as inspiration for the Foundational hand in 20th century by British scribe Edward Johnston

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

1. Nibs

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.

3. Paper

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.

4. Ink

Fountain pen inks from brands like –

Diamine or J Herbin also works very well.

5. Ruler

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.

6. Pencil

HB pencils should be used for ruling because it’s easier to erase.

7. Eraser

Kneaded eraser – works great for light pencil marks, and doesn’t leave any pieces like a regular eraser.

And most importantly- your hand.

How to get started with the Foundational Hand - Lettering Daily

Tools needed for foundational 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-

How to get started with the Foundational Hand - Lettering Daily
  • 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
How to get started with the Foundational Hand - Lettering Daily

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.

How to get started with the Foundational Hand - Lettering Daily

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.
How to get started with the Foundational Hand - Lettering Daily

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 –

How to get started with the Foundational Hand - Lettering Daily
How to get started with the Foundational Hand - Lettering Daily

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 –

How to get started with the Foundational Hand - Lettering Daily

Letterform analysis

Almost half of the total letters of the Foundational hand are based on the letter ‘o’.
It’s the key letter in this script.

How to get started with the Foundational Hand - Lettering Daily

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.

How to get started with the Foundational Hand - Lettering Daily

The stem  can be added with part of the letter ‘o’ to create a variety of letters.

Here is an example –

How to get started with the Foundational Hand - Lettering Daily

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
Group1

Group 2 –

Letters d, b, p and q

Group 2

Group 3 –

  • Letters h, m, n, and r
Group 3

Group 4 –

  • Letters t and u
group 4

Group 5 –

  • Letters l, i and j
Group 5

Group 6 –

  • Diagonal letters k, v, w, x, y and z
group 6

Miscellaneous letters –

  • a, s, f and g
group 7 of the Foundational Hand

Let’s arrange all of them in alphabetical order.

the whole lowercase table - ductus

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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Work on a big scale so that you can understand the errors in letterforms and spacing
  4. 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.
  5. 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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Stay updated with our tutorials and get instant access to the Lettering Crate –

A growing library of free lettering & calligraphy resources that includes – FREE downloadable calligraphy practice sheets, Procreate brushes, the 30-day lettering planner, printables, and more.
The Lettering Crate sample image - free lettering and calligraphy worksheets and resources

Final words 

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. 

If you want to get more constructive feedback not only on this challenge but generally your lettering and calligraphy, be sure to join our Facebook group!

The official Lettering Daily Facebook group is a place where you can –

  • Share your work
  • Get constructive feedback
  • Network with fellow lettering & calligraphy artists
  • Ask specific questions about lettering & calligraphy
  • Much more!

Thank you for joining for another tutorial, and until the next time –

Stay AWESOME!!

About Author

19 thoughts on “HOW TO GET STARTED WITH THE FOUNDATIONAL HAND”

    1. Lettering Daily

      WOW! Really? 😀 Im glad to hear that. I mean that you liked the article, not that the workshop wasn’t as good as expected 🙁

    1. Lettering Daily

      Hey Bridgette, you can find the link to the Lettering Crate in the footer of the website as well as inside the welcome email. Send me an email in case you need further assistance.

  1. I’m a left hander , I found your website, reading your explanation. Initially, I was looking for group of letters somehow, I found this very clear, precisely information. Look forward to work on my new skills on it.

    Thank you for explaining the foundational hand.

    Ciao Maria

    1. Lettering Daily

      Thank you Maria, I am glad to hear that. I am right-handed so i can’t really provide any useful information for left-handed calligraphers 🙁 I will try to reach out to some left-handed calligraphers and see if they could perhaps contribute to this 🙂

    1. Lettering Daily

      You shouldn’t really use the corner of your nib to do the ending stem. Try to keep it straight all over the letterforms. If you still struggle, feel free to reach out directly 🙂

      1. Thanks for your answer.. I mean, under the title “Letterform analysis” there is a picture in which its showed how to finish the lower part of the stems… and it says that it should be finished with the corner of the nib… is that part of the letter that I can’t achieve…

        1. Hey Sebastian, why don’t you shoot me an email with an image of your work? This would be the best way for me to provide helpful information 🙂

  2. Good day!
    Like this calligraphy very much!
    Unfortunately, I have difficulties making the end part of the stem with the courner of the nib…
    Any advice??
    Thanks!

  3. Great tutorial. I have only done pointed pen work before; I confess to being a little afraid of a broad nib. I do have a couple, and you’ve given me enough encouragement to try them out.
    Thank you very much!

    1. Thank you Carol, getting started is the hardest part. You will see that with time you will just get better. If you have any questions, or if you need any help – don’t hesitate to ask! 🙂

  4. Sabine aus WO(rms)

    Thank you – a great tutorial for a beautiful script!
    many ♡ ly greetings sent by
    Sabine from WO(rms) in Germany

  5. Anant Pathak Aurangabad Maharashtra

    It’s really very very very useful to beginners,It shows your TRUE LOVE WITH ALPHABETS .THE COMING Generation Will definitely Delited after getting this forever.Thank you.Regards!!

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