Handwriting: The lost art.

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Pens and Pencils.”

The short response:  I write almost daily–not because I have to, but because I enjoy it.

I will freely admit that I’m a complete computer geek: I spend a lot of time on the computer at work and at home.  When a computer isn’t readily available there’s always my smartphone.  I’m all for note-taking apps like Onenote or Evernote, and use at least one of them daily as well.  With the exception of Post-it notes, I could easily get along without needing a handwriting instrument of any kind at my job as an engineer.

I write because I enjoy it.  It’s relaxing, and so pure.  There’s something soothing about watching letters and words form behind the tip of a pen, speeding along at maybe 20 words per minute or so.  I know what it was like in the pre-keyboard era.  Oftentimes when I’m all alone with pen and ink, I think about the monks in the old days, huddled over a flickering candle, transcribing old texts with quills.

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In my opinion, handwriting neatness and style has gotten progressively worse (just look at the flowing script in many letters and postcards written back at the turn of the twentieth century, for example).  I think about today’s kids, who don’t know a world without the Internet, email, and text messages, and can’t help but wonder if handwriting is going to be a lost art in the near future.

Tag this!

In my first Calligraphy posting (http://wp.me/p5yQuB-2), I found the Parallel Pen ink cartridges didn’t last very long.  I went to buy some Higgins Calligraphy ink and tried it, but wasn’t satisfied with it, as it was too runny and the black was washed out compared to the original cartridge ink.

I also bought some Winsor & Newton Calligraphy ink in matt black, and it gave a much richer black, but also clogged the pen.  😦  Right around this same time Angie conjured up a project for my calligraphy, and suggested I make some tags for her baby shower gifts.  She wanted gold ink on black paper tags.

The challenge was on!  I figured out by now that any metallic gold ink would definitely clog a Parallel Pen, so I did some research and decided to buy an oblique pen holder and some nibs.

This would be my foray into dip pens, and I was excited.  Undaunted by the bewildering array of nibs (and people fixated on them!) I jumped in head first and bought a couple Principal EF, Hunt 101, and Speedball calligraphy nibs (B and C series).  I also purchased a bottle of Sennelier Gold ink, and a Speedball oblique holder.  The Speedball holders are cheap, ubiquitous and definitely marketed toward the beginner.Gold ink

I had never really seen a nib until that day in the store, and there’s something beautiful about them, from the shiny, coppery finishes to the precisely fabricated tips.  I know the coppery color is from the heat treatment of the steel to achieve the correct hardness (not ‘stiffness’, as most people commonly call it, but I digress), and there’s a raw elegance to that.

I spent a lot of time tinkering with the nibs and the black inks I now owned, and figured out that a really light touch is what is required to keep the Principal EF nib from catching the paper.  Oh, what a fine line I could draw though!

The gold ink was another story.  It settled out very quickly–between dips of the pen in fact–so it required constant stirring, and I had trouble achieving varied line widths (shades?) with both the Principal EF and the Hunt 101.  I found that if I let the ink settle and absorb a little of the water from the ink to thicken it, it worked better.

Anyway after many hours and many failed attempts I finally managed to make 23 tags with a short thank-you on one side and the recipient’s name on the other.IMG_0685


Since then I purchased a pack of Zebra G nibs, which I’m quite fond of.  I had to take a Dremel and stone to the ends of the nibs to make them fit in the Speedball oblique holder (they’re too long) but I also have some more oblique holders currently on order.

More about nibs and beginner Copperplate practice in a future post.

Calligraphy Papers

As I started doing more calligraphy and playing with pens and ink, I found that the original Bienfang pad I bought wasn’t meeting my standards.  I’ve tried several different papers now, so I’m going to give them a short review here.

The following is a list of the four papers I’ll discuss:

  • Bienfang Calligraphic Parchment.  8.5” x 11”, 50 sheets, 60lb (74 gsm)
  • Bee Paper Calligraphy Practice Pad.  9” x 12”, 50 sheets, 60lb (98 gsm)
  • Rhodia Reverse Book.  8.25” x 8.25”, 80 sheets, spiral bound, 80gsm
  • Canson Pro Layout Marker.  9” x 12”, 50 sheets, 18lb (70 gsm)
The four papers reviewed here
The four papers reviewed here


If you’re not going to read the rest of this post, here’s the quick rundown of each paper.  I go into more details below.

  • Bienfang: Avoid it for thin inks like Parallel Pen or fountain pens.  Acceptable for dip pen but surface finish could catch fine nibs.
  • Bee Paper: Nothing really special about this pad.  Small amount of ink feathering.
  • Rhodia: Nice gridded paper, minimal ink feathering.  Compact size.
  • Canson Pro Layout.  Exceptionally smooth and no ink feathering, but fairly transparent and slow drying.  Works well with different inks.

Bienfang Calligraphic Parchment:

This was the first pad I bought when I started with my first Parallel Pen.  It’s made in Canada (yay, my home country).  The single pad contains paper of 4 different colors—canary, cream, pink, and light blue—which is nice for seeing how your ink looks with different backgrounds.

The paper surface has a fine texture to it, and isn’t as smooth as the Canson or Bee Paper pads.  It’s not an issue so much with the Parallel Pen, but dip pen users who like fine pointed nibs should beware.

Included with the pad are several different spacing guides, in heavier stock, which I found really helpful.  There are three guide sheets, for fine, medium, and broad nibs, and they are printed on both sides, so you can practice straight vertical lettering on one side, and italics on the other.

Parallel Pen ink on Bienfang paper
Parallel Pen ink on Bienfang paper

I noticed fairly pronounced feathering with Parallel Pen ink, which is probably a more free-flowing ink similar to fountain pen ink.  With sumi and dip-pen ink (which I’ve now started experimenting with), which is thicker, it was less of a problem.

I haven’t been using this paper much lately, but will keep it around for its different colors, and making notes with dip-pens.

Bee Paper Calligraphic Practice Pad:

I bought this paper hoping for something better than the Bienfang.  It’s made in the USA (locally, in my current city of Beaverton, Oregon, actually!)

Although it says it is 98 gsm (grams per square meter), the sheets feel thinner and lighter than the 74gsm Bienfang paper.  The whole paper weight system is a bit confusing anyway, and I don’t think all manufacturers are playing by the same rules, even though the gsm unit of measure is very straightforward.

The surface finish is very smooth on both sides, and the color is bright white.  I was hoping that the smoothness was an indicator that it was sized, and therefore less prone to feathering with thin inks.  This proved to partly be the case, as feathering with Parallel Pen ink was less on this paper than the Bienfang.  Each sheet is quite thin, so writing on both sides is not really practical.

Bee Paper sample
Bee Paper sample

The pad comes with several spacing and lettering guides, which are always helpful to have around.  I noticed that the sheets do tear out quite easily, which I personally find annoying, as I like to keep my practice sheets intact for future reference, or just to thumb through to see my learning progression.

Rhodia Reverse Book:

After some research I found a near cult-like following of this notebook, which is spiral bound and made in France.  I picked one up at the local Blick to form my own impressions.

The first thing you notice is the orange cover (also available in black, but that seemed boring) and the spiral binding.  The metal spiral is well made so that it doesn’t constantly unwind itself from the pages, as some spiral notebooks have a tendency to do.  As an engineer, I like these details.

The paper itself is smoothly finished, and has a 5mm square grid on both sides, in a light and unobtrusive violet color.  Some reports on the Net say that the grid lines are fuzzy, smeared, or not well printed, but my sample looks crisp.  The sheets have very fine perforations near the spiral binding, so pages can be torn out with a clean edge, and are thick enough that writing on both sides, even with the wide 3.8mm Parallel Pen, is possible.

Parallel pen on Rhodia
Parallel pen on Rhodia

My test with Parallel Pen ink resulted in no noticeable feathering at a normal viewing distance of about 12”.  You really have to look up close to see slight, but unobtrusive feathering.  Based on this I would think that dip pen inks would hold up very well.  I have to say I like this notebook a lot.  It’s a nice balance of size and portability and when I travel I’ll be taking this with me.

Canson Pro Layout Marker:

This is my latest acquisition, and it’s pretty nice stuff.  I would probably appreciate it even more if I were an artist working in pens and markers.  I can’t tell if it’s made in France or the USA, as it lists both countries as place of manufacture.

The paper is bright white, and quite transparent so it would be great for tracing.  It is sized, so it has an exceptionally smooth finish, and my Parallel Pen ink does not feather on it at all.  I’ve also tried Yasutomo Sumi ink, Winsor & Newton Calligraphy Ink, and Sennelier metallic gold inks on it and don’t see any feathering.  Inks do take a long time to dry on this paper though, so left-handers beware!  Also, the transparency means that writing on both sides is not really practical as you can see the other side.

Canson Pro Layout
Canson Pro Layout

One interesting thing I noted about the Canson was that after the ink dried, you could see the areas where it pooled up.  If you look at the image above, you can see what I mean.  This generally doesn’t pose much of a problem, but when viewed from certain angles this can be a bit annoying.

Calligraphy fits and starts

Calligraphy first entered my consciousness over seven years ago, right before Angie and I got married, because she has a friend who is a calligrapher.  She told me about his fascination with pens and nibs, and while that didn’t mean anything to me at the time, his elegant and beautiful writing in our wedding guestbook certainly made an impact on me.

Probably a year and half ago I decided to try it for myself.  I read good things about Pilot Parallel Pens on some calligraphy blogs, so I bought a 1.5mm pen, some practice paper, and played around on and off, learning Uncials and Italics and some simple fonts.

More recently, I purchased another two Parallel Pens (2.4mm and 3.8mm) and realized that I probably should have bought them earlier.  It was much easier to practice since I could form better serifs and the extra tip width helped me to see the formation of each letter much better.

Parallel Pens

As my writing improved and I got better, I started to notice a few things:

  1. My original pad of “Calligraphy” practice paper causes the ink to feather like no one’s business.
  2. Parallel Pen ink cartridges don’t last very long, especially for the wider 3.8mm pen which naturally flows more ink per stroke.

The quest was on to find better paper, and I also became interested in refilling my Parallel Pen cartridges with ink.  I’m going to reserve those topics for separate blog posts, but needless to say, I’ve been bitten by the writing bug.