Monday, March 9, 2009

Want to try an exercise in futility? Try writing with a calligraphy pen.

Inks, Dip Pen and Mandala

I don't mean one of those chisel tipped markers from the art store, I mean with an honest-to-goodness nib holder/ metal nib that's dipped in ink then applied to the page.

It's about 5700 times harder than it looks.

Back in 8th grade, my art teacher gave an after school calligraphy class. I never wanted to learn any specific ancient script, I just loved using the pen for my own combination of printed/cursive script. The nibs I learned on were in fact chiseled - they would create a skinny horizontal line and a fat vertical one. Curvy letters like "O" were a glorious combination of the two. I've carried that lesson with me all of these years - writing greeting cards with a chisel-tipped marker and more recently, writing letters using a fountain pen with a cursive italic nib that gives the same effect.

So why go back to an old fashioned dip pen?

Because I'm obviously a masochist.

I've recently been playing with two different calligraphy sets. A beginner set from Cretacolor, and an advances set from Brause. I've found them to both have something in common- my inability to put ink to paper without blobbing it the hell all over the place.

I've tried using fountain pen inks, calligraphy inks, China/India inks and drawing inks on a number of different kinds of paper including; smooth, rough, absorbant, resistant.. Actually pretty much everything except for calligraphy paper.

My results have been quite varied. I can get some nibs to write well with some inks on certain papers, but the results keep coming out inconsistent.

Sennelier China Ink worked really well with the Cretacolor Drawing nib, but the pamphlet with the Brause set said not to use China/India inks with their nibs. (Probably because it's a shellac based ink and impossible to get off the nibs once dry.) It probably worked well for me because it's a thick ink and easier to control than a thin water-based fountain pen ink.

I did learn from the Brause pamphlet (the Cretacolor set didn't include a pamphlet) that you need to wash the nibs in soapy water before you first use them - that may be why I had such a hard time getting the Cretacolor nibs to work my first time around.

Now I understand the general principle to get these nibs to write. Dip the nib into the ink, wipe off the excess, and write. So why the big blobs? I'm still trying to figure that out. I'm wondering if it's possible that I should be using calligraphy paper for just this purpose, but my brain says that I should be able to use other kinds of paper as well.

So I've read the directions from Brause, but they are somewhat limited. I'm typically the kind of person that ignores directions, choosing instead to figure things out for themselves. I think maybe this time I need to drop some of that Capricorn stubbornness and do a little research before completely abandoning this project.

I by no means ever intended to master this art form with a single stroke, but with my previous experience I expected to at least be able to exhibit somewhat of a rudimentary ability...


Unknown said...

I think maybe blotting the nib on a piece of blotting paper might help before writing? Sometimes there still might be a lot of ink after dipping even if it doesn't seem that way. I saw a site that spoke about feeding the nib with a dropper or a brush. I thought that was a great idea!:

Anonymous said...

Ouch - I just got a copperplate pen & dip ink set, and this does not bode well for my success. I will have to find my inner reserves of patience!

John Johnston said...

I had a Speedball calligraphy pen set back in the 70's. I gave the dip pens a go, quickly learning that I was hopelessly inept at calligraphy. Several years later, my wife-to-be learned of my brief foray into calligraphy. Guess who addressed the invitations - with a dip pen? We're still married 25 years later, so I guess I didn't do too badly. Still wish I could do copperplate, though.

Anonymous said...

Biffy, you could use a Manuscript fountain pen for calligraphy (comes with several nibs with different width for $10-15). If you want to continue struggling with a dip pen, you might want to try to carefully clean the nib with ordinary tooth paste prior to dipping into the ink. The abrasive in tooth paste is enough to clean off the oil and lacquer w/o harming the nib, making the ink flow smoother. Any kind of ink and paper should do for practice. I would initially try a 1.5 or 1.8 mm nib. Wider is easier.
If you want to try Copperplate or similar handwriting with a dip pen Hunt 22, Gillott 404 or 303 are good flexible nibs that should be found in your neighbourhood art supply store. It is a real challenge to get the nibs to work properly but do not fear, it is possible. After a while one clearly sees the light.
By the way, you probably know, FPN has a very useful section on penmanship, lots of wise people freely sharing their knowledge there.
Your blog is a joy to read.
Regards, finknottel

Stephanie "Biffybeans" Smith said...

Gentian - I have some blotting paper, and have not yet tried it, but I did try blotting with a tissue, and it seemed like it would just either pull all of the ink from the nib or not enough.... I will try the paper and see if there is a difference.

Kim - best of luck to you with that!

John - great story!

Finknottel - I've used chisel tipped calligraphy markers, I have an old Sheaffer Calligraphy fountain pen set, and I have two fountain pens with nibs that were custom ground into cursive italic nibs suitable for calligraphic style writing. I am not interested in learning any specific script as much as I simply enjoy using various pens for my art - to draw, or to add words to my art in my own handwriting, which is a combination of cursive & printing. I appreciate the tip on using tooth paste to remove the oils on the nibs. I'm not sure that there is still any coasting on the nibs as I have cleaned them with soapy water, as is what the Brause instructions suggested. Since some inks flow well and others don't, on certain papers and not others, I can't help but think that there is an element to this that I am missing. I have noticed a recommendation to work with your paper on an incline, and perhaps that's the secret - if you work on an incline, the nibs won't always be pointed down, and might be less prone to blob. I will continue to experiment and I do thank you for your suggestions. :o)

Gladtobemom said...

Oookay, I hear NOTHING about you cleaning the nib before you use it. I was taught in art class (yes, 40 or so years ago) to clean my nibs with dilute ammonia before I used them the first time. I just use the windex that has amonia in it, or Mr. Clean original.

If it's Mr. Clean or Sudsy ammonia, just put a teaspoon in a little vessel, fill with a few TBL. of water and soak the nib for a few minutes. If you just dip it, you'll notice it gets really slimy, that's the coating coming off. So soak for a few minutes, rinse really well and dry COMPLETELY, I use a blow dryer.

If It's windex with ammonia, just squirt ennough on in a little cup to keep it wet for a couple of minutes, wipe and rinse and dry.

I think you'll find this helps LOTS.

Stephanie "Biffybeans" Smith said...

Gladotbemom - I didn't clean the nibs, because the instructions didn't tell me to.... But since posting this here & on the Fountain Pen Network, I've been given lots of suggestions that lead to that. Several people told me to try passing the nib through a flame to remove the coating... did that, tried soap & water...still no consistent nib behavior. When I get around to playing with these again, I will try ammonia. Thank you!

Unknown said...

you need to try the right ink. It makes all the difference in the world. Try Iron Gall ink it will make your dip pen sing a different tune - The iron gall will make smooth black lines with no "blobbing" and exquisitely delicate fine lines

Unknown said...

Before using a nib for the first time you have to prepare it to receive ink (at least that how I learned). Try washing it and rub some toothpaste with a downward motion (from the broad part to the tines). Some people use a lighter to heat it also before diping it into the ink.

Wordherder said...

Alcohol is another good solvent to try on your dip nibs. Flame works as well as has been suggested above. It also helps to take a paint brush and use that to "load" the nib.

Stephanie "Biffybeans" Smith said...

Much thanks for the comments on suggestions for getting my dip pen nibs to work. One thing I wonder, is when there was a time when all people had to write with were dip pens, how did they get them to work on a consistent basis?

ElectriKolor said...

I think that when people were using nibs all the time, they weren't coated in a varnish to keep them from rusting...that's a more modern technique. Other options for removing varnish include using a baking soda paste. If you use a flame to burn off the varnish, use a low-temperature flame (like a match) and keep it in there only for a few seconds (otherwise you'll change the characteristics of the metal). I keep isopropyl alcohol wound cleansing pads in my stash for troublesome nibs. Hope this helps.

angelo said...

hi im a calligrapher and work and play with my nibs monday to friday.

Most if not all nibs you find now are coated in lacquer to prevent rusting!

i usually pop the nib in my mouth and the saliva is usually abrasive enough to remove the lacquer, even if you dont do this it will not take long for the ink itself to remove the lacquer.

hope this helps

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