So you’re here to find out how to learn calligraphy — specifically learning brush pen calligraphy? Well, don’t just jump into it feet first! There’s beauty in the breakdown, as the saying goes. You need to double back. Remember learning how to write as a kid? Well, to learn brush pen calligraphy, we go back further than the alphabet. We’re going to learn the 8 basic strokes.
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Yep, you read right. We’re going into the basics. And the basics here are strokes, not letters.
Frankly, when I first read “start with the basic strokes”, I almost ran screaming for the hills because oh shite, that sounds terribly like Mandarin class and I *hated* Mandarin class with the passion of a thousand exploding suns.
But after giving it a shot, I have to agree. Nothing gets you familiarised with your brush pens than the 8 basic brush lettering strokes:
- Full pressure
- Compound curve
- Ascending stem loop
- Descending stem loop
You see, not all brush pens are created equal.
Every brush or brush pen varies in how flexible they are, and how thin and thick they can write.
In this post, I’ll be using the Pentel Arts Aquash Water Brush (Fine) with Sakura Koi Watercolors. This brush is one of my favourites — it has a great range from thick to thin and is slightly stiff, making it easier to work with.
Let’s get started!
1. Full Pressure Stroke
This is probably the easiest stroke. You just press your pen down as much as possible and drag.
Your pen should be held it at an angle — somewhere between 30-40 degrees. It gives you more variation in thickness when you press down on downstrokes, plus it keeps your felt-tip pens from feathering.
When practicing this stroke — or any stroke really — keeping an even pressure is key so the thickness stays the same. The full pressure stroke is perfect for you to figure out how thick you can make a downstroke without losing its evenness. I always test new pens with this stroke!
My practice sheets have a 5mm grid, which makes it really easy to keep track of whether my pressure is constant or not.
2. Entrance/ Exit
Another stroke I use to test new brush pens is the entrance stroke. The opposite of the full pressure stroke, the entrance stroke tells you how fine a line you can achieve with this pen.
Thin strokes are a balance between lifting your pen and keeping your hands steady. You want the tip of your brush or brush pen to barely touch the paper at that 30-40 degree angle, while still keeping your hand steady.
I emphasise keeping steady because I don’t have the most stable hands. I can’t even hold a camera still for a minute! When I lift too much, my lines start to wobble, so I sacrifice some thinness for a smooth line.
A steady thicker line is better than a shaky skinny one!
This is where things get tricky — we’re starting to combine the thick downstroke and thin upstroke into different combinations.
The underturn starts with a full pressure downstroke that turns into a thin upstroke.
The problematic area is the curve, but here’s the first trick:
Lift AS you start to turn.
On my grid, I marked out 5 squares as my x-height. With the Aquash, I normally start lifting once I fill the fourth square. Once I start lifting, I’m turning — that creates a nice curve, rather than one with a weird gap.
This is the opposite of the underturn — thin upstroke then thick downstroke. You’d think the overturn easy once you got the underturn down pat, but I actually struggle with the overturn more!
Turn AS you press down.
Remember how you gradually lift up as you turn with the underturn stroke? This is similar. My thin upstroke is 5 squares high. That is where the turn begins and I start pressing down more. By the time I fill the first square, I’m already at full pressure.
5. Compound Curve
This stroke combines both underturn and overturn strokes. Instead of ending the overturn stroke, you turn it into a thin upstroke.
The tricky bit to this is the quick transitions from turn to full pressure to another turn.
The oval is similar to a tiny reverse overturn plus an underturn stroke.
Start with a fine line. When you reach the tip of the oval, ease gradually into full pressure. You want to reach full pressure by the time you hit the center of your x-height — in my case, the 3rd square. As you reach the baseline, lift up the way you do with underturn strokes and connect the ends.
7. Ascending Stem Loop
This loop is basically an entrance stroke, a reverse overturn and a full pressure stroke all rolled into one.
Start from the centre — in my case 5 squares up — with an entrance stroke. As you reach the top (10 squares), make a loop. Once I’ve made the turn, I start increasing the pressure till I reach full-pressure at the third square.
You MUST turn.
This is crazy important! Even though the stem is a straight line down, you must continue the curve, pulling the tip of your brush to the left as you increase pressure. This will keep the right side of your downstroke a straight line. Otherwise, the left side of your stroke is a straight line, while the right side is where it goes thin to thick.
8. Descending Stem Loop
There are quite a few mirrored strokes in the basics. This one is the reverse of the previous one so — a full pressure stroke, a reversed underturn and an entrance stroke.
The descending stem loop starts with a full pressure stroke down. After the 7th square, I start lifting the pressure gradually and turning out. By the time I’m about to turn up, I’m at the lightest pressure — just in time to to finish the loop with a thin upstroke.
“Practice Makes Better” if you want to learn brush pen calligraphy
Practice, practice, practice! I only started brush lettering in late December, but I practice nearly every day. Carve out maybe 15 minutes a day — or 30 minutes during the weekends — to just sit there with paper and pen and get some practice in! I like to start my practice with these strokes, especially if I haven’t used a particular brush pen or other in a while!
Related: The Ultimate Brush Pen Review
If you need help, check out my 14-day Brush Basics Booster challenge. You’ll learn aaaaaaall~ my tips and tricks for the basic strokes here via video lessons that are delivered right to your inbox, and of course you get a workbook with it… For free!
What are you waiting for? Sign up here!
I’d love to see photos, so be sure to tag me on them on Instagram or Twitter (I’m @lyssycreates on both) if you share! Or if you’re doing the lesson plans, use the hashtag #brushletterbasicschallenge!