Dip Pen Basics - Exercise Assignment

What is this thing?

I remember feeling really lost when I got my first oblique dip pen. I'd been playing around with fountain pens, parallel pens, and markers for a while, so the idea of actually dipping my tool into a pot of ink seemed like some antiquated thing from a different time. The whole oblique thing was just icing on the cake. I had no idea what I was doing. I've gotta admit, it took me a while to get it all down, but once you feel comfortable with a holder in your hand, a world of possibilities starts to open up that you just won't get with any other tool.

I got my first oblique pen as a gift from a friend. I remember how special I felt opening up the package to see this magic wand looking thing staring back at me. I felt this sort of reverence as I pulled it out of the box. It's a cool feeling!

But the thing is: it's just a stick. It's a stick with a metal flap sticking out of one end. It's not the secret key to good script. It's not a magic wand that makes calligraphy easy all of the sudden. It's a stick that you use to push little bits of pigment and water around on a page.

It took me a while to realize that I was afraid of my holder. I was afraid of dropping it, I was afraid of holding it too tight. I was afraid that I was holding it wrong... The list goes on. That feeling of constant discomfort is not conducive to learning to make fine script. There's a reason so many calligraphers like to call their pens 'extensions of their hands'. You've gotta get over that fear so that you can have an intimate relationship with your pen.

If I had one piece of advice to give to someone holding a dip pen for the first time it would be this:

Play with it. Thats right, actually play with it. Dip it in your well and try to throw ink at the paper like Jackson Pollock. Draw a picture with it. Try to balance it between your upper lip and your nose. stick it in-between your fingers and pretend like you're wolverine with only one wooden claw. Have a conversation with it about another inanimate item in the room. Just be weird with it.

If you're practicing the amount you should be, nobody is going to know your pen like you do. Nobody is going to know the sweet spot that it fits just so in your hand. They can't! Your pen and you have a one-of-a-kind relationship that is based on the shape of your flesh and bone and the wood and metal in your holder. Heck, even the way you hold your pen is likely incredibly unique.

Grimes, David, Tripod Grip Pen Hold, 2018

Learning to love your pen

Few people pick up a dip pen and feel like it's as natural as ballpoint. Most of us are using oblique holders and that makes it stranger still! You'll likely need to learn to love your pen, and that's going to be a process. To help you feel less lonely, here are five truths about dip pens that it seems to me everyone experiences:

  1. Your nib will snag. It just will. A snag is when you're pushing the point of your pen forward and it pierces into the paper (either fully or partially) while your hand is still moving forward. This is really unpleasantly surprising to beginners, but it happens to everyone. It still happens to me. Don't stress about it! It's perfectly normal and everyone goes through a period of learning how to be light on the pen.
  2. You will constantly find yourself dipping your pen in ink, moving it to the paper and finding that no mark comes off the tip. I call this 'running dry' and it's most easily explained as the tip of your pen being so small that the motion of the air against the point of it when you move from your well to the paper evaporates the ink off the point. I'll never forget the feeling of working up the courage to make a mark over and over only to have my pen betray me with no line each time. The trick is simple: have a scratch paper nearby, and wiggle the point back and forth until ink comes off of it. I call that 'starting your pen'.
  3. You will railroad your pen constantly until you begin to understand how much ink you have and how far it will carry you. 'Railroading' is when the surface tension of ink on your nib ruptures in the middle of a shaded (pressure) stroke, leaving you with two faint trenches in the paper, but no ink filling in the middle. It's no fun. But it gets better with time, I promise. The trick, I've found, is to always, ALWAYS continue a stroke to its completion and then attempt to fill in space afterwards by painting in ink between the two rails.
  4. You will accidentally run your hand through your ink from time to time. The only thing I can say about this is that this happened to me A LOT when I first started, and I feel really lucky that I never ruined any clothes by accidentally putting my hands down at my sides after one of those early messy writing sessions. The more experienced and thoughtful you can be about keeping your desk clean and organized the less this will happen, but dip pens tend to lend themselves to this accident, specifically. Don't let a little bit of ink on the side of your hand put you in a bad mood. It's never worth it. Just laugh it off, clean it up, and get back in there!
  5. You will encounter a moment (even a fleeting one) where you'll wonder if you're doing something wrong or if there is some hidden secret that everyone else knows about the dip pen but you just didn't get the memo. you'll question yourself and think "Maybe I'm just not cut out for this calligraphy stuff". That voice is wrong. You just have to push through the little bit of resistance that comes with learning about this unique tool, and within no time you'll be slinging ink like the best of them.

Some Basic Exercises

But this lesson is about dip pen basics, so we should probably get to talking about what you can actually DO with your pen. Right? Well in addition to playing with your pen, I've designed a simple plate that I'd love for you to follow for the next two weeks. It's all about pressure and release.

Grimes, David, Pressure and Release, 2018

Flexible nibs respond to pressure by splitting open at the tines, as we discussed in the materials section. The best way to develop a keen sense for how to apply pressure gradually and skillfully is to exercise it independent from strokes that need to be a certain shape. Thusly, we will first learn to work with straight lines.

Dipping the pen into your ink for the first time can be an exciting moment. Before you do, however, remember that your nib should be properly prepared and cleaned of any hydrophobic material, and you should only dip the pen in far enough to fill the hole with ink. Dipping too far will lead to getting ink on your fingers, so keep an eye your writing hand and maybe consider keeping a paper towel nearby. (Don't worry, it happens to the best of us.)

Using DIS_ES_Guidelines.pdf (henceforth known as the 'Engrosser's Script' template), practice making strokes along the slant line all the way from the second ascender down to the baseline. Start with simple stuff: a hairline pulled towards you, one pushed away. Next try adding a bit of pressure to the pen by pressing down with your index finger on the top of it. Notice that the tines spread apart when you do this? By drawing the pen towards you in that state, you'll create a shade. Shades consume more ink than hairlines. After each shade, ask yourself: 'Do I need to dip my pen?'

The examples that I'll demonstrate below are some simple exercises that you can do over the next two weeks to get into the habit of making both shades and hairlines strokes. It's not important that you're following my design exactly. You can make up your own if you like. How many times can you transform from thick to thin in the distance of three vertical spaces? Can you make a stroke that gradually gets thicker as it approaches the baseline?

I would recommend going through these exercises a couple of times over the next two weeks with special attention payed to the way you choose to naturally hold your pen, the tendencies you have in regards to smoothness of line and your ability to accurately follow the slant. Don't worry about making your strokes look exactly like mine. I wasn't very particular about how they looked in the plate or the video. This is mostly about the experience.

Identifying your weak spots is an important part of making improvements in skill. After each practice sessions, take note of at least one thing you did well, and one thing you want to improve on next time. In this exercise, it's like that you had a hard time transitioning gracefully from hairline to shade, wandered off of the slant occasionally, or had difficulty maintaining enough ink on your pen for multiple strokes. Remember: focused practice on individual elements outweighs general practice five to one.