Modifying Your Letters


So, you have been doing your warm-up calligraphy strokes.  You have been practicing your calligraphy regularly.  You are double checking your letter forms but when you write things out, it just doesn’t look right somehow.  What is going on?  Well, you might need to modify your letters a bit to make everything fit correctly.

This is something that computer fonts, for the most part, do automatically.  They simply modify the letter(s) to best fit in with the letter next to them.  Calligraphers have been doing this for thousands of years as well.  I know, modifying the letter means not doing it the correct way right?  Well, no, not really.  Calligraphy is beautiful because of how it all fits together as much as how it is written, or more accurately how you write calligraphy needs to take into account how the letters fit together.  So you modify the letter while keeping its form correct.  Take a look

Uncial "a" written three different ways.

Uncial “a” written three different ways.

These are all uncial “a”s.  Teh first one is the most typical “a” for my hand of Uncial.  The second one I might use to take up less space and the last one I might use to help fill in some space or to draw attention to something.  But each is an uncial “a”

What about other scripts?

Insular Majuscule "a"

Insular Majuscule “a”

Works the same way.  The letter form is the same script but some minor modifications changes how it would fit in your writing.

Carolingian minuscule "a"

Carolingian minuscule “a”

Every letter of the script can be modified and keep true to the script.  The letter “t” can have some great variety between scripts   But the way to modify it follows the same guidelines.

Uncial "t" written three ways.

Uncial “t” written three ways.

This is the most basic “t” letter shape.  It is just two straight lines yet the crossbar of the “t”
can really make a difference how it looks.

Carolingian minuscule "t".

Carolingian minuscule “t”.

Here the crossbar changes length but the “c” stroke in the “t” also gets thinner or wider to match.

Gothic style "t"

Gothic style “t”

Even the minimalist gothic “t” can be modified following the pattern.  the crossbar is longer or shorter and the foot of the “t” is as well.  But also look at what was done with the minor embellishment at the end of the crossbar. Where it is places as well as how thick the line is changes for each “t” as well.

There are also some really fun changes you can make and were made in period manuscripts.  Take the “e” for instance.

DSCN0778

Uncial “e”

The uncial “e” can be thinner or wider but the crossbar can be shortened or greatly extended.  Ever end your line with the letter “e” and have too little space to fit in the next word but way too much space to leave blank?  Extend the crossbar of the “e” and there you go.  You can also paint around  that cross bar if you want or do other things as well.

DSCN0780

Carolingian “e”

Following the pattern you can make the “e” thinner and wider.  You can extend the “crossbar” and shorten it here as well.  This “crossbar” can do some really pretty things to the overall look of your projects but be careful, it can also run into the ascenders of neighboring letters.

Carolingian minuscule "l"

Carolingian minuscule “l”

Even thin letters can be modified to take up more or less room.  Generally this is done by using the serifs and feet of the letters.

Okay so we can modify the letters but what are some practical applications?  One is simply making the letters fit next to each other in a word.

The Uncial "a" and "t" fit very well together.

The Uncial “a” and “t” fit very well together.

The uncial “at” doesn’t really need any modification. The letters fit very nicely next to one another but that isn’t the case with all letters.

Uncial "tas" just doesn't look right.  The reason?  Too much white space as shown by the pink lines.

Uncial “tas” just doesn’t look right. The reason? Too much white space as shown by the pink lines.

One way to fix this would be to shorten the “t” crossbar as well as making the “a” thinner.

Modified letters "tas" in uncial.  They fit better don't they?

Modified letters “tas” in uncial. They fit better don’t they?

So I changed the “t” and the “a” but why does the space with the “s” work better?  I used the information about how our brain likes to fool itself when it sees things.

I made the top of the “s” slightly larger to fit into the space left by the slant in the “a”‘s backbone and then I made the bottom stroke of the “s” touch the bottom of the “a”. This creates a visually balance for the larger top of the “s”.  I also kept the right side of the “s” in line so that it would seem to stand perfectly straight up to the eye.

I hope you found this post useful and enjoyable.

5 responses to “Modifying Your Letters

  1. Agree. You cannot teach until you’ve mastered the hands yourself. These examples are not following classic letterform.

    • Lorraine, I see you are also in linkdIn. Are you a member of the Calligraphy group there?

      I certainly welcome and look forward to a more full discussion on the topic.

      As a matter of pedagogy, my point in drawing the letters and scripts this way was to show what is possible in a somewhat exaggerated manner. This makes clearer what is meant to be possible when I can not be there in person to work with the individual.

  2. Letters can be modified to adjust line length, that’s true, but it needs to be more subtle and retain the character of the script being used. Several of these examples are too extreme, though. This is something that would be good to study in original manuscripts. The natural flow of the letters and the spaces between them need to be retained.

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