By Renee Jorgensen 

Renee Jorgensen is a nature and fine botanical artist with a foundation in calligraphy and illustrated lettering. She is an instructor with the Botanical Art and Illustration Certificate Program at Denver Botanic Gardens and a member of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators, the American Society of Botanical Artists, the Rocky Mountain Botanical Art Society and Summit Scribes Calligraphic Society. 

Throughout my artistic explorations I have worked in a variety of media. Whether I am designing calligraphic art, etching, architectural rendering, commercial or graphic design, each discipline has in some way influenced the botanical art I create. The partnership between scientific art and calligraphy is a perfect fit for my artworks. 

As illustrators, the consideration and use of typography or calligraphy as a compositional feature, when labeling or signing our finished works, can be considered an extended form of artistic expression. It is important when we label our plates that we render them accurately, legibly and in a style of lettering complimentary to the subject matter. 

Calligraphy takes some dedicated practice to learn. I encourage others to take a look at how calligraphy can become an element of design. By realizing that the art of calligraphy is another form of drawing, we immediately experience familiar comfort levels. When applying the intentional use of line while creating letter forms, the label becomes a continuum of the artwork, similar to that of a carefully rendered leaf, or stem of a plant. 

The tools necessary for calligraphy are very basic, many of which you already employ in your drawing kit. Begin with inexpensive paper for practice. A good supply of white copy paper, usually a 20 lb. bond or inexpensive smooth white paper that has some degree of transparency, works well. Using inexpensive paper promotes the freedom and desire to practice often, leading to less nervous attitude about practicing on even modestly priced paper. 

Ink was originally made from oak galls, iron salts and lamp black mixtures. A permanent dense black ink rated for light fastness is important. Fountain pen inks are made of dyes and will fade rapidly in a short amount of time. Although the colored inks are beguiling, they are not recommended for final works of art. If you have a project that requires colored lettering, I recommend using an artist grade gouache. Permanent archival inks such as Calli Waterproof Black Ink or Higgins Black Calligraphy Ink work quite well for a rich, flat black ink. 

Additional recommended tools are a

2 pencil, erasers (both kneaded and white plastic), ruler, t-square, drafting triangles, protractor and a slanted drawing surface. To practice letterforms I use fiber tip disposable calligraphic markers. They are quick and no mess, no fuss when it comes to convenience and can be used for practice anywhere. For final work I recommend Speedball (inexpensive) or Mitchell/Brause (higher quality) metal nibs. They are manufactured in several widths. Many brands and qualities are available at your local supplier for your individual testing. The Speedball manufacturer makes a variety of nib handles. For each individual this is a personal preference item. I recommend the hour glass nib holder for its ergonomic comfort. 

Generally, your botanical art will be created on 140

 watercolor paper. If your artwork is in color, i.e. watercolor, acrylic, colored pencil, graphite, charcoal, etc., letter in pencil. If your artwork is in ink you most likely will be working on Strathmore Bristol or 140 lb. hot press watercolor papers, letter in ink. 

Prepare your drawing surface by placing several layers of paper onto the drawing board. This creates padding that will aide in the flexibility of the calligraphy nib. Tape the padding edges down on all four sides or cover the padding entirely with contact paper that extends far enough to stick down to the drawing board. Put a book under your board creating a slanted working surface. This angle will help you accurately visualize the spacing between letters. 

Now, you’ll want to practice, practice, practice! There are two ways to begin. You can begin effectively with a good instructional book on calligraphy. Your book should introduce the basic strokes of the lettering style(s) you want to learn. Step-by-step instruction should be easy to understand. Good instructions will diagram the strokes needed to create a letter form, discuss putting letters together effectively for readability and design elegance and give you tips on materials and equipment. Alternatively, consider taking a calligraphy course. Taking lessons from a local calligrapher or calligraphic society is always inspirational and fun. Find a calligraphic society by checking with your local art supply store or craft store or on your computer via websites. 

The same rule of thumb goes when practicing your calligraphy skills as when you are involved in the long hours of painting or drawing. Remember the importance of taking breaks. By taking regular breaks and resting your writing hand you will begin to relax and your lettering will begin to show more skillful confidence. Stand, stretch and learn exercises for your hands, back and neck health. 

Here are some tips that I would like to pass along to encourage you to include calligraphy as a compliment to your works. 

Including calligraphy into your composition begins as you are planning your botanical plate. Place tracing paper or tracing vellum overlay on top of your final design layout. Refer back to your thumbnail sketches. Make sure that you have exhausted the creative alternatives and have a design that includes the height and width of the lettering style, placement of the label as well as the placement of your signature. Try them out on the tracing paper over your final design to make sure what you’ve planned calligraphically will work with the scientific and aesthetic needs of your artwork. 

Practice a lettering style that compliments your artwork. Does the style of the letters overwhelm the delicate flowers or get lost in the masses of stems and leaves? Test and re-test whether or not the calligraphy design holds together, the information is correct and of course, is aesthetically pleasing. 

Research the correct botanical information and spelling for your piece. Your plant should be accurately identified with the Latin name first (capitalize the genus and lowercase the species: i.e. Epilobium alpinum). If you do not know the precise species (as in some genera the identification can be very complex), it is acceptable to state the genus followed by ‘sp’, i.e. Tulipa sp. Follow the Latin name with the common name if you would like. Use the common name of your specimen if your assignment does not require scientific nomenclature. 

And finally, spend time developing your artistic signature. This is considered the branding or thumbprint that connects your identity to your work. Think of your signature as an art form in itself. Remember to include the copyright symbol and the year your piece was created. Many artists put this information on the same line as their signature or underneath their signature. To be absolutely sure that your copyright is secure, in addition to signing on the front of the artwork, I often place my signature and copyright information on the back of a finished piece right in the middle of the paper, written lightly in pencil, then spray fixative to “set” the information. 

Calligraphy takes patience and concentration. Many of us are used to writing quickly using modern handwriting and can get frustrated trying to slowly write each letter one at a time. Some may find the hand lettering process easy and mechanical. By learning this new skill one step at a time, practicing and staying focused; you can’t help but achieve wonderful results. Make it a goal to relax while concentrating on learning calligraphy and remember to b-r-e-a-t-h-e. You will be pleasantly surprised at the new skill you will have developed. 

Renee recommends the following books to get you well-started in calligraphy: 

  • The Encyclopedia of Calligraphy Techniques: A Comprehensive Visual Guide to Traditional and Contemporary Techniques by Diana Hardy Wilson. 
  • Calligraphy: Techniques to Get you Started by Naureen Sullivan 
  • The Art of Calligraphy: A Practical Guide to the Skills & Techniques by David Harris 
  • The Creative Calligraphy Sourcebook by Adrian Waddington 


  • A sample of calligraphy that takes into consideration how rising letters and descending letters interact, as well as the spacing and placement of letters with crosses. ©Renee Jorgensen
  • “G is for Garden” illumination incorporates the letter form and pen and ink illustration of botanicals, as well as graceful flourishes. ©Renee Jorgensen.
  • Osage Orange, a colored pencil painting, was created as part of a celebration of the 200 th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Specimens discovered during that trek are illustrated and labeled in graphite in a letterform that compliments the historic character of the painting. ©Renee Jorgensen, 2004.
  • Whimsical illustration complements the letter “S” in a tribute to the pleasures of summertime. © Renee Jorgensen.