No Really, That's How I Do It

Beautiful Lettering with a Brush

By Carol Saunders

Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist – Volume 16, Issue 4


My premise, as a calligrapher with more than 30 years experience applying the craft, is that it takes as much time to become competent in the art of lettering as it does to become a good botanical artist. Consequently, most painters cannot afford the time required to perfect their calligraphy skills. 

Another distinct drawback is that few people have any experience with a dip pen. In the beginning, I was cautious when including calligraphy within my own paintings because the pen became a foreign element that represented a jarring conflict at times. However, some five years ago, I reversed my opinion due to the occurrence of a happy accident. While idly experimenting one day with a brush, I formed several, “not at all shabby,” English Round Hand letters. This serendipitous moment opened the door to an entirely new approach for me. 

The brush, which is more familiar to most artists and so, probably more user friendly, instantly became the agent to solve many major problems for me and my students. Painting letters actually increased my ability as a painter because I no longer had to divide my time between two art disciplines. 

I devised new pressure strokes specifically to facilitate the formation of letters, and these, unconsciously, were incorporated into my normal painting methodology. For example, using strokes that mimic tiny leaves quickly allows increased detail and decreased execution time. These new strokes not only save time in a botanical painting, but also increase its homogeneity. 

As all calligraphers experience, the pointed pen nib is notorious for spitting ink in every direction when it is pushed beyond its mechanical limit. Hence, its range of motion has to be functionally narrow and somewhat inhibited. The brush has superior capability when compared to the nib. It has much greater paint holding capacity and is capable of unrivaled, 360 degree acrobatics. With almost athletic form, it can swiftly and accurately create a helix of any trajectory. It can execute hairline U-turns and transition from thick to thin strokes with ease and fluidity. 

Botanical painters who contemplate the study of calligraphy with a brush have the great advantage that they already possess 90 percent of the painting dexterity required. You have already developed well-honed observational skills that will serve you well as you study the intricacies of an alphabet. 

Briefly, I use a Winsor & Newton Series 7, number 0 brush held close to the ferrule in a vertical position. 

The fine brush tip barely touches the paper while in motion. In this manner, you maintain total control. As you proceed, application of gentle but varied pressure to the tip will yield smoothly modulated, thick and thin lines in any direction. 

Even left-handed painters can master this technique. I am a natural left-hander. I learned, over many years, to practice calligraphy with my right hand. However most artists can learn this technique within an hour, using their dominant hand, which was much faster than I had anticipated. 

These strokes can be used to create “whimsical animals” with the brush. “Whimsies” represent quaint depictions of angels, animals, birds, and other delightful characters that 17th-century master penmen included in their manuscripts. These characters were ever-so-difficult to execute with a pen point, and as such, represented the prowess of the creator. Using a brush, very good representations or these master strokes can be made. 

Any objection to the inclusion of English Round Hand calligraphy in a botanical painting can be eliminated with adequate practice, providing that attention is given to the following list of details as outlined by Mike Kecseg.*

1) Consistent brush angles create properly formed strokes. 

2) All the shapes that make up the letters are based on the oval. 

3) Correct slant of letters must be maintained - lettering should be written at a 55 to 57 degree slant, and slant lines should be drawn in pencil at regular intervals. 

4) Consistent height of letters - Always rule a top and bottom line for the “X” height of the letters where “X” is the height of the lower case letter. Example: a, c, e, but not h, k, or g, etc. 

5) Consistent ascenders and descenders - Always rule lines for the ascenders and descenders. They should be about three times the X height. 

6) Consistent stroke thickness - All down strokes are thick. All up strokes are thin. Pressure on down strokes must be consistent. 

7) Correct and complete branching - All letters are composed of basic strokes. Each stroke must be made starting at either the base or top line. Branching is based on an oval and will come naturally if the letter shape is correct. 

8) Finished appearance of letters - All strokes that begin or end thick should have their top and bottom squared off. 

9) Consistent spacing between letters and words is essential. Spacing between letters within words should come naturally if each crafted stroke is based on a consistent oval. Spacing between words should be as close as possible but still identifiable as separate words. The width of an oval is an acceptable standard to use. 

With practice you’ll develop your own personal rhythm and speed. Plan ahead whenever you want to incorporate calligraphy in your painting, to ensure that it enhances your overall composition. Calligraphy done in this manner makes an elegant addition to botanical art. 

*Mike Kecseg, is a calligrapher, engrosser and illuminator for over twenty years.

  • A sample of a printed font of English Round Hand. Round hand began its development in Europe, and was further promoted when the French banned the use of then-popular cursives with flourishes so profound they couldn’t be accurately or easily read! In the 17th century, English writing masters including George Bickham, George Shelley and George Snell helped to propagate Round Hand's popularity, so that by the mid-18th century the English Round Hand style had spread across Europe and crossed North America.
  • Holding the brush correctly is the key to getting results that are beautiful and accurate.
  • Letters created with guidelines, demonstrating correct form and slant.
  • Lettering in Verithin pencil top, graphite lower. The techniques can be used with these media, with swashes and arches filled in after drawing the shapes.
  • Four lines of completed text, using green paint with brush.
  • English Round Hand which is also known as Copperplate is done slowly and deliberately with each and every stroke being done separately. The result is lush, beautiful lettering that can enhance lush, beautiful botanical art.
  • Caps and ferns demonstrate good stroke control perfect for botanical art, either in lettering or small details and leaves.
  • Two delightful whimsies created in pen and ink by Carol. These charming creations were made by penmasters to demonstrate their absolute mastery of their tools and materials, as such smooth continuous strokes are the most difficult iteration of their work.