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Unlocking the Secrets of Calligraphy: The Art of Basic Strokes

Updated: Feb 1


If you’ve ever gazed upon those mesmerising wavy and flowing lines of calligraphy and wondered how they come to life, you’re about to delve into the captivating world of basic strokes - the very building blocks of this intricate art form. These strokes serve as the essential groundwork upon which the entire calligraphy alphabet is constructed. There are a total of eight primary strokes that form the backbone of calligraphic artistry: the upstroke, downstroke, overturn, underturn, compound curve, oval, ascender, and descender. 


Consistency is key…

If you’re venturing into the world of calligraphy, you’ll quickly discover that achieving unwavering consistency in these foundational strokes is paramount. Diligent practice is your trusted ally, as it lays the sturdy groundwork upon which you can build your journey towards creating exquisite calligraphic compositions.


Letters, strokes and the art of connection…

Now, you might be wondering how these seemingly abstract strokes come together to craft the elegant script of calligraphy. The answer lies in the art of connection. Each letter within the calligraphy alphabet is a unique amalgamation of these fundamental strokes, intricately intertwined to give life to distinct characters. While this concept might initially seem a tad perplexing, it becomes remarkably clear when examined through practical examples. 


Let’s unravel the letter ‘a’…

Let's consider the letter 'a' as an illustration: it is artfully composed by seamlessly uniting two separate strokes, the graceful ‘oval’ and the elegant ‘underturn’. This methodical approach to constructing letters enables calligraphers to create harmonious and visually captivating script, bringing the art form to life with each stroke of the pen.




The Upstroke

The upstroke in calligraphy plays a pivotal role, often serving as the entrance stroke to letters. It constitutes executing a delicate upward motion from baseline up to the waistline, which is a key point in letterforms. Here’s the secret sauce - it’s important to maintain a gentle, feather-light pressure on the nib as you ascend. The result? A delicate, thin line. This precise movement is aptly referred to as the ‘upstroke’ in the calligraphy terminology. It sets the stage for the subsequent strokes, contributing to the overall grace and balance of the written script.




The Downstroke

On the other hand, the 'downstroke' is a slanted vertical line drawn from waistline to baseline. It adds weight and definition to your calligraphy, creating a striking contrast to the delicate 'upstroke.' It's a bold stroke, often executed with heavier pressure on the nib. 




The Overturn

Now, let’s delve into the enchanting world of the ‘overturn’ stroke. Imagine a graceful curve that starts at the baseline, ascending with delicate finesse, only to curve back down. What’s the secret to mastering this stroke? It’s all about achieving two distinct parallel lines - a thin upward motion followed by a thick downward motion. Here’s a pro tip that will elevate your calligraphy game: as you navigate this graceful curve, smoothly transition from a gentle, feather-light pressure to a subtly heavier pressure. This skilful shift in pressure is the key to creating a gradual thickening of the ‘overturn’ stroke, resulting in a visual masterpiece that embodies the true essence of calligraphic artistry. 




The Underturn

In contrast, let’s explore the captivating ‘underturn’ stroke, which stands in graceful opposition to the ‘overturn’. Instead of starting its journey from the baseline, this stroke takes its first steps from the waistline. Here, you’ll apply deliberate heavy pressure to the nib, resulting in the formation of a thick downward stroke. As you gracefully approach the baseline, it’s time to initiate a gradual release of pressure and embark on an elegant upward curve towards the right. The key here is to ensure a seamless transition, one that paints a picture of fluidity and finesse. This very transition is what gives rise to a gentle thinning of the stroke. Continue this upward movement, maintaining a delicate feather-light pressure until you gracefully arrive at the endpoint, which coincides with the waistline - a journey completed. This artful motion is referred to as the ‘underturn’ stroke in the calligraphy terminology.




The Oval

Let’s explore the ‘oval’ stroke. Keep in mind the midway starting point between the baseline and waistline. Begin by gently applying pressure to the nib, creating a slender upward curve that starts from this midpoint. As you progress, allow your touch to gracefully transition from feather-light to a slightly heavier pressure as you descend, shaping the curved form. Now, as you continue your journey, smoothly curve back upwards, maintaining a light and delicate pressure. Your destination? Returning to the same midpoint where it all began,

completing the elegant oval shape.




The Compound Curve 

Among the repertoire of calligraphic strokes, the ‘compound curve’ stands as a delightful fusion of two classics - the overturn and the underturn. It’s a stroke that marries the elegance of these two motions seamlessly.  To craft the ‘compound curve’, you’ll need to commence with an overturn. As you gracefully approach the culmination of this stroke, it’s time to execute a subtle manoeuvre. Ease off the pressure on your nib and commence a graceful curve, transitioning into an upstroke. It's a move that requires finesse, as you aim to create a harmonious flow between these two motions. One key to success here is to keep all lines parallel, ensuring a uniform and balanced appearance to your compound curve.




The Ascender

Now, let’s venture into the realm of the ‘ascender’ stroke, where calligraphic finesse takes centre stage. This stroke is all about grace and precision. To begin, position your pen at the waistline, applying a gentle upward pressure, crafting an exquisite upstroke that gracefully curves upward and around. As you reach the pinnacle of this upward journey, it’s time for a captivating transition. Prepare to make a bold statement as you apply heavy pressure for the subsequent downstroke. This formidable downstroke extends all the way down to the baseline, creating a striking contrast to the delicacy of the initial upstroke.



The Descender

The ‘descender’ stroke is the mirror image of the ascender. Begin your journey at the waistline, initiating a a bold and thick downstroke, one that extends below the baseline, creating an impactful visual statement. As you approach the descender line, prepare to transition with finesse as you gracefully curve around, transforming the weighty downstroke into a lighter, upward motion. Your destination? A gentle landing on the baseline, where your journey concludes. 


Here's a valuable tip to keep in mind: just before you reach the bottom, ease off the pressure on your nib. This subtle adjustment ensures a smooth and seamless transition, avoiding any unwanted 'soggy bottoms' in your calligraphic creations.




Practise is key…

As you embark on your journey through the world of calligraphy, keep in mind that mastering these basic strokes is your ticket to unlocking the door to a realm of artistic expression like no other. So, grab your pen, practise your strokes, and let the magic of calligraphy unfold before your eyes.



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