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What Is Manuscript Calligraphy?

By C. Mitchell
Updated May 23, 2024
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Manuscript calligraphy is a form of precise, artistic lettering often used for formal invitations, decrees, or other official documents. It is a writing style characterized by angled, flowing letters of calculated uniformity. Many view manuscript calligraphy as an art form, though it stands apart from a more art-centered design calligraphy. Design calligraphy focuses on ways to make fancy lettering itself serve as art, and often encompasses colors, shapes, and outside illustrations to complement the lettering.

Most of the time, manuscript calligraphy is used to add an air of formality to a document. Wedding invitations and diplomas are two of the most traditional uses of calligraphy, but the writing style can be used for almost anything. Composing something in calligraphy is often time-intensive, as each letter must be carefully formed and rounded. This means that most projects are relatively short, if only to spare the writer’s hand.

Calligraphers use special pens when writing. Fountain pens with metal nibs are the most traditional tools. The nib must be either dipped into an ink well or fed by internal ink cartridges. Shaping letters usually requires alternating pressure on and angling of the nib, so as to strike the paper with either the thick or thin end of the edge. Less expensive calligraphy pens seek to emulate this angling with tapered felt tips that can write with a variety of thicknesses, depending on how they are held.

Manuscript calligraphy usually follows a specific set of stroke movements designed to ensure that all letters look uniform. One of the common goals of this sort of fancy writing is to mimic the look of professionally printed words. Calligraphers often spend a great deal of time practicing and perfecting their skills, either on their own or by following templates and training guides.

It is nonetheless quite common to see some differences in styles between calligraphers. Just as in handwriting, there are many different ways to form a perfect letter. Manuscript calligraphy generally tends to look more similar than most other forms of penmanship, but individual style almost always creeps in.

The letter formations, pen strokes, and general technique are usually the same in manuscript calligraphy as they are in the related design calligraphy. In design calligraphy, though, the intent is not to showcase uniform and formal writing, but rather it is to transform artistic writing into visual art in its own right. Words may be positioned into shapes, or can be used to add a written element to paintings and watercolors. Manuscript calligraphy, on the other hand, is usually much more bound by form and function. Straight lines and fixed spaces are hallmarks of the art.

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