The Basics of Modern Calligraphy

There’s a lot more to that gorgeous writing than meets the eye!

Updated 07/21/17

Courtesy of Smash + Co.

From addresses on your envelopes to escort cards to wedding-day signage, the uses for calligraphy are nearly endless—and so are the styles. Modern calligraphy has loosened the restrictions that traditional hand-lettering follows, meaning there’s a font and a flourish to fit any type of celebration. Ashley Meyers Combs, the creative mind behind Smash + Co., says, “There are so many different styles of calligraphy these days. I’m constantly discovering new artists and letterers, and I’m endlessly inspired by their unique takes on a classic art form.” Here, she gives us a rundown of all your options, as well as the things you need to know when you’re seeking the perfect calligraphy for your big day.

So what makes calligraphy “modern”? Well, there are a few answers. “For me, it’s the imperfections,” Combs says. “Classic calligraphy stays true to its roots in copperplate script, which is very precise and consistent, while modern lettering styles embrace the imperfections that can make them feel more casual. Styles range from classic and formal to very casual—also known as messy or messier!” Ink and paper choices, the form of the letters, and the composition of the words also have a big impact on what makes calligraphy more modern. “When it comes down to it, there’s no glossary or guide," says Combs. "When you’re trying to decide which style or artist is right for you, do your research. Save anything that speaks to you, which will help you identify patterns in what you like. Find a photo of work you love, then reach out to the designer.”

No matter what style you go with, there are a few basic words you’ll need to know as you’re familiarizing yourself with your options.

Pen Calligraphy
“Pen calligraphy is created with a nib and ink so the flow of the lettering has thick and thin portions. A smooth paper is typically best because nibs can snag on anything with a rough texture,” says Combs.

Brush Calligraphy
Brush lettering is created with a paint brush and paint or ink. “You have a lot of options for paint, from gouache and watercolor to acrylic or ink, and each can be mixed with water to adjust the thickness, which will affect the style of lettering,” Combs explains.

Monoline Calligraphy
“This is one of my favorite styles, and it consists of simple lettering created with a fountain or felt-tip pen,” says Combs. With monoline, you don’t get the thick-and-thin variations that you get from pen or brush lettering.

Courtesy of Smash + Co.

Faux Calligraphy
Instead of a pen or brush, faux calligraphy is created by using a regular pen or marker to mimic the thick and thin lines of traditional calligraphy. “This can be a great technique for a single word, but it’s very time consuming, which means it’s inefficient for a more complicated composition,” Combs says.

Once you find the style that’s right for you, the world is your oyster as far as ways to incorporate it into your wedding. “Mirrors, chalkboards, windowpanes, and large pieces of wood make great canvases for menus and welcome signs,” Combs says. “I like to find materials that are inspired by the location of an event, such as signage on reclaimed wood for a rustic wedding, or place cards on pieces of seaglass and rocks for a beach wedding.” You can also dress up more traditional and simple options, like using high-quality paper with a raw edge to add a romantic feel, or swapping black or colored ink for a metallic one for a little bit of elegance.

Ready to hire a calligrapher for your wedding? Combs has a few things to keep in mind. “First, it’s important to understand the difference between hand lettering and fonts," she says. "A font or typeface is pre-designed and generated by a computer, so each letter is identical, and the spaces and connections between letters are always the same. Some fonts mimic the look of calligraphy, but none will truly emulate the unique nature of lettering created by hand.” On the other hand, hand lettering and calligraphy will be unique to each client and design, created to best suit the combination of words and letters in a composition. “It’s a time-consuming art form, which is why calligraphy costs more than an invitation design that incorporates only fonts," Combs explains. "It can be helpful to browse sites with pre-designed invitation templates to get an idea for costs and styles, but brides should know that any hand lettering or calligraphy is custom work and will be priced as such."

Hoping for a unique and custom design but working on a tight budget? Talk to your designer about options. “Printing is often what drives up the price of an invitation suite, but there are creative solutions,” says Combs. “For my clients, I offer digital files that they can have printed themselves. You can also have digital files made into a stamp to avoid printing altogether. Everyone has a budget, and it comes down to what your priorities are!”

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