I know as a beginner, especially when you’re not really sure if Calligraphy is really your thing any kind of investment is worth one or two thoughts. You don’t want to spend a ton of money, unless you’re sure. So what route should you go? Get everything cheap? Get everything good, so you really know it’s not the tools that are bad? Here’s a - slightly opinionated - post where saving is fine and when splurging might make a really big difference.
This time I promise to cut myself short!
To splurge, or not to splurge, that is the question.
Whether ‘tis nobler on the page to suffer
With bleeding ink and hurting wrists,
Or to spend money against an inkwell of troubles,
And by splurging end them: to splurge, to save
no more; - not Shakespeare
I’m sorry, I had to - I know it’s overused but I’m a Shakespeare fan. But that’s really the neverending question I know a lot of people are battling with. There are so many possibilities to spend a crapton of money in this calligraphy world that at one point it’s easy to lose track of how much you spend and to lose track of what is actually worth it.
I have touched upon this subject in my last post on pen holders, where I talk about custom pen holders, and I decided to just go ahead an talk a little bit more about that subject and my thoughts on this.
The three necessary things for Calligraphy
There are three (four) things you need to be able to do calligraphy. Ink, a nib (, nib holder) and paper. Let’s look at each one of these individually.
I think this is still where you have probably the biggest choice. There are hundreds of inks and colors which can be used for calligraphy. Prices vary greatly here, and so does usability for calligraphy.
I have quite a few fountain pen inks and when I first started this calligraphy thing I used the things I had. I had some Pelikan China Ink and lots and lots of fountain pen inks and none where helping me out. A lot of them bled or blobbed on me.
A while ago I bought this super expensive prussian blue ink from Sennelier, which supposedly works for anything. It’s shellac based. I literally never touch it. The thing with ink is - unfortunately you can’t really know how it’s going to perform based on the type of ink it is. Just within the fountain pen inks there’s so much variety. As an example my Noodler’s inks bleed like crazy, my Pelikan 4001 don’t as much. (I’m talking about ‘normal paper’ here, more on that later). The shellac based inks blob on me, but other’s use them with ease.
By now I know exactly what types of inks never work for me, which is shellac or acrylic based calligraphy inks, even if they say calligraphy, I just stay away from them.
So the point I’m trying to make here is you can splurge on ink and still not get satisfying results. So if you are just starting out, save your money and buy an ink that is made for pointed pen and has been around forever. So there’s 3 ink types that pop into my mind now. Which is Iron Gall, Sumi and Walnut Ink.
The biggest money saver and my favorite of the three is Walnut Ink, you can get ink crystals or make some it at home from the husks of walnuts. I use walnut ink for most of my practice because it literally just works and I mean - even da Vinci and Rembrandt used it.
Also this is probably the cheapest ink you can find. As a quick comaprison: 1 oz (28g) of crystals which you can get from Paper and Ink Arts for $3 will make around 3 cups (700ml) of ink. The 60ml bottle of Kuretake Sumi ink (my favorite Sumi) is $7, of course you spend even less money if you buy more, which is a recurring pattern here. But those are the sizes I usually get.
See what I’m saying? Splurging will not give you better results, just more color variety and in case of amazing but kinda pricy finetec, gorgeous sparkle.
Modern nibs are cheap. I mean you can get a gillott 303 for $0.8. Still people will splurge on vintage nibs and tell you how much better they are and that all they use is a vintage nib blah blah blah.
If you’ve seen my nib collection you know I own a very very very big amount of nibs, most of them are vintage. But I will never ever tell you that your results are better with a vintage nib. If you suck at using a nib your writing will not magically be as pretty as what the old masters did because you use the same nib as them.
Vintage nibs are a lot of fun and I really enjoy splurging on them because I love doing so, but in the end, people will not be able to tell if you used a Leonardt Principal or the legendary Gillott Principality to do your lettering.
So advice for nibs is only splurge if you want to test other nibs, but don’t ever expect to get better just because your nib cost more.
You can read my general opinion here on my blog posts, but just to make this all complete, here’s the very very short takeaway: Only use a speedball oblique if you use a nib small enough to fit a nib in there like it’s supposed to. Splurge a little if you have a weird grip or problems like arthritis. Go the middle route, for the best results in feel of your hand. Don’t settle for cheapest in the oblique holders, but don’t go spending 100+ dollars expecting magic. Custom holders feel and look like magic wands but well in the end they all are just sticks to fit a nib in and grab them.
Okay, there is a reason why this point is last because well - spoiler altert - paer is a splurge. 100%.
When I first saw the price for a Rhodia pad I was - well - a little disturbed. Even for my Swiss perspective on prices where most even expensive US prices for supplies are still cheaper than what it’s here at home, spending so much on PAPER felt like a lot. Not fancy paper with embossing, or cardstock or watercolor paper - those prices I understood, but that ‘fountain pen safe’ paper had the same weight as my copy paper.
So you might think the same way, at this point. Let me tell you about the incredible experience that is calligraphy approved paper.
So from my brush lettering experience I had upped the quality of my copy paper from the cheapest recycled paper to the premium laserjet one. So that’s 10CHF (roughly $10) for 500 sheets, which means that’s around 2 Cents per sheet.
Rhodia Paper is around 17 cents per sheet. I can find Clairefontaine (which is also the maker of Rhodia, but I’m talking about the Clairfontaine branding here) pads at around 10 cents per sheet, Tomoe River is around 14 cents. So your spending at least 5 times the price of your premium copy paper for these kinds of papers.
In the end result there are two things that people will see. The ink and the paper. Together. And that really is the main point. A pointed nib will put A LOT of ink down. Laserjet paper handles this ink pretty well, but the coating of those very smooth papers will prevent that the ink really imbues the page and starts moving. The coating is also what makes these papers so smooth, thus much more snag proof. Nibs are sharp and if you ever wrote on watercolor paper you will know that a gliding nib is a happy nib that produces nice smooth lines.
For a long time I totally understood all of that, but decided to stick to my copy paper for practice. Bad.
I still use my copy paper when I’m too lazy to get the rhodia into the printer or when I basically just want to mess around with letters, but deliberate practice where I want to improve and analize my lettering means I need to exactly see the line I wrote. Not a distortion of it, which the bleeding really is. How can I judge a hairline if it actually spreads because my paper is bad? If you really want to see what you are doing with your nib good paper is actually vital.
And total plus of this is: A good paper also means that it will take a lot more inks. Those papers will handle most fountain pen inks, which are probably your cheapest ink apart from the walnut ink. Not all fountain pen inks will work with the nibs because of their viscosity but once it is on the page, it usually won’t budge.
Walnut Ink is cheap and foolproof.
Vintage nibs will not improve your writing.
Premium holders just make you want to use them more, but not make you write better, the Speedball Oblique should still be avoided.
Splurging on paper is absolutely recommended and will improve your result. Greatly.
And I think that’s it. What’s your take on splurge or save? Do you agree? Let me know in the comments!