An acquired hand

copperplate envelope
I know a lot of you won’t believe me, and will think I’m being humble, but I have the worst natural handwriting in the world. In primary school, I and a mischievous boy called Francisco (incidentally, my childhood nemesis…when I was 7, I chased him with a knife and got into a lot of trouble) were held up to the class as examples of incorrigible, unreadable scribes. Never stated, but plenty implied, was that our penmanship indicated psychotic tendencies.

I could not have cared less about penmanship when I was 7, but as I reached the end of high school my terrible handwriting distressed me. I had fallen in love with literature, and was nursing small dreams of becoming a writer, but the cheap notebooks filled with my first essays, poems, and stories—written in my demented, unlovely hand—fell woefully short of my belletrist ambitions to pen flourishing and graceful pages, worthy of the British Museum’s archives…

I taught myself how to write. I bought a dip pen and a set of roundhand nibs, and used them every day…even at university. I probably presented a ridiculous image, sitting in the library, writing notes in italic with a dip pen and a bottle of burgundy ink…there must have been sniggers, and lots of eye-rolling. *sigh* Whatever. We are so affected when we’re young. But my college notes are fabulous; I have them still.
mail art MK

Using a dip pen has become second nature to me, so it’s not such an affectation, anymore. This doesn’t mean that my real handwriting has changed, though. Give me a ballpoint or a felt tip pen, and my handwriting is as illegible, psychotic, demonic as ever. It hasn’t been transformed, only concealed.

It was always the kind of pen that made the difference. Fussy pens, like dip pens with calligraphic nibs, or those very fine, delicate points on expensive technical drawing pens, have to be held a certain way, manipulated slowly to avoid damaging them, have to be used correctly or they won’t work at all. Their finicky temperaments impose order upon my handwriting.

A copperplate doodle sheet posted by salman on The Fountain Pen NetworkNow I am teaching myself Copperplate script. I bought the strange-looking Mitchell’s Copperplate Elbow oblique nib at work, and have been using it at every opportunity…copperplate To Do lists, copperplate journal entries, copperplate appointments in my datebook, copperplate letters to friends (and their addresses on envelopes)…

I have barely started, and already I can see that I will need an oblique nib holder, because the Mitchell’s Copperplate Elbow, while set at the right angle for Copperplate, is not as flexible as I’d like it to be. I have a Gillott’s 303 and 404 nib, they’re so springy-sproingy that it’s like writing with cat’s whiskers (and it’s the difference between the superfine point of the nib, and how far apart the tines will spread when you apply pressure, that make for some of my favorite Copperplate examples on the internet) but the nib has to held at an oblique angle to the lines on the page to get the thick-and-thin areas in the right places.

I probably wouldn’t pick Copperplate to begin using dip pens and nibs…go for Roundhand, or Italic, first, and when you’re comfortable with using a nib, you can venture into the fancier scripts. It will be many years of writing in ‘plain vanilla Copperplate’ before I will feel game enough to tackle the sort of scrolling and ornamental work you see in this video:

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13 thoughts on “An acquired hand

  1. Thank you for writing this! it makes me feel so normal! Just about every one of my primary school reports mentions my horrible handwriting *hangs head* I have recently started an art journal and am learning the joy of cursive – very inspired by what you have done!

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    1. LOL No way, you do not remember my handwriting! Maybe up on a board, or for something submitted, but not my secret, personal, shameful handwriting. And you and I hardly encountered each other in HS! You were very quiet, from what I recall. 😉

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  2. I didn’t mind penmanship classes when young and now at an “advanced age” I still have nice handwriting, however, these different types of scripts with a nib pen make me want to run down to the art store for purchase. With practice, letter writing on nice paper would again be my choice of communication. What a inspiration you are.

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  3. Wonderful post and cool video! As an American living in France, I’m bowled over by the fine handwriting here. It seems students here start young with penmanship and keep it up throughout the school years (instead of dropping it, like most American students do). I often pause in front of cafés and marvel at the handwritten menus posted outside. Best of luck with the Copperplate.

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  4. Nat, that video was fascinating. I have admired Copperplate script my entire life. The first time I saw it was in a colonial house museum in Princeton, NJ. I stood there staring as the tour went on.

    I could never achieve the Palmer Method that was taught in school. As soon as could, I changed from slant to straight up and down, then switched to printing. My printing has always been neat and fine. More than a few times I’ve been called a human typewriter! But when I take class notes -illegible scrawl! LOL!

    Thanks for this great post!
    Smiling at you from Maryland, maureen & josephina ballerina (The Cat)

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    1. I, too, used to stare at examples of beautiful penmanship, wondering how a human hand could do something so fine! Nothing I tried with my set of flat nibs came close. The internet has been such an eye-opener in this regard…showing me, for example, that a pointed nib was used to pen copperplate and spencerian (and the tines forced apart to create the shaded areas) These days, the finest calligraphy doesn’t seem so unattainable…with the right tools, and maybe 10 years of practice, I might get decent at it!
      I can only print neatly if I use a technical pen, like the Rapidograph. Without it, I am lost!

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