The three fundamental elements of calligraphy

There are three fundamental elements in calligraphy; pen, ink and paper, in this post we shall look at how these three elements form a symbiotic relationship.

To understand the relationship between pen, ink and paper it is helpful to look at the fire triangle model. Each side of the triangle represents an element: Oxygen, Heat and Fuel; when you have all three you get fire, remove one of the elements and the fire is extinguished.

In calligraphy we can apply the same model, each side of the triangle represents an element of calligraphy; Pen, ink and paper. Bring all three together you will have made a calligraphy work.


 A pen is an instrument that’s distributes ink on to a writing surfers. The word pen comes from the Latin (Scribo): people use the Latin word (Penna) for pen; Penna meaning feather; to use the word Penna of pen, is quit misleading as it suggests that the quill pen is the first writing instrument made. The first writing instrument was the reed pen then the brush and then the quill pen, and then we get the modern nib.


 Let’s start with a question: What is ink? Ink is a liquid that has a pigment or dye that has its particles suspended in a binder which can be natural or synthetic, binders help to give the ink gloss, flexibility, durability and toughness. Ink also contains a variety of additives, solvents, stabilizers and preservatives which make for a complex medium. Modern calligraphers do not need to make their own inks, we only have to go down to our local art supply store or order it online and have it delivered to our doors. Let’s have another question. How do I know which ink to buy? This will depend on the pen you have; fountain pens need ink with a low viscosity and dip pens need ink with slightly higher viscosity than fountain pens. Quill and bamboo pens need an ink that is glutinous, quill and bamboo pen are the scribes tool of choice. Manufacturers make it easy for us, we only have to choose the ink which is designed for the model of pen. When using commercial inks a calligrapher has only one diction to make; pigment or dye! Ink that is dye based will bleed on most papers, but has a wider colour range than pigment based inks. Pigmented ink do not bleed on paper and have a greater resistant to water and fading than dye based inks.

The Writing Surface

 Through the millennia the writing surfaces that people have used, changed with geographical, environmental, cultural and political factors. In the ancient near East around 9000 BC people started to use clay tokens with marking on them. Clay Tablets with a simple counting marks where use for trading. Let’s fast ford to the historic period around 3000 BC, scribes started to record the comings and goings of the everyday people. Around 2500 BC the Syllabic script had been develop which was capable of recording the everyday speech. All this was done on the clay tablet, as time moved on papyrus replaced clay; which would be replaced by parchment which was replaced by pulp paper made from linen cloth. The development of paper has come full circle with modern papers that have a coating of clay on them. As modern calligrapher we find your self’s in the same position as the biblical and medieval scribes; we don’t make our own writing surfaces. The biblical and medieval scribes use the services of a parchment-makers or paper-makers for the writing surface. In modern times we don’t deal with the paper-makers directly, we use a Third part; the stationery shop or art supplier. We have a wider range to choose from than the medieval scribes had. There is not one type of paper that is better than another, this is a creative stumbling block! You should rather find the best combination between pen, ink and paper that will allow you to express yourself.


The history of writing is the history of humanity. Every civilization has independently discovered the three elements of calligraphy, and improved on them. There is no right or wrong way; there is only self-expression.


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