Materials Tips: Cruddy Brushes for Keeps

If you're like me, you like to throw out/recycle anything that is old and shoddy and presumably has no use.  I have limited space, so I'd prefer not to occupy it with such items, especially when I'm likely going to replace it if it's something that I need.  I certainly can't make room for a new AND old dustpan, set of throw pillows, floor lamp, etc.  

But, paint brushes are a different story.  Why, you ask, would I keep something like these on hand?


They aren't pretty.  They've seen some rough times.  But they occupy a place on my tools shelf all the same.  I keep them to use with more aggressive tasks, and I get to spare my good brushes in turn. 

Whatever paint medium you're working with, you'll need to mix a color at some point, no?  Consider for a moment how you mix paints or inks.  What's happening to your brush when you do it?  They get a bit of a rough treatment, don't they?  They're swirled around in a jar or brushed against a palette, over and over and OVER, sometimes with the tips of the bristles bluntly impacting a surface.  Quite simply, it is not good for the brush. 

In addition to mixing, brushes can suffer a fair amount of abuse while lifting paints from watercolor pans. Some pans are softer than others, sure, but any way you look at it, your brush is essentially scraping paint off of a surface.  Now, of course this has to happen in order to get paint on your brushes, but if you need to pick up a fair amount of color from of a pan to mix with another color, you'll apply a bit of stress to your brush.  

Opt for a semi-retired tool instead so your good brushes can do what you want them to: create your beautiful work.  I keep small to medium size brushes for mixing up portions of paints (be it watercolor or oil), or stirring up my gouache that I've stored in a jar for later use, etc.  I also keep smaller size brushes for loading my pen nibs with watercolor or Finetec.  These brushes literally do not do anything except serve as an applicator for my nibs.  I don't use the same brush for nib loading as I do for painting.

If you currently don't have any "waste" brushes, it might be worth purchasing some.  You can easily find cheap brushes, sometimes for $1 or so at an art supply store.  You don't need a good performance from these brushes when it comes to producing actual artwork- you just need something that can do the dirty work so that your $10/$20/$30+ brushes can survive as long as possible. 

Happy painting!

Preventing Feathering with Walnut Ink

Walnut-ink copy.jpeg

Walnut ink is a beautiful, multipurpose ink.  I absolutely LOVE to practice with it- it is easy to clean up, has a remarkably clean consistency which results in gorgeous transitions, hairlines and swells, and is inexpensive, especially when made with crystals.  

But, like ink will sometimes do, walnut ink can bleed or feather on certain papers, which is not suitable when practicing or producing finished works.  If you experience this, try adding a few drops of gum arabic to your ink (the same can be done with Higgins Eternal and some other inks).  I've found about 4 drops will fix a 1/2 oz. jar right up.  Because gum arabic is a binding agent, it'll reduce or prevent the feathering of the ink as well as smudging.  Be careful not to add too much of it, since it'll change the intensity and consistency of your ink.

Ink on, B

Envelope Guide Sheet

We all have our ways of doing things.  Some of us have no ways of doing some things because we're not sure how to do them.  Well, if that's how you feel about spacing on envelope addressing, might I offer up my way of doing it?  When addressing white envelopes, I print these guidelines, trim to size, and slide it into my envelope.  It is easiest to slide them in when printed on a white card stock - 65#-80# - vs. a flimsy printer paper sheet.  

The guide lines I use when addressing white envelopes

The guide lines I use when addressing white envelopes

There are two sets of guides in the PDF - one with 55 degree slant lines, and one without.  You can rescale them when printing to better fit the scale of your envelope.  This particular scale I prefer for an A7 envelope.  You'll want to adjust where you cut on the horizontal depending if your envelope is going to require three or four address lines (or more).  For example, on an A7 envelope size, using this scale, I'll start two lines higher for a four-line envelope than a three-line envelope, so my cut will actually be two lines lower than where I've cut for my three-line template.

The letter placement above is exactly how I'd space it in the envelope. The bottom space of the four-space section is my x-height.  There is one space above the capital letters and ascenders to give each line some breathing room, but without looking too departed.

When using my laser with a darker colored or lined envelope, I use the full size sheet and align the bottom of envelope to a specified line, and make sure the laser is aligned to the bolder printed lines on the sheet.  Shift your envelope up or laser down and you move down each line of the address.

As always, feel free to ask questions below!

Ink on, B

How to overlay lettering in PicsArt

If you follow me on Instagram, you've probably seen a post here and there with some white calligraphy or brush lettering overlapping a photo.  If you've wondered how I do it, read on.

Text overlay created in PicsArt

Text overlay created in PicsArt

1.  First, gather an image that you want your text to overlap, and a photo of your lettering on WHITE paper.  (Make sure you have the PicsArt app downloaded!  And, if you want, come find me and say hello.)  Next, edit your lettering photo in PicsArt to make sure that the background of your image is completely white.  You don't want any color or shading around your text.  You'll need to go to the "tool" option on the lower left of your screen and utilize the contrast or highlights option under "adjust" or the curves option (or a combo of these).  If your lettering is in color, the curves tool will really help you here.  

You may have to repeat the process to get a fully white background- in the above image, I went through two rounds of bumping up the contrast and raising the highlights to get a totally white background.  

2.  If you want black text or your colored text over your image, you can stop editing your text here (otherwise, if you want your lettering in white, continue to step 3).  Go to your background image in PicsArt (select it for editing) and select the "add photo" option, which is two options over from the "tool" button.  Resize and rotate as necessary, but do not hit the check mark on the lower right quite yet.  You'll see an opacity bar, and a dropdown option to the right of the bar, with the word "normal" (further demonstrated below).  Select the opacity menu by touching the word "normal," and choose the "multiply" option.  You're done!

3.  If you want white text over your image, you'll need to scroll to the right on the toolbar and go to the "draw" option with the paintbrush icon.  Select the layers option (the icon with the three stacked squares) and then add a layer UNDERNEATH the text layer.  You'll probably need to drag the empty top layer down below your text image layer.  Fill it with white by selecting the color picker next to the opacity options menu.  Select the text image layer, and in the opacity options menu, select "difference"- this will make your text white on black.  Save your image and close out of it.

4.  Go to your background image in PicsArt (select it for editing) and select the "add photo" option, which is two options over from the "tool" button.  Resize and rotate as necessary, but do not hit the check mark on the lower right quite yet.  You'll see an opacity bar, and a dropdown option to the right of the bar, with the word "normal."  Select the opacity menu by touching the word "normal," and choose "screen"- this will knock out your black background, and leave only the white text.  You're done!

ClipArt for the PicsArt app

I recently teamed up with the crew at PicsArt to create some lettering and illustrations for their clip art collection.  It's easy to overlap the lettering onto one of your photos by selecting "multiply", which will knock out any of the white background, leaving you with JUST the lettering.  Awesome!  And, guess what?  It's free to download on Friday, January 22, 2016 - the very same day I'm teaching a how-to class with PicsArt at Alt Summit!  Am I excited? Why, yes.  Yes, I am!  Here's one of the lettering examples:

PicsArt clip art lettering example

PicsArt clip art lettering example

How you can use your own brush lettering with your photos

How you can use your own brush lettering with your photos

Fresh new business cards

I have been printing my own business cards ever since I got a letterpress ten years ago.  But, alas, I can't print watercolor paintings with it, or similar art, and that got me thinking that I should suck it up and have them printed elsewhere. So, off to Moo I went, and picked up some sweet 3-layer luxe cards.  Despite lacking the glorious feel and look of letterpress, I am pretty happy with them, especially with that red seam along the side. What do you think?  

Guidesheets galore

It's probably easiest to put all of the guidesheets in one place, don't you think?  I've added some new ones, too: with and without x-height indicators for easier space counting, as well as diagonal-only sheets.  All slant lines are at 55 degrees.  The larger sheets in each set have 1/4" spaces.

Ink on, B

Giveaway - Guess the Nib Count

It's giveaway time!  I want to thank all of my supporters by sharing some of my favorite supplies.  How to enter:

  • guess the number of nibs in this glass bottle
  • write out your chosen number (i.e. seven hundred and fifty) in any style of calligraphy
  • post it on instagram with the hashtag #biancasnibs by midnight Pacific Standard Time on Halloween - 10/31/15.
  • the entry with the closest count wins!

That's it! You don't have to tag me, or your friends- just make sure to add that hashtag so I can count it as an entry.  Please only enter ONCE.  And feel free to enter if you're out of the USA - I can ship abroad if needed!


Now, a note about the jar.  There are a lot of nibs in there, but I currently have no idea how many.  I have been collecting almost all of my used nibs in there for about eight or nine years now- that's a lot!!  The jar, overall, is about 10.5" tall, and the nibs are in about 4.5" of vertical space.  It is 3.5" diameter, with fairly thick glass. 

I suppose you'll also want to know what you can WIN!  Here goes:

  • a set of my favorite nibs
  • one of my colored ink kits
  • a varnished and lightly stained maple wood inkwell holder with pen rest, jar included
  • a bottle of Dr. Ph. Martin's Bleed Proof White Ink
  • a pad of 50 9x12 Borden & Riley translucent marker layout sheets
  • a set of five letterpress printed note cards

Good luck, and thanks for your support!

Ink on, B

Using Gouache for Calligraphy

Mixing gouache remains a mystery for many beginners, and even some advanced calligraphers.  There are so many questions to ask: How much water to add? What brands to use?  What the heck is Gum Arabic? And so many more.  I'm going to fill you in on my preferred way to mix up this paint.  Here's what I keep on hand:

  • gouache in a number of different colors (W&N and Holbein are my favorite brands for non-metallics.  I like Royal Talen's Plakkaatverf for metallics... and only metallics)
  • inexpensive paint brushes for mixing
  • gum arabic
  • droppers for adding water
  • 1/2 ounce jars for mixing, using and storing the mixture 
  • Dr. Ph. Martin's Bleed Proof White ink
When in need of color, this is where I head.

When in need of color, this is where I head.

First, keep in mind what gouache really is: an opaque watercolor paint.  I like to use it because of its vibrancy, opacity (hello, fuchsia on black, you look GOOD!) and ability to get controlled hairlines and downstrokes.  Not all inks provide these benefits - some are translucent, some are too runny, some are so drab in color - which is why I regularly turn to gouache.  

Being that it's a paint, it's not going to come out of the tube ready to use with a dip pen.  You'll need to mix it with water (distilled water is recommended to help prevent the possible growth of mold), and, if it's going to be in contact with other items or put in the mail, you'll want to add Gum Arabic (GA for abbreviated purposes) to prevent smudging.  GA is a binding agent made from acacia trees, and you can get it in liquid or powdered form.  I personally prefer the liquid form, since I am mixing it INTO a liquid. Here is a general how-to, assuming a half-ounce jar is being used:

  • squirt your gouache into your jar, until it's about 40% full
  • add 4-6 drops of GA, if desired
  • add water, starting with a 3:2 ratio of gouache to liquid (water & GA combined)
  • stir with a paintbrush (don't shake! You'll get tiny bubbles, and they WILL show up in your work)
  • test the consistency by writing a letter or so (your consistency should not be runny or too thick - more like cream)
  • if the ink doesn't flow easily, add a drop or two of water at a time until it flows
  • if you add too much water, add some more gouache

How much water you'll actually need to add will vary depending on the color and the brand.  Ditto on the GA.  Many of the colors I use are good to go with about a 50/50 mix, but it's not a guaranteed mixture.  Note: if you add GA, use less water since GA will add to the viscosity.  Be careful of how much GA you add, since it does also increase the translucency of the paint, and will disrupt how it behaves overall.  Too much GA will kill the pretty hairlines we all love so much, and the consistency in general.  Again, the amount needed depends on the brand and the color- sometimes I'll need a few drops more if my smudge test fails (I test the ink, wait for it to dry, and try to smudge it. If it comes off too easily, I add in a drop or so more- with caution!).  Keep in mind that GA also increases drying time, so give your work a little extra time before handling.

Winsor & Newton Opera Rose gouache on black

Winsor & Newton Opera Rose gouache on black

I mentioned half-ounce jars above, but you'll often see calligraphers mix their gouache and water in a palette, and load it onto their pen with a small round paintbrush (the palettes aren't dip-friendly).  However, if I am doing a set of envelopes or place cards, I'm not going to want to stop to load every time I run out of ink - it's far too disruptive and time consuming. So, I've become a dedicated dipper.  The loading method is definitely helpful when you only need a small amount mixed up, and you're not going for miles on it.

One last tip before I send you off into gouache world:  keep some Dr. Martin's Bleed Proof White (BPW) on hand.  I have found that white gouache, regardless of brand, does not produce good lines, so I no longer use it.  Fortunately, the BPW is gouache-mixable! So, if I need a very pale pink, I just add some pink gouache to BPW, add my water and GA, and I have a beautiful opaque color and pristine lines.  Note: the dried color will be slightly darker than when it is in the bottle or wet on your paper, so keep that in mind when you're mixing.  It's best to start with less color than you think you might need!

Ink on, B

New Guidesheets in Grey

Previously, I posted practice guide sheets in 100% black, which is handy if you're printing them and using them under a translucent sheet.  Lately, I've been printing them in a light grey directly onto HP Premium Choice laser paper and practicing on those sheets, so I thought I'd share the grey version of the sheets in case you'd like to do the same.  This allows me to focus on my forms a little better, without the dark black lines of the guides interrupting my calligraphed lines.  You can download them in two sizes here. 

Ink on, Bianca

Kari Script - Free Download

I developed Kari Script eight or nine years ago, before "Modern Calligraphy" was even in my vocabulary.  For my clients who wanted an informal or more playful style, this was (and still is) a great choice.  Since then, I've developed other "modern" styles, but Kari remains a popular choice.  She's a keeper!


You can download a PDF of the letterforms if you're interested in practicing the style.  Remember, a relaxed arm movement is the way to go with this one - keep it playful!  And if you adapt the style, be sure to share your take on it!

Ink on.  xo, Bianca

The Capital Stem & Compound Curve

The compound curve of the capital stem is essential to commit to muscle memory, as it fits within a significant amount of the Copperplate capital letters (with or without the comma dot to the left). You can download a drill sheet here - trace the shape until you've nailed it down, or use it to practice the remaining strokes in the capital letter, like the curves of the B.  Slip this under a translucent practice sheet, or print it on laser paper (or other ink-and-nib friendly paper).  

Remember to use the same ovular shape at the bottom and top of the compound curve that makes up stem, as shown in the photo below.  

When flipped, the curves of the capital stem mirror each other.

When flipped, the curves of the capital stem mirror each other.

Getting Started with Calligraphy - the Materials

With the incredible abundance of calligraphy supplies and tools available, it's a head-spinning task for a beginner to figure out what she or he needs.  The suggested materials list can differ among experienced calligraphers, but it's at least helpful to start with our recommendations and discover what works best for you based on them.  When teaching, I provide my students with materials that I am comfortable using on a daily basis, but that are also beginner-friendly.  Here is my go-to list for the beginner:

My recommended materials list for the aspiring calligrapher

My recommended materials list for the aspiring calligrapher

  • Pen Holder - Speedball Oblique Pen Holder (top pen holder shown) for right-handed calligraphers, or a straight holder for left-handed calligraphers. This is what you'll insert your nib into. 
  • Black ink- I prefer Moon Palace Sumi ink, but Yasutomo Sumi ink is more readily available in art supply stores (beware, it eats your nibs).  You'll need a small 1/2 oz. - 1 oz. container, or a dappen dish, to pour the ink into- make sure the mouth is wide enough for an oblique holder to fit into, if you're right-handed.   Your ink choice will significantly impact the quality of your work, and an unsuitable ink will make even a perfectly drawn line look unsatisfactory.  Note:  not all sumi inks are created equal.
  • Hunt 22B, Hunt 101 or Tachikawa G nib - I recommend buying a variety of nibs to start off with.  The Hunt nibs are more flexible and sharp, which may cause trouble if you're very heavy handed.  If you're using them and cannot get an upstroke without snagging, lighten up your pressure and slow down.  Your pen should just glide on the paper on the upstroke.  If you still really are struggling, try a less sharp Tachikawa G, but make sure you can move on to a more flexible nib to prevent being too heavy-handed.  The G nibs require more pressure to produce swells, which is strenuous and exhausting on your hands over time.  Make sure to buy a few nibs at a time - they do get dull with use, and you'll need to replace them.
  • Borden & Riley #37 Translucent Marker Layout Paper or Canson Marker Layout (smoother) - you can slip a guide sheet under a sheet and practice this way.  Excellent for practice while you're acquainting yourself with the appropriate slant of the letters on a guide sheet, if you're practicing copperplate.  Rhodia Pads are also wonderful for practice once you can ween yourself away from the diagonal guidelines. You can also practice on HP Premium Choice Laser Paper and print my lined guide sheet on them.
  • A guide sheet - you can download mine from this previous blog post.  This is what you'll slip under your sheet of the marker layout paper or print onto the HP Laser Paper (use these grey lines instead if you print your own- it's easier to see your work this way).

All of these materials, aside from the guide sheet and laser paper, are available at John Neal and Paper and Ink Arts.  There you will also find great instructional books, such as Eleanor Winter's Mastering Copperplate Calligraphy.  I also recommend checking out Dr. Joseph M. Vitolo's iBook, which he has generously provided free of charge.  I refer to it often myself.  

Ink on.  xo, bianca

Intro to Calligraphy Class - August 15, 2015

I will be hosting an introductory calligraphy class on August 18 in San Francisco at the beautiful Fullosophie studio!  Sign up here.  We'll cover the basics and learn how to use the tools so you can forge your way into the wonderful world of calligraphy.  This class is excellent for those who have never tried calligraphy, or who have dabbled a little bit and need a helping hand.  

Once upon a time, I got to teach calligraphy to an awesome crew of photographers in a chateau in France.

Once upon a time, I got to teach calligraphy to an awesome crew of photographers in a chateau in France.

Letter Math - lowercase "a"

Sometimes when I start getting a little sloppy with my copperplate calligraphy, I stop and remind myself that the letters are actually made up of specific, consistent shapes - O shapes and U shapes, mostly.  Instead of just making letter forms, I go back to making the letters out of those shapes.  Here's an example of what that looks like.  The O shape plus a U shape gives us a lowercase "a".  And, yes, I do love math.  

the "equation" of lowercase "a"

the "equation" of lowercase "a"


I've really been reaching in all creative directions lately, suddenly being taken by a large appetite to MAKE things.  I've always had that in me, but lately it's ballooned, as if to make up for years of ignoring that appetite.  One of the big things on my list has been to fill up some wall space, specifically with oil painting... more specifically, my own oil painting.  I've had a 20x30 canvas collecting dust for a year now, originally purchased to go above my bed, planned to be covered in a dashing arrangement of paints that I still have yet to totally plan out.  A whole year!

Maybe 20x30 was too ambitious to start out with after not picking up a paintbrush in a sadly large number of years.  This 10x10 canvas seemed more approachable, so I sat down at 5pm one night in August and had at it.  What fun!  I was completely absorbed, and didn't even look at the clock until midnight.  I forgot how amazing that feels, and vow to do it again.  And again.  I finally tore myself away at 2am, only to wake up and jump right back to it for a couple of hours, six hours later.  "Starving artist hours," as my mother put it (rest assured, I have plenty to eat in my kitchen).  Here's what came out of it:

"Haughty Aphrodite"

"Haughty Aphrodite"

What a sense of calm it gave me to dive back into something that I love so dearly.  It was a poignant reminder that I need to spend more time doing things that I want to do, and stop putting them off because "I'm too busy."  I know you know what I mean!  So, do yourself a solid favor, and go do something you've been putting off for a while (that you WANT to do).  And if you're one of those amazing people that have figured out how to plug such a thing into your busy schedule on a regular, or semi-regular basis, hopefully you'll share some inspiration on how you do it.  

Either way, meet "Haughty Aphrodite."  She started off as a simple practice painting of the Aphrodite of Milos statue that's in the Louvre, but while I was working on the shadows of her nose, I saw a glimmer of a sneer that had formed out of the brush stroke.  So, I went for it and finished off that sneer.  Then,  I  reworked her mouth (long live oil paint!) to match the expression, and then painted in an arm so she could throw some attitude with that hands-on-hip pose.  It made me want to know, even more, what her original two arms looked like.  Any hypotheses? 

calligraphy guide sheet

I've revamped the calligraphy guide sheet that I provide my students in class, and wanted to make it available to anyone who'd like to use it.  You can use them under translucent marker layout sheets, or print them out on standard laser paper, which is smooth and doesn't have the tendency to feather the ink like inkjet paper does.  Page one is on a quarter inch scale, and page two is slightly smaller.

Happy calligraphing!  xo, Bianca