Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Technique - Gothic Textura Quadrata: An Alternate Ductus

Gothic Textura Quadrata is an absolutely gorgeous script, dense and architectural it is a wonderful example of how letters can be art in their own right. It's also very difficult to write well, especially for a beginner. There are two details about this variant of gothic that are extremely important to get right: perfectly vertical strokes and precise spacing between those strokes. Oddly, the calligraphy books I've read focus on how to draw each letter with the minimum number of strokes. Their method helps write faster, but it is harder to be precise and get those critical details right.

For a beginner, that can make this script extremely frustrating. So I'd like to present alternate instructions for drawing Gothic lettering, hopefully making this script easier to learn for the beginning calligrapher.

Before I begin, credit must be given, as there are two calligraphers who taught me much of what I'm about to pass on:

Master Edward MacGuyver gave me my first tips on alternate methods for forming letters in Gothic. It was an eye opening moment when he showed me the trick of making the vertical strokes first.

Master Robert Whitcome of Brandywine taught me how to break down gothic letters into vertical strokes and diamonds. Many of his teachings are incorporated here and in my lesson on practicing with the pen. He has some of his own lesson plans posted on his site in the Pixels, Pens and Type section. I encourage you to read them as he says a lot with an economy of words I cannot match.


Because of how rigid this script is, use as many guidelines as you need. Beyond the required lines at the top and bottom of the minims, feel free to add lines to keep the height of ascenders and descenders even. A line in the middle of the minim space may be helpful for the "half"-height strokes used in the letters a, k, and s. Vertical guidelines aren't a bad idea either, as they will help keep those strokes straight up and down & parallel to one another.

With the guidelines in place, there are two things I learned from Master Robert that are extremely helpful to keep in mind:
  1. The top and bottom of each vertical stroke just touches the guidelines.
  2. The left and right point of each diamond stroke touch their guideline.
My Ductus

The basis of "my" ductus is simple: make the vertical strokes first, then add any connecting strokes.

That's it. It sounds way too simple, but it was a huge revelation to me when I learned it from Masters Edward & Robert. I still scratch my head that I've not seen a calligraphy book mention this.

By making the vertical strokes first, you can focus on making them perfectly vertical and evenly spaced. Then you can add the connecting and decorative strokes.

Without further adieu, let me present my ductus for one version of Gothic Textura Quadrata:

The examples here are roughly 4 nib-widths tall, penned with a Rotring 2.3mm ArtPen on 10 square per inch graph paper. If you can see it in the images, the fatter horizontal line is the baseline. Three squares up from that is the line I'm using for the height of the minims. I'm holding the pen at a 45° angle.

a - In many scripts, a is one of the hardest letters to learn to make well. Most calligraphy books have make strokes 3, 2 and 5 first. Doing so makes spacing from the preceding letter very difficult to get right. A solution is to start with strokes 1 and 2, then add in the rest. The hairlines can be done in a couple different ways, which I'll discuss toward the end of the page.

b - The books will generally tell you to make strokes 1 and 4 as one, followed by 3 and 2. This causes difficulty making the white space in the middle of the letter the correct width and shape. Make the vertical strokes first, then connect them to insure perfect spacing. The flourishes at the top are added later. See the letter o for notes on the overall shape of the round letters.

c - I've separated out stroke 1 and 3 because as you begin, this helps you focus on the use of the guidelines and keeping the vertical stroke straight. They can be combined, but beware of a tendency to curve the whole stroke. A hairline flourish can help fill the empty white space in middle of the letter.

d - As with the lowercase b, the books often have you make the left and bottom strokes first (1 & 4), followed by the top and right (3 & 2). Until I learned the trick of making the vertical strokes first, I was always making the bowl too narrow or wide, or misjudging the end of stroke 3 such that stroke 2 started too high or low.
e - See the notes for c. The only difference is the hairline stroke that closes the letter. When you start, treat stroke 2 as two separate strokes. You don't have to lift the pen between them, but stop making the diamond before you draw in the hairline.

f - Like with c and e, there's really no reason you can't make stroke 4 just after completing stroke 1. Depending on the version of Gothic you are working on, the diamond made by stroke 4 may be centered under the letter as in my example, or to the right of stroke 1. Strokes 2 and 3 are fairly simple, and just have to be located correctly.

Be consistent about where cross-strokes like 3 fall in your letters. In my examples, I have them centered on the upper minim guideline. The cross-stroke on the t should be at the same height.
g - The trick I have found for g is to make an o first, with a bit of a flourish on the upper right corner with stroke 3. Once the basic shape is complete, you can add the complex tail to the bottom.

h - Made from a tall vertical, a minim height vertical, and three diamonds. Like with the f, center the diamond strokes 4 & 5 for the feet just under the legs. To improve legibility, leave a tiny gap between them.
i - One vertical stroke with diamond on the top and bottom. Most period versions don't have any sort of "dot" on the top of the i. I have one here in the finished letter and often include them in my text to improve legibility.

j - Be careful not to curve too much at the bottom of stroke 1. Like with the letter e, you can almost treat this as two separate strokes with a pause between them. Finish with a centered diamond on top. Like with the i, the "dot" is optional.
k - Like with the letter a, make the two vertical strokes first. Note how stroke 2 is shorter than minim height. Use the right side of stroke 2 as a width reference when you make the first half of stroke 3. Connect across from 1 to 2 with stroke 4. Finish with the bottom diamonds on the legs and flourishes on top.
l - Just about as easy as i or j. A tall vertical with a diamond foot and a couple flourishes on the top.

m & n - Both of these letters are made the same way: Vertical strokes first, then accent & connecting diamonds on top, and feet on the bottom. In period, all the diamonds could run together; sometimes only context could tell you if you were looking at m, in, ni, ui, iu, vi, iv or w. One great example of this is how the word minimum could be written in gothic: 15 vertical strokes all connected with diamonds at the top and bottom; it could look like a picket fence. To improve legibility for a modern audience, leave a little space between the diamonds as needed.

o - One of the hardest letters to get right because it goes against our modern sense of symmetry. The finished letter has 6 points on the outside. The left and right points are not at the same height: the right points are higher than the left. A properly made o has whitespace in the center that is a perfect parallelogram. Keep this in mind for the other closed round letters: d, g, p, and q.

p - This letter has one feature that's slightly different than the other round letters: stroke 5. In many scripts, this stroke starts to the left of stroke 1, and subtly curves up before coming down to finish closing the bowl. The descender is finished with a flourish.

q - Make an o, but extend the right vertical into a descender and add flourishes.
r - A vertical with three diamonds. Many scribes added the little flourish coming down to fill in the white space that appears between r and the next letter.
s - In medieval writing, there were two forms to the letter s, the tall s (ſ) and the short s. The tall s was used in the beginning and middle of words, the short s only if it was the last letter. Eventually, in some places, a double s was made using a long followed by short form (ſs). This became the letter ß which I believe is still used in modern German.
short s - If you look at the middle of the letter, it's really two diamonds side by side. Concentrate on this as you make strokes 1 and 2. Then close the top and bottom. Be careful with the start of stroke 4, it's easy to pull way out to the left and make the letter too wide.

long s - Make a lowercase f, but don't include the crossbar. Remember your recipient, you might choose to not use the long s to improve legibility.
t - The trick to a good looking t is to not make it too tall. The start of the vertical stroke is only enough above the top guideline to allow for stroke 2 to be made. Like with the c and r, the t sometimes has a flourish on the right side to fill in white space.
u - Back to verticals followed by diamonds. Similar to m and n, but now the upper diamond are used for decoration and may have a small gap for legibility.
v - Make a lowercase u without the last stroke. Like with the o, the bottom of the v may look "off" because of the left and right points being uneven heights. Some period texts don't use a separate v character, instead using u for both.
w - Made just like the letter u with an additional stroke and diamonds.
x - This is a little like a cross between an r and a c with a crossbar in the middle to help distinguish it from both. The vertical stroke can incorporate a little flourish on the lower left.

y - Making this letter is similar to g. Start with a v and then add the two part tail. Note how stroke 6 looks like an extension of stroke 2. With experience you can combine the two, but to start it may be easier to separate them.
z - And z. Make the top and bottom strokes first so you can be sure to have them parallel and the same length. If you try to make one continuous stroke of 1 through 3 to 2 you'll probably find that it's difficult to get 1 and 2 the same length. Add stroke 4 at the end.


When you have finished certain letters, there may be some little flourishes needed to really give them style. There are two ways of making these.

The easy way: Using a fine point pen, go back after the ink is dry to add the hairlines on the a, c, r and t, or the extensions at the top of b, h, k, and l and the bottom of p and q. Whatever you use, it should use the same ink as your calligraphy pen. This can be time consuming, and you have to be careful of not smudging your finished lettering.

The hard way: Use the corner of your calligraphy nib to drag some ink out into the flourish. I find I usually need three steps:
  1. place your nib at the end of a stroke and deposit a small amount of ink.
  2. twist the pen in your fingers so that only a corner of the nib is resting in the wet ink.
  3. drag that ink out into the flourish you need.
If there's still a pool of wet ink you can drag out, you can skip step 1.

Deposit ink.
Twist the pen onto the corner
of the nib.

Drag out the ink into the flourish.

This is definitely not the easiest method for adding these small lines and details. However, if you can learn to do it well and are writing a script that only requires flourishes on a few letters, it can be a time saver.

Putting it all together

Once you have figured out how to form the individual letters, it's time to string them together into words. There are a couple things to remember if you want your gothic to look as period as possible:
  1. The whitespace between letters is the same as the whitespace within letters (one stroke width).
  2. The whitespace between words is twice as wide as the whitespace within letters (two stroke widths).
If you write gothic in a fully period manner, the letters are usually run together making the text dense and frequently difficult to read. SCA scrolls are often given to recipients who want to be able to read the writing, so leaving a little extra space to help with that may be a choice you wish to make.

Let's take a detailed look at the calligraphed subtitle I made for this page:

The yellow squares across the bottom show what "perfect" medieval spacing would be for this phrase. The red squares show my actual spacing. Over the course of these 17 letters, my spacing is wide by just over two stroke widths.

If you look at red squares on the full size image, you can more easily see where I crowded some strokes and left too much space between others. I left a significant amount of extra whitespace after the open letters e, r and c, despite my experience.

I did purposely leave gaps between some diamonds that might have been connected in period to enhance the legibility of my text. I was trying to be as accurate as possible with my spacing. As you can see, I wasn't 100% successful.

Master Robert teaches that you can only draw what you are able to see. As you practice, remember you are training your eye as well as your hand. Careful examination of your own work like I've done above can help train your eye to see where you can improve.

Final Thoughts

I hope that these alternate methods for drawing gothic letters are helpful. By now, you may be starting to realize that there is more than one method for achieving the same result. With practice, you can find the one that words for you.

If you are practicing from a calligraphy book and are having problems getting a letter to look right, ignore the book's ductus and try putting down the strokes down in a different order. In the end, focus on the final shape of the letter, not one particular way of making it.

Once you get comfortable with gothic, look at different period examples of the script. Note the small differences in letter heights, how and where the diamonds sit on the ends of the vertical strokes, etc. Try your hand at matching the differences, you might end up with something you like better or is easier for you to pen.