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The Friendly Fountain Pen

Workshop Notes: Versals for Everyday Use

W versal
W by Linda O'Neill

HAT are "Versals?" Simply defined, they are emphasized capital letters that are used as the first letter of text in a manuscript of any kind. The term is relatively new, having been coined by Edward Johnston, the English "father" of the modern practice of calligraphy. Versals can be slim, broad, plain, or ornamented. Historically, they were filled in with solid color either with embellishment or left plain.

For the workshop I taught in Tacoma on October 17, my lessons were based on making versals using monoline pens rather than the traditional tools (quills, primarily) used on historic manuscripts. All the students in the class showed how observant they were in following the examples I gave them. In their examples below, you can see the range of variations they came up with (click on the photo for a larger view): 


After carefully drawing their letters in pencil and then inking over the pencil, students applied all kinds of decorative techniques to their letters done in different sizes. The monoline pens are very user-friendly, allowing calligraphers to create these letterforms in unlimited sizes. Note: these letters are not altogether drawn with the classic proportions of Trajan Romans. I selected the word ROMANS because it incorporates several letters that require us to learn the sequence of strokes while making them.

DSCF2309After warming up to the letter forms by first tracing them, the participants pencilled the letters and then inked them at 1" and at 1/2" heights. They then drew them at 1/4." If needed, they could draw them at 6" or a foot, even. For smaller letters and decorations, a finer-tipped pen was used. Once the letters were inked, watercolor or colored pencil was added in gradients, patterns, or solids. The goal of learning to make these letters was to have an alphabet that can readily be used for titles, signage, journal enhancements or cards. 

Precisely drawn letters are filled with graphic embellishment by Sandra W.

I brought in several antique manuscripts* that featured various kinds of versal letters including some that were similar to the basic form we were working on. Other versals were extremely ornate, such as the penmade cadels (thank you Sandra for that term!) that show in the photo below. The group of students was interested in what I pointed out about this manuscript on vellum from about 1600 AD. It came from a religious house in Spain and was purchased by a family friend in the 1960's.


New Mexico trip Oct 2014 1203 (640x480)
A monumental antiphonal manuscript is discussed during a work break. A note to my students: the four-line staff did not go extinct with the development of more complex musical forms. Rather, it was restricted to Gregorian chant while the five-line staff served polyphonic musical composition. This clarifies how one small manuscript in my possession is dated 18th c. but has four-line staffs. *A side note about availability: one can still buy such manuscripts but from collectors and galleries only. A quick search online revealed this. A more rustic single page can cost in the 100's, but a more skilled and elaborate page would be in the thousands.


In everything
Small (1/4"), colorful letters with added dropshadows make this line of writing stand out. Very nice work! Thank you Tacoma Calligraphy Guild, Terri Kruger, and Randi Kander for inviting me to teach and for managing the day. To my students I also give thanks and I encourage you to keep up the excellent work! (Photos by Randi Kander and Jocelyn Curry)


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