Exploring Calligraphy Tools: Brushes Vs. Pens

Calligraphy is the artistic practice of handwriting. The word calligraphy comes from the Greek words kallos, meaning beauty, and graphein, meaning to write. Though most calligraphy is done using pen and ink on paper or parchment, calligraphy can also be done using brushes, reed pens, and chisels.

The origins of calligraphy date back thousands of years to ancient China, Egypt, and Rome where scribes practiced the art of beautiful writing. Calligraphy flourished with the introduction of paper in China around 100 AD and with the invention of the quill pen in the Middle Ages. Formal calligraphic scripts developed in Europe include Roman, Carolingian, Gothic, and Blackletter. Islamic calligraphy also arose from Arabic script beginning in the 7th century AD.

In the late 19th century, William Morris helped revive interest in calligraphy in England. Today, calligraphy continues to evolve as an artform as calligraphers experiment with new tools, surfaces, and styles. From wedding invitations to logos to tattoos, calligraphy adds artistic flair to writing.


Calligraphy brushes come in a variety of materials, sizes, and styles. The most common materials for calligraphy brushes are natural hairs like weasel, wolf, goat, horse, and rabbit.

Natural hair brushes are prized for their ability to hold ink and create smooth brush strokes. According to Arts & Virtue, natural hair brushes are categorized into three main types – stiff, soft, and mixed1. Stiff brushes made from horse or goat hair are best for beginners practicing basic strokes. Soft weasel or rabbit hair brushes create expressive strokes for artistic calligraphy. Mixed hair brushes offer versatility for both precision and expression.

Brush sizes range from extra fine to large sweeping brushes. Larger brushes hold more ink and create bolder strokes. Smaller brushes allow for more precision and details. Brush shapes also vary – round brushes make rounded strokes while edged brushes create square strokes2.

Some popular styles of calligraphy brushes include Japanese sumi brushes, Chinese writing brushes, and watercolor brushes. With the wide range of brushes, calligraphers can create different effects and customize their practice.

Brush Materials

Chinese calligraphy brushes are commonly made from materials like bamboo, goat hair, rabbit hair, wolf hair, and weasel hair. Bamboo is often used for the handle of the brush due to its light weight and natural strength. Different animal hairs are used for the brush tip, which contribute to the softness, absorbency, and elasticity of the brush.

Wolf hair is considered the best quality material for Chinese calligraphy brushes and creates brushes capable of the most delicate strokes. The wolf hair used is soft but substantial, retaining a fine point when wet with ink. Next is weasel hair, which is extremely soft and absorbent but may lack the strength and elasticity of wolf hair. Goat and rabbit hair are acceptable alternatives that create brushes well-suited for beginners.

High quality brushes use the entire length of the animal’s tail fur, with only the softest and most flexible hairs selected. Lower cost brushes may use shorter hairs or hairs taken from other parts of the animal’s body. The quality and source of the materials impacts the performance and longevity of the brush.



Brush Sizes

Calligraphy brushes come in a wide range of sizes for different styles and techniques. For beginners, a basic set may include sizes 1-5. Larger brushes sizes 6-10 are used for bigger, bolder styles. According to Calligraphy Brush Sizes, the main sizing categorization is numerical from 1 to 10. Brush number 1 has a thin diameter good for delicate scripts, while brush number 10 has a thick diameter for broad strokes.

For smaller Japanese and Chinese characters, thin brushes around size 1-3 are recommended, according to How to Select a Brush for Japanese Calligraphy. This allows for intricate details. Larger brushes are better for bigger calligraphy pieces, bold titles, or Chinese/Kanji where single characters are written large. Testing different brush sizes will help find the right fit for different calligraphy styles and aesthetics.


There are many types of calligraphy pens available for creating beautiful hand-lettering and calligraphy artwork. Some of the most common pens used in calligraphy include the following:

Monoline Pens

Monoline pens have a very fine tip and create thin, even lines. They are good for Copperplate and other script styles that require thin downstrokes and hairlines. Popular monoline pens are the Nikko G, Zebra G, and Ohto Tasche.

Pointed Pens

Pointed pens consist of a metal nib that comes to a sharp point. The nibs are dipped in ink to saturate them before writing. Pointed pens allow for creating both thick downstrokes and fine hairlines. They are commonly used for Gothic, Italic, and Copperplate styles.

Brush Pens

Brush pens have nylon, felt, or fiber brush tips that are ink saturated. They are versatile for creating thin to thick strokes in a range of lettering and calligraphy styles. Popular brush pens include Tombow and Pentel.

Fountain Pens

Calligraphy fountain pens contain an internal ink reservoir that feeds ink to the nib. Certain fountain pens like the Ackerman and Pilot Parallel pens are designed specifically for calligraphy. They have wide edges capable of thick strokes and thin lines.

Pen Materials

Calligraphy pens can be made from a variety of materials, each with their own unique properties. Some of the most common pen materials include:

  • Metal nibs – These are small metal tips that fit into holders called nib holders. Popular metals used include steel, copperplate, and flex nibs made of materials like gold or titanium. Metal nibs come in different sizes and flexibilities. They allow for a wide range of stroke variation and crisp lines, but require dipping into ink frequently. Sources: Paper and Ink Arts, Written Word Calligraphy
  • Quills – Cut from feathers, quills are also dip pens. Goose, turkey, crow, and swan feathers are commonly used. Quills provide flexible, delicate lines. Hand-cut quill pens must be frequently sharpened. They are less commonly used today. Source: Paper and Ink Arts

In general, metal nibs are more popular today for pointed pen calligraphy, while quills are more historic. The choice comes down to personal preference and desired flexibility, line variation, and convenience.

Pen Sizes

Calligraphy pens come with nibs in a variety of sizes for different styles of writing. Some common nib sizes include:[1]

  • Italic nibs (IF, IM, IB) – These have an oval shape and create thick and thin strokes. Italic nibs come in sizes like 1.1mm, 1.5mm, etc. for different effects.
  • Stub nibs (ST) – Stub nibs have a flat edge and create variation through the angle at which they are held.
  • Needlepoint nibs (NP) – As the name suggests, these have a very fine, pointed tip for delicate writing.
  • Broad nibs (BB, 2B, EB) – Broad nibs have a wide edge and are used for thicker lines and large-scale writing.

The size of the nib impacts the variation in line width, as well as the scale of writing. Larger nibs like 2B allow for big, bold strokes. Smaller nibs like needlepoint are better for intricate details. The shape and size should be chosen based on the calligraphy style and desired effect.

1. https://www.thewritingdesk.co.uk/content/what-different-pen-nib-sizes-mean.html

Comparing Brushes and Pens

Both brush pens and traditional pointed calligraphy pens have unique advantages and disadvantages to consider when selecting tools for your calligraphy projects. Brush pens, like the popular Tombow Fudenosuke, excel at creating thicker downstrokes and variation in line width. The bristles provide soft edges and the ability to create swooping, expressive strokes. However, brush pens lack the fine hairline details and consistency possible with pointed pens. They may also fray over time and are not ideal for intricate flourishing.

Pointed dip pens used in traditional calligraphy, like those with flexible Nikko G nibs, allow extremely precise hairlines and consistent letterforms. The metal nibs last indefinitely with proper care. However, pointed pens require more preparation, maintenance, and skill to master than brush pens. They also lack the dramatic thick-and-thin shading effects of brushes. Choosing between brushes versus pointed pens depends on your specific project needs and personal style.

Best Practices

When first starting calligraphy, it’s important to focus on developing good habits and techniques. Here are some best practices for choosing and using calligraphy brushes and pens:

For brushes:

  • Select brushes with soft, flexible bristles that hold a point well. Natural hair brushes like sable work best for beginners according to How To Practice Calligraphy Effectively.
  • Hold the brush at a 45 degree angle to the paper and apply very light pressure. Let the weight of the brush do most of the work. Going slow and lightly will produce elegant thin downstrokes and thick upstrokes.
  • Use your arm to make strokes, not your fingers. This allows for more control.
  • Practice individual strokes like ovals and lines before attempting letters. Master basic strokes first.

For pens:

  • Select pens with firm, flexible nibs that feel responsive on paper. Popular options are fountain, dip, and marker pens made specifically for calligraphy.
  • Hold the pen at a 30-45 degree angle. Light pressure is best, and let the nib flex and spread ink on the downstroke.
  • Use your fingers and wrist to guide the pen, not your arm. This allows more finesse.
  • Warm up with drills of basic strokes before writing. Get a feel for the pen’s sweet spot.
  • Take pauses between strokes and letters. Rushing causes mistakes according to 7 Calligraphy Practice Tips For Beginners.

Following these tips will build good habits and help you master both brush and pen calligraphy.


Calligraphy is a beautiful art form that allows you to express yourself through writing. When deciding between brushes and pens for calligraphy, it really comes down to personal preference. Both tools have their benefits and drawbacks.

Brushes excel at producing thick and thin strokes with their flexible bristles. They come in a variety of materials and sizes to suit different styles. However, they do require more practice to control the amount of ink dispensed.

Pens have firm, chisel-shaped nibs that create consistent lines. They are available in many nib widths and lengths for different letterforms. But their stiffness does not allow as much variation in stroke thickness as a brush.

To summarize, brushes are excellent for expressive and artistic styles of calligraphy with dramatic thick-and-thin variation. Pens work very well for precise, disciplined scripts with uniform strokes. As a beginner, it can be beneficial to try both and determine which tool fits your preferences and style. Master calligraphers often use a combination of brushes and pens in their work.

The most important thing is to experiment and practice regularly. Allow yourself time to get comfortable with whichever calligraphy tool you choose. With persistence and dedication, you will be able to create beautiful letterforms and develop your personal calligraphic style.

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