Learning to Write in Italic

Some gleanings over the years in learning and teaching

By Richard Bradley
Date Added: 17/07/2009


During my school years I was taught to write in a basic upright looped' writing and my handwriting was never particularly legible according to school reports and I did not have any knowledge of Italic handwriting until I left grammar school at 17 to join a five year apprenticeship in art and design at the Metal Box Company Limited in Portsmouth.

I then encountered fine lettering first hand when I was instructed by Norman March and Dieter Smith who worked in the studio. Norman had been trained since he was 14 years old in traditional craftsmanship in painting and decorating which included sign writing and Norman introduced to me, taught me and demonstrated to me his superb lettering drawn with two pencils held together (as a large italic nib and then masterfully painted in using gouache or oil paint. He was able to draw and paint in a superb italic letter for church notice boards, etc. I later found out that Norman was trained by Horace Westmorland at Portsmouth College of Art who was taught by the calligrapher Thomas Swindlehurst who was trained by Edward Johnston so the inspirational line was first class!

I was at this stage after learning italic letter shapes in a large size (about 11/2" x-height) that I was introduced to the basic Osmiroid Italic fountain pen with a medium Italic nib (too wide for me now; fine or extra fine is much better for everyday writing) and soon realised that these same beautiful letter shapes can be written as a handwriting style, retaining all the subtlety of the shapes, flourishes and finishes in handwriting size.

Then the next and greatest inspiration apart from watching Norman Marchwork was to be given some good basic books including Pen Lettering by Ann Camp and Better Handwriting by George L. Thomson and constantly studied the books for constant inspiration and practice.

Now what are the points I am making from this training regarding the learning of Italic handwriting by anyone in any situation?

Firstly, I have always found and still find that the constant looking at and studying of good italic letter shapes and writing is essential.

There are many good books available today. A full list of the books I have found so helpful (and still do!) is included at the end of this article.

I cannot stress enough how important it is in learning to constantly look at all the letter shapes, capitals and lower case, until they become visually stamped in the mind so that you can 'see' these beautiful shapes in your mind's eye.

This is so important as the hand will always attempt to follow these shapes seen in the mind. So I cannot stress enough how important it is to look, study and contemplate these good shapes in all their detail, thick and thin strokes, proportions and angle written, etc. Look at them day and night! Stick them on the wall and see them everyday - I still find looking closely at any new example of fine italic handwriting a great joy and learning process of study and inspiration.

Secondly, learning by constant practice in spite of the inevitable mistakes and misshapes but just constantly writing and writing with a good, fine or medium Italic nib in a fountain pen form to enable you to write constantly anywhere at anytime.

Also, learn to hold the Italic pen nib at a constant 40-45 degree angle to give the thick and thin strokes at the right place in the letter shape. I have found in my teaching experience that the most common faults in failing to reproduce the fine italic shapes' are not holding the pen at a constant 45 degrees angle but twisting it as writing and a failure by observation to know the precise shape of the letter being written.

Then it is a constant daily practice in Italic handwriting and, as in any learning of the arts, drawing, painting or playing a musical instrument, excellence comes through constant and daily practice. I was writing as an apprentice for about two or three years before I could write constantly, creatively and enjoyably.

Learning Italic handwriting in conclusion is a good, fine, free flowing Italic pen, constant study of fine examples and constant, compulsive practice in writing Italic shapes anywhere, anytime on almost anything.

I once had a very boring job in the Civil Service but its highlight was daily addressing about forty envelopes and I enjoyed this daily practice in fast, free flowing Italic handwriting.

So don't be discouraged, don't give up, get a good handwriting book to look at, memorise the shapes and then constantly write and write.

Seek out if you can a good experienced teacher who by showing you your possible errors and showing you a better way and letter shape may well save you hours of wrestling with troublesome letters on your own.

I still enjoy greatly Italic handwriting and am always looking and learning by seeing fine examples. A visit to the British Museum manuscript section is a wonderful day of inspiration. So, if you are learning to write in Italic there is a constant source of joy and self-fulfilment in writing in a beautiful Italic hand of your own. Keep at it, it's well worthwhile.

The Society's secretary, Nicholas, has a fine, delicate and beautiful Italic hand and it is always a joy to see a note or envelope written by him, a lovely example for the aims and purpose of the Society for Italic Handwriting.

As a final note of encouragement I now work in a busy naval training establishment and often receive instructions from ratings, officers and senior rates that is often illegible and we often have to ask for a deciphering! Now, if they had at school or training some simple, good handwriting instruction, it would save considerable time, needless clarification and mistakes. Good handwriting is important to all.

These are the books that I have found a constant inspiration over the years: