Calligraphy Layout for Quality Compositions

A book I made recently inspired this article for calligraphy layout tips. Or rather, a mistake I made in my composition inspired this post. If you’ve been practicing calligraphy for a while and are starting to create final calligraphy pieces with longer text, read along for tips on how to strengthen your compositions — and to see how I could have planned my book better!

Use These Links to Jump around in this Article:

  1. Sketch Your Layout in Pencil First
  2. Drafting the Calligraphy
  3. Create the Margins
  4. Find the Optical Center
  5. My Mistakes!

Recommended Reading

Before reading this article, check out my article, Tips for Guidelines and Why You Need Them (there’s also a captioned video on that page if you prefer). It details the added quality guidelines offer to your work — and the person viewing it. Two books I regularly refer to are Mastering Layout by Mike Stevens and Writing & Illuminating & Lettering by Edward Johnston.

Calligraphy Layout Video on YouTube

Learn the basics of drafting a calligraphy layout in our new YouTube video! It’s part of our Crossroads Calligraphy Demos Playlist. Be sure to check them all out!

Why We Should Lay Out Calligraphy Carefully

I’d like to start by saying that I understand intentional artist choices, especially when it comes to pushing boundaries or dissolving them entirely. Perhaps in your career, as in mine, there are times for that, and there are occasions that call for gracefully navigating those same boundaries. Both have merit, and both are important skill sets to cultivate.

As intentional as material choices and calligraphy strokes are, so should the negative space be around and throughout your work. We write the text itself within certain bounds; even flourishes are governed by stylistic and geometric proportions. On a slightly larger scale, calligraphy layout is an invisible structure you create to support the quality of your intricate work.

A quality composition soothes and guides the eye and mind of the viewer, inviting them to spend time with your work and look through it for longer. It will have them think about the message you are sending. A lackluster composition will have them possibly read the text, if not skim it, and then move on with their lives. Read on to learn how to invite your viewer to stay awhile with your layout.

1. Sketch Your Layout in Pencil First

Decide what the dimensions of the final piece are, with regard to how it will be presented. You may have to adjust this as your design progresses, but it’s better to define parameters now than try to contain calligraphy later. Trust me. :) Your layout is going to depend on the amount of text you have to write and, of course, how you decide to present it.

Things to Try:

  • Varying the weights of your calligraphy to emphasize certain words or lines of text
  • Layering small text over giant text
  • Use a bold, contrasting color to catch attention
  • Adding a border or a decorative letter at the beginning

How to Do It:

Draw scaled-down versions of the planned final piece in pencil. Use wavy lines and boxes to represent your calligraphy and blocks of text. Play with arranging the text and try out new skills. These sketches should be loose and basic, not detailed. They serve to set the hand and ideas in motion. All the while, you’ll have an idea of the big picture of the final piece. As shown in the second photo above, I typically draw the edges of the sketch in pen so they stay as I erase over and over.

Scaling Down Size for a Sketch

To scale down the final piece to a brainstorming size, I try to find a common number to divide each side by. The bar sign above measured 18″ wide by 30″ tall, so I divided each side by 6. This gave me a smaller drawing of 3″ wide by 6″ tall. Try to make the sketch at a size you can still see clearly and add notes. I love to draft on 1/8″ graph paper so it’s easy to add specific measurements later.

This was the final draft for a mural I did Summer 2020. It’s at-scale between the margins for the wall area. I did about 8 drafts playing with the text until I liked this composition. You can view the full post here.

2. How to Draft the Calligraphy for Your Layout

Start with a draft of the text you’ll be working with first. Write the calligraphy at-scale or at-size. This lets you decide on and practice the script, play with ligatures and flourishes, and decide on the interlinear spacing. Playing around with ideas like this gives you the confidence to arrange the calligraphy and decide on stylistic and decorative elements; it takes the pressure off and lowers the stakes.

For longer pieces of text, write a few sample lines of it in the script and size (x-height) you want to use. Write them at the length of the lines you think you’re going to use for the final piece. The average number of words per line will give you the amount of lines you’ll need for the entire text. This will help you plan for the size of the page or area you are working on. With this knowledge, you can then adjust the size or layout of the text to fit properly within the margins.

Tip: Take notes of what calligraphy nib you used and how tall you made the x-height. Take similar notes even if you just used a pencil. Having this information may be useful later on in your process!

3. Surround Your Layout with Margins defines margin as “1. the space around the printed or written matter on a page; 2. an amount allowed or available beyond what is actually necessary.” Think of the margin space as air. Have you ever tried to finish singing a line of a song as you’re running out of air? It’s stressful! Adequate margins provide energetic support to the text. Look at the difference it makes in the signs below:

Proportions of the Margins

As a general rule, there should always be less blank space at the top of a piece than there is at the bottom.

A simple way to achieve this is to make the bottom margin twice the size of the top margin. Side margins should be the same size as the top margin. So, for example, if you decide the top margin is 2 inches, then the sides would also measure 2 inches. The bottom margin would be 4 inches. An ample margin also gives you a little extra room should you need it after all. Enclosing your calligraphy with margins gives the viewer’s mind less to think about and figure out. This way, they can focus on reading and reacting to your beautiful script.

Here’s a link to the tools I use for measuring with accuracy: Ruler, L-Shaped Ruler, and a Protractor

4. Find the Optical Center

The optical center refers to what the mind perceives as the visual center of a shape. This is part of the reason that the top margin is smaller than the bottom margin. Optical center is slightly above the true center of the page, 46% down from the top edge of your surface. Mathematical center would be 50% from the top edge. This won’t always be relevant to your work, but it will make a difference if you’re writing a single line of text. Use your calligraphy layout to plan the most visually appealing placement.

Integrating These Calligraphy Layout Tips

Start paying attention to what you enjoy about other calligraphy artists’ work. Try to name it. Notice how the artist uses the tools we talked about above. Conversely, notice when you instinctively scroll past a piece you see. Go back and try to figure out what made you avoid it. Take some time to figure out how you would make it more pleasing to you. Also, study historical calligraphic pieces. Notice how they create emphasis and add decorative elements to their work.

Then, consider the way you want to visually tell a story with your calligraphy layout.

5. My Mistake(s?!)

I almost forgot to share what went wrong!

I was so excited to start penning this beautiful text, especially since I took my time to rule up circular lines outside of the bursts. So I didn’t sketch the calligraphy layout. I practiced it, and carefully chose a size for it, but I wish I’d used tracing paper over the painting to plan the placement better.

I did all the calligraphy before I folded the book. It’s better to write with a page on a flat surface rather than fight with the wrist bumping up against the edge of the book. I ruled the lines so that the calligraphy would swirl around the bursts I painted. But between the first and second pages, I didn’t leave a margin.

Before I started, I drew in the top and bottom margins just to be sure I’d be careful of those. Luckily I caught the missing margins at the folds early enough. But not before I had already made this mistake. I’ve learned my lesson, but that doesn’t mean I won’t make the mistake again.

And this way, we can all learn together. Once I finish this book, I’ll post a video here showing the binding and all of the pages. Thanks for reading!

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