In the pursuit of learning strokes and flourishes, we sometimes overlook the importance of calligraphy letter and word spacing. This invisible tool is instrumental in supporting the beauty of your work. It starts with using appropriate guidelines (here’s a guide) and continues with conscious effort and decisions.
Similar to calligraphy layout, spacing in calligraphy is more optical than mathematical. This means that the mind perceives space in terms other than measurement. While each script varies, here are some general tips to keep in mind when improving your calligraphy with this technique.
In this Article:
Now on YouTube: Calligraphy Letter and Word Spacing
Letter spacing is the amount of space to leave around and between letters to keep them distinct and legible. This balances with arranging letters appropriately to form a word and maintain the flow of the calligraphy hand. I know this sounds like a lot at once. But you have to get the ink on the page in order to improve it.
Try to think of the space around each letter as air, light, or personal space. If the letters in a word were people waiting in line, there would be adequate space around each, but not so much space to make you question who’s in line and who isn’t.
In the example above, the top “word” has relatively equal volumes of space between the letters.
“Word” in the middle has 1 column of graph paper squares between each letter. Even though this is mathematically equally spaced, there is too much space between the letters optically.
In the bottom example, I wrote the letters much closer together. The letters still stand alone, but they’re competing for space!
When we’re writing letters as words, we make an effort to make the spaces between the letters as similar in volume as possible. This takes practicing writing lots of different words, studying your work, and trying again.
One Step Further: Optical Space
In her book, Foundations of Calligraphy, Sheila Waters includes almost a full chapter about spacing. I highly recommend this book as a thorough start to calligraphy. I’ve referred back to it countless times.
Different shapes require different spacing between them to comfort the eye. As a start, here are the basics that Waters shares:
- Two vertical strokes require the most space between them
- A vertical stroke and a curved stroke require less space between them
- Two curved strokes need the least amount of space
When in doubt, write the word as practice. Color in the spaces between the letters to assess your spacing.
A Note on Ligatures
“Ligatures” are strokes that tie or bind letters to one another. If you look at your own handwriting, you might see light marks carrying from the end of one letter to the beginning of the next. These are natural ligatures and they occur in calligraphy too.
Ligatures have 2 functions. The first is to maintain natural spacing in a script, making sure the gaps between letters are just the right size. The second function is decorative. For me, the ingenuity of ligatures gives calligraphy that “WOW” factor!
I like to think of ligatures as a garnish on a plate. It steps up the visual appeal, but too much can overpower and misconstrue the flavor dynamic. Ligatures do the same for calligraphy, but don’t use them so much that your reader gets tired while sifting through them all.
Get comfortable with your calligraphy spacing first. Then, study blocks of text written in the calligraphy hand you’re working with. Notice the ligatures, and then try them on your own!
As I mention in 5 Steps to Learning a New Calligraphy Script, each calligraphy hand is based on a shape or a set of strokes. Since one key to calligraphy is consistency, we want a similar volume of space between each word. The space between each word is usually equal to the size of the letter o of that script.
I measure this by writing a “pretend o“, or “ghosting” an o between each word. This is when you write the shape in place without touching the pen to the page. This will help you to gauge where to start your next word. With rhythmic practice, the spacing will come more naturally. Still, I go back to ghosting the o as spacing just to check in with myself. This is to make sure I’m still doing what I think I’m doing.
When writing words in a sentence, keep your letter and word spacing in mind. Remember, we want it to look like the letters are respectfully in line together.
This is the space you leave between lines of text. As a general rule, leave enough space between lines of text that your ascending and descending strokes don’t overlap. Again, this will vary between scripts depending on the module for the calligraphy script you’re using.
A bonus tip: I always, always, work with guidelines. And I always, always write a light “x” at the left margin to mark where I am supposed to be writing. When you’re working with a practice page, this is already laid out for you. But when you start to draw up your own projects, you can have a lot of guidelines on a page. I’ve gotten a little lost and written on the wrong lines before . . . and had to start over. Do this little thing for yourself and it will help you avoid this mistake!
Bending the Rules
In addition to the calligraphy hand you choose, letter and word spacing can turn into a tool for further animating your text. Spacing can slow the pace at which a person reads your text. Squishing all the text together can evoke feelings of breathlessness and urgency.
Line spacing contributes to the atmosphere you’re creating. Place the lines farther apart if you want to impart a sense of tranquility. Follow the regular spacing for straightforwardness. Or close up the spacing, even overlapping the lines, for confusion and depth. I did this with my Endemic Book, writing layers and layers of text over itself.