Calligraphy Styles Through History

When you read the word ‘calligraphy’, what pops into your head? A quill and ink? A scribe jotting down into a huge book by candlelight? Or maybe just those live laugh love signs you see all over big box stores?  


Like fonts, calligraphy has hundreds of styles – professionals call these hands or scripts, so you probably envisioned calligraphy correctly if there was handwriting being done. Professional calligraphers study scripts that have been around for centuries and do our best to replicate the nuances in our own versions. It takes a keen eye and a steady hand to create this art form, but when done properly it can set the perfect, human-touch for a wedding, event, or keepsake.


Let’s look at a few frequently-seen styles:


Uncial (un-shull)

Popular in the 4th through 8th centuries this incredibly rounded script began as a single stroke hand. As time went on, calligraphers became fancier and wanted to add some pizazz to their writing.  The single stroke letters became multi-strokes and introduced extending the letters above and below the writing line (like the tail of a j or the stem of an h). The scribes also began twisting the quill as they wrote to manipulate the thickness of their marks.

Uncial is most commonly recognized as the foundational script for the Lord of The Rings.  Calligrapher, Daniel Reeve, was contracted to create a calligraphy style to match the lore of the movies, and boy did he! Borrowing letter forms from Uncial, Tolkien and others, Reeve formed a style that is forever associated with the outdoors – but don’t try to copy it, his script is HIGHLY trademarked. Uncial is a great choice if you’re thinking about an outdoor wedding.  

 Wedding Chalkboard welcome sign seattleOutdoor wedding invitation seattle


This is my absolute favorite style of calligraphy. The drama that is captured by these broad black lines is incomparable. It’s called blackletter because the goal was to have more black ink on the page than parchment color; done so by using a flat nib angled at 45 degrees. This was a common style in western Europe from 1150 to the 17th century, and encompassed four big style families as it evolved: Textura, Rotunda, Bastarda and Fraktur. The common element were thick strokes, upright letter forms, and rigid angles.  You’ll see these styles today often on awards, logos for bold companies, heavy metal bands, and at renaissance faires.

Wedding invitation in gothic calligraphyBlackletter Calligraphy Gift 


Italic calligraphy was established during the Italian renaissance as a chance to write faster than a previous style (humanist). Italic lowercase letters are written at a slant and without need for multiple strokes per letter.  This was a form of latin cursive that eventually gave way to copperplate. Italic is a great choice for formal or casual purposes and gives a professional feel. 

 Italic Calligraphy Retirement GiftAward Certificate Calligraphy Italic

Engrosser’s Script

In the 1800’s penmanship was having a heyday. Steel pointed pens had taken the world by storm causing many to do away with their quills.   In 1888 the Zanerian College in Ohio was founded to train and certify students as teachers of penmanship and engrossing artists. Thousands took up the chance to be a trained penman and found work in things like Advertising and Graphic Design. The school’s founder, C.P. Zaner also created a magazine, “The Business Educator”, where he published calligraphy lessons for the general population to try and be critiqued. Zaner hailed Roundhand Script (i.e. Engrosser’s) as the finest among all in terms for elegance, versatility and ease of learning.


Engrosser’s is a slanted calligraphy style written by pointed nib. The script appears to be cursive, but is actually created with many pen lifts per letter.  The principal form is based on the oval and symmetrical forms are needed. Engrosser’s Script is popular for wedding invitations, certificates,  envelope addressing, and items with a formal or fancy feel.


Copperplate Calligraphy – While similar to Engrosser’s Script, Copperplate is the more quick written sibling. Very few pen lifts are required for Copperplate and bilateral symmetry of shading is not mandatory.  Copperplate is also favored for weddings and more formal affairs.


 Copperplate Wedding Place Cards CalligraphyWedding Proposal Letter Copperplate Calligraphy

Modern/hand lettering-

You might have seen modern calligraphy if you frequent pinterest, Home Goods, or use a vinyl cutting machine.  Modern calligraphy is not calligraphy in a historical sense. It is often a loose form of cursive that uses shaded down strokes and thin hairlines to create letters. It can follow a baseline where all the letters rest, or it can be bouncy with uneven spacing between letters.  Modern calligraphy can capture the penman’s personality on the page. This is great for signage, window dressings, or event paper goods.

Modern Calligraphy Placecards southwest wedding 

Hand lettering is a form of drawing letters in new and creative ways. Many fonts are first created by hand then digitized. Old fashioned sign painters would use hand lettering in their advertisements and are still sought after for hand gilding (applying gold) letters.  

 Bar Chalkboard Sign Calligraphy SeattleUnique Medieval Wedding placecards

If you’re curious to learn more about calligraphy I cannot recommend the International Association of Master Penman and Teachers of Handwriting (IAMPETH) enough. They have curated a thorough archive on all things calligraphy and are incredibly generous with sharing their knowledge of all things penmanship.


If you’re interested in creating a one-of a kind gift through custom calligraphy or custom wedding stationery, I’d love to talk. You can find more about my current writing styles here or we can devise something completely you just like I did when working on this Bar Mitzvah. Check out my latest work on social media

Chelsea is a professionally trained classic calligrapher from Seattle, Washington.  She has been mentored by some of the top calligraphers in the world including employees of the White House.

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