Understanding Digital Calligraphy: Inkscape

One of the many great tools available in Inkscape is the Calligraphy tool which helps you become acquainted with how that tool works, as well as demonstrate some basic techniques of the art of Calligraphy.

History and Styles

Going by the dictionary definition, Calligraphy means “beautiful writing” or “fair or elegant penmanship”. Essentially, calligraphy is the art of making beautiful or elegant handwriting. It may sound intimidating, but with a little practice, anyone can master the basics of this art.

The earliest forms of calligraphy date back to cave-man paintings. Up until roughly 1440 AD, before the printing press was around, calligraphy was the way books and other publications were made. A scribe had to handwrite every individual copy of every book or publication. The handwriting was done with a quill and ink onto materials such as parchment or vellum. The lettering styles used throughout the ages include Rustic, Carolingian, Blackletter, etc. Perhaps the most common place where the average person will run across calligraphy today is on wedding invitations.

There are three main styles of calligraphy:

  • Arabic
  • Chinese (Oriental)
  • Western or Roman

This tutorial focuses mainly on Western calligraphy, as the other two styles tend to use a brush (instead of a pen with nib), which is not how our Calligraphy tool currently functions.

One great advantage that we have over the scribes of the past is the Undo command: If you make a mistake, the entire page is not ruined. Inkscape's Calligraphy tool also enables some techniques which would not be possible with a traditional pen-and-ink.


You will get the best results if you use a tablet and pen (e.g. Wacom). Thanks to the flexibility of our tool, even those with only a mouse can do some fairly intricate calligraphy, though there will be some difficulty producing fast sweeping strokes.

Inkscape is able to utilize pressure sensitivity and tilt sensitivity of a tablet pen that supports these features. The sensitivity functions are disabled by default because they require configuration. Also, keep in mind that calligraphy with a quill or pen with nib are also not very sensitive to pressure, unlike a brush.

If you have a tablet and would like to utilize the sensitivity features, you will need to configure your device. This configuration will only need to be performed once and the settings are saved. To enable this support you must have the tablet plugged in prior to starting Inkscape and then proceed to open the Input Devices… dialog through the Edit menu. With this dialog open you can choose the preferred device and settings for your tablet pen. Lastly, after choosing those settings, switch to the Calligraphy tool and toggle the toolbar buttons for pressure and tilt. From now on, Inkscape will remember those settings on startup.

The Inkscape calligraphy pen can be sensitive to the velocity of the stroke (see “Thinning” below), so if you are using a mouse, you'll probably want to zero this parameter.

Calligraphy Tool Options

To switch to the Calligraphy tool, press:


On the top toolbar, you will notice there are 8 options:

  • Width & Thinning
  • Angle & Fixation
  • Caps
  • Tremor
  • Wiggle & Mass

There are also two buttons to toggle tablet Pressure and Tilt sensitivity on and off (for drawing tablets).

Width & Thinning

This pair of options control the width of your pen. The width can vary from 1 to 100 and (by default) is measured in units relative to the size of your editing window, but independent of zoom. This makes sense, because the natural “unit of measure” in calligraphy is the range of your hand's movement, and it is therefore convenient to have the width of your pen nib in constant ratio to the size of your “drawing board” and not in some real units which would make it depend on zoom. This behavior is optional though, so it can be changed for those who would prefer absolute units regardless of zoom. To switch to this mode, use the checkbox on the tool's Preferences page (you can open it by double-clicking the tool button).

Since pen width is changed often, you can adjust it without going to the toolbar, using the left and right arrow keys or with a tablet that supports the pressure sensitivity function. The best thing about these keys is that they work while you are drawing, so you can change the width of your pen gradually in the middle of the stroke:


Pen width may also depend on the velocity, as controlled by the thinning parameter. This parameter can take values from -100 to 100; zero means the width is independent of velocity, positive values make faster strokes thinner, negative values make faster strokes broader. The default of 10 means moderate thinning of fast strokes.

Here are a few examples, all drawn with width=20 and angle=90:


If you like, set Width and Thinning both to 100 (maximum) and draw with jerky movements to get strangely naturalistic, neuron-like shapes:


Angle & Fixation

After width, the angle is the most important calligraphy parameter. It is the angle of your pen in degrees, changing from 0 (horizontal) to 90 (vertical counterclockwise) or to -90 (vertical clockwise). Note that if you turn tilt sensitivity on for a tablet, the angle parameter is greyed out and the angle is determined by the tilt of the pen.


Each traditional calligraphy style has its own prevalent pen angle. For example, the Uncial hand uses the angle of 25 degrees. More complex hands and more experienced calligraphers will often vary the angle while drawing, and Inkscape makes this possible by pressing up and down arrow keys or with a tablet that supports the tilt sensitivity feature. For beginning calligraphy lessons, however, keeping the angle constant will work best. Here are examples of strokes drawn at different angles (fixation = 100):

As you can see, the stroke is at its thinnest when it is drawn parallel to its angle, and at its broadest when drawn perpendicular. Positive angles are the most natural and traditional for right-handed calligraphy.

The level of contrast between the thinnest and the thickest is controlled by the fixation parameter. The value of 100 means that the angle is always constant, as set in the Angle field. Decreasing fixation lets the pen turn a little against the direction of the stroke. With fixation=0, pen rotates freely to be always perpendicular to the stroke, and Angle has no effect anymore:


Typographically speaking, maximum fixation and therefore maximum stroke width contrast (above left) are the features of antique serif typefaces, such as Times or Bodoni (because these typefaces were historically an imitation of fixed-pen calligraphy). Zero fixation and zero width contrast (above right), on the other hand, suggest modern sans serif typefaces such as Helvetica.


This tool is intended to give a more natural look to the calligraphy strokes. Tremor is adjustable in the Controls bar with values ranging from 0 to 100. It will affect your strokes producing anything from slight unevenness to wild blotches and splotches. This significantly expands the creative range of the tool.


Wiggle & Mass

Unlike width and angle, these two last parameters define how the tool “feels” rather than affect its visual output. So there won't be any illustrations in this section; instead just try them yourself to get a better idea.

Wiggle is the resistance of the paper to the movement of the pen. The default is at minimum (0), and increasing this parameter makes paper “slippery”: if the mass is big, the pen tends to run away on sharp turns; if the mass is zero, high wiggle makes the pen to wiggle wildly.

In physics, mass is what causes inertia; the higher the mass of the Inkscape calligraphy tool, the more it lags behind your mouse pointer and the more it smoothes out sharp turns and quick jerks in your stroke. By default this value is quite small (2) so that the tool is fast and responsive, but you can increase mass to get slower and smoother pen.

Now that you know the basic capabilities of the tool, you can try to produce some real calligraphy. If you are new to this art, get yourself a good calligraphy book and study it with Inkscape.

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