Calligraphy vs. Hand Lettering vs. Brush Lettering

Calligraphy? Hand lettering? Brush lettering? What’s the difference? We’re breaking down the differences between ALL the types of pretty writing so you can decide which one is for you, and so you know which one to start with if you’re a beginner. Watch the video or keep reading to learn more.

First, a bit of trivia…the origins of the word calligraphy come from the Greek “kalli” and “graphia.” Kalli means “beautiful or fine,” while graphia means “a description or record” — think of words like biography or cartography, which are all generally written recordings of something else (like someone’s life in the case of biography, or a place in the case of cartography).

So calligraphy quite literally means beautiful writing. You’re writing letters and words with one fluid motion, and it takes lots of practice and repetition to get those letters looking right.

Hand lettering, on the other hand (ha), is actually drawing. You’re generally NOT creating letters in one fell swoop, you’re going back and adding to them, fixing things, erasing things… 

So those are our two main categories in the world of pretty words: calligraphy and hand lettering.

Now we can dive into each of those two main categories even further.


Under calligraphy, we have dip pen calligraphy, fountain pen calligraphy, and brush calligraphy.

Dip pen calligraphy can include pens with pointed nibs or broad edge nibs, which produce two very different looks. A pointed nib can create either traditional scripts like Copperplate and Spencerian, or more flowy, loose, or bouncy styles. Fountain pens are similar to dip pens in that they have a metal nib, but the ink lives inside a cartridge within the pen, so you don’t have to dip the pen in ink.

Brush calligraphy can be done with a pen that has either a felt tip or a bristle tip, or it can be created with an actual paintbrush. Some people use these tools for hand lettering, as well.

Hand Lettering

Under the category of hand lettering, we have faux calligraphy and all kinds of other lettering styles that are drawn or illustrated, often with numerous sketches and layouts first. It includes all other letters and words that aren’t technically writing, but rather drawing. And yes, the term faux calligraphy is misleading because it’s technically not calligraphy, it’s lettering.

Now, what about pencil calligraphy? If you’re using a pencil to write and mimic the thin and thick lines of traditional calligraphy, which you can actually do if you have soft enough lead, it technically falls under calligraphy because it’s writing. But if you’re using a pencil to DRAW your letters and words, it’s hand lettering.

Here’s a photo that summarizes everything we just talked about:

The bottom line, and the biggest takeaway to remember is that if you’re writing the words, it’s calligraphy and if you’re drawing the words, it’s lettering.

So if you’re just starting out, what should you learn first?

Because so many hand lettering styles are based on the look of traditional dip pen calligraphy, with its classic thin and thick lines, I highly recommend starting with dip pen calligraphy.

By starting with a dip pen and a flexible metal nib, you’ll develop muscle memory for how beautiful letters look – and those beautiful thin and thick lines come more naturally with a pointed pen and a flexible metal nib.

Once you understand WHY beautiful letters look the way they do (because of the nature of a flexible metal nib), and you know how to WRITE them, you’ll better understand how to DRAW them, and you can more easily translate that into your hand lettering styles.

If you’re not sure which tools to use to get started with dip pen calligraphy, make sure to grab our free guide that lists all the top pens, inks, and more that come highly recommended by professional calligraphers.

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