Roman Capitals – Proportions

Roman Capitals are usually the first style of calligraphy to be taught to the students of a new class. This is not always the case and there have been debates in the past to which is the best style to start with. Anyway, we are going to study Roman Capitals.

We could just pick up a calligraphy pen and make a start with some sample sheets, but this will not produce such good lettering as taking our time and learning the proportions of each letter.

Roman Capital Letters have different widths; the obvious example is the letter ‘I’ compared to the letter ‘M’. The good news is that each letter can be grouped according to its widths. So, instead of having 26 letters of different widths, there are in fact only 4 groups of letters.

The Grid
To help get these widths correct we can construct a grid, where each letter can be placed inside.

The grid consists of a square and inside it a circle that just touches the lines of the square in four places. Within the square, there is also a rectangle. This rectangle is three quarters the size of the square and is positioned in the centre of the square.
Roman Capital Grid
Groups of Letters
The first group of letters; O, C, D, G, Q are widest letters and all pick up the circle at some point, although obviously O and Q follow the whole circle. The other letters in this group are not the full width of the square. If they were, they would look too big.
Capital letter D
Capital letter Q

The second group of letters; are known as the three-quarter width group because they all fit in the rectangle part of the grid. The letters in this group are H, A, V, N, T, U, X, Y, Z. The letters in this group are probably the easiest to learn.

Capital letter A

Capital letter N

The third group of letters are known as the half-width group because all the letters fit in approximately half of the grid. The letters in this group are B, P, R, E, F, L, K, S, J. Most people find these letters harder to learn. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, they do not fit in the grid as well as the three-quarter width group letters. Secondly, many of the letters in this group include curved/round pen strokes. i.e. the letters B and S.

B, P and R are very similar. To learn the proportions of the letter B, try and visualise 2 circle shapes, one on top of the other. The top circle is slightly smaller than the bottom circle (the centre of these circles has been shown by the 2 red crosses). If the vertical stroke of the letter B started at the edge of the grid the letter would look too wide. Also, if it started on the vertical line of the rectangle the letter would be too narrow.

Once you have studied the letter B, the letters P and R become much easier to learn.

Capital letter B
Capital letter E

The 2 circles used for letter B, can also act as visual aid for the sizes of the different parts of the letters E, F, L and K. If you can imagine squares that fit exactly to the circles you can judge how far out the horizontal strokes on the E, F and L go. Also, from these squares you can judge the length of the two strokes of the letter K. The bottom stroke of the K will go further out than the top stroke. If they were in line then the letter would look like it was about to topple over.

The letter S is based on two different sized circles on the right-hand side of the grid. Again the top circle is smaller than the bottom circle. The letter J picks up and leaves the bottom circle to get the hook shape.
Capital letter S
We are now only left with three letters; I, M and W. These letters do not belong to any of the three groups because they are all odd sizes.

The letter M is the width of the square on our grid, the V shape being exactly the same as the letter V. This means the two vertical strokes of the letter M are in fact not vertical! A common mistake is to make the letter too wide by writing two upside-down ‘V’s.

Capital letter M

The letter W is just two V letters ‘stuck’ together. So, this is the widest letter of the alphabet.

Finally, we are left with the letter I, which is just a vertical stroke!

One thought on “Roman Capitals – Proportions

  1. How timely! I’ve just started a calligraphy course, taught by Nicoll Heaslip at RMIT (Melbourne Australia), and we’ve just touched on this topic. Thanks. Great site.

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