How To Apply Basic Strokes So You Can Build Lowercase Letterforms


You should have a good understanding of the basic strokes if you've practiced the first two lessons and feel comfortable moving forward. There are other strokes that could potentially fall under basic strokes, but we'll cover “the others” as we continue throughout this series. Also, I really don't want to bore you to death just a few lessons in.


In this lesson, you will learn:

  1. The meaning behind everyday calligraphy lingo.

  2. Breaking down basic strokes and how they pertain to the letterform.

  3. The fragmented method to compose your letters.

The Anatomy of Crayligraphy

It's important for you to know the correct terminology before delving into letterforms. While terminology can vary depending on the style of writing, the following descriptions are used primarily in typography, lettering and calligraphy, but in our case, Crayligraphy:

  • Ascender Elongated stems extending above the waistline

  • Baseline Invisible line on which the majority of letters rest

  • Bowl The curved shape that encloses the round part of a letter

  • Cross Stroke The horizontal stroke that crosses the letter's stem

  • Counter The space within a fully or partially enclosed letter

  • Descender The elongated part of a letter that extends below the baseline

  • Entrance Stroke A hairline lead-in stroke with which the letter begins

  • Exit Stroke The hairline stroke with which the letter ends

  • Flourish A decorative element added to a letter that compliments the form and the letters surrounding it

  • Hairline The thinnest stroke–often the connector or entrance stroke–found in the letterform

  • Ligature Two or more letters combining to form one character

  • Majuscule An uppercase letter

  • Minuscule A lowercase letter

  • Overshoot The subtle amount to which a rounded letter extends higher than the x-height or lower than the baseline

  • Shoulder The connecting stroke (often curved) originating from the stem

  • Stem The primary, diagonal or upright stroke within the letter

  • Swash Similar to the flourish, the exaggerated added decorative element extending to the left or right of the first and last letter of a word

  • Terminal Either ends—straight, diagonal or curved—of any strokes

  • Waistline Also called the median, is the invisible line running across the top of lowercase letters

  • X-Height The height of the main body of a lowercase letter

Icons made by Vectors Market from is licensed by CC 3.0 BY
Basic strokes that we've covered are able to make up the majority of the minuscule letterforms

Basic strokes that we've covered are able to make up the majority of the minuscule letterforms

You won't need to learn every word right now, but it would be a good idea to bookmark this page so you can easily reference the definitions at any time during this series. I will be adding new terms to this list as they come about in future lessons.

Several of the definitions were referenced from Typography Deconstructed

Understand the structure of letters so you can build them

In order for you to continue with Crayligraphy, you need to know the intention of the basic strokes for when you begin to write the letters of the alphabet. You must be able to deconstruct the letter in order to understand how to build it. The good news—now that you are able to make basic strokes—you can build most of the lowercase alphabet.

Thick downstrokes are used to make up the stems, descenders and ascenders of lowercase letters. The stem is the main, heavy diagonal within a letter. Almost all lowercase letters have a stem. Letters c, e, o and s would be characters exempt from stems, descenders and ascenders because their shape is primarily curved.

The descender is the thick stroke of any letter that extends below the baseline (the line on which the majority of letters rest). Examples include the letters g, p and y. Conversely, ascenders are the thick elongated stems that extend above the waistline (the line that runs across the top top of lowercase letters).

Thin upstrokes or hairlines—arcing or diagonal—will often be used as an entrance and/or exit stroke to begin and end most of your lowercase letters. These strokes can also act as a connecting stroke to make words and are actually a continuation of exit strokes. An entrance stroke is a hairline that usually begins at the baseline and enters at either the waistline or midline (line between the base and waist) of the next letter.

When forming a single letter like the h, m and n, the thin strokes should always join at the corners of the thick stroke. These connections are referred to as shoulders.

Thick arcing downstrokes will be used to create the bowls of letters like the a, b, d, g, o, p and q. A bowl is the curved shape that encloses the round part of the letter. The space within this enclosure is called the counter.

Letters such as the c and e will utilize the arcing downstroke but with a rounder exiting stroke. For the letter o, apply the same arching downstroke and upward exit stroke as the c and e, but complete the letter by continuing upwards until you meet or come close to the thick right terminal of the beginning stroke.

Horizontal strokes—in most cases—will be used for the crossbars of the letters f and t and the horizontals on the z. These strokes will normally be thin, so remember to cock your wrist so that the stroke is made with the tip of the marker positioned underneath of it. 


You know what the letters of the alphabet are supposed to look like. You have your own unique way to shape these letters. However, what makes script letters stand out are their contrasting thick and thins and where they should be applied—so you have to follow some rules. You wouldn't want to write the letter a with a thin arcing bowl followed by a thick arching upstroke. Nor would you want to begin with the stem of the letter a (step 2) followed by an arching downstroke (step 1). This backwards order of applying your strokes will create a world of unnecessary obstacles for you.

This is why order, direction and pressure are so important.

These are three words you need to consider when constructing your letters. Make your life easier by following the correct order and applying the basic strokes with the correct directional pressure. Remember, you write left-to-right, so follow the sequence in which the strokes are applied in the same left-to-right direction.

For the purpose of learning to build your letterforms, start by piecing each stroke to make your letters. The fragmented method is a system using several individual strokes to form a letter. This method is great if you're a beginner because it allows you to separate each basic stroke that you've practiced to form a complete letter.  After each stroke, the marker is lifted, then applied to the following stroke in the correct sequence. If you're doing this correctly, the separate strokes should appear connected.

The fragmented method is not limited to just beginners. It is certainly used by more seasoned calligraphers, though the strokes would more than likely be made very quickly. This broken stroke technique—when you have some experience—can give your letters a lot of character. The quick movements allow for more texture and play throughout your words.

Of course, there's more than one way to skin a cat here. Actually, I'm a cat person, so let's not use that metaphor.

There is another way to create your letters. Creating smooth transitions by adjusting your marker pressure in one continuous stroke is called the pressure-and-release method. Remember “the others” I mentioned at the beginning of this tutorial? I'm not talking about the the ghost of Nicole Kidman's character (spoiler alert!) or the hostiles in the the show Lost—No.

Though the concept of your marker remaining in contact with the paper may seem just as scary, I promise you—with a little bit of practice—it'll be like taking on Casper the Mildly Friendly Ghost. In the next lesson, you'll learn all about adjusting pressure when you change the direction of the stroke to make your letters more unified.

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