Calligraphy & Lettering: What’s the Difference?

What’s The Difference Between Brush Calligraphy And Lettering?

Have you ever wondered about what the difference between hand lettering and calligraphy is?

There’s a lot of terms that get tossed around a lot in the world of lettering. Things like hand lettering, brush calligraphy, typography, and modern calligraphy.

Did you know that they are all different? We’re going to take a closer look at a few of these terms and show you how they differ, and what they usually mean.

By the end you should totally understand the differences and be able to use these terms perfectly.

Modern Calligraphy Verses Hand Lettering

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Lettering Verses Calligraphy

Let’s look at the main two first then we will break it down further. So what’s the difference between lettering and calligraphy?

The difference is not the end result, but the process of creation.

The main thing you want to focus on is how it’s made:

Calligraphy is the art of writing letters.

Lettering is the art of drawing letters.

Sometimes the final pieces can look identical and it may be hard to see the difference.

If the words have been sketched, drawn or created in a similar way, then it’s lettering. 

If the words have been written using strokes of a pen (or nib & ink) with intention and an artistic purpose then it’s calligraphy.

Modern Calligraphy Vs Hand Lettering

Hopefully you understand a little bit more about the difference between calligraphy and lettering, let’s go a little bit deeper into each one.


Traditional, Modern, Brush & Digital.


Calligraphy is a visual art form, focused on writing beautifully. It is practiced all over the world with different cultures having their own unique styles, including:

  • Chinese Calligraphy
  • Western Calligraphy
  • Japanese Calligraphy
  • Indian Calligraphy

The tools used vary within each culture and may include paint brushes, feather pens, dip pens, ink wells etc.

Unfortunately I’m not educated or trained in any of the cultural calligraphic practices (as much as I would absolutely LOVE to learn something like Indian Calligraphy). So for now let’s focus on Western Calligraphy.

Modern, Traditional And Brush Calligraphy Differences

Western Calligraphy uses the latin alphabet and is usually broken down into these options:

  • Traditional Calligraphy (also just called calligraphy)
  • Modern Calligraphy
  • Brush Calligraphy
  • Digital Calligraphy

These options look both at how they are created as well as the style of calligraphy.

Traditional Calligraphy

Traditional calligraphy is usually just called “calligraphy” when comparing it to “modern calligraphy”.

It refers to a style of calligraphy that was used prior to the printing press, when learning to read and write wasn’t commonplace and those that did had strict rules as to what was acceptable.

Traditional Calligraphy refers to styles of calligraphy that have been around for generations.

Copperplate Calligraphy Script by Bickhan

Copperplate script was widely popular in the 17th and 18th centuries and (like other calligraphy scripts) has very specific rules with regards to how each letter is created, including the strokes, the height & the slant of the letters.

Other traditional calligraphy styles include spencerian, blackletter and roman capitals.

Some traditional calligraphers use traditional tools (such as a dip pen & ink) but some may make use of modern technology (such as brush pens) while still creating the specific calligraphic style using all the traditional rules.

One Thought Regarding the Tools:

There’s an argument about whether traditional calligraphers should stick with traditional tools, and that if you create (for example) perfect copperplate script yet use a brush pen to do so, then you’re not a traditional, but a modern calligrapher.

Dip Pen Instrument For Calligraphy

A dip pen & nib used in calligraphy

Modern Calligraphy

Unlike traditional calligraphy, in modern days calligraphers have moved into styles governed by less rules, where calligraphy art has become a form of self-expression.

Often with modern calligraphers their style expresses who they are and have taken the time to fine tune their style.

Some calligraphers also develop multiple styles over time and create full alphabets of different styles that they choose to use depending on the project.

Modern Calligraphy Example By The Postman's Knock

Modern calligraphy tools also vary: some people consider Modern Calligraphy a modern form of traditional calligraphy with regards to style but not tools.

So they use the term “modern calligraphy” for those that still use traditional tools (such as a dip pen and ink) but write in a modern style.

Others say that modern calligraphy can also use modern tools, as long as it’s still calligraphy and not lettering (using the differences we mentioned earlier).

In this regard, Modern Calligraphy would be an umbrella term that also includes the next two topics: Brush Calligraphy & Digital Calligraphy.


Brush Calligraphy

This is my passion: brush calligraphy. It is often confused for lettering because the tools that are used (brush pens) are common in both styles.

Brush calligraphy is essentially calligraphy that is created with brush pens.

Japenese Calligraphy (also called shodo) is the artistic writing of the Japanese language. Japense calligraphy was traditionally created with a brush (fude) dipped in a mix of a ground ink stick and water.

An Example of Shodo, Japanese Calligraphy By Muso Soseki

Why am I telling you about Japense calligraphy?

Purely because we have them to thank for brush pens. Over time their tools morphed from ground ink and water into bottled liquid ink (bokujū) and brushes, and then further into brush pens (fude pen).

Some of the best and popular brush pens I have found come from Japanese companies. In fact, Kuretake (a Japanese brand) launched the first brush pen in 1973.

Different Brush Pens for calligraphy and lettering, comparing nib sizes

Different brush pens I use in brush calligraphy.

In short, brush calligraphy in the western society is where an artist creates beautiful modern calligraphic art using a brush pen.

Digital Calligraphy

I wasn’t sure whether or not to add this one, since it’s a topic that’s often up for debate.

Digital calligraphy is where the artist uses digital tools (like an ipad & and the pen stylus) to create calligraphy. It’s purely about what is used to create rather than the style of what is created.

Artists can use digital technologies to create “paintings” that look remarkably like brush strokes, yet they never touch paint or a paint brush. They can create art that looks like it has texture and depth yet it’s all flat and digital.

In saying this, if an artist uses modern tools (such as the ipad and the pen) to create calligraphic strokes, an alphabet and flourishes that can be undone with a double tap, is it still calligraphy?

I like to think so, therefore, I like to use the term “digital calligraphy” for this, not to be mixed up with digital lettering.

Digital Calligraphy Example

This calligraphy was created with the Ipad, the Procreate App using the Apple Pen.


Hand Lettering & Digital Lettering

As mentioned earlier lettering differs to calligraphy in the way it is created. Lettering is a process which includes things like sketching, outlining, inking, adding embellishments (such as shadows).

Lettering can create some really diverse and incredible artworks.

I am not a letterer. I enjoy trying it, I would like to learn more, but I don’t consider myself a letterer.

One of my all time favourite letterers are Stefan Kunz and Ian Barnard.

The thing with proficient letterers (such as Stefan and Ian) is you can bet your bottom dollar that they are trained in calligraphy & typography also.

It seems to be truly good at lettering it’s important to understand calligraphic styles and have a good understanding of typographic elements.

True letterers draw from all of this knowledge to create artworks that capture the attention of the viewer and can honestly sometimes take your breath away.

Incredible Mural Chalkboard Lettering by Stefan Kunz

There’s three terms that get tossed around a lot and they are:

  • Lettering
  • Hand Lettering
  • Digital Lettering

Often you will see Lettering and Hand Lettering often interchanged. Here are what I have found that seems to be the common definitions:

Lettering: An umbrella term that encompasses both hand lettering and digital lettering. This term also included lettering that started as hand lettering and then digitsed.

Hand Lettering: Lettering that is specifically done without digital technology, including digitisation.

Digital Lettering: Lettering that was created with the use of an Ipad, computer or other digital technology.

Digital Lettering Example

An Example of Digital Lettering. Photo by Elena Mozhvilo on Unsplash

Another term I see floating around (not as often though) is Brush Lettering.

Brush lettering simply means lettering that is created initially using brush pens but then embellishments are added to it after (such as shadows, borders & highlights) in order to turn it into lettering and not calligraphy. 

Brush lettering seems to be widely popular amongst bullet journallers, university students (to make their study notes beautiful) and those who are just starting in the calligraphy & lettering world.

Calligraphy Verses Typography

Typography is the art of using words/letters.

It’s not as much of a “fine art form” as lettering or calligraphy anymore but nowadays typography is more about learning the fundamentals rules and information behind arranging words, letters, numbers and symbols for publication or display.

Some careers that incorporate typography into their training & use are:

  • Letterers
  • Graphic Designers
  • Art directors
  • Manga & Comic Book Artists
  • Clothing design
  • Cartography
  • Industrial Designers
Anatomy of Typography

As I mentioned earlier those who are highly skilled in advanced lettering usually have a great understanding of the elements of typography as they use these elements to make their lettering pieces artistic.

So as you can see typography varies greatly from calligraphy and lettering yet an understanding of all 3 is evident in letterers.

Cursive Verses Calligraphy

Modern calligraphy often gets mistaken for cursive or handwriting. This is understandable because calligraphy is the art of writing letters, so it makes sense that some people would think that pretty handwriting is a form of calligraphy.

Modern calligraphy doesn’t abide by as many rules as traditional calligraphic styles used to, yet there are some that remain. These foundations and elements still need to be adhered to somewhat to keep it as calligraphy.

Things like “downstrokes are always thicker and upstrokes are thinner”.

Although it depends upon the type of calligraphy, and because it is an art form, it the necessity of these “rules” may be subjective.

calligraphy verses cursive differences

Moreso, though, the differences in cursive and calligraphy are more “behind the scenes”.

Things like:

What’s your intention? Are you indending it to be an art form or are you intending it to be for function (eg, a grocery shopping list). Is this going to be on display? Are you creating something that you want others to be seeing and admiring/critiquing?

What level of speed and detail are you doing? Are you purposely going slow to make each detail pretty, or are you writing fast like you would when you’re taking notes? Are you focusing on the connections between the letters and keeping them consistent or are you ok with just getting it done and however they turn out?

If you look at these questions honestly then you may be able to examine the writing as either calligraphy or cursive.

How Do I Learn Calligraphy & Lettering?

Now I couldn’t explain all these differences and just bail before I give you some resources. If you would like to learn, here’s some things you can check out:


Brush Calligraphy:

Brush Calligraphy Fundamentals Book by Cherry Pearl Creative


Modern Dip Pen Calligraphy:

The Postman’s Knock – a terrific resource full of freebies and articles


Traditional Dip Pen Calligraphy:

Mastering Copperplate Calligraphy: A Step-By-Step Manual by Eleanor Winters



Let’s Start Lettering Course by Amanda Arneill



Typography: A Manual of Design

Hopefully this has made it all a little clearer and you can now understand what kind of artform it is when you see beautiful writing.

Keep creating!


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Hey! I’m Pearl Prisk

I’m a passionate mother, worshipper and creative that would love to help you unleash your creativity to the world.

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