Updated: 01/08/2011


In order to use fonts effectively, it is helpful to know a little about where these letterforms came from.

In studying western letterforms, a good place to start is the Roman inscriptional letter. There is a deceptive simplicity to this form, which makes it pleasing to read, and fiendishly difficult to write. It is believed that these letters were painted with a brush before being carved into the stone.

The Trajan font has been very popular in action adventure movie titles. It is particularly suitable where you wish to suggest a connection to an ancient empire, whether we are talking about Star Wars, or the Last Samurai.

These letters have thick and thin strokes, which are the natural result of writing with a reed pen, or a flat brush. A comfortable hand position with such an implement results in the edge of the pen or brush being at an angle between 20º and 30º to the writing line.

The letters in this example have finishing strokes, or “serifs" . These give the eye a place to rest, and also allows the artist to cover over any unevenness at the end of the brush stroke. changing the character of the serifs gives a very different look feel to the whole alphabet Most historical developments in lettering arise from an attempt to make this alphabet easier, or faster to write.

The following characteristics are typical of the Classical Roman Letter.

An important concept to understand is the difference between written and constructed letters. If the angle of the writing tool is kept contstant, it results in an axis of symmettry corresponding to the angle that the nib forms with the base line. There are styles of calligraphy where the pen angle is manipulated while making the stroke. When there is a high degree of manipulation, the resulting form moves away from written, and becomes more constructed. In modern sign painting with a brush, it is common to manipulate the angle of the flat brush, so that the edge remains perpendicular with the direction of stroke.

Written letters are formed with a single stroke of the writing tool, with little or no going back to add details or finishing strokes.

Constructed letters are created with multiple strokes, and the oulined areas then either filled with ink, or left open. In this example, the constructed letters have been left open

Most letterforms fall somewhere between these extremes. The Classical Trajan alphabet is written, but the serifs are a costructed element.

Optima, also known as Zapf Humanist, follows the classical Roman proportions fairly closely. the strokes have no serifs "sans serif", but do flare slightly at the ends. This is also refered to as a splayed stroke. This feature makes the overall appearance less mechanical than something like Lucida Sans, which is otherwise fairly similar.

Albertus, also known as Flareserif, is another font often used to suggest the classical Roman letter. In this case, the flare is more pronounced, rather than the subltle hint of flare in Optima

Albertus is paired with Trajan Bold in the logo for the recent series of Star Wars movies. Bobba Fonts has combined these two alphabets in a font called Episode One

Lydian follows the classical proportions as well. It has no serifs, being completely written, and the points where the pen strokes overlap in the middle of a curve are left forming a slight angle, not smoothed into a curve as in Trajan

Kabel is a more modern font which follows the classical proportions. It has no serifs, and strokes of uniform width, so it is refered to as a "sans serif monoline" letter.

As the Roman empire expanded, regional writing styles developed. one of the styles which developed on the edges of the Roman Empire, in the 4th to 6th Century C.E. was called "Rustica", which means "Rural". Rustica was written with a steeper pen angle, between 45 and 60 degrees, and slab serifs. The narrower shape allowed more words to be fit on a page. It is not as formal as the classical Roman letter, easier to write, and still very readable. The most attractive font I have found which represents rustica is "insula" by Apostrophic Labs. In this sample, I have only shown the capital letters. We will return to this font as we get further into the middle ages.

Rustica is good for representing ancient and early medieval times. It can provide a lively contrast to Uncials or Quadrata, which belong to the same period.

Another variation of the classical form was called Quadrata, which is Latin for "square". these letters are formed with a flat, or nearly flat pen angle.

When copyists attempted to write quadrata more quickly, some of the angles were rounded into curves. The resulting letters are more rounded, but still very elegant. this hand was called uncial, which is Latin for "one inch high". In the Uncial hand, we see the beginnings of what we now know as the small letters.

Watch this space for more on Gothic Blackletter

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