Copperplate Calligraphy Bootcamp: How to Practice Underturn Strokes

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been preparing for drill exercises here in my blog.

We’ve talked about what drills are and why we should do them and how we can prepare prepare for drill exercises.

It’s important to note that the lowercase Copperplate letterforms can be broken down into 7 basic strokes:

  1. underturn
  2. overturn
  3. compound curve
  4. full-pressure
  5. oval
  6. ascending stem loop
  7. descending stem loop

In this post, I’ll share with you how I study the underturn stroke and how I do my drill exercises.  This u-shape stoke is sometimes called the “pressure-release” stroke, the “i-stroke” or the “u-stroke”.

To avoid confusion, I’ll refer to this stroke only as the underturn stroke.


Underturn Stroke


order of operations:

1. Study
2. Define goal(s)
3. Practice & Critique
4. Repeat

Let’s do this!


Studying is an important part of learning Copperplate.  How else will you know how to draw something if you don’t know what it looks like?

And I don’t mean taking a quick glance over at your exemplar.  I mean really study it.  Take some notes.

Some things to study:

  • Where is the shade on this stroke?  Is it on the left or the right of the ‘u’ shape?
  • How tall is the stroke?
  • When does the shade start to taper off?
  • How much space in inside the counter of the underturn?

Notes on the underturn:


Underturn stroke study.

  • The top of the shade is squared-off.
  • The shade is on the left of the ‘u’.
  • The stroke starts the the header line (or waist line), touches the base line, and comes back up to the waist line.
  • The shade has an even width until it’s about two-thirds of the way down; then it begins to taper off.
  • By the time it reaches the baseline, the shade has completely tapered off — the tines are closed and the hairline begins.
  • The hairline curves to the right and touches the baseline.
  • It makes a tight (but not too tight) u-turn back up to the header line.
  • The shade and the hairline are parallel to the main slant (55 degrees).

What are some of your observations on this stroke?

STep 2: Define your goal(S)

Copperplate calligraphy is not something that can be learned overnight.  It takes weeks, months, years of deliberate practice.

As you study and practice, it’s important to know what your goals are — your overall goal and practice session goal.

Your overall goal may be to learn Copperplate so you can address envelopes in time for the holidays or help you sister out with signage for her wedding.  Why are you learning copperplate?.

Your practice session goal is a much smaller goal.  It’s something that will help you move toward your overall calligraphy goal.  This smaller goal will help you focus and learn copperplate in bite-size chunks.  There’s a lot to learn, but if you break it down, you’ll find that learning this script is easy.

Your practice session goal for today could be as simple as learning what an understroke is and what it looks like.  It could be to square the top of your shade or improve your shade-to-hairline transition.  Maybe you want to work on the turn or consistenly touching the header or baseline.

Now, it’s possible you want to work on all of those things today… but if you’re just beginning, I urge you to pick one thing until you’ve gotten the hang of it.

You’re aim is draw consistent strokes that closely resemble that of your exemplar.

If this is your first time drawing an underturn stroke, you may consider starting in this order:
1. Draw consistent ‘u’ shapes
2. Draw consistent and even shading
3. Shade-to-hairline transition
4. Squared tops

Aim for improvement each time your sit down to practice.  Don’t worry if your practice sheets are messy and imperfect.  Do your best.

Step 3: Practice & Critique

Before you begin, make sure you’ve prepared your nib and your workspace.  As you do these drill exercises, be mindful of the alignment of your nib to the main slant.  This will help you maximize  the opening of your tines.


How to make the underturn stroke:


  1. At the headerline, apply pressure to your nib to open the tines (this will also square the top).
  2. Pull the pen downwards at a 55 degree angle while maintaining an even shade.
  3. At about 2/3 of the way down toward the baseline, gradually release the pressure from your pen.  As you near the baseline, curve to the right.  Your nib should be closed (relaxed).  Your shade should be fully transitioned into a hairline.
  4. Touch the baseline and make a narrow u-turn back up toward the header line.  Straighten out your hairline as you complete your upstroke so that it becomes parallel to the shade (55 degrees).


Take it slow.  Draw each stroke slowly and carefully.  Concentrate on the shape of your underturn stroke.  Practice your control of the pen.

Draw a line or two of individual (not connected) underturn strokes.  Compare them to each other.  Circle or star your best ones.


Make a note of error that you keep making.  For instance, are your turns always too pointy?  Do your shades taper off too soon or not soon enough?

Once you’ve noted areas that need work, attempt a few more lines of drills, paying careful attention to how you can make improvements based on the critiques you made from your first set.

Once you’ve got a handle on drawing individual underturns, connect them.  Be sure to lift after completing each stroke.  Connecting them will help refine the consistency of your stroke and spacing.

Keep and eye out for these common issues


The shape of the underturns in the first row are good; the problem lies in the shading.  The second row illustrates problems with the u-shape.

  1. Good underturn stroke
  2. Tapers out too soon
  3. Pointy top of stem; should be squared
  4. Tapered shade
  5. Uneven swelling of shade towards the bottom
  6. Inconsistent shading
  7. Pointy bottom
  8. Shade and hairline are not parallel
  9. Hairline curves toward the shade (not parallel)
  10. Shade curves toward the hairline (not parallel)
  11. Underturn is too wide

Step 4: Repeat

Study the underturn stroke.  What is it supposed to look like?

Define you the purpose of your practice.  What do you want to work on today?  The shading?  The turn?  The consistency of your u-shape?

Which issues keep showing up and what can you do to improve?

Practice & critique your work.  What worked out?  What didn’t?  How can you improve?


Start with the basics.  If you practice these drill exercises correctly, your calligraphy is sure to improve.

Be kind to yourself.  Remember, learning copperplate takes time.  Doing these drill exercises correctly will help you improve more quickly than if you skipped them.


A sample of my script from December 2014 and from this month.

It’s easier to develop good habits from the beginning than to break bad ones.  So get in the habit of learning these strokes properly the first time around; it will save you a lot of time.


Happy Writing!

Your Copperplate Companion,


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