Off-hand bird flourishing


I have been doing bird flourishing for a while now and getting a lot of questions on it, so I decided to write my first article on the blog about off-hand flourishing.



Pictorial flourishing is definitely one of the most fun disciplines of pointed pen calligraphy. Calligraphic birds that used to be made by American penmen of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century are having a huge revival these days.

Image courtesy of Michael Sull

Image courtesy of Michael Sull

However, it’s worth mentioning, that birds and other pictorial flourishing pieces were made long before the American penmen, who actually adopted using birds for certificates and other documents from the english calligraphers of the 18th century (masters like John Seddon or Thomas Tomkins).

John Seddon

John Seddon


And before that birds, people and objects can already be found in the engraved works of Dutch calligrapher, Jan van de Velde the Elder published in the beginning of the 17th century in Rotterdam.

Jan van de Velde

Jan van de Velde


The difference between the old English style of flourishing and the American is that the English is produced with continuous curves — whole figures are executed without lifting the pen. In the American style separately executed strokes and curves make up the larger part of the work and that allows a closer approximation to natural forms (there are several exceptions to these, like the Dennis swan).

Dennis swan

Dennis swan

Thomas Tomkins

Thomas Tomkins


I have tried to copy the work of the english calligrapher Thomas Tomkins and it seemed a lot more challenging since one has to produce graceful ovals all the way through without smudging the work.


Holding the pen for flourishing

Originally bird flourishing was done with a straight penholder using a special off-hand flourishing grip as shown on the picture.

Pic from the New Spencerian Compendium

Pic from the New Spencerian Compendium


The left hand is resting on the paper to hold it in place or shift the position when necessary. In this position the shaded strokes are made by the pen while moving rightward and upward away from the body.

Many calligraphers still use this grip. It takes a while to learn but once you do, it feels very natural. All of my birds were made with a straight pen holder and the “off hand flourishing grip”.


But a couple of days ago I was lucky to participate in the workshop of Michael Sull and he does all the flourishing with an oblique penholder, so his shaded strokes are made leftward and downward toward the body (like in writing).


Exercises for off-hand flourishing

Flourishing consists almost exclusively of curved lines, loops and spirals.
When learning flourishing one should start with simple curves and ovals.

Pic from the New Spencerian Compendium

Pic from the New Spencerian Compendium

Pic from the New Spencerian Compendium

Pic from the New Spencerian Compendium

Once you get tired of just doing the exercises you can design and layout your pages so that they look like finished pieces.


After you feel confident with your curves ovals and spirals I would recommend to try doing feathers and the so called cartouches before you turn to birds.


Here are some feather examples you could try on your own:


Parts of birds

When you finally aproach making a bird, start with making various parts separately — heads, tails and wings.
Here is one of the older pages I did when I started.



Compoistions with birds and text

After mastering birds one should start creating birds and text compositions.



One of the best books to learn off-hand flourishing is Ornate Pictorial Calligraphy by E.A. Lupfer.


The New Spencerian compendium has a chapter on off-hand flourishing.

Free Video tutorials

The calligrapher Dao Huy Hoang has several video tutorials on how to do off-hand flourishing.

Iampeth youtube account posts very nice calligraphy videos with some off-hand flourishing examples, like this bird made by the left-handed calligrapher John DeCollibus

Schin Loong aka Open Ink stand has several youtube videos on how to do birds, one of which helped me to create this bird:


Connie Chen has a youtube channel with several off-hand florishing demos.

Instagram accounts to follow:

Art, StoryOlga Epikhina