Turning One’s Pen To Versals: a Workshop with Gemma Black


Gemma Black’s enthusiasm for Versals was immediately contagious.  Our journey together was marked by her passionate love for words and discovery, joyful confidence in our ability to grow, and depth of historical knowledge. Our time together was packed with inspiration, practice, and exercises to stretch every personality out of our comfort zones and into deeper learning.

Verso is a Latin word that means to turn. The word Versals may have come from the vellum being turned to view ornamental and prominent letters, since in a bound book the recto was the right side of the page, but when turned, became the verso. We spent time admiring beautiful specimens of versals from the Winchester Bible and other historical books, deciphering some of the creative ligatures and placement of letters inside of other open spaces in letters. While some were not easily legible, they were definitely a feast for the eyes!

We started with key exercises to learn all the basic letter forms and proper angles of the pen nib. After working on straight and diagonal lines, compound curves and the moon shapes that make up the letter O, we practiced manipulating the pen to draw letters.  We gained familiarity with Versals by using tracing paper, learning the proper sequence and height of the Versals, and copying some exemplars.  After scribing an entire alphabet of Versals, we were asked to share a 5-9 word quote that was meaningful to us; the quote would become a vital part of many of the exercises to follow. To start with, each of us scribed our quote in Versals in a simple layout of one or two words per line.

Next, Gemma introduced us to the Versals of David Jones (1895-1974) a prolific British painter and poet whose use of Versals was marked by originality, variety and playfulness. After delving into his style, we rewrote our quote, using the letterforms of David Jones as an inspirational springboard.  


To further practice, we chose four-letter words and and created simple square shapes, rotating the page for each letter. Then we went back to our quote and using the same concept, positioned the words to form a square-like shape.  


Switching gears, we moved into expressive gestural movements, first just moving the pen, then creating letters using “mind and heart” without referring to an exemplar.  Each individual was asked to form letters that felt right to their unique experience and style, and to move with fluidity and freedom. Using a compass, we penciled a circle and created a gestural Versal alphabet, holding our breath in hopefulness that the spacing would allow us to fit all 26 letters.  If not, the trick was to end in Z, regardless of what letters we were forced to leave out!  

Gemma’s upbeat positivity and expert guidance facilitated an environment for us to learn from one another, as showing our work was done throughout the workshop. She also added nuggets of wisdom that we tucked away, such as drawing ruler marks on the guard sheet to avoid having to draw pencil lines on the final piece, investing in a hyper razor to scrape away unfortunate ink blots, and reveling in the history of the ampersand!