I’m often asked how to do hand lettering, or where one can go to learn hand lettering. Personally, I learned by observation and experimentation. I hope what I share here will serve as an invitation for you to explore the hand lettering techniques, methods, and styles that work for you so you can develop your own process.
General tips for getting into hand lettering
Well first off, there’s nothing new under the sun—and type is no exception. There are only so many ways you can express a letter and have it still be recognizable. You want to familiarize yourself intimately with each of the groups of type (serif, sans serif, script, blackletter, etc.) and then understand the characteristics of the type that are in these groups. You want to eventually be able to draw letters with the proper weight and stroke contrast without reference material so you can develop your own style. The best way to do this is to focus on one thing at time. For example: say you pick serif to work on first. You’ll want to study the history of that style, learn how it originated, how it evolved, what it was used for, what’s different or the same now compared to a few hundred years ago.
A foundational understanding is very helpful, but of course the best way to solidify this is to draw letterforms and LOTS of them. Pick some reference material and recreate it. Start with just a single letter and pay attention to all of the subtle intricacies and attempt to replicate it. Trace the letters even. Whatever helps you become more familiar. Of course, make sure you’re not sharing copied work. This is strictly for practice.
What pens are best for hand lettering?
The best pen is the one you’re comfortable with. It also depends on the style you’re going for. I would encourage you to experiment. When I first started out, I used to just use whatever pens I found around the house. Don’t be disillusioned in thinking you need some sort of fancy pens or brushes to be any good. Medium and instruments aren’t as important as the techniques. Give a true artist some crayons and you still won’t be able to limit him. That said, I really like Micron pens. They’re my personal weapon of choice, and I enjoy the variety of tip sizes for creating various levels of detail and and line thickness in my work. I also have several different brush pens for conceptualizing scripts and making rough initial concepts.
Lettering Source Material & Inspiration
I expose myself to large quantities of classic and modern typography through the internet and spend great lengths of time recreating, experimenting with, and practicing my letters. Textbooks and other type specimen are still a welcome resource, though it’s not the type of thing I would say is a requirement for someone wanting to get into hand lettering.
The important thing is not to overly concern yourself with having expensive books, or fancy source material. When starting out, practice is the most important thing. Classical type reference is very important, but you can access a great deal online. Focus on solidifying your basics before spending a lot of money on expensive books.
Hand Lettering Process
When starting out, I like to draw a number of small thumbnails to help flesh out a general direction for the composition. For this rough stage, I’ll use either a pencil or a brush pen—just something easy to get the idea out. Effortless prototyping is the goal, so use whatever tool is easiest to crank out iterations with.
In this very first step, I’ve simply written out the words to be used. For this piece, the quote is one I wrote myself, so I was still working through exactly what I wanted it to say. This gives you a basic look at the number of words you have to work with, and is a good way to overcome the blank page syndrome. There’s no pressure, simply write out your phrase in simple handwriting.
You can see in this next version, I start to formulate a rough composition. I’m gaguing a tentative arrangement and contemplating which words should be in which lines. Here, I try to stack lines in a comprehensible way that gives important words the necessary focus.
Building off of the previous step, I beging to incorporate some vague indications of style for the various words. You’ll notice that I have some very sketch script, serif, sans-seirf, and block outline letters beginning to develop. We’re starting to get a decent idea of our composition, and we can begin to pay attention to potential letter interactions and overall balance.
This improvement is subtle, but one that is the start of tightening things up. The first three words are now all in one line. We start to see the first interaction of the ‘f’ descender in ‘Life’ interacting with the second line. If you look closely, you’ll also notice some faint pencil lines. These guides and shapes are used as a reference for building the initial sketch of the actual composition.
With the ‘f’ descender presenting a unique opportunity, I explored a few ways that it could descend without interrupting the flow and legibility of the words in the second line. The highlighted solution is what ended up being in the final piece. The ‘f’ swoops down to completed the cross bar of the ‘A’ for a smart fit that prevents any awkward extra space. It’s almost unnoticeable if you don’t know what to look for, but that’s the beauty of it.
Going off of the rought pencil guides from a couple steps ago, I create a much more precise and even pencil sketch. I render the previously chosen styles with detail and pay close attention to spacing, balance, and legibility.
Much of my time is spent in these pencil stages. Typically I’ll start out lightly, and gradually press in harder with the pencil to create the darker lines to be inked once I’m quite certain of their shape. When I go to ink, I don’t want there to be any thinking left to do. Only rendering.
The pencil sketch is complete. The primary thing you want to nail in this stage are the styles, spacing, alignment and balance. It’s ok if your pencil lines aren’t perfect, but the closer you are to perfect, the easier the inking will be, so take your time.
Now, we finally begin the exhileratingly dangerous stage of inking! There’s no going back at this point, so just relax, put on some music, and get in the zone where it’s just you, the pen and the paper. There’s nothing else in the world you’re thinking about but the very line you are drawing at this precise moment. There will be time for the zoomed out look later, but now is for the macro detail.
After much patience, and often numerous breaks, you will see the conclusion that is hopefully your grand vision. If you’re anything like me, I encourage you to bask in this moment, for tomorrow you will see only flaws. We are our own worst critics, after all. This is a good thing however, because it keeps us moving forward, and it ensures that we push ourselves to be better and better with each and every new piece.