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A 7-Step Plan to Become a Lettering Expert
Peter M August 6, 2021 · 8 min read
1. Get inspired.The first step in any creative effort is to gather up inspiration. If there’s nothing in the creative bank, so to speak, there’ll be less to withdraw when it’s time to create. Hand lettering is no different. So go forth and soak up inspiration in all its forms: Lettering (digital and handmade), color, shape, line and texture. Follow your favorite lettering artists on Twitter, Dribbble and Instagram. We published a list our own top picks, so feel free to discover new accounts you might like there.
Bookmark the best type blogs out there (we like Typeverything and Designspiration). Take a walk around the oldest part of your city and see if you can see any original signs or letters. And go to the library and look at how lettering was done before the age of computers. There’s a vast community of hand letterers and help out there – use it to your advantage. In the image below, artist Mary Kate McDevitt shows how old and ghostly street signs can inspire your work:
A few months ago we also shared the outstanding work of lettering artist Scotty Russell:
2. Get the right equipment.It’s been said that only a poor tradesman blames his tools. But the truth is, if you want to go to the next level with your lettering skills, it helps to upgrade your materials. There’s no need to break the bank, but a good arsenal of equipment will help your hand lettering cause no end. If you’re just getting started, or only want to do the occasional hand-lettering piece, a few basic pens and pencils might be enough. If you want to earn money from your work, or become an expert in the field, consider an upgrade to the following: A good set of brush pens to help you vary your line weights and strokes; Gridded notebooks to allow you to accurately space and place your letterforms; Fine-quality tracing paper to allow you to overlay your sketches and build on your work in layers; and a precision eraser which will let you refine and remove elements of your work with greater accuracy than a regular one. A solid digital tablet is also a must, and there are varying levels of product depending on your skill level and budget. As with all things, start small, and go from there. If you ever want to learn what successful hand letterers are using, run a quick Instagram or Pinterest search for #letteringtools. We promise you won’t be disappointed:
3. Get started.As lettering expert and educator Sean Wes says, the best way to learn is by doing. Once you’ve got a bit of inspiration under your belt and some decent equipment at your disposal, it’s time to launch into some lettering. All the Photoshop plugins, typography blogs, and fancy pens won’t help unless you show up regularly and commit to practicing your craft on paper, every single day. In fact, some artists on their way to becoming lettering experts love to share their process and daily practice routines. Even daily planning can become an opportunity to experiment with new shapes and figures:
Unlike a few years ago, when lettering was just getting started, there are now hundreds of options to learn the craft online. Here’s a list of some of our favorite lettering courses: Learn Lettering by Seanwes Mary Kate McDevitt’s Skillshare classes Dawn Nicole’s free lettering resources.
4. Practice drawing.At heart, lettering is simply the art of drawing letters. This might sound self-explanatory, but it’s important to remember that hand lettering is a subset of drawing itself. If you can learn how to be a better illustrator, your lettering skills will improve. And vice versa. Be sure to read up on illustration and revisit as many drawing books as you can find. If no ideas come to mind, try getting a journal full of prompts like Chronicle Books’ 642 Things to Draw. Learning how to draw organic and non-organic shapes like trees, faces, animals and still life objects will contribute towards a greater confidence in drawing letterforms. Practice your cross-hatching and shading, learn when to create a stroke by pulling towards oneself (best done when drawing a curve) and when to push away (best done when drawing a straight line), and study topics like Chiaroscuro (the study of dramatic effects achieved by contrasting light and dark). Just remember to keep putting that pen (or pencil) to paper each day.
5. Embrace imperfection.A lot of people make the mistake of trying to get things perfect on the first go. No lettering artist, no matter how good he/she is, creates anything without a mistake or two. The key is to hide these mistakes in the pencilling and outlining stage. People will see the intricately lavish letterforms of an artist like Alex Trochut, and assume he inked the design in one go. Make no mistake, even professional letterers like Trochut started their ideas by sketching them out on a notepad, and went from there. That being said, when mistakes happen, it’s important to embrace them. Lettering that’s too perfect will give off the look of being created by a computer. Stick to a grid, but stray from it occasionally for flourish and emphasis. An ink splatter or so here and there will help give your work a human touch that your audience will appreciate.
6. Emulate digital typography.As we’ve said above, part of the appeal of hand lettering is in the imperfections. In the raw mistakes and the occasional misjoined line. But there’s much to be learned from the clean and clear letterforms found in digital typography. A great way to advance your craft is by printing out some of your favorite typefaces and then tracing over them. Study things like x-heights, baselines, and ligatures. Learn how to create them by hand, so that when it comes time to invent your own letterforms, you’ll have a mental library to draw from.
7. Share your work.Finally, one of the best ways you can go about becoming an expert hand-letterer is to share your progress with the community. No matter what stage you’re at, there’ll be someone better than you, and someone worse than you. Other hand letterers are your comrades, not your competitors and sharing work allows everyone to grow. Start a social media account dedicated to your hand lettering, and make a commitment to share a piece of work on the regular for a year. Your goal isn’t to be better than Alex Trochut (above), it’s to be better than yourself one year ago. So there you have it. Seven small tips that (we hope) will go a long way towards increasing your proficiency as a lettering professional. Do you have any tips that have helped you?
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