Hand Lettering: Getting Started

So, you're here because you need some tips on getting started with hand lettering - good for you! A lot of people want to do something but very few take action. You're already past the first step (hooray)! I remember when I was also just starting, after seeing a college friend dip her fingers into the art, and I had scoured the internet for resources on how to get started and what tools I needed.

Lettering may seem very hard, but once you get the basics and explore on your own, you'll be wanting to write on your walls because you need more space to letter. I've compiled a few things related to my experience and I hope you get a thing or two out of this as well!

 

Lettering vs Calligraphy

Quite a few people get lettering confused with calligraphy, and you really can't blame them. It's just hand work, right? Well, sort of. Calligraphy is perfecting the motions of your pen to create all those wonderful swirls and old script-like writing (typically with a nib and some ink). Lettering is the art of drawing letters, or draftsmanship, depending on how technical and specific you want to be. 

There are so many tools to choose from, and you'll need to work on your skills to use some of them well. From standard pens and pencils to the fancy tools you see all those amazing IG artists use, you'll get to use all of them as you grow in your craft. 

 

Materials

I'm not a fan of constraints. I love being able to plot my letters as I go and make the necessary adjustments as I see them. Others like to use a ruler, and that's perfectly fine. If you're just starting out, a ruler will be particularly handy in helping you align your strokes and lines properly. 

Paper 

Choosing the type of paper you'll be drawing on also matters, and it depends on whether it's for drafts or the framable output. I tend to use normal notebook paper or plain bond paper for drafts (for complicated designs). If you plan on framing your work, I suggest you use something sturdier and one that doesn't yellow over time, like some good old bristol board.

For bristol boards, you can choose between vellum (better for pencilling) or plate (has a smooth and shiny surface and is said to be better for inking).

Grid paper is also recommended if you want extreme precision for your lettering. They're cheaper too, so you can keep lettering and practicing on them as much as you want.

Pens & Pencils

Next come the writing tools. While having the best ones you can afford might be what's on your mind, it's not the type of pen you have that'll make you a letterer (though in terms of quality, it does speak volumes to a point). For those who are just starting, your standard #2's and ballpoint pens are perfectly fine. 

If you want to use pens right away, Sakura Microns and Prismacolor Premiers are the way to go. They're less skill-needy than dip pens but give you more professional results than ballpoints. This is really all about preference. My favorite pens are the Mitsubishi Uni Pin Sign Pens, then switch to G-Tech pens when going into the detailed areas. 

For bigger lettering projects, I move on to large, chisel-tipped pens or brush-tipped ones. Either that or I just whip out a large paint brush, haha.

If you really want to go the extra step, you can try dip pens. They're high-maintenance and need to be cleaned regularly, though the output they give is well worth the effort. You'll need to be able to control the amount of pressure you put on your pen. Too much will bend the tip, and too little will just give you very thin lines, if you manage to even touch the paper. Too much ink will make it blot or spatter all over, while very little will make it run coarsely through your paper.

 

Steps

I'm all about freedom, but sometimes, structure is necessary to make a good thing better. 

  1. Look up different fonts on the web and choose which styles you'd like for your project. You may also sketch your own set of letters (which is waaay more fun)
  2. Start sketching the form of your design - the way they're spaced, their placement, etc. 
  3. Once you're happy with the result, you may hand-ink your design or run it through a scanner and finish blocking it out in a vector program. 

Before you go ahead and do those three steps however, it's important to plan the look and feel. How do you want it to look on paper? This is the fun part, where you can just be loose and play around with the form, size, and flourishes. 

If you feel that your pencil pressure could use a little more adjusting, there's a process called "graphite transfer" where you're guaranteed light strokes. You take a pencil or graphite stick, rub it against the back of the paper you're transferring from, lay it down, then draw over it. This transfers a light image.

It's basically just cleanup from that point. You start solidifying the letters you sketched, and then inking them to finalize everything. I suggest you try looking up lettering images and see how they arrange their words. 

 

There you go, a simple, really basic guide on getting started with hand lettering. People start out differently, and in my case, I literally just took out a pen and started jotting down random quotes. Do what works for you, what you're comfortable with. Best of luck!