you’ve seen gorgeous lettering on Instagram and Pinterest, and it brings you back to the days of your childhood doodling on your notebooks.
You want to dive head first into the dazzling world of lettering, but one Google search is all it takes to become completely overwhelmed from the endless sea of scripts and scribbles, pencils and pens, and everything in between.
I remember that feeling myself when I started to really get into lettering four years ago (and back then there wasn’t even a fraction of the information out there that there is now!)
All I wanted was somewhere to start, a simple set of steps that would give me some momentum to develop my own relationship with this art form I was so interested in.
So that’s exactly what I wanted to create with this blog post!
If you’re looking for a definitive place to start your journey with hand-lettering, then you’ve come to the right place!
In this post, I’ll share with you a basic roadmap for how to immerse yourself in this fun new art form and how to ultimately develop your very own lettering style.
My Take on Lettering:
Embracing Your Inner Amateur
One look around these parts or my Instagram account and it’s pretty obvious that I have a deep and meaningful relationship with hand-lettering.
Letters are SO beautiful to me. They have this amazing ability to be molded and melted into one another in such an organic way. The magic of letters is that you can bend and extend and stylize and stretch them in seemingly infinite ways and – if done carefully – they will still keep their meaning.
I love figuring out how they lock together or create visual balance and interest, plus how the tiniest details and changes to the form of a letter can evoke a completely different emotional tone. It truly is the meaning of words meeting the beauty of art, and that’s why I find hand-lettering so inspiring.
But the true fun of lettering for me has never been about trying to perfect my strokes or replicate a flawlessly beautiful lettering piece; it has always been in the process of honing my own unique style.
In a way, I can see myself reflected back in my body of work that has developed over time, and that has been fun to watch.
Just like no two voices are exactly the same, I believe that what streams from our hands when we pick up a pen or pencil is equally unique. Paying attention to those individual preferences and natural instincts, and then developing them further until you land on a style that is recognizable across your work -- that is truly magical.
The great news about that is whether you’ve been drawing letters for 20 years or you’re just uncovering this wide world of lettering today, you have an equal opportunity to create something beautiful, because the beauty is in the representation of the artist that created it.
You don’t need “special” pens and “special” paper to start lettering, and you don’t need to be a pro to create work that people love.
That’s why I encourage everyone to “embrace their inner amateur” and enjoy those imperfect quirks and uncertain lines that may arise when you’re starting out. That might actually be an indication of a style that you can claim all you own as you progress.
For something a bit more specialized like calligraphy or brush script or for highly technical lettering pieces with tons of details, yes, there is no denying that high-quality tools and hours of practice are crucial. But my point here is… that’s NOT a prerequisite.
I have both technical and non-technical tools and 95% of my early pieces from my first few years were made with a mechanical pencil, a PaperMate Flair felt tip pen* or Sharpies, and a drawing pad I bought at Target or Walgreens!
Sure, "fancy" tools are fun to experiment with and can definitely impact your work (I’m not saying they’re of no consequence), it’s just that I happen to think that when you’re starting out it’s less about the tools and more about training yourself to see letters in a new way.
Which leads me to my very first tip for beginners (all three of which happen to begin with P) ...
Step 1: Pay attention!
Study letters and find out what styles you like.
I don’t necessarily mean read books on the history of Blackletter and make flashcards to quiz yourself on classic fonts (though, as a fellow type nerd, I wouldn't scoff at that approach), but I just mean pay attention to the letters around you.
Let your eye rest on that grocery store signage while you’re waiting in line. Analyze that billboard while you’re at a red light. Take note of the letters you see on magazine covers and book covers and packaging.
What do they make you feel? What details and qualities do you feel drawn to?
The key to lettering – and I think the fun of it as well – is utilizing different styles to evoke a feeling that supports the meaning of whatever you’re lettering.
It also helps to gain some understanding of the anatomy of letters and of typography. For example, it’s helpful to know what a serif vs. a sans-serif adds to a piece (“serifs” refer to the bars that cap the ends of the letter strokes!), the effect that flourishes and scripts can have on the tone, or what impact adding dimension and shadows might have.
You can jumpstart this process not only by paying attention to letters, but also consulting great lettering books like The joy of Lettering*, a favorite of mine.
Understand what impact certain lettering tools have on the look and feel of a lettering piece
I would also spend some time trying to understand what style and vibe you gravitate toward in lettering pieces and then understand what tools contributed to the look of that style.
- Do you like the subtle texture created by the swipe of a marker or sharpie?
- What about the uneven and artsy flair of a brush pen?
- Maybe you love the precision and detail of a fine tip ink pen, or the shading that pencil gives you?
These are all questions to keep in mind as you study letters. Understanding what looks you love and what tools created them will help you know what tools to begin experimenting with.
My recommendation is to pick one “genre” if you will (pencil & ink, brush pens, Crayola markers, Sharpies, watercolor, etc.) and start there!
This will allow you to narrow in on one tool to begin with so you can give your focus to your process and your practice.
I always tell people pencil and a few ink pens is a great way to begin because it gives you a chance to learn the fundamentals, but if you see one tool calling your name, I say just go for it!
Once you’ve done some observing, it’s time to put pen to paper and try your hand at creating some letters, which brings me to the next step...
Step 2: Process
Invest time in lettering tutorials to hone your artistic process.
When I first started out, my biggest questions revolved around the process of creating a “finished” lettering piece.
Do you start with pencil? How do you keep letters proportional? How do you digitize your sketches and move them to the computer to edit them?
Now, I believe there’s no right or wrong way to create art; there is only your way. So if you want to go your own way, you can definitely figure out your own process by experimentation and trial and error.
However, even though I agree that the best way to learn is by doing, I believe wholeheartedly in the power of information to get you started.
That’s why I recommend investing time in a few simple tutorials and online classes just to learn how others were approaching this art form. These resources can provide you with a foundational springboard to develop your own style and make up your own rules. (But, you probably are already on board with that because you found yourself here!)
Here's a quick look at my own basic hand lettering process:
When I was starting out and looking for tutorials, it was hard for me to find one good intro course with ALL the basics in one place (tools, process, styles of letters, etc.)
I found a few that showed one letterer’s process from start to finish, but not necessarily what tools were worth the investment. Then I found another that was geared toward professional graphic designers, but not someone just starting out who just wanted to write some pretty quotes.
That’s when I decided to create the course that I wish I’d had when I was starting out, one that was affordable and relatable that would give you a solid lettering foundation in one Saturday afternoon! That turned into the Better Lettering Course, a $20 online course sharing all that I've learned over the past few years with hand-lettering. Over 3,800 students have taken the class to date!
Once you’re armed with a basic understanding of some letter styles and the process of creating a hand-lettered piece of art, it’s time to start honing your craft. The last step is...
Step 3: Practice
Now play around with letters! (Like… A LOT.)
As un-sexy as it sounds, the secret to honing your lettering craft is simply to practice!
The repetition will begin to sink into the muscle memory of your hands. Your lines will become more sure, your style more distinct, and before you know it, you’ll look back and actually see a unique creative voice develop!
One of the best things I did to keep my practice regular and accountable was to issue myself a daily challenge for a month. I knew if I didn’t have some form of accountability, I likely wouldn’t make time for it.
Try this: give yourself a content parameter like movie quotes or song lyrics or book titles etc. so that you’re less focused on racking your brain for ideas of WHAT to write and more focused on HOW to write it.
Here is a quick snapshot on how my style has evolved over the years thanks to regular practice:
Another great idea for practice is to give yourself mood exercises. Give yourself one word and try to draw letters that give off that feeling or quality.
The 3 P’s: Pay attention, learn the Process, and Practice!
Remember, the whole point here is to have fun and spark your creativity. You may spend a lot of time in the beginning seeking out letterers and artists that inspire you, but the most important thing is to CREATE more than you consume! That is the only way to find your own voice, rather than just replicating the work of other people you see out there.
I hope you found this post helpful and best of luck to you!
Ready to get started? Join the Better lettering Course!
You may spend a lot of time in the beginning seeking out letterers and artists that inspire you, but the most important thing is to CREATE more than you consume! That is the only way to find your own voice, rather than just replicating the work of other people you see out there.