If you are new to the world of hand lettering, I have no doubt that the tutorial in this article is the comprehensive step-by-step process you’ve been searching for!
Instead of focusing on one particular aspect of lettering, in this post we’re putting it ALLLL together to show you the exact step-by-step process for creating a hand-lettered sketch from beginning to end.
I challenge you to pull out your pencil and paper and apply the steps in this article to create your own hand-lettered sketch!
Step 1: Choose your lettering subject.
As you’re staring at your blank paper, the first decision you want to make is exactly what word or phrase you want to hand letter. When you’re starting your own lettering practice, I recommend trying to keep your subject relatively short so you can actually give focus and time to each letter without getting stuck in a marathon drawing session. You can look up some public domain quotes online, think of your favorite song lyrics or movie quotes, or you can just letter whatever phrase pops into your head.
One tip that really helped me when I was starting out was to create what I call “constraints” for my subjects. That means I limited myself to very specific category of phrases (like movie quotes) so I wasn’t stuck thinking of what to letter and instead I focused on how to letter. (If you want an endless supply of inspiration and prompts to practice your lettering, be sure to join in on one of the Better Lettering Course monthly challenges!)
For my example throughout this article, I’ve chosen the phrase “You are what you decide to be” -- a personal mantra of mine that serves as a reminder that I alone hold the power to call myself an artist or writer or whatever I choose to be in life. (As do you!)
Step 2: Determine your composition.
First, what the heck is a “composition”?
When I use the term composition, I’m really just referring to the way in which the different elements of your sketch come together and interact with one another. Your composition includes things like the layout of your words, spacing, shape, proportion and symmetry.
Before you put your pencil to your paper, you want to have an idea of how you want your words to be laid out in relation to one another.
The first thing I do to figure this out is write out my lettering subject as a simple sentence. As I read back over the quote or phrase, I look for interesting opportunities to emphasize certain parts of the phrase. I always think the most impactful lettering pieces are memorable because the art aligns with the message of the words, so I let the meaning of the words in my subject inform the composition.
Things to consider when determining your lettering composition:
What word(s) do you want to emphasize?
How can you support and highlight the meaning of your subject?
Do you want your piece to feel balanced or imbalanced?
Do you want letters within any of your words to interact or connect with others?
In this example, as I look at this sentence, I can see that the main word I want to emphasize is “DECIDE.” I can also see that the phrase has a rhythm to it where the syllables pair off into four couples like this: “You ARE... what YOU.... DECIDE… to BE.”
I add notes to my sentence so that I have some ideas to work with when I go to create my thumbnails.
What are thumbnails? I’m so glad you asked!
Thumbnails are small, quick drawings that can help you explore several different composition variations in a short amount of time. I usually make them about 2-3 inches wide and sketch them out in my notebook before I begin my actual hand-lettered sketch.
Using my notes from my sentence and the questions outlined above, I’ll roughly draw out my first thumbnail to determine what size, shape and proportion to make my words to support the meaning of my phrase.
In this case I really tried to emphasize those “couplets” I mentioned by creating four “lines” of text, with the double syllables on each line. I also tried to make that “decide” word a bit bigger than the others to really hit that point home in the phrase.
You can see in the other thumbnails I’ve expanded or extended that first thumbnail by playing around with slanting the top four words, working within a circular “containing shape” and de-emphasizing the smaller connector words to make room for some arrow embellishments in the #4 thumbnail.
You can spend as little or as much time as you’d like at this stage, but I typically find that I go with my gut and move forward with whatever composition feels right to me in that first grouping.
Here are some additional examples of things you can do with composition...
Step 3: Decide on the styles you’ll use throughout your lettering.
Once you have a general idea of how you want your letters to be arranged within your piece, you also want to make some decisions about the style you’ll add to each word within your lettering piece.
Adding style to a letter or word is all in the details you add to the basic letterform, and some of those details may require some planning before you go to create your sketch. You may want to add some space for inline details or you may want to mold and warp certain letters around one another, and this is a great stage to do that.
Just like in the composition phase, you’ll want to think about how you can use style to compliment the meaning of your subject. Does your subject lend itself to bigger and bolder or softer and feminine? These are the things you want to consider!
Keep in mind that a diversity of styles will add visual interest to your lettering piece but you also want to look for ways to keep your piece cohesive.
Usually at this point I’ll make additional notes on my thumbnail sketch or I’ll quickly make another sketch with my winning composition at about 2x the thumbnail size.
For my piece, I decided I wanted to alternate styles throughout the piece between sans serif and script styles, but with small curved details within my sans serif words to add cohesion. I also decided to arch the baseline of my first two words a bit, allowing the “what you” to fit like puzzle pieces into my “You are.”
Armed with a general idea of my composition and my lettering styles, I’m ready to sketch!
Step 4: Sketch your piece in pencil.
These days I often go straight to ink when I create sketches because I like the sense of permanence and the little surprises that pop up when I think I’ve made a “mistake” in ink BUT when you’re starting out, I definitely recommend drawing out your sketch in pencil.
I start with a very light pencil sketch just creating my letterforms or the “bones” of my letters, and then as I thicken my strokes and add details to each of my letters, that’s when I gradually apply pressure to my pencil, darkening my marks and making my marks more finalized.
This part in the process is a matter of adding, erasing, refining and redrawing. This is a also a good stage to add embellishments that you may not have drawn out in your composition or style sketch.
Step 5: Go over your piece in ink.
Once you have your pencil sketch where you want it, you can trace back over your sketch in ink. You can do that using something like tracing paper OR you can cover your pencil marks in ink and use an eraser after it dries to lift any stray marks outside your ink marks. (I find that the latter process adds a nice textured effect to your inked sketch if you’re looking for that.)
Step 6 (Optional): Make your sketch digital!
Want to turn your sketch into a web graphic or an image on your blog or a fun instagram post? You can do all sorts of fun things like that to it once it’s in the digital world! Check out this post to learn more about how to create a hand-lettered graphic from start to finish!
It will take some practice to refine every step of this process and to cultivate your own unique hand-lettering style, but if you follow these steps and keep honing your process, you'll start to feel more capable and more confident in your creative voice!
See the process in action!
Below is a sneak peek video from the Better Lettering Course where I show you my process for drawing this hand-lettered quote: "Sure, there's work to be done but there's also happiness to be had."
Want more video content to improve your lettering skills? Consider joining over 3,000 students inside the Better Lettering Course! (It's just $20 for lifetime access!)