Get a free year on Tuts+ this month when you purchase a Siteground hosting plan from $3.95/mo
Learning to letter by hand is a journey, or at least it has been for me. Starting with a passion for letters and typography, I experimented with tracing type, fitting letters into unusual spaces, and discovering how to pull words and styles together cohesively. It can take quite some time for your compositions to come together, your focus tighten, and your voice to develop.
Drawing Letters Early On
Hand-lettering becoming a hallmark of my work happened almost accidentally — or unintentionally at least! To be fair, I have always drawn type. As a young child I would take apart the music albums around me and recreate my own. I paid special attention to the band's logo — I have fond memories of obsessing over each detail of the Aerosmith script treatment.
I committed myself to posting a drawing each day on my website.
Fast forward about 10 years and I was obsessing over typography as a graphic design student at the Hartford Art School. At this point in my life my drawing consisted of life drawing in studio classes and sketches for layouts in my design classes. I didn't start to develop my current style until a couple years after graduation.
My schedule was hectic and I became disheartened by the fact I was no longer drawing for drawing's sake. I committed myself to posting a drawing each day on my website. Early on I started drawing type and text out of necessity because I was struggling to come up with things to draw late at night — I'd hear a random song lyric or an absurd quote on the news and make it into a drawing.
The more I drew type, the more fun I had. I was warping letter features and creating strange ligatures. It was the exact opposite of all the rules of typography I held dearly. Good typography is meant to be clear and easy to read — lettering has some wiggle room.
Lettering often acts as a work of art on it's own, inviting the audience to spend more time with the piece, challenging the viewer to decipher it. Some words can be a good thing within a compelling composition. Combing words into my abstract and improvised illustrations forced me to work letters in strange spaces and enclosures.
One tip I can offer is to spend some time tracing letterforms from existing typefaces.
Experimentation is the key to developing your own style. The more you draw, the more you discover new ways to render words and letterforms. I've posted nearly six hundred daily drawings, and the majority of them incorporate lettering.
Since I post daily, I always try to do something a little different — this desire has lead me to try things I wouldn't have normally thought to do. I can't say it enough; draw, draw, draw! Creating your own voice using hand-drawn letters is not an easy thing to teach, there really aren't any set rules.
One tip I can offer is to spend some time tracing letterforms from existing typefaces. Getting used to drawing the shapes and curves, thicks and thins will help you when creating your own. As my graphic design professors taught me, it's important to learn the rules before you break them!
Creating a Framework
Though much of my lettering work is made up as I go — I have found it helpful to map out the words in a composition to use as a loose guideline for your illustration. Adding curved baselines can give a retro feel. Sometimes it's hard to judge how much room you have to fit a word or phrase, this process can help take out the guess work. There's nothing worse than running out of space after you've just drawn some perfectly-imperfect letterforms!
This process is also helpful when you are working on a lettering project that needs to fit comfortably in a specific space. I'll often create an outline of the space I have to work with, blow it up and then print it out to work directly on. Select a quote and create a wonky framework and figure out how to fit the words in the space. This is a good way to force yourself to experiment.
One of the challenges of lettering in this style is creating cohesion out of somewhat random, improvised words and characters. Sometimes you can do this simply through the use of a consistent color palette. Letters and words of different shapes and sizes can live in harmony when placed strategically in relation to each other. For example, if your typographic composition forms a particular shape, mixing the letter styles within will still appear cohesive. A good rule of thumb is to always have some sort of unifying feature no matter how diverse your letterforms are.
Lettering is about experimentation, practice and fun. Each is as important as the other. The more you draw the better you get. It sounds simple, but it's really true. I often look back at some of my older work and I am amazed at the difference in my lettering whether it's simply the line quality or overall composition. Try things you think wouldn't work, you might be surprised!