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  1. Design & Illustration
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Design

Hand Lettering: Letterforms at Their Core

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Difficulty:BeginnerLength:MediumLanguages:
This post is part of a series called Hand Lettering Fundamentals.
Hand Lettering: Understanding Types of Type
Final product image
What You'll Be Creating



This tutorial will provide you with a very basic understanding not only of lettering, but also of overall concepts of typography, which a lot of designers these days don’t have. The process described below will teach you about consistency, kerning, contrast, and weight.

Since lettering is completely analog, we won’t need any computers for this tutorial! Put those things aside while we train your eyes to notice the subtleties and basics of typography.

Additionally, since this is a beginner class focused around lettering and typography, I will be using some terms some of you may not know. Here is a list of terms you may want to read up on if you're not sure what they are:

And here is a list of things to reference that may help you understand the topics I'm describing below:

One thing to note before we start: the process below isn't set in stone. It's very customizable to your needs and preferences. For example, the type of pencil you use doesn't need to be a 2B, but that's just my preference. You could use a 6B if you're wanting darker letterforms. Additionally, the way the letterforms are constructed isn't set in stone either. Obviously there's a "defined norm" but you can determine the way your curves interact with your strokes, the width of the letterforms and everything else in between. Make this about you! Use the information below as a starting point and branch off! 

Alright, let's get started!

1. Prepare the Tools You Will Need

tools-you-need
  • Drawing Pad 14” by 17”, preferably Strathmore brand
  • Olfa Blade Utility Knife
  • Sharpie or any black pen
  • 2B Pencil
  • C-Thru Sandpaper Pointer 
  • Ruler
  • Kneaded Eraser

All of the above tools should be available at your local art supply store. If you have a Dick Blick nearby, they should have everything you need!

Step 1

rip-off-perforated-edges

Let's get started! Remove 20+ pages from your drawing pad. Then, remove the perforated edges because we won’t need those. Place those clean perforation-free pages in a stack to prepare for the upcoming knowledge! (If you'd like, go ahead and prepare all the pages in your drawing pad, because you'll most likely be using them all.)

Step 2

shave-off-pencil-tip

First, with the Olfa Blade, shave off about the size of your thumbnail from the tip of the pencil. Point that blade away from you when doing this so you don’t hurt yourself!  

chisel-tip-pencil

Next, we're going to use the sandpaper pointer. To do so, place the lead of the pencil on the tip of the sandpaper so it’s almost perpendicular with the table. You want a little bit of an angle so the lead can sharpen to a chisel shape. Take that pencil and move it up and down (away from and towards your chest) until one side is flat, then repeat on the opposite side so it looks like the above photo.

Step 3

how-to-make-template-page
border-template-page

We're going to be making a "guide" or "template" of sorts for you to use throughout this whole tutorial. Begin by taking one of those blank sheets of 14" by 17" paper and laying it flat in front of you. Let's start by measuring out 2" from each side and connecting the dots. Essentially, we're making a 2" border around the paper just like the above image.

Step 4

dividing-up-template-page

Continuing further, place your page in a landscape fashion. Then, begin to measure and mark a dot every .5" (half inch) from the top border to the bottom on the left side of the page. Then, do the same on the right side of the page. With dots on both sides of the page every half inch, you can now connect those by drawing a straight line across the page.  By the end, it'll look like the above photo.

How does this guide page work? Well, the very first line is called the "cap height", and the second line below would be where the crossbars of letters like "H", "E", and "F" sit. And lastly, the third line below is the baseline. Altogether that would be 1.5" since the distance between each line is .5".

2. Set Up the Workspace

Step 1

cleaning-your-desk

Alright, we're nearly ready to start. Clean off your desk with paper towels and some cleaner (Simple Green works great) or any kind of cleaning materials you like to use to make sure there are no crumbs, eraser shavings, etc., that will get in the way of the work you’re about to create. 

Step 2

Guide-Page-Taped

Tape your guide paper horizontal to the table. Place the tape vertical right next to the corners, not across the corner, because that will rip your paper easier when the tape is removed.

Step 3

Blank-Paper-On-Guide-Page

Next, tape your blank paper on top of your guide page. They should be stacked perfectly since they’re both the same size. Now, repeat Step 2 in terms of taping the corners.

Step 4

tools-arranged-nicely

Once your paper is good to go, arrange your other materials in whatever fashion you’d like. Just make sure you have them all within close proximity for easy use. The above image is how I set mine up, so you’re more than welcome to use that setup as well. Once all of that is set up and to your liking, we’re finally ready to get practicing!

3. Lines, Symbols & Curves

Step 1

We’re going to start by drawing vertical lines, then move onward to drawing symbols and curves. Why are we just drawing lines you ask? This practice helps you train your eyes to notice consistency, weight, and spacing, and trains you to draw a straight line of course! To begin, hold the pencil so the chisel shape is at a 45-degree angleMaintain that angle for every single line, symbol and curve from here on out.

Vertical-Line-Drawing

Now, let’s begin drawing lines. Starting at the top left-hand border on your guide page, pull your pencil down (or begin from the bottom and go towards the top) from the very top line of your guide page (the cap height) to the second line underneath (the baseline). Essentially, your vertical lines should be two lines in height. You can see the setup in the pages below if that helps. To help you achieve a vertical line, make sure your entire body is center with the line you’re about to draw. You want to pull that line directly to the center of your chest. That will help you achieve a perfectly vertical line—after some practice of course! 

finished-vertical-line-with-guides
finished-vertical-line-page

The above photo is what a finished page should look like. If you’d like an extra challenge, try to create a gradient of value with your pencil. To do so, apply more pressure when you start the line, ease it up at the center as you pull down, and finally, apply pressure again once you finish that same line. Now repeat that for every single line you draw and try to maintain consistency throughout. You can see what I mean by the photo above.

Step 2

new-page-keep-practicing

The space between each line you draw is up to you. Just make sure it's the same throughout the page. You're striving for consistent, even spacing. Once you have a full page, remove that page and replace it with another blank, and repeat Step 1 over and over until you achieve perfectly vertical lines. As for getting them perfectly vertical, it’s going to take you a while. Like everything in life, it all takes practice! So, don’t get discouraged. After 20+ pages I began achieving perfect vertical lines. It will all come with time. This is something you could practice for 10–20 minutes every single day. You'll notice the progress you're making if you dedicate the time.

Step 3

Once you’ve nailed down those vertical lines, you can begin drawing symbols. These symbols will introduce horizontal and diagonal strokes for you to practice on top of the vertical strokes you've just learned.

finished-symbol-page

Attempt things such as plus signs, check marks, an upside-down T, or whatever you can come up with that connects two or three strokes. Remember always to maintain the 45-degree angle of your pencil. That angle will inform the symbols such as the check mark. One stroke is thick, while the connecting stroke is thin.

Just as you did with the lines, practice and practice until you’ve achieved perfection. It will take time! Feel free to use the above image as a guide. Depending on which symbol you draw, the following symbol will need to be spaced or “kerned” correctly to maintain even negative space surrounding each symbol. Always be aware of which symbol you previously drew and think about which symbol you plan to draw next. That will help you kern your symbols. You want your page to feel even, meaning that you want the positive and negative space to be equal.

Step 4

beginning-the-curve

Now, the curves/circles are a bit tricky. They just take a bit of practice, that's all. It’s similar to lines in the sense that you will have to maintain consistency and spacing. As for starting the circle it’s going to require two strokes. In the above photo, the grey lines represent your cap height and baseline. You can see the curve extends beyond both these lines. As for the red lines, those depict where your pencil starts.

Hold that pencil at a 45-degree angle and begin the start of the curve just a tad below the cap height (where the first red line is) and finishing at the lower right. And to finish, do the same motion in the opposite direction, never changing the angle of your pencil! Essentially, the circle is cut in half at a 45-degree angle as well. It’s going to be difficult your first couple of tries. It just takes some getting used to.

Step 5

final-circle-page

Repeat Step 4 until you have a completed page of circles! If you're not ready to draw a full circle, fill some pages with half-circles (just one stroke instead of two).  If you’re not happy with the curves you’ve drawn or want more practice, throw another sheet on that guide page and go to town!

4. Roman Letterforms

Step 1

final-roman-page-with-guides
final-roman-page

Like your previous tasks, just begin practicing! Place another blank sheet on your guide page and begin writing any and all letterforms your heart desires. Don't worry about making your letterforms look identical to the photo above. You'll learn and understand the basic structure as you practice. Always remember that 45-degree angle and let the pencil inform your stroke weight.

One piece of information you'll need to know: Letterforms with a curve such as "O", "Q", "C", and "S" need to extend just a tad above and below the cap height and baseline. The reason is that curved letterforms appear to be smaller when sitting next to a vertical stroke such as an "H". So, to compensate for the tricks our eyes play on us, you need to extend those curves above and below the cap height and baseline. Just have a look at the first image above, and you'll see what I mean.

Step 2

kerning-pairs

You may use the above photo for a combination of letters to begin writing. This combination of letterforms isn’t required, but definitely recommended, as it will train your eye to kern properly. There are a lot of kerning pairs used above that you will run into when drawing letterforms. Using your previous knowledge learned, apply those vertical, horizontal, diagonal and curved lines to compose your Roman letterforms!

5. Greek Letterforms

Step 1

final-greek-with-guides
final-greek-page

Just as you did with Roman letterforms, begin practicing the same forms. The only difference between Roman and Greek is a few additional characters and different appearances for a few letterforms. Additional characters include the theta, xi, delta, sigma, and a few others. Feel free to practice other characters I haven't included in the above photo!

Take into consideration the same process and knowledge you've learned with Roman letterforms. Curves extend above and below the baseline, while vertical strokes meet those lines without extending beyond. 

Step 2

Repeat Step 1 until you've filled a few pages. After finishing multiple pages, you will most likely have a pretty darn great eye for all the things taught in this tutorial: consistency, weight, kerning, contrast, and various basic typographic terms!

6. Bonus Material!

final-rustica-page
final-uncial-page

Feel like you want to take on more? I’ve attached some sheets of Rustica and Uncial letterforms to carry your knowledge further. Use the same paper, pencils, etc., and just approach these as you would any other letterforms.

Conclusion

Practice, practice, practice. You want to be as good as some of the greats? People like Jessica Hische, Tony DiSpigna and Doyald Young all started where you are right now. With some dedication, determination, and drive to better yourself and your drawing abilities, you’ll be a pro in no time.

It's with thanks to Andrew Weed of Visual Communication Design at Arizona State University, for his guidance in this tutorial.

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