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.
It might just be that I’m primed for it now, but I feel like there’s been a big shift to hand-lettered type being used in design in the past year or so, and I’ve been asked a lot how to get started or resource recommendations on hand-lettering for beginners. Here are three steps for getting started if you’re interested in teaching yourself this art form!
First off – it’s a myth that you need “special” pens and “special” paper to start lettering. You don’t!
For something specialized like calligraphy or brush script, perhaps, but not if you’re interested in purely drawing letter styles. I have both technical and non-technical tools and 95% of my pieces have been made with a mechanical pencil, a PaperMate Flair felt tip pen (aff link) 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 first tip:
1. Study letters!
I don’t necessarily mean like 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. Really start to notice letters when you see them. The key to lettering – and I think the fun of it as well – is utilizing different styles to provide impact or feeling that matches the meaning of whatever you’re lettering. You want to gain some understanding of what a serif vs. a sans-serif adds to a piece (that refers to the bars that cap the ends of the letter strokes!), the effect that flourishes and scripts can have on the tone of a piece, or what impact adding dimension and shadows might have.
A great place to start for understanding the terminology and the difference between a lot of different styles is The Little Book of Lettering (aff link). It’s a treasure trove of great work. You could even start out by trying to replicate some of the styles in the book just for practice.
2. Invest time in tutorials.
When I first started out, my biggest questions revolved around the lettering process. 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?
That’s when I found Sean Wes. He’s been the most visible and prolific teacher of hand-lettering techniques that I’ve found. His website and blog have tons of great tips and resources, so I would start there for learning about process. I also took a hand-lettering Skillshare class early on and the whole project aspect really helped me apply what I was learning.
However, I will say that when I was starting out and looking for tutorials, it was hard for me to find a good intro course with ALL the right info in one handy place (tools, process, styles of letters, etc.).... so I decided to create one myself based on what I've learned over the years!
If you're looking for an affordable tutorial course from the perspective of someone who taught themselves to letter, I released my own $20 e-course -- the Better Lettering Course -- sharing all that I've learned over the past year and a half or so about hand-lettering.
3. Now play around! (Like… ALOT.)
The only way to get better at something is to practice. One of the best things I did to keep my practice regular and accountable was issue myself a daily challenge for a month. Otherwise, I knew I wouldn’t make time for it. I think it even helps to 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.
(As part of the Better Lettering Course, I now host a monthly lettering challenge on Instagram where I issue daily prompts and monthly themes for you to practice your lettering!)
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. Like “energetic” or “somber” or “elegant.”
I hope these three tips have gotten you excited to dive in and start trying some things. Over the years, through practice and commitment, I’ve developed a style that’s completely unique to me -- one that I look forward to seeing evolve over time. Give yourself time the to get better. Don’t be frustrated if it doesn’t look perfect right off the bat. If it is something you really love, keep working at it, make the commitment, and the mastery will come.
Now go create!
Based on the incredible response to this blog post, I created a comprehensive but affordable online course sharing EVERYTHING I've learned about hand-lettering in six lesson modules and nine video lessons. If this is a skill that you'd like to learn, join over 3,000 students inside the course!
Here's what's covered in the Better Lettering Course:
- LESSON ONE: Hand-lettering basics and terminology
- LESSON TWO: The different tools used in lettering
- LESSON THREE: Various hand-lettering artists and their unique styles
- LESSON FOUR: The process of creating a hand-lettered sketch
- LESSON FIVE: Turning that sketch into a digital piece of art
- LESSON SIX: How to continue your practice and start your 30-day lettering challenge!
- BONUS LESSONS: Video of me producing sketches in 26 different lettering styles!
- BONUS RESOURCES: Each month I update the course with a new video or resource so you keep learning as I keep creating!
Ready to get started?