Lettering Advice: Things I’ve Learned So Far

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I often get the question as to what would be good advice for someone who is just getting their start in typography and lettering. Seeing how few people actually reach out to ask what is on their mind, I imagine there’s probably many others thinking the same thing. So I figured I’d compile some thoughts and share it with you all. Hopefully you’ll find it at least mildly helpful.

I do have to say that this is a pretty cut dry overview of my own process and the experiences that I’ve had in getting to the point at which I am today. That being said, you may come across others who do things totally different. And that’s totally okay! You’ll find what’s best for you once you dive in. As long as it looks good in the end, no one needs to know how you got there, right?

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Anyways, first and foremost I would begin with saying that there is no greater secret than good o’l fashion hard work. No fancy pen or pencil is going to give you an edge on the next guy. As long as whatever you’re using is at least mildly pointy and leaves a clear line when you drag it across paper, then you’re good to go. So I’m not going to get carried away in listing out my tools because I think you’d be pretty disappointed to find that most of it could be found in your middle school teacher’s desk drawers.

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Now that we’ve established that, the most fundamental thing that I’d say is to learn calligraphy. And by that I mean, understand calligraphy. You don’t have to be a Jake Weidmann or anything but as long as you understand the motions of a fountain pen or a paintbrush on paper, you’ll be able to build your own letterforms in a way that doesn’t give you away as a total newb to the type community. But don’t worry, I still have those moments here and there.

So let me explain this a bit. When writing with a fountain pen, up strokes are always going to be thinner than down strokes. This is because a fountain pen’s nib is split down the middle and is opened when pressure is applied to let more ink flow down the tip. When you are making up strokes, you have to release pressure otherwise the nib will dig into the paper. But when you make down strokes, you’re pulling the pen and pressing down which causes more ink to flow. Therefore you’re left with nice thick and thin strokes that are more practically delivered than necessarily aesthetically delivered. But because this is how most of our modern language was first written, this is the aesthetic that we hold as correct. So nowadays, even some sans serif typefaces feature thick and thin strokes corresponding to their calligraphic gramps.

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No matter what style of type you’re creating, knowing the fundamental rules of type help you see where you can break them in order to create your own unique letters. Otherwise something will always look slightly off and you won’t ever really know why. Understand the core of whatever you’re seeking to do before you ever get too caught up on the details. Everything rides on a skeleton of some kind to keep it all together.

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That being said, my next tip would be to start with the basics when drawing out your type. Don’t jump to details and embellishments right away even though those are the fun parts. Make sure you’ve got a good structure for all of those details to hang on.

Depending on the style of type that I’m working on, I’ll either quickly sketch the type in it’s full weight, and I mean quickly, or just draw the letters out like stick men on the page.

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Again, detail is not the point here. Sketches should be quick and messy. Just enough to give you an understanding of where each letter is going to land and more importantly, where each word is going to end. Because nothing is worse then getting to the end of a word and realizing that it’s not centered in your design or that you ran out of room on the right side of the page. Fast sketches and wireframe type is low commitment and less painful to erase if you have to.

Too many people spend way too much time fussing over the details of the first few letters before getting to the end of the word. By that point, they’ve already invested so much time that when they realize they need to change something at the beginning of the word, they’re discouraged and they give up all together. Props for your attention to detail but come on! Don’t over commit too soon and save yourself some stress.

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At this point there are a few things that you can do. A lot of people use tracing paper to trace over their sketches and refine their type. This is the point where details begin to be added in - things like serifs, flourishes, drop strokes and other miscellaneous nerdy type jargon. Personally, I just lightly erase my sketch to the point where it’s just a ghost on the page. Then I go over the sketch again and again. Refining it more and more after each stroke of the eraser. This process is used if I’m working on a more refined type piece.

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If I’m working with a more rough type style, I’ll draw out the stick figure version of the type, usually with a sharpie pen, then slowly build on those bones, if you will. I’ll thicken the type in the areas that I see fit until I have it where I like it.

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This allows natural little mistakes to happen along the way and forces me to deal with them and work with them as they happen.

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Everything here is basically the basis on which all of my typography work is built on. Every bit of type that I do utilizes everything here that I just told you. Beyond this, if you’re looking to find your style or something that is going to set you apart, my advice would be to stop spending so much time looking at things that will make you blend in. It’s kind of funny if you think about it. Inspiration is great but we spend so much time looking at it and telling ourselves that this is how we’re going to find the thing that is going to make us unique. Just do what you do! No one can tell you how to create work that is purely you but you. Look at enough inspiration to get your creative juices flowing but know when put it away. Draw from memory and don’t try to replicate things line for line if you can help it. The mistakes that you make along the way are mistakes that only you are going to make in the unique way that you make them. As long as you are constantly working to sharpen your skill, those mistakes will slowly become less or rather more matured.

Regardless, keep your eyes open 24/7 for type that inspires you and keep a mental catalog. There is no greater inspiration board than the world around you. Just keep your eyes open. You’re only as effective as your arsenal allows you to be and as a creative person, your arsenal is your capacity for new ideas. Make sure your think tank is loaded before you need to pull something out of there. In the beginning you can’t just all of the sudden draw amazing type from memory. You are going to have to look at a lot of great work before you can do it on your own. But gradually you should find yourself leaning less and less on direct sources of inspiration.

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Lastly check your motives. Are you wanting to be good at typography and lettering just because “all the cool kids are doing it?” Or do you want to get good at lettering because you really, genuinely enjoy it? Peer pressure or the fear of falling short behind some niche is never going to be enough motivation to get you to create great art. Great art can never be formed out of fear because fear throws a mask over our true selves. If you can forget what outside voices may think about your work, that is the only point at which you’ll truly be able to throw your honest self onto the page. All we’ve got is right now so if we’re constantly looking too far down the road to where we’d like to see ourselves someday, we’ll never get there and we’ll never be happy. It takes action right now to get us down the road. Just enjoy the process of getting to where you’re going because you’re never going to fully arrive.

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    Great career/life advice that’s geared towards letterers yet applies to all working artists.
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