Studio Saturdays: Hand Lettering Every Day

I am a reformed hand letterer. My ill-fated attempts at calligraphy made me to fear and dread hand lettering to the point of being terrified at having to address an envelope.

But when I realized that so many artists were bailing on traditional calligraphy and embracing a style that was their own—quirky, funky, and most of all, imperfect—I knew there was a place for me. Still, my first attempts at this new style were clumsy and I hated most of what I did.

Sketch with hand lettering

The addition of hand lettering to this sketch adds so much.

I decided to do something that would get me to where I wanted to be: Practice a little bit of hand lettering every day. No big production, just…something. Write a grocery list. Leave a sticky note. It worked—doing these 10 to 15-minute stints got me over my fear, ramped up my skills, and allowed me to play and have fun.

Based on what I’ve learned, here are three ideas for adding a little bit of lettering practice, and you can start incorporating them today:

1. Write the date: I use a spiral notebook for work, and this is where I write my to-do list for the day, take meeting notes, and jot down ideas. Since I use it every day, I letter in it often. Usually I just write the date at the top in different styles, but sometimes I’ll highlight something important with a lettered word.

Here, I wrote the date with a Ranger Distress Marker, using the brush end to get thick and thin lines—a little pressure for thin lines on the upstrokes, and more pressure for thicker lines on the downstrokes. I added a few polka dots for good measure, and because I can’t leave well enough alone, embellished it with a flower.

Notebook hand lettering

Even writing the date in a notebook helps improve your lettering skills.

On this page I wanted to remind myself to call someone, so I wrote the reminder in Pigma Micron pen in a whimsical script.

Notebook hand lettering

More notebook handwriting practice.

2. Write someone a letter: I know that emails and texting have eclipsed old-school letter writing, but I have a thing for mail art. I. Love. It. Wanting to decorate envelopes compels me to send cards and letters to people, just so I can haul out all my mixed-media supplies and go to town. One thing I’ve discovered: Any kind of fun lettering on an envelope is wonderful. It doesn’t have to be faultless copperplate script. Maybe there’s some magic that happens with actual mail, but all types of hand lettering look good. Search mail art on Pinterest and you’ll see what I mean.

For this envelope I wanted to use watercolor, but the envelope paper was super thin and I wasn’t sure if it would show off the paint that well. So I brushed on a coat of Daniel Smith Transparent Watercolor Ground, which enhances the transparency and granulation of watercolor on absorbent surfaces, and let it dry (this stuff is great for painting over papers like book text).

Watercolor ground

Watercolor ground improves the look of the paint on non-watercolor paper.

I grabbed my waterbrush, picked up some paint, and used my own exaggerated script to write “Lola,” going really slowly, and lifting the brush off the paper when I needed to reload it with color.

Waterbrush hand lettering

With a waterbrush and my own script handwriting, I painted the name “Lola.”

I loved the look of the letters, but wanted some to be a smidge darker. I could have gone over them again with my brush, but instead I drew lightly over some of the letters with a Derwent Inktense pencil, then went over the pencil with the waterbrush. These pencils are water-soluble and have concentrated color, so a little goes a long way. If you use a different shade from the watercolor you can get a gradation of color, or you can use the same color to shade the letters.

Shaded watercolor hand lettering

Adding a little water-soluble colored pencil to the letters helped darken and shade them.

One more cool trick: Slightly outlining the watercolor letters with a 005 Sakura Pigma Micron pen gives letters an illustrative look. Simply draw a sketchy line around the word, allowing for breaks in the line.

I added Lola’s last name with a 02 Pigma Micron, and shaded the letters with colored pencil. The address was written with a calligraphy pen, which makes any handwriting look great. Just be sure to hold the pen with the nib at a 45-degree angle, and you’ll automatically get thick and thin lines.

Mail art hand lettering

The finished envelope, with three styles of hand lettering.

Turning a plain envelope into mail art may be the most fun thing ever. Add collage, painting, image transfers, washi tape—as long as it can be sent through the mail, you are good to go. So make a promise to yourself that the next birthday or holiday card you send will have hand lettering on it. Go ahead, make the promise. I’ll wait.

3. Add hand lettering to an art journal or sketchbook page: I love to sketch when I’m out, but when I’m finishing up a page I’ll often realize I didn’t leave any room for lettering. The way I added “Bittersweet,” to this page, for example, is kind of a disaster. But I forgot to leave space.

Sketbook page hand lettering

Not leaving room for hand lettering on a page means having to squeeze tiny words in!

For a subsequent sketch I left plenty of room at the top for some hand lettering. Before I sketched it in, I did some quick practice lettering in another art journal that I keep just for this purpose. You can also do this on inexpensive copy paper—the idea is just to try out some ideas to see what works.

Practice page from a hand lettering journal

A practice page from my lettering journal.

I chose the style that had decorated initial letters on “October” and “pumpkins,” and set up my guidelines, which lettering artist Taylor Huizenga recommends. This gives you guides for the top, middle and bottom of your letters, which creates more consistency, so the ‘a’ won’t be twice as big as the ‘n.’ You can still make wonky and whimsical letters, but this provides a lot of visual control.

Hand lettering guidelines

My initial sketch included room for lettering, and I drew guidelines.

After penciling in the words I went over them with a Pigma Micron pen, then watercolored the initial letters. I thought the words needed some type of visual anchor, so I drew a shadow underneath.

Sketch with hand lettering

I added watercolor to the initial letters of the words, and shading underneath.

I also added “Boston” by first drawing an arc, penciling in the letters around the curved shape, and committing to them in pen. I think the hand lettering adds so much to the page, and I’m glad I saved room for it.

Here’s a tip for making it easy to do hand lettering every day: Keep a small pencil case with you at all times filled with basic supplies. Mine has a few Pigma Micron pens, a small tin of watercolors, a 2B graphite pencil, a kneaded eraser, and a ruler. This way, I have no excuses.

If you’ve been hesitant to create hand lettering, doing a little bit every day is a painless way to begin adding it to your skill set. Once you start, you’ll have so much fun that it will be difficult to stop.

I hope you’re inspired to do some lettering! Here are a few great resources from the North Light Shop that will help you achieve your goals. Check ArtistsNetwork.com on Tuesday November 8th for more hand lettering tips in Technique Tuesdays!

Letter Love by Joanne Sharpe

Get great and easy techniques for hand lettering in the downloadable Letter Love eBook from Joanne Sharpe!

Art Journaling Live 2 Easy Lettering with Julie Fei-Fan Balzer

Let Julie Fei-Fan Balzer teach you how to incorporate hand lettering in your art journals in this fun video from Art Journaling Live 2.

Lettering Lesson by Taylor Huizenga

Learn how to use some basic lettering tools in this Lettering Lesson with Taylor Huizenga.

Art Lettering Workshop with Joanne Sharpe

In Art Lettering Workshop with Joanne Sharpe, get tons of ideas for combing hand lettering with backgrounds.

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