Technique Tuesdays: 10 Tips for Hand Lettering

Hand lettering is more popular than ever, and there is no limit to the styles that can be created or the ways it can be incorporated in artwork. Use it in your journal, letter a special card or gift tag, or add hand lettering to a painting or collage to add something special and truly personalize your piece. You don’t have to have perfect letters—you don’t even have to like your handwriting. Start by drawing some simple letters with markers, pens, or a paintbrush, and then add to them any way you like: doodling, coloring, embellishing the letters to make them your own.

Below are some great tips from articles in Cloth Paper Scissors magazine, Lettering Lessons digital downloads, and North Light Books. In addition, I’ve shared some helpful resources that offer even more great ideas and information at the end of this post.

  1. It’s important to try out your materials and tools before beginning your project. In her book Creative Lettering Workshop, Lesley Riley says, “Know your tools, when and where to use them. Many problems are not your lack of experience, but the writing tool or surface you are writing on, or both!” She advises you choose tool you are comfortable with, saying “The better you know your tool, the more control you will have over the outcome.”
  1. Simple lines can transform a letter in minutes. In Lettering Lessons Volume 1: The Art of Drawing Awesome Letters, Joanne Sharpe suggests using repeating lines to outline a letter as well as to fill it in. “I exaggerate the letterform by first drawing the letter with pencil and then extending and stretching the lines to change the shape, making it a brand new letter.” In her book, The Art of Whimsical Lettering, she takes it further by suggesting you experiment with extreme slants and loopy versions of your cursive letters for another style.
Line letters by Joanne Sharpe

Even simple repeated lines can create unique hand lettering (Art and photo by Joanne Sharpe).

  1. Remember those three-lined guides you used when learning how to write? Taylor Huizenga believes they’re key for learning hand lettering. In Lettering Lesson Volume 1: Block Lettering, she says, “Draw 3 pencil lines on your paper to create a structure for your letters: the baseline, the median, and the ascender. The baseline is where the bottom of the letter will sit; the ascender is where the tops of the letters will hit; and the median is the x-height, where the crossbars of the letters will fall.Make sure to create your guidelines in pencil, so that you can erase the lines later. Base the spacing of the lines on the size letters you want to create.”
Lettering guidelines by Taylor Huizenga

Using guidelines helps form even letters (Art and photo by Taylor Huizenga).

  1. There’s no shame in looking to resources like copyright-free fonts as a jumpstart for hand lettering, Pam Garrison says in Lettering Lesson Volume 7: Lettering Jump Starts: “Dover Publications is an excellent source for books filled with copyright-free designs. I like creating letters styles using my imagination as well as using existing fonts as a basic starting point. By altering letters in my style they become something totally different and unique.” In this “A” sampler, flowers, swirls, stylized lines, several filler designs took a standard font from basic to unique.
Hand lettering by Pam Garrison

Look to existing fonts for hand lettering inspiration, then make them your own (Art and photo by Pam Garrison).

  1. The Lettering Equation was devised by Joanne Sharpe as “a technique for making ordinary words into impressive art.” Joanne discovered that combining uppercase and lowercase letters, using both print and cursive letters, enabled her to created hundreds of letter arrangements and styles. If you’re having trouble getting started, Joanne shares this technique in the March/April 2014 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors.
Hand lettering by Joanne Sharpe

Mix up styles, lettering tools, and upper and lowercase letters (Art by Joanne Sharpe, photo by Hornick/Rivlin Studio).

  1. Jennifer Coyne Qudeen uses asemic writing in some of her artwork and journaling, which is the suggestion of words without context. Think loops, curves, and lines that look like letters—but aren’t. In her article in the May/June 2015 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors, Jennifer also suggests using super-sized letters to add visual texture to a page, writing across a page in big, bold strokes. Set your worries aside and just write.
Artwork by Jennifer Coyne Qudeen

Asemic writing approximates the look of lettering, and adds great detail to artwork (Art by Jennifer Coyne Qudeen, photo by Sharon White Photography).

  1. Remember to experiment. In Lettering Lesson Vol. 11: Lettering with a Water Brush, Emily Cromwell shows how to create unique letters with paint and a water brush. With paint on your brush, begin to paint the letters, gently squeezing the water brush to release some water, but being careful not to release too much. Apply more pressure on the downward strokes, creating extra weight on those lines, and lift the brush a bit on the upward strokes to create thinner lines. To create a gradient effect, continue painting even as the paint on the brush runs out.
Hand lettering by Emily Cromwell

Expand your lettering skills and try different tools, like a water brush, to get watercolor effects (Art and photo by Emily Cromwell

  1. Joanne Sharpe suggests making a list of themes and topics for those times your muse eludes you. When you’re having trouble getting started, “brainstorm everything and anything as potential drawing elements,” in Lettering Lessons: Volume 2, Coloring Book Lettering. Here are some of Joanne’s ideas for designing artful coloring book letters:
  • Flowers, vines, and leaves
  • Feathers and fronds
  • Pebbles and bubbles
  • Landscapes and seascapes
  • Faces and people
  • Sun, stars, and moon
  • Words, letters, and letters

I bet you can add lots more to this list.

  1. Love the look of letters in your artwork, but not interested in making them the focal image? In her article in the March/April 2015 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors, Dorit Elisha incorporates letters in her artwork in a variety of ways, adding them over prints, creating bold collages, and more. One technique: Write a few words on watercolor paper with a paintbrush and black ink or paint. Lightly mark a grid on the dry painted paper, and cut out the squares. Leaving spaces in between the squares, randomly glue the cut squares onto black cardstock to create a background. Cut colorful, flower shapes from text paper or magazine pages, and arrange them on the background.
Art by Doit Elisha

Hand lettering can be a background element in mixed-media art, too (Art by Dorit Elisha, photo by Sharon White Photography).

  1. Incorporate hand lettering in projects by creating your own labels for art journal pages, or for your own jams and jellies. In the new Lettering Lesson Volume 3: Lettering Within Borders, Taylor Huizenga says that when creating a label it usually doesn’t matter if the final product is applied to a flat surface or a rounded one, so you can design it any way you like. However, the surface can be an issue if it’s narrow and rounded, and the label is wide.  “The text will get lost as the surface rounds, such as on a jar,” she says. “To compensate for this, you may need to make your label taller, and adjust the lettering to fit the space.”

Get more helpful hand lettering techniques from our talented artists, who will show you easy ways to create and develop your own style:

Lettering Lessons 2015-2016 Collector's Edition

The 2015-2016 Collector’s Edition of Lettering Lessons is packed with information, photos, and videos on lettering techniques.

Creative Lettering Workshop by Lesley Riley

In Creative Lettering Workshop by Lesley Riley, learn how to incorporate favorite quotes in your mixed-media art.

The Art of Whimsical Lettering by Joanne Sharpe

Joanne Sharpe’s The Art of Whimsical Lettering shows you how to use your own handwriting to create fun, artful lettering.

Handmade Type Workshop

In Handmade Type Workshop, you’ll find great ideas and inspiration for all types of hand lettering.

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