Have you always been interested in hand-lettering but aren’t sure where to start? Three years ago I was in the same spot. Here’s how I navigated the murky waters of questionable blog tutorials and gear recommendations. Let me preface all of this with a qualifier: first you need to understand your own learning style. What was helpful for my learning might not be as helpful for you, and that’s okay. Know yourself, and know how you learn to make the most out of the following advice. Personally, I am a “learn as you go” type. I learn better by just doing it and figuring out what works and doesn’t as I go. For a long time, I was held back from attempting lettering because I believed I wasn’t good enough to try, that I had no real aptitude for it, that I would be terrible, etc. But when I got over myself and decided to just go for it, I realized that like anything else, lettering is a learned skill. If you are motivated and interested in it, you can learn how to do it too! So here’s a run down of what helped me learn.
1. Feel the freedom to make mistakes.
First of all, nobody is magically able to free-hand amazing lettering with no practice. When I first got interested in lettering, I used to watch videos of calligraphers lettering envelopes free hand like it was no big deal. I thought that mastering that level of skill was when you had “made it” as a letterer and that everyone else who couldn’t do that was just an amateur. Then one day I was scrolling through instagram and noticed stray pencil marks on a post from one of my favorite watercolor-letterers. Then I realized that all the people I most respected all start by sketching. How liberating! You don’t have to be able to perfectly execute it the first try with your micron or brush pen. You can take your time sketching it lightly in pencil first and make as many mistakes as you want. It takes time and effort to letter something really great. And sure, in ten years you may be able to freehand an amazing lock-up, but don’t put that pressure on yourself at the outset. Feel totally free to make mistakes. Keep your early attempts so you can go back and look at how far you’ve grown. It takes time and practice, but don’t get discouraged when your early stuff isn’t Sean Wes level. You’ll get there in time!
2. Watch videos or take classes from respected letterers.
Skip wading through sketchy random, unhelpful youtube videos four hours on end and find out if your favorite artists offer workshops or online classes. Sean Wes has a really helpful video class you can take at your own pace. Locally in Raleigh you can grab lettering classes through Skillpop. Find out where you can do that in your area and go! Watch how someone you respect does it and you can learn so much. Take the time to learn the basics of typography as well. It may seem boring, but it will improve your lettering exponentially if you know how the ascenders, descenders and baseline should balance. These are the principles that you can fall back on when you’ve sketched something out and it just “doesn’t look right.”
Here are some helpful, high quality places to learn: This Sean Wes course is amazing, Lynda.com is a classic source, and Skill Share is another great resource.
3. Practice, practice, and practice some more.
This might seem obvious, but you will never be great at lettering if you don’t practice. For focused practice, choose a classic typeface or find a free calligraphy practice sheet, print out a whole sheet of one letter and trace it over and over until it’s like second nature. Then try to draw it just by looking at the letter. Next try to draw it from memory. Learning letterforms like this will give you the building blocks and muscle memory you need to create your own style. Focused practice is great when you have the time, but you can also squeeze in every-day practice in lots of other places—like writing your grocery list or in a note to your roommate or spouse. Get creative and take the chance to practice letterforms every time you are holding a pen. Keep all your practice pages in a chronological stack and rifle through the early attempts whenever you are feeling discouraged. You may be surprised to find that they are better than you thought they were, and you’ll be encouraged to have a tangible way to measure your growth.
I’ll be continuing this series on lettering with posts about my favorite tools, my own lettering process, and some photoshop/illustrator tutorials for lettering.
Have any questions or good resources that I missed in the post? Things you want me to cover in future posts? Leave me a note in the comments!