Hand Lettering

As you may know if you’ve ever heard me critique type choices on signs around town or complain about the design of menus in restaurants, I have a penchant for good typography. Seeing my dad’s calligraphy on Christmas cards inspired me to try that as a kid, although I never had the patience to get good – it’s always been hard for me to practice because you go through so much paper by filling it with endless broken copies of the same letter or word. But I love the details of well-made typefaces, be they scripts or text types – to me their minor differences in attitude and structure can easily be discussed in the same manner that wine connoisseurs discuss bouquet and flavor.

Enter the new fad among designers: hand lettering. It produces results similar to calligraphy, but without the spontaneity of form. Basically, sketching is to calligraphy as drafting is to hand lettering. This guy is really big in the community for his work. As you can see from his process photos, a lot of the work goes into sketching the words before inking them in, rather than drawing them over and over again with spontaneous strokes to get a finished piece of art in one shot. Over the past few months (especially since getting my Dribbble invite) I’ve been feeling increasingly inspired to do some of my own. I’ve dreamed for years of doing a bunch of my favorite lines from poems or books as art, to give honor to the artistry I feel they have in their phrasing (and I’ve dabbled with digital type explorations of the idea), but I’ve tended to be unsuccessful for one reason or another. Not enough internal inspiration at the time I put pen to paper, perhaps.

As posted on Dribbble.

The way I did this (like the others) was to do research of what the necessary letters would look like in several nice script typefaces, then line the paper at the base and x-height I wanted very lightly with pencil, keeping in mind proportion to page width so the words would fit reasonably across it. Then I sketched in the letters with a nice soft pencil (they seem to erase better despite being darker). That allowed me to redo letters that I was dissatisfied with and get the words more evenly spaced than I would have on the first try. Once I was satisfied with the pencil letters’ shapes and interactions, I went over each letter with one line of my Prismacolor marker, to get the skeleton of each down before making any more marks that might go wrong or be inconsistent between letters.

Here you can see the instagram I took partway through the process:

Lettering project underway

A post shared by Ellen Rockett (@thosesocks) on

At that point I added thick/thin transitions to the letters in pencil, which let me make sure they were consistent in their positioning around the letterform. Ink those in very carefully with pen and erase all the pencil marks, while trying not to crinkle the paper. Once I was done with that I added the droplets to the tips of the letters to give it a little more finesse and sense of motion.

Not as glamorous as calligraphy perhaps, but much more reliable with my skill set.

I did this on my Bienfang marker paper pad, which is pretty much the awesomest stuff to draw on. It has a smooth texture much finer than sketchbook paper, and thinner (13.5lb instead of regular printer paper’s 20lb), but still with a little tooth to it (which gives my utensil something to grip as I drag it across the surface), and is a bit translucent, though much less than tracing paper. Some day it’d be nice to have a light table so I can trace through this stuff, so I could make cooler things on it. It seems like a brighter white than some other papers I’ve seen, and has this crazy way of taking ink without feathering, soaking through to the next page, or sitting on the surface of the page waiting to be accidentally smeared. However, I did discover with one lettering projects that it is not good with gouache paint, being paper designed for sketchers more than painters…

This one was a reminder for a friend that I did last year, which I did relying a little more closely on one specific typeface rather than making my own lettershapes:


This was just a little one, I like the sense of urgency without being hectic that it gives. It reminds me of the urgency of a beautiful summer day, which calls to soak everything in and enjoy everything before it passes on.


Doing these exercises really helped my logo drafting hand when I worked on designing some at work soon afterwards. I enjoyed the chance to explore the shapes of the letters a little more closely than usual and to work on the motor skill of drawing them consistently and attractively.

I tried doing a set of my favorite lines from Eliot, “We shall not cease from exploration…” but it came out so horrifically disappointing that I gave up for now. I guess it has so much significance for me that it’s much harder to approach openly and get right.

I did the line from John Updike, “Let me gaze, gaze forever / into that single, vaguely violet eye” too, but I was giving brush lettering a try and am not really satisfied with the way it came out. I was so amused and startled by the poem’s similarity to a brief meditation on camera lenses in Snow Crash (one of my favorite books) that I think I laughed out loud when I finished the first stanza. Ultimately I’d like to do a diptych of that bit and a bit from Snow Crash (“Pure geometric equation made real, so powerful and vulnerable at once”), and put it up with my photography. And then see if anyone notices. The artists on Dribbble seem to have a fascination with camera lenses as strong as either of those sources, though, so maybe having the quotes side-by-side won’t be too overpowering… http://dribbble.com/search?q=camera+lens

One Response to “Hand Lettering”

  1. Angus Rockett
    | Reply

    Very nice letters. I like the art and I agree that it goes well with the text. It gives new life to the old words.

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