1 Jul 2015

Getting Serious about Hand Lettering

Hand lettering has blown up in the last several years and has earned widespread attention, even outside the design and typography community. Businesses rely on hand lettering more and more to bring a relatable personality to their brand. When you see the amazing hand lettering examples all over Instagram, it can be really intimidating — I know it was for me! But with some focus and time, you can hone your skills and become a great hand letterer.

Whether you’ve dabbled a little in lettering but haven’t practiced seriously, or are entirely new to the field, here are some important things to think about if you’re trying to get serious!

Simplify your supply list.

Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of hashtags like #whichpendidyouuse popping up on Instagram (many artists point out how frequently they’re asked this question, which, despite its best intentions, tends to subtly imply that the pen is somehow responsible for the work being awesome). While it might be true that different techniques and styles can be more easily achieved with certain types of pens, it’s a myth that you need all kinds of pricey supplies to make great work – and if you don’t know the proper ways to use expensive, specialized pens, they’re going to do nothing for you. Those Instagrammers’ great pieces weren’t a result of their pen choice.

You can do an awful lot with a shopping list pencil you can grab for free at Ikea and some basic graph paper. I’ll be doing a post later on about my go-to tools, but if you have a sharpened pencil, a ruler, printer paper, and a felt-tip ink pen, Sharpie, or a plain old marker, there’s plenty for you to work on! There’s no need to break the bank to say you’re serious about improving your lettering.

Start small and master the basics.

It will be easier to practice individual letters before you work your way up to more complex tasks like drawing words, experimenting with how letters can connect (called ligatures) within or between words, or creating layouts of lengthy phrases. If you start with a lengthy quote or verse, you may quickly get frustrated at the complexity.

Master the basics first. It can be a little tedious, but working with individual letters will help you learn how to apply the same styles to different shapes and understand the negative space each shape needs for legibility.

I’ve been hand lettering seriously for nearly 3 years, and I still do this kind of practice frequently as a warm up. Think of it like a pianist practicing scales or a basketball player practicing free throws; it’s important to build a foundation and keep those skills sharp.

Learn about letters.

I can’t overstate the importance of understanding basic typography concepts. Learning how to distinguish between related styles and how the attributes of different styles can affect mood or readability will be immensely helpful as you start exploring different lettering styles. There are a ton of awesome books out there to give you a solid overview of the fundamentals of typography and lettering. I’ll create a more exhaustive list later on, but The Complete Manual of Typography is a great standby, as is The Anatomy of Type.

I’ve also found it helpful to look at compare different fonts to more basic fonts like Times New Roman or Arial. What’s different? What’s similar? What kind of personality does the font have compared to Times or Arial? Why? Once you start to realize how different attributes lend certain personalities or tones, you’ll be able to combine them in interesting ways to create your own unique lettering styles.

Practice every single day, deliberately.

As with any skill, you’ll never get the hang of hand lettering if you’re not consistently showing up. There’s also a difference between mindlessly doodling and deliberate practice. Deliberate practice will help you identify your weak areas and focus your improvement. Set out each day to improve on one thing. Are the curves of your rounded cursive letters not looking so hot? Practice some u’s, o’s, s’s, and n’s! Having a hard time maintaining consistent weight in all of your block letters? Get on it (and maybe use some graph paper)!

If I could give myself some advice on this 3 years ago, it would be to focus on deliberate practice instead of what I thought would look great in an Instagram post. Deliberate practice may not always result in Instagram-worthy work, but it’s essential to improvement.

Try new things.

You’re bound to get a little bored with practicing basic shapes over and over again, so find ways to spice things up as you go along. Play around in different mediums, like brush pens or watercolor. Draw one letter as many ways as you can. There are endless possibilities to add character and distinct style to letters. This is a great exercise in creativity and learning about the tone and personality of different lettering styles. You’ll start to understand what attributes are necessary to maintain the integrity of a letter (we’re getting a little existential here, but what’s needed for an A to stay an A?).

What’s to come

I’ll be back next week with an overview of two hand lettering exercises that have become my go to for warming up or finding and perfecting new styles, so stay tuned!

When I first started hand lettering, it felt like there weren’t many resources for me to use to learn, and it took me a while to really get serious and learn about purposefully improving my work. What was out there was scattered around, without a centralized place for me to find what I was looking for. So, I’m starting this blog in an effort to be that centralized resource for you.

The goal is to create tutorials and resource posts I think will be helpful to you and wish I’d had when I was starting out, including links to resources from other fabulous artists that have helped me learn along the way.

So, I want to hear from you: If you’re a more experienced hand letterer, what’s one thing you’d wish you’d known in the beginning? If you’re just starting out, what’s something you’re having a hard time getting the hang of that you’d like a tutorial on?


  • Can’t wait to see next week’s post! I’m really struggling with the weight of calligraphy style hand lettering. At least, I think it’s called the weight haha. I know up strokes should be thin while down strokes should be thick with calligraphy style, but for me it just never flows very well from letter to letter.

    • I struggled with that early on too. I’m definitely planning to do a tutorial for it!

  • Joy

    I’m enjoying reading your posts! I wonder if you could tell us a bit about any rules you employ for ‘swirly bits’, that is, embellishments around the actual lettering. Also I tend to struggle with ‘r’s and ‘s’s, as it’s often hard to link them to the letters that come before them when writing in a script style. If you have any tips that would be great!

    • Hi Joy! The embellishments/flourishes are definitely what I struggle with the most as well! I find it’s easier if you look where your layout might benefit from having a flourish to balance things out, and then looking at what letter is best positioned to have the flourish come from. If you force it, it will look obvious that you forced it. Remember that when you’re creating a flourish, the lines trap negative space within them, so the important thing is to really focus on balance! Eventually you’ll get to a point where you can freehand a great flourish in one stroke, but to start, sketch, tweak, resketch, tweak, repeat!

      As far as s’s and r’s go, I like to just practice different letter combinations over and over, and then look back and tweak as needed. Once you’ve tweaked it to where you like it, trace it a few times so you start to build a muscle memory of how those letters should connect. Practice with connections that start at the baseline, like after an a or t, and ones that start from closer to the x-height, like an o or a w, so you cover all your bases!

      • Joy

        Hi Amber,

        Thank you so much for your tips! I’m sorry for not replying sooner, I’ve only just seen your comments. I will definitely try to bare that in mind about flourishes, and just get practicing.

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