29 Jul 2015

Mastering The Basics: Formal Script Letterforms

Script lettering is easily my favorite style of hand lettering. It’s versatile – it can jump from whimsical and playful to serious and formal, and lends itself to flourishes and ornaments. It’s also incredibly easy to customize and make your own. Script lettering is often the most indentifying style indicator when I’m looking at another hand lettering artist’s work – Lauren Hom and Molly Jacques have developed distinctive script styles I can spot from a mile away.

Today, we’re going to take a look at how to create formal script lettering. But before we start, let’s take a look at the basics of script type.

Script Overview

Script lettering can take many forms and personalities, but the fundamentals of script text remain the same. The basic characteristic of script type is that the letters flow together and connect.

When you write in cursive, it’s generally done with a single stroke, but when you’re drawing script lettering, it’s more of a build up of layers.

Learning calligraphy is not a must for improving your script letterforms (and drawing script is very different than writing it with a calligraphy pen), but it helped solidify a few concepts for me. At a minimum, you’ll need to understand a little about the mechanics of calligraphy, as that has influenced how modern script looks.

When you’re writing with a calligraphy pen, the nib tines (the two triangular parts that form the tip) control the flow of ink. When your pen is moving upward (either straight up or up and to the right, generally) the two tines are pushed close together, letting out the smallest amount of ink. This is referred to as an upstroke or a hairline. As you drag the nib back down the page, the angle of the nib against the paper causes the tines to open up, allowing more ink to flow and creating a heavier stroke. This is called a downstroke.

Unless you’re working in monoline script, where all of the strokes are the same thickness regardless of their direction, you’ll want to incorporate contrasting upstroke and downstroke thickness. Different calligraphy nibs provide different levels of contrast between upstrokes and downstrokes, so stylistically the level of contrast is up to you.

Formal Script

The key characteristic for a formal script style is consistency. The angle of your letters, the size of your bowls, the height of your ascenders and descenders, and the x-height of lowercase letters, and the cap-height of capital letters are all consistent. To achieve a formal script, I rely on a lot of guidelines – eyeballing it is not the way to go!

Set Up Guides

Formal Script Guidelines


I generally draw my guides very lightly on my sketching paper, but you can also draw them a bit darker and layer a piece of tracing paper on top, or use regular paper with a light pad. This way, you can reuse the same guides for multiple projects, which saves time if you’re doing a few pieces in the same style.

For formal script, set up a baseline, x-height, and cap-height. The x-height dictates how tall your lower case letters will be, and the cap-height dictates the height of your capital letters and the height of letters ascenders like “l” or “h”. For most script, my x-height is half of the cap-height or taller. Sometimes, I don’t want tall ascenders and my x-height will be 2/3 – 3/4 of the cap-height.

Next, you’ll want to add a series of angled lines, which will help your formal script maintain a consistent angle. The angle is entirely up to you, but is generally between 35-55 degrees and just depends on how angled you want your script to be. For this example, my cap-height is 2 inches, and my angled lines appear every 3/4″. If my letters are shorter, I’ll tighten the space between my angled lines, so I always have a guide near my letter.

Frame Out Your Letters

Formal Script Skeleton

As outlined in last week’s post on sketching, I like to draw just the skeleton of my letters first. This helps me reconcile any kerning issues before I’ve spent a lot of time on a piece and my drawing has become too precious. When you’ve spent a lot of time on a piece, the mistakes you find will still irk you, but you won’t feel as inclined to fix them.

For this example, I’m working on the word “learn”. It has a good mixture of different strokes, so this is a pretty good word to learn from.

Following your guidelines, draw the skeleton of your letters. Be sure that the angle of your letters aligns with the angle of your guidelines, and focus on making sure the spacing between letters (kerning) is balanced. Find similar shapes within letters (like the curve of the e and the a) and make sure they curve the same way, and are the same width. Many curved letters will read as too small if they exactly align with your x-height – lowercase r’s, s’s, and o’s should extend a bit above the x-height (and o’s should also go below the baseline!).

Add the Body

Formal Script Body

Now it’s time to add the body to your script! This is where you add any additional weight to the downstrokes and upstrokes. If you are struggling to understand where thicks and thins belong, take a look at your drawing. Anywhere the pencil went down, or down and to the right, is where a thicker downstroke belongs. Anywhere the pencil went up, or up and to the right, is where a thinner upstroke belongs. It can be helpful to lightly trace over your skeleton, and stop and add up or down arrows next to strokes.

I add a little weight to the left and right of my initial downstroke, so the skeleton remains somewhere in the middle. There are two important things to focus on as you thicken your downstroke:

  1. The downstroke should transition gradually into your upstrokes. Notice how the weight at the top and bottom of my downstrokes gets gradually thinner.
  2. The downstroke should be a consistent width across every letter.

If you want your upstrokes to be thicker than a hairline, this is the time to add that as well. I follow along my original line, slightly offset, and repeat until my hairlines are consistently the thickness I want.

Add the Style

Formal Script Final

If you are planning to add flourishes or stylistic choices like only partially filling in the strokes or adding a drop shadow or line shadow, now is the time! If not, work on finalizing your lines and polishing up the sketch, so you’re ready for ink.

Keep practicing

The key to improving the consistency of your formal script lettering is to practice. Practice individual letterforms, and practicing connecting them to other letterforms. The letters in “learn” are pretty easy to connect, but some letters have more complicated connections (like connecting to and from a lower case “o”). The more you practice and refine your sketches, the more progress you’ll see. It can take a long time to master drawing script lettering – even if your handwritten cursive looks great!

What aspect of formal script lettering do you struggle with? For me, it’s loopier letters like p or q.