Slow Down
26 Aug 2015

Slow Down: Great Lettering Takes Time

We’ve talked a bit about looking to other lettering artists for inspiration, and I’m sure you’ve seen countless examples of the great work you can find in the form of print ads, book covers, products and wedding invitations, just to name a few. These polished, perfectly imperfect pieces can provide motivation and inspiration, but they can also paralyze you. Will my work ever look that good?

The short answer is yes, it can. The more accurate answer is: yes, but not without time and effort. There are no shortcuts.

When I first started lettering, I didn’t realize the time these amazing artists were putting in. It’s hard to get a feel for the time commitment of a project when all you see is the final version. Even if an artist posts process shots, you still don’t see how much time per day, or per project, they’re putting in. This caused some serious frustration, because I was convinced they were achieving detailed, high quality work in a flash – so in my mind, not only was their work much better than mine, but they were putting it out faster, too.

This simply isn’t true. In fact, a lot of them were probably going slower than me – which is part of the reason they were able to create such intricate detail and maintain near-perfect lines.

How Long Should a Lettering Piece Take?

Sketching One Piece

Obviously, the answer to this question depends on the project and the scope of the piece. The time you put in should scale according to the requirements of the work. A quick piece for your daily Instagram post is a very different time commitment from a hand lettered poster for a client.

My time commitment for an average client lettering piece (not including digitization) is generally 3-5 hours, depending on the piece’s complexity. Many of my simpler Instagram posts only take an hour. Between thumbnail sketching, measuring guides, framing, adding the body, shaping up the style, tweaking, re-sketching, and inking – building a strongly composed lettering piece is no small task.

Even if you’re a master hand letterer, your drawing speed has a limit if you want clean lines, and want the image on paper match the quality of one in your head. You’ll either spend the time taking it slow and doing it the right way first, or you’ll spend additional time drawing and redrawing. If you can’t seem to get natural curves and precise straights, slow down and see how you improve.

How Long Will It Take Me To Get Better?

Practice Slowly

To truly master a craft, you need to show up every day with meaningful practice to address your shortcomings.

I’ve been seriously hand lettering (practicing every day) for over 2 years, and I still see plenty of room for improvement in my work. Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours concept didn’t become widespread for no reason (which has been debunked a bit, but the sentiment of dedication and hard work is still important).

This isn’t to say you won’t be considered good (or even great!) after only a year or two – your initial improvement WILL be much faster than your later improvement, especially if you’re intentional about practicing the fundamentals. But just as you wouldn’t expect to be a piano prodigy with a few months work, you shouldn’t expect to be a Sean McCabe or Jessica Hische level lettering artist right away. You can be good enough to attract clients in a shorter time frame, but don’t think your improvement stops the moment you start building a client base.

Sean McCabe maintains that in order to build an audience and establish yourself as an authority in a field, you need to show up every day for two years. It’s not a magic formula wherein you half ass your practice for two years and stumble upon a pool of perfect clients – it’s about showing up, pursuing your passion, and honing your skills. That’s all fine and good (and in my experience, about right!), but no one thinks about a project, hobby, or skill in two year increments – that’s way too daunting!

The most important thing is to break your improvement into actionable steps. It can be overwhelming when you see all of the different techniques you need to improve upon. Pick one that excites you, and work on it consistently until you see improvement. When you’re happy with your level of improvement on that technique, or feel yourself getting bored or burnt out, pick something new to work on. This is why 30 or 100 day challenges are fantastic for improving your lettering – they provide hyper-focused periods of improvement in a specific area. Chain a few of these together, and you’re well on your way to a polished skill set!

Keep things fresh and make sure you’re enjoying every single day of practice. The challenges of learning hand lettering should excite you, not cause you to procrastinate or dread practicing. In the beginning, it’s about making sure you actually like what you’re doing, if you have any prayer of committing to it long-term. If you hate practicing brush lettering, that technique might just not be your style. But, if you’re jumping around hating every technique you try, maybe lettering is a passing hobby rather than a serious pursuit.

Don’t Get Discouraged

One important thing to keep in mind when you get discouraged about your current level of lettering is this: everyone started where you started. Every expert you see was once a beginner. Scroll back through some of your favorite lettering artists’ feeds, and compare their work from a couple of years ago to now. I’d be willing to bet you’ll notice an enormous difference in the consistency of their letters, the quality of their compositions, and the accuracy of their lines. Improvement may feel slow, but it will happen steadily if you regularly show up. 

Just look at the difference between one of Sean McCabe’s first Instagram posts (213 weeks ago) and one of his most recent. The level of quality now compared to 4 years ago is astounding. Or my own from 101 weeks ago to something more recent. Slightly less astounding, but still a marked improvement.

The bottom line is this: be patient and practice. All valuable skills take time to learn and master, and hand lettering is no different. And I’m right there with you! I know in a year’s time I’ll be comparing my work then to my work now, and I’ll be a little embarrassed at the work I was putting out. Even the best hand lettering artists still have room for improvement – it’d be a pretty mundane existence to not find new projects within your craft that challenge you and push your limits. Draw energy from the challenges ahead, and rise to meet them.

  • Iris

    Thanks for this encouraging post. It can be a bit frustrating when on some days it seems like I see no improvement in my lettering skills. Knowing that it took even the best letterers at least two years to get where they are today gives me hope that with the same amount of dedication and hard work, I could hope to put out works as good as theirs.

    • Hi Iris! I totally know how you feel. Some days it really feels like I’ve plateaued. When that happens, I try to find something new within lettering to refocus my energy a bit – maybe it’s trying out a new tool, learning a new lettering style, or starting up a side project based around a certain theme or personal challenge!