The cool thing about lettering is that almost anyone can do it. You just need a surface and a way to get some letters on it. You can build from there. (And, if you want my thoughts on which tools and books to build with, I have a page just for that, too.)
Every lettering artist has their own process, and you get to decide what works for you. What worked for me was hearing a lot of different lettering artist’s approaches to lettering so I could see what parts of the process were standard and where there was some flexibility. After a lot of trial and error, the process I used to make hand lettered art has become pretty routine, even as my skill level continues to develop.
In the spirit of paying it forward, I thought it was time I shared this routine. To illustrate how I make hand lettered art, we’re going to take a look at a piece I did for someone special to me. She keeps a low profile, so I”ll call her G here.
I hope you find my process for G’s piece interesting and maybe even useful.
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1. Decide what to say.
Tip: You can start with a favorite quote or, better yet, your own words! Phrases 10 words or fewer tend to work best.
Usually I start by thinking of what it is that I want to letter. I keep a running note on Google Keep for ideas as they come to me. If you’re making lettering to sell versus for personal use, it’s a good idea to use your own words so you don’t run into intellectual property issues for monetizing someone else’s words. Still, people who aren’t you and me have said some wonderful things. In this particular case, G already had a specific quote in mind, the beautiful phrase: “The entire sum of existence is the magic of being needed by just one person.”
The entire sum of existence is the magic of being needed by just one person.Violet Putnam
2. Get inspired with reference materials.
Tip: Vintage books and packaging are a great source of inspiration! So is Pinterest!
For this piece, G wanted to pair the quote with a photograph. This served as the primary inspiration for this lettering piece. It was a photo I had taken of G and her sweetie walking arm in arm, on the beach in South Carolina. The two main feelings you get from the photo are: “relaxed” and “in love.” G gave me permission to share this special photograph, which you can see below. Doesn’t it just make you melt a little?
For the lettering itself, I paged through In Progress by Jessica Hiche, which is a favorite lettering reference. Her compositions always spark my imagination. I especially like to notice how she arranges her designs and which fonts she decides to pair together.
Finally, I looked through 20 Ways to Draw Everything to see if they had any examples of shells, since some shell elements would fit the vibe nicely and be a nod to G’s habit of collecting them. I don’t consider myself an illustrator, but I do draw when I need to in order to get out an idea. Because of my lack of confidence, having reference for some easy line drawings is especially appealing to me.
3. Sketch — Use pencil to make thumbnail sketches of different possible designs.
Tip: As you draw your sketches, consider: Which words are the most important? Where should the line breaks be? Challenge yourself to be quick with each design and try out at least 3 different options.
Now the rubber starts hitting the road! By the way, this is the part where every time I get nervous and worry I won’t be able to think of any halfway decent designs and everyone will find out that I’m a complete fraud. But, I use some of that adrenaline to power over the fear and I pick up pencil and paper and mock up some options for how it all might come together.
For this piece, the most important words were “magic” and “one,” with “needed,” “just” and “person” being secondarily important. I was looking for ways to highlight those words while maintaining legibility of the entire quote and ways to allude to the ocean vibe.
For sketching, I like to use a mechanical pencil (my favorite is the Papermate Sharpwriter 2). It’s always sharp, it doesn’t dent my paper, and it’s easy to erase. Speaking of erasing, I use (and use and use and use) Pentel Hi-Polymer Block Eraser in white. I also like to work on dot grid paper for sketches because it makes it easy to balance my composition and write in a straight line.
4. Choose a direction and make a rough draft of your favorite thumbnail sketch.
Tip: Copy your favorite thumbnail sketch in pencil on grid paper to the same dimensions your finished piece will be.
I sent the three options to G asked what she thought. Basically, she liked the top half of A and the bottom half of B. I played around a bit, but combining the diagonal “magic” with the arc “needed” was too busy. Instead, I tried to rework the bottom half of A to create a more balanced design and arrived at what you see below. G approved, and I had my direction.
5. Make your final draft (!)
Tip: Draw yourself a grid and sketch in pencil before you add ink. Wait a few minutes for the ink to dry, then erase the pencil.
This phase involves more math and precision than anything else. First up, I cut down a fancy piece of paper that would be the home of the final piece. I chose some nice Arches hot pressed watercolor paper. This paper absorbs the water color wash I intended to add later while also not causing the ink I’d use for the lettering to bleed.
Now comes the math part. My final sketch was 2″ x 3″, and the final version was going to be 4″ x 6,” but would include a small boarder so that nothing got cut off when it got framed. To help translate the sketch to the final version, I drew a simple grid on top of it, which I also drew on top of the piece of paper. This would help me see where all of the elements would go in relation to each other.
Next, I started very lightly penciling in the elements of the design. Virtually no one, not even super successful lettering artists, freehand their final pieces — so this is a step you’ll never outgrow.
Now is the scariest part for me, inking the final sketch. There’s no going back with ink. If it’s totally botched, it’s botched, and you need to start over. All of the steps leading to this one moment are my least favorite part (drawing a grid, translating a sketch), so I get super nervous about the possibility of having to repeat them. To help things go as smoothly as possible, I spend about 15 minutes warming up with lettering on scrap paper using the pens I will use on the final draft. This warm up is something that artists of all skill levels should do. It helps the ink flow well in the pen and helps your muscles work smoothly. This is also the point when I make a final decision regarding which pens I will use. In this case, I knew I would be using pens with black ink because black has the best legibility on light paper. Of my options, I decided to use Sakura’s Micron pens because I had a full matching set of varying widths, and they are archival quality. When I warmed up each of the pens, I also decided (and wrote down) which size I would use for which element in the design.
Once the inking is done, it can be tempting to erase the pencil right away so you can get a good look at the piece. Don’t do that! You need to wait for the ink to dry or it will smudge. For pieces like this (read: time-intensive), I like to wait a full 24 hours to erase. It’s probably unnecessary, but better safe than sorry. I also like to use a fresh eraser so no pencil smudges from previous work are accidentally transferred in the process. I try to erase slowly and only exactly as much as is needed to pick up the pencil marks. I don’t want to damage the paper or pull up any of the inked design. I also like to take a nice photo at this point to capture the nearly-complete design!
And, yes, I did say nearly-complete! There was still one more thing to do. I wanted to add a light water color wash to this piece, so off I went to my local art store (Wet Paint) to find the perfect shade. I ended up selecting Daniel Smith Extra Fine Watercolors’ Nickel Titanate Yellow. This decision was informed by the photograph I used as inspiration for this piece and with which this lettering will be eventually framed. This particular shade of yellow complemented the blues from the ocean and picked up on the color of G’s husband’s shirt.
Back at home, I used a flat, wide watercolor brush to test the flow and pigmentation of the paint so I could get an idea of how I wanted to use it in this piece. Then I used masking tape to secure the lettering piece to cardboard. This keeps the paper from moving as I paint and keeps it from curling as the paint dries. Then, I applied the pigment to the lettering piece.
6. Share — Share with someone in real life or on social media.
Tip: I’d love to see your work! Post on Instagram and tag @words.by.emily with what you make. I’d be so happy to see and send some internet love your way.
The first way I like to share my finished lettering pieces is by taking a final, nice picture of them. To do this, I use my iPhone camera, a sun lamp, and some pieces of white foam core board I’ve taped together to make a light box. I like to add a few contextual elements so that the final image has some visual interest. In this case, I added some seashells I had from the beach the inspiration photo was taken, the tube of yellow watercolor paint, and one of the Micron pens I used. I edit the final photo in Adobe Lightroom on my phone (Bonus tip: I start my photo editing by turning up the whites and turning down the blacks).
G lives across the country from me, so I had to mail her the artwork. I used a hardcover children’s book to protect the artwork, taped the cover shut and sent it to G via USPS media mail (with insurance).
G received the artwork in a few days’ time. She brought it, and the special photo, to her favorite framers so that the two could be formally paired. The results are quite sweet.
And thus concludes my process for making hand lettered art. I hope you found the details for how to hand letter helpful!