Interested in diving into brush lettering but don’t know where to begin? This guide is perfect for beginners and will show you exactly how to get started. With any luck, you’ll be mesmerizing friends with intricate brush lettering designs in no time!
It’s no wonder that brush lettering has become so popular recently. While traditional dip pen calligraphy creates stunning letterforms, we all know it can be a bit messy. There’s also something comforting about holding a real brush pen in your hands. The brush pen looks like a traditional, no-frills pen -- a tool that you’ve used to draw ever since you were a kid -- but unlike a normal pen, it has a twist that makes it perfect for drawing beautiful and intricate letterforms.
In case you were intimidated by brush lettering, we’re here to put you at ease. With enough time and practice, anyone can be an amazing brush letterer. This guide will get you started off right and is perfect for total beginners who want to see if brush lettering is right for them. We’ll show you what supplies to buy, the basic anatomy of a letterform, how to draw basic strokes, advanced lettering techniques like bounce lettering, and much more. Read it from the beginning, or feel free to skip around. Most of all, enjoy the start of your brush lettering adventure!
One of the first steps on the path to brush lettering nirvana is making sure you have the right tools at your disposal. The type of brush you use will have a huge impact on the quality of your designs. There are a ton of brush pens out there to choose from, but with the help of one of our top teachers Peggy Dean (check out her amazing Instagram too), we’ve narrowed the selection down to the very best brush pens on the market.
Kuretake Bimoji Brush Pen - Extra Fine
The extra fine tip makes it perfect for small to medium lettering.
Kuretake Bimoji Brush Pen - Fine
This pen’s fine tip makes it an ideal choice for medium lettering designs.
Kuretake Disposable Pocket Brush Pen - Extra Fine
No letterform is too small for this brush’s extra fine tip. Plus it comes in 12 vibrant colors!
Kuretake Disposable Pocket Brush Pen - Fine
This brush’s fine tip makes it an awesome choice for small to medium lettering project. Comes in 12 colors and gives the artist a huge amount of control and maneuverability.
Pentel Fude Touch Sign Pen
A wonderful pen for medium lettering. Comes in 12 colors.
Tombow Fudensouke Brush Pen -- Hard Tip
A great small lettering pen that helps you achieve those razor sharp, hairline upstrokes. Comes in black and gray.
Tombow Fudenosuke Brush Pen -- Soft Tip
Great for medium lettering projects. Also available in black and gray.
Prismacolor Brush Tip Markers
Super flexible brush pen that’s ideal for small and medium lettering projects. Comes in 8 different colors.
Docraft Artiste Dual Point Brush Pens
Ideal pens for medium lettering. The dual points and 36 color choices make these brush pens super versatile.
Tombow Dual Brush Pens
The large brush tip makes this an ideal pen for larger lettering projects. It also comes with a color blender for ombré and watercolor effects. (More about that later!)
Now that you’re all stocked up with top of the line brush pens, we can get down to the nitty gritty. Just like basketball, baseball, or even juggling, the key to a solid brush lettering career is strong foundations, which in this case is a firm understanding of lettering anatomy.
Artists create fonts and letters by following guidelines. Not figurative guidelines, but instead literal lines on the page that help you determine the dimensions of the letterforms. There are 5 major lines you could use to guide your designs.
Perhaps the most important of the guidelines, the Baseline is where all the letters (both uppercase and lowercase) are supposed to sit.
The Midline (also called the Median or the X Height) serves as the upper bound for your lowercase letters. So a lowercase x is drawn from the midline to the baseline.
The Caps Height line is the top limit of the uppercase letters. An uppercase N, for instance, extends from the baseline to the Caps Height.
Certain lowercase letters like g, y, and q have tails that fall below the baseline. The line that those tails fall on is called the Descender.
The most complex of the 5 guidelines. Similar to the Descender, this line is the upper bound for lowercase letters that have extensions above the midline. Certain letters that reach the Ascender are h, b, and f. The tails of these ascending letters often reach above many capital letters!
Congrats! You’re officially a letter anatomy pro. Now that you know your Ascenders from your Descenders, we can get down to the fun part -- the actual brush lettering. As Peggy Dean points out in her class Brush Lettering: The Beginner’s Guide, most letterforms that you’ll create with your brush pen will be composed of one of these 10 basic strokes. It’d be a great idea to practice these strokes as much as you can. A mastery of these basic strokes will lead to a mastery of all types of letterforms in no time.
When you’re starting to practice these strokes, remember to hold the brush pen at a 45-degree angle in order to get the best streaks.
The downstroke and the upstroke are the atomic units of brush lettering. They’ve got a yin/yang thing going on -- the two basic strokes on which all other strokes are formed. The downstrokes are supposed to be your thicker strokes; they’re where you apply pressure to the paper. In order to master this most important of strokes, practice a bunch of downstrokes straight from the ascender to the descender, then practice some that are at a bit of an angle. Make sure to get a feel for the pen too, as each brush pen will make downstrokes differently and require a different amount of pressure.
The upstroke, on the other hand, is supposed to be your thinner stroke. You should apply a minimal amount of pressure to the brush pen, with the nib only grazing the paper. Your hairline upstrokes should contrast heavily with your thicker downstrokes. Practice your upstrokes from the descender to the ascender then practice some that are at a bit of an angle.
3. Entry Stroke
The next basic brush stroke that you should become comfortable with is the entry stroke. It’s a light upstroke with an added curve. The entry stroke will lead up into (and serves as an entrance to) many of your letters. The ideal entry stroke will curve up from the Baseline and land at the Midline.
The next brush stroke on your list is the underturn, a u shaped stroke that transitions from a thick downstroke to an airy upstroke. It’s important that you apply enough pressure on the downstroke to create the thick part of the underturn, and then ease up the pressure on the upstroke to create the thinner part. Transitioning pressure without lifting your pen is a pivotal skill for you to develop as you learn more about brush lettering.
The overturn stroke is the Jenny to the underturn’s Forrest Gump. The overturn is the shape of a lowercase n and starts off with a lightly applied upstroke. Then it transitions back down into a thicker downstroke. Again, being able to transition pressure across a letterform will come in handy countless times as you work on becoming a brush lettering black belt.
6. Compound Curve 1: Thin Thick Thin
The next two strokes we’ll be looking at are the compound curves. The first compound curve is an overturn transitioning into an underturn. You’ll be starting with a super thin upstroke, transitioning to a thicker downstroke, and then lifting the pressure again to create an upstroke.
7. Compound Curve 2: Thick Thin Thick
This next curve is basically the inverse of the first compound curve. It’s an underturn curve transitioning into an overturn. You’ll be starting with a super thick downstroke, laying off the pressure to create a thin upstroke, and then coming back with another downstroke.
Your oval will form the basis for many of the letters you’ll eventually be creating. Peggy advises you to think of the oval as fitting within a square framework. You should start with a slightly curved upstroke near the upper right corner, and then come back with a curved downstroke to the left, and then another light upstroke connecting everything together. To give yourself some more space, try practicing these ovals from the midline to the descender.
9. Ascender Loop Stem
This ascender loop stem is a basic stroke that you’ll use a lot in your lowercase letters -- specifically ones that have an ascending tail (letters like b or d). You’ll start on the right side with an upstroke loop, and then you’ll scoot around with a thick downstroke on the left to close the loop. Try drawing it from the Baseline to the Ascender line.
10. Descender Loop Stem
The last of the basic strokes, the descender loop stem, is mainly used for letters with descending tails -- your g’s, y’s, and j’s. You’ll start again on the right side, this time starting with a downstroke from the midline, and then you’ll scoot around, transitioning at the descender to an airy upstroke, finally closing the loop.
The next jump in your brush lettering game of hopscotch is combining those different basic brush strokes to form letterforms. There are no hard and fast rules for forming letters, but there are a couple principles that can help point you in the right direction, especially as you’re starting off.
1. Remember Your Guidelines
Drawing your guidelines before you actually start any brushing any letters will really help in making sure your letterforms are consistent. It will create a visual framework for you to focus on the mechanics of your movements. Try drawing your guidelines with a pencil so that you’ll be able to erase them easily when the time comes.
2. Start with an i
As one of our teachers (Carmel Wilson) recommends, start with drawing an i as it’s the most basic of the letters and can usually be accomplished with a single stroke.
3. Use That i to Create Other Letters
Carmel (in her class Brush Lettering Essentials: Starting Out) also shows how you can then use that base letter (the i) to create other letters. For instance, your m can be three i’s that are connected by two upstrokes. It’s important to think about your letters in relation to each other so that your lettering looks consistent.
Before you know it, you’ll have created an entire lettering alphabet
4. Trace Over Other People’s Alphabets
When you’re first starting out, Andrea Campos shows you how it may be helpful to find some other alphabets and trace over them. We recommend investing in a lightbox in order to trace the different letterform designs. Eventually, if you trace enough of the alphabets, the brush motions will root themselves in your muscle memory, and you’ll be able to incorporate the letterforms into your original projects.
Once you get those basic letterforms down, you might want to start experimenting with some more advanced techniques to really make your pieces stand out.
Play with the Guidelines
A very simple way to have fun with your brush lettering is to play with your guidelines, an adjustment that will then affect your letterforms. For instance, Carmel Wilson shows what happens when she lowers and then raises the median line.
Peggy Dean shows brush letterers how they can add bounce lettering to give their pieces some serious pizzazz. First you start off by sketching your basic guidelines and brushing your word as you normally would. Then, you notice where the letters naturally dip and rise to decide which features you’d like to accentuate. Peggy actually draws arrows on each letter and then references that quick blueprint when she draws the bouncy version. Then, just redraw the word while referring to your blueprint. Peggy for instance draws “Hello” and then lowers the h past the baseline while raising the e above the midline.
In her class, Brush Lettering: The Beginner’s Guide, Peggy Dean also explains how to create an Ombre Effect. This technique is super easy to learn and is sure to elevate your brush lettering to sensei status. It basically allows different colored letters to blend into each other, creating an effect that’s super eye-catching. First you take a darker pen and you scribble on a blending palette. If you don’t have a blending pallette any piece of plastic will do. Then you dip the lighter pen into the darker ink on the blending palette until it’s saturated in that darker color. When you begin to write, the ink will then start off as the darker color and will eventually transform back into the original, lighter color. Pretty cool stuff!
Peggy Dean also shows us how adding a watercolor background is another really fun technique that you can accomplish with a simple piece of plastic. First, you scribble one or two of your brush pens onto the piece of plastic; then, you spray it with a mist of water; next, you lay the plastic sheet over your paper, rub it into the paper, drag, dab, and let dry. Before you know it, you’ll have an amazing watercolor background on which to brush letter.
While this guide isn’t too shabby, we definitely recommend that you check out some classes to really dig deep into the basics. These classes are taught by brush lettering pros who really know their stuff -- they’ll show step by step instructions on how to draw the basic strokes, the more advanced techniques, and a lot of the classes even come with stroke worksheets and brush lettering practice alphabets.
This is a comprehensive 49 minute class that goes through choosing a brush pen, going through the basic strokes, and even designing a project. Peggy’s an amazing teacher and makes brush lettering look easy while understanding the kind of practice it takes to truly get good.
Peggy’s class also provides students with an extensive brush pen guide along with three basic strokes practice sheets (guidelines included). She also included a folder full of straight and slanted practice guides that are integral for any beginner.
Carmel Wilson’s class is an extremely informative tutorial, going through the tools you need, how to warm up, why the guidelines are so important, the letters and their relationships within an alphabet, and how to custom brush letter a quote.
Carmel’s class also features an amazing, basic strokes worksheet as well as a fully traceable brush lettering alphabet. In addition, Carmel’s class includes a supply list featuring brush pens, microns and fineliners, and other basic brush lettering accessories.
This is a super accessible, 28 minute class that really nails down the basics. Andrea is a great teacher and she covers a lot of ground handily. She shows students how to get comfortable with their brush pens, why guidelines are so important when starting out, how to draw letters correctly, when (and how) to break the rules, and even goes through a project example. Her class already has 5,197 students and 89 completed projects.
Brush Lettering Instagrams
Let’s be honest, we know you’re already probably lurking on Instagram day and night! Why not keep up to date on some of the top brush letterers (and their creations) while you’re at. There’s no better way to get inspired than by learning from the best.
Can’t get enough brush lettering? Skillshare’s easy, accessible, and verifiably awesome brush lettering classes will help you become a pro in no time. Check out Peggy Dean’s Brush Lettering: The Beginner’s Guide, one of our most popular brush lettering classes and the foundation for much of this guide.