Want to dive into hand lettering but have no idea where to start? This free guide is ideal for beginners and will show you everything you need to get started. With a little practice, you’ll be designing your very own hand lettering masterpieces in no time!
Hand lettering designs are everywhere these days. From magazine covers to subway advertisements, all the way to restaurant boards and movie posters, this creative form of expression has truly seeped into the fabric of popular culture. One of the reasons hand lettering is so popular is that it marries words, the building blocks of verbal communication, with a more visual way to represent ideas. A skilled hand letterer can take one phrase and interpret it 100 different ways in their designs -- each of those representations then conveying completely different meanings.
On a more basic note, hand lettering done right just looks beautiful. It’s an eye-catching medium for a ton of different projects -- everything from wedding invitations, to chalk boards, to book covers, to entire walls in your home. The best part is that unlike other more complicated art forms (calligraphy, I’m looking at you), you can understand the basics and get to lettering pretty quickly. All you need is a couple of hours and a uni-ball pen. This comprehensive guide (most of which was inspired by Mary Kate McDevitt’s class, Hand Lettering Essentials for Beginners) will go over the basics and get you started on your hand lettering adventure in no time.
Want to up your hand lettering game? Check out the best hand lettering tutorial on the internet.
Tools and Pens
If they say the best food is made from the best ingredients, the same idea can certainly be applied to hand lettering projects. The kinds of pens, pencils, and tools you use when hand lettering will have a huge impact on the quality of your project. Since there are so many tools out there -- from the really good to the really, really bad, we’ve decided to help narrow the list. Many of these supplies are the same ones used by Mary Kate in her Hand Lettering Essentials for Beginners class. You can buy many of these hand lettering supplies at your nearest arts and crafts store or on jetpens.com.
Dixon Ticonderoga #2 Pencil
Why are they called number 2 when these pencils are so obviously number 1 in our hearts? We all know these bad boys from our days in high school math class and they’re still the best pencils in the land. From a hand lettering perspective, these pencils are perfect to use when you’re sketching a rough copy of your design or experimenting with different lettering styles.
The Blackwing is like the Dixon Ticonderoga’s cooler older cousin. If you’re still in the sketch phase but want to present a more polished pencil drawing, trace your work with a Blackwing pencil. These pencils are made with softer lead and produce a much darker line quality than your Dixons. It’s a great pencil for handing in cleaner sketches to clients or for scanning a sketch into your computer.
Nothing beats a classic. When Mary Kate is ready to ink her drawing the first thing she reaches for is her trusty uni-ball pen. It’s got a fine, steady tip, a handling that everyone’s already comfortable with, and it draws dark, quality lines. Best of all you can pick one up in a convenience store. What’s not to love?
Sakura Pigma Graphic 1 Pen
Microns or fine tip marker pens like the Sakura Pigma Graphic 1 are great choices too, especially if you’re looking for a thicker line quality than the uni-ball can offer.
Pilot Fineliner Marker Pen, Fine Point, Black
Another fine tip marker that’s effective for drawing thicker letters or letters that don’t require as much attention to detail.
Kaweco Sport Pen
The Kaweco sport pen is a calligraphy pen that will do wonders for your lettering game. Unlike traditional calligraphy pens that require a messy dipping well, the ink cartridge is actually inside the Kaweco. It also has a fancier nib that’s just like the ones on calligraphy pens but with an exterior that’s much easier to handle.
Pilot Parallel Pen
The pilot parallel pen is another type of calligraphy pen that produces a very distinct (and novel) line quality. It has a special parallel plate nib that allows artists to write thick lines or paper thin lines with different strokes. You can also blend a single stroke from thick to thin with a slight flick of the wrist.
Tombow Fudensouke Brush Pen -- Soft Tip
These types of brush pens have actual brushes at the nib, as opposed to traditional pens with more rigid tips. They’re perfect for lettering projects where the artist is looking to give the letters a funner, brushier quality. Similar to the calligraphy pens, the cartridge is inside -- a feature which allows you to cleanly control the inkflow without having to dip the brush into a pool of ink.
Copic Wide -- 110
This Copic wide tip marker is a perfect lettering tool for experimenting with textures and broader stroke effects. Its massive nib allows you to create thick words in a snap, and after handling it, you’ll realize it’s meant to strut its stuff on bigger pieces of paper. It’s versatile, too. You can draw finer lines with just the edge of the pen, or thick lines by using the entire thing!
You probably have one of these laying around your house, but just in case you don’t, feel free to check out this classic, stainless steel ruler with cork backing. It’s sure to come in handy as you begin to sketch out your guidelines and the edges of your letters.
Another tool you probably haven’t thought about since math class. You absolutely need a compass if you’re planning on drawing letters on a curve. Any compass will do, but we recommend buying a more professional one as opposed to the compasses you used in middle school.
Light boxes are perfect for tracing your rougher pencil sketches over with ink. Simply turn on the light box, put your rough sketch down, and then put a new piece of paper over it. You’ll be able to see your lines clearly as your trace your new copy. Check out the ME456 A4 LED Light Box.
That’s right. Especially when you’re first starting out, basic computer paper is perfect for your needs. Feel free to sketch, make mistakes, throw out, rinse and repeat. If you start doing more professional designs, you may want to upgrade to more professional grade paper.
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Now that you’re fully equipped with the perfect pens, pencils, and other supplies, we can move on to the essentials. Similar to any other skill (soccer, ping pong, underwater basket weaving) the key to a complete understanding of hand lettering is a solid familiarity with the basics. In this case, aspiring hand letterers need to understand lettering anatomy.
Font designers create letters and fonts by adhering to certain guidelines. Not figurative guidelines -- instead, these are actual lines on the page that help artists figure out the size and shape of the letterforms. We’ll go over the 5 main guidelines hand letterers use to inform their craft.
The Baseline might be the most crucial of all the guidelines (which is why we listed it first). Quite simply the baseline is where all the different letters sit.
The Midline goes by many different names, including the Median Line or the X Height. Basically the Midline acts as the top boundary for the lowercase letters. A lowercase x, for instance would be drawn from the baseline, up to the midline.
The Caps Height is the upper limit line of the uppercase letters. For example, the uppercase N, extends from the Baseline to the Caps Height.
Specific lowercase letters like q, g, and y have longer tails or loops that drop under the baseline. The line that those tails fall on is called the Descender.
The Ascender might be the most complex of the 5 guidelines. A kindred spirit to the Descender, this line serves as the upper bound for lowercase letters that extend above the Midline. Certain lowercase letters that reach the Ascender are h, b, and f. The tails of these ascending letters may even climb above some uppercase letters.
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In order to play baseball you should probably become familiar with the terms “ball,” “bat,” and “base.” On a similar note, in order for you to grasp hand lettering, there’s a variety of terms you should also understand. Most of these terms actually describe the physical parts of specific letters. Did you know there was a name for the bar across a capital A? The dot on the letter i? The circle in a lowercase e? You will now! Acknowledging the different parts of each letter and appreciating how they relate to each other will allow you to become more deliberate as you create letters of your own.
PS: We know this glossary is kinda lengthy. Feel free to skip this section and head straight to “Understanding Hand-Drawn Letters” below (promise we won’t mind).
Most people first become familiar with this word in high school - scrolling through all the different Microsoft Word fonts in order to snazz up your lackluster history paper (though we all secretly knew Wingdings was the MVP). Quite simply, a serif is the tiny line attached at the end of a stroke of a letter. A typeface that has serifed letters is called a Serif Font.
On the other hand, sans-serif fonts are typefaces without (you guessed it) serifs. The letters on sans-serif fonts don’t have little tails. Most important application of this tidbit? Now you know that the widely beloved/intensely hated font “Comic Sans” is actually short for something like “Comic Booky Sans Serif Font.”
The apex is the point at the top of a letter where two different strokes meet. For instance, the apex is the point of the capital A. You can make your apexes sharp, rounded, or blunt depending on the vibe you’d like you letters to have.
The crossbar is the horizontal lettering stroke that crosses across the uppercase A and H. The stroke that goes across the lowercase e is also called a crossbar. Experiment with your crossbar by making it thicker, lighter, or uniquely angled.
Though you probably learned about writing script in middle school (and then never used it again besides signing your name), it doesn’t hurt to go over the concepts behind this style again. Script is a fluid type of lettering that mimics cursive handwriting. Most of the letters connect with each other in an elegant, flowing style.
The bow is the rounded bottom section of the capital letter B.
While the bow of the capital letter B usually connects with the main vertical stroke, the Open Bow is an example of a bow that doesn’t connect and instead stops halfway.
The stem is the name for the main vertical stroke of a letter. All the other strokes branch out from the main letter stem.
The vertical or horizontal stroke of a letter that doesn’t connect to a stem on one or both sides of the letter.
The counter is the enclosed space of a letter. For instance the circular part of an uppercase Q or the empty space surrounded by a lowercase o would be called the counter.
The eye is basically the counter for the lowercase e.
Contrary to popular belief, not all voids are meant to be filled. The void in letter anatomy is the open (often pointed) space between two strokes -- most prominently featured in the lowercase v and w.
The vertex is a concept in letter anatomy that sort of sounds like the word vortex, and that’s where the similarities end. Instead, the vertex is the point at the bottom of a letter where two different strokes meet. The W, for instances, has two different vertexes at its base.
Ever wonder what you call the dot on top of an i or j? It’s a tittle! Fun fact: the phrase “to the t” is short for “to the tittle” -- for whatever reason we eventually dropped the ittle part.
The bowl is the fully enclosed, round part of a letter. The curvy part of the lowercase b and d is the bowl. Playing with the size and shape of the bowl is a great way to experiment as you take on more lettering projects.
The ear is the tiny flourish extending off the bowl of the lowercase g or the curved flourish on some lowercase r’s.
A swash is basically an exaggerated serif. It’s a flourish that extends one of the strokes of an uppercase letter.
The foot refers to the very bottom of a letter with a straight stroke. You’d refer to the bottom of the lowercase p as the foot of the p.
The tail is basically another word for the descending (or downward) stroke on a variety of letters. The main lowercase letters that have tails are the g, j, p, q, and y. The tail is the part of the letter that extends to the descender line.
The spine is the central curved stroke of a lowercase or uppercase S.
The spur is a small offshoot of a main stroke, not necessarily at the end of the stroke.
The cross stroke is the horizontal line that intersects the main stroke of the lowercase t or f. Although the cross stroke is confused for the cross bar, the two are actually pretty different. Cross bars connect two different strokes whereas cross strokes intersect main strokes.
The terminal is another name for the end of a letter that doesn’t have a serif attached to it. The ball terminal is an extended and often rounded terminal with a tiny protruding ball extending from it.
A ligature is the connecting of two different letters through a line, curve, or loop. Certain letters lend themselves to ligatures more easily. For instance, hand lettering artists can combine the two cross strokes of a pair of t’s to create a ligature.
The dropline is an outline artists add to their letters to give them depth.
A dropshadow is basically a dropline that gives the letter depth plus the additional effect of shading. Drawing a drop shadow isn’t difficult, but it requires you to plan which way you’d imagine light would fall on the letters.
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Understanding Hand-Drawn Letters
The next step in your journey is arguably the most important -- learning how to actually draw a letter. The fact that you’re physically drawing the letters is what differentiates hand lettering from simple writing. Each letter is its own miniature project, projects that require you as the artist to make distinct creative choices. Mary Kate McDevitt breaks down letter drawing into 4 distinct steps that’ll make constructing letters a breeze, even for beginners. When going through these steps, it’d be a good idea to sketch the letters with either your Dixon Ticonderoga or your Blackwing pencil.
1. Draw the Frame of the Letter
The first step is simply drawing the letter as you would normally write it. This very basic written representation will serve as the skeleton for your letter, no matter how decorative you make it later on. We recommend drawing the letter using your guidelines so that you can make sure it’s spaced evenly and in the correct proportions.
2. Add Weight to the Letter
During this step, you can take the frame of your letter and expand it outward. Mary Kate advises you to think of drawing the letter in terms of drawing shapes. You can think of the A, for instance, as drawing two rectangles. Then, you could take your ruler and draw two rectangles at an angle and one rectangle (the crossbar) connecting them.
3. Add Style Details to the Letter
After you have a more fleshed out drawing for your letter, it’s time to add your style details. We’ll go over which styles there are and how to choose them later, but for now you’re determining what types of serifs to add (if any), and the thickness, angles, and shape of the curves.
4. Add Finishing Details to the Letters
Now is the time to give your lettering some more pizazz. Add flourishes, designs, inlines, shapes, whatever you want to make your letters really shine. Add in your dropline and dropshadow, too!
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Pick Your Lettering Style
The style you embrace for your lettering project is as important to the project’s vibe as the words you choose. While not altering the content, the way you decide to draw your letters impacts the context of the piece, and it’ll be the main influencer behind what the audience feels when they process your words. Mary Kate highlights 6 different styles of hand lettering, all of which are great to start off with as a beginner. If you want some more style inspiration, check out our piece on 35 eye-catching hand lettering fonts and when to use them.
While there are many different ways to draw a script word, Mary Kate drew her example with thick letters and an elaborate cross stroke on the t. Notice how the E has a lightning bolt shaped swash that sweeps under the entire word? It’s these sorts of quirky details that will really make your hand lettering works jump off the page.
This is a simple yet classic style that’s a perfect jumping off point for beginners. It’s not as complicated as its cousin Fancy Serif but still includes the swashes, spurs, and tiny embellishments that make serifs such a fun font to hand letter.
Just because this style doesn’t have any serifs doesn’t mean it’s not super eye-catching. This kind of sans serif style is perfect for the words that you don’t want to emphasize in your lettering project -- pronouns, prepositions, articles, etc. Notice how Mary Kate played with the guidelines and lowered the X height, an effect which makes the letters look more elongated.
You’ll notice that Fancy Serif is very similar to the Serif style, only with more exaggerated serifs. When an artist includes more pronounced serifs on each letter, it creates a charming, elegant effect. Also notice Mary Kate’s attention to detail on the tiny lightning bolts emanating from the center of the letters.
The Ornate style is very similar to the Fancy Serif style, except the artist has a bit more freedom regarding shape, size, representation, and curvature. Notice how pronounced the swash of the R is and how tiny the i is in comparison to the E and the L. The Ornate style is perfect for hand letterers who want to experiment with flourish, curved letters, or more elaborate designs in addition to the main letterforms.
In a Shape
This lettering style allows your drawing to directly mimic the word’s content -- which, as an artist, is a really exciting opportunity. Certain pieces lend themselves more easily to this style than others, particularly words with strong visual affiliations. In this example, Mary Kate was able to draw letters in the shape of an easily relatable lightning bolt to better communicate the word “Electric.”
Also known as Gothic Style, Blackletter provides your letters with some of that classic medieval flair. Notice the sharp and elaborate E and the boldness of the rest of the letterforms. Blackletter styling goes all the way back to 1150 and was used for the German language up until the 20th century. Mary Kate decides to have some fun with this style and adds lightning bolt characteristics to each letterform.
On a Curve
Time to pull out your compass! First you’ll want to draw two semi circles and use the bottom one as your baseline. Make sure to draw all the letters as straight as you can -- the vertical strokes should be as perpendicular as possible to the curved baseline. Pay attention to spacing and curve consistency and don’t try to eyeball it. Your compass is your friend!
This style of lettering is in the same vein as the “In a Shape” style as it attempts to transpose the syntactical content of the word onto the visual context of the word. In this case, Mary Kate transforms all the letters into elaborate lightning bolts. Try coming up with your own representation font styles!
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In Hand Lettering Essentials for Beginners, Mary Kate McDevitt examines the common mistakes hand letterers often make when first getting their bearings. Being aware of these snafus, and recognizing when you start making them, will accelerate your learning process. As you start lettering your first projects, try to avoid falling into these traps!
Mary Kate says the main issue people have with script lettering is knowing when to apply thick downstrokes versus thin upstrokes. When writing in a script style (and for brush lettering especially), the thick, darker marks are composed by pushing the brush down, and the thin, airy strokes are created by lightly dragging the brush up. By employing this technique you can create beautiful, almost calligraphic letterforms.
Mary Kate says hand letterers who are first starting out tend to make the entire stroke the same thickness, regardless of whether the stroke was initially formed with an upstroke or a downstroke. Some beginner hand letterers shade in upstrokes and don’t shade in downstrokes, giving the word a very awkward look. As you shade in the word, consider whether the stroke was made by moving your pen up or moving your pen down. If it was moving down, feel free to shade, and if your pen was moving up let the stroke remain thinner. Of course you can play with your thicks and thins, but when you’re starting out it’s important to get this fundamental rule down.
Too Many Swirls
Another mistake beginners often make is adding too many swirls to their words. Swirls are awesome and give many hand lettering projects their spice, but adding too many swirls on each letter could overwhelm the word and make the art look sloppy -- exactly the opposite of what you’d like to accomplish. Instead, add broader, more open swirls that keep the word the focus of the art. It’s important to understand that the ornamentation is an accessory to the word -- not the other way around.
Parallel Lines Having Thick and Thin Strokes
Many beginners also make the mistake of wanting to add thick strokes on the sides of a letter, regardless of whether or not those side strokes are parallel. For instance, people will often make the side arms of a W very thick, which produces a sloppy effect. Instead Mary Kate advises to make the parallel downstrokes the thicker strokes, i.e. the left arm and the middle right stroke. On the other hand, it’s totally okay to make the side arms of the uppercase H thicker, as its sides are parallel to each other.
Be Aware of Baseline Heights
Mary Kate also advises her students to pay attention to the X Heights of their letters. Basically, if you make a choice regarding a letter’s dimensions, it’s important to stick with that choice and consider its effects as you draw the other letters. For instance, if you decide to lower the baseline in the word RABBIT and make the bowl of the R a bit higher, it’s important that the crossbar of the A and the bow of the B are also positioned correctly. Otherwise you’ll end up with a letter that looks awkward when compared to the rest of the word.
One of the most important lettering lapses to avoid is incorrect spacing. When drawing your letter frameworks, make sure you don’t squeeze your letters in too close to each other. It may look okay without any embellishments, but once you start adding serifs or flourishes, the letters might run into each other, creating a sloppy and cramped lettering project that takes away from the word.
Making Cross Stroke on E Same Length as the Others
This tip specifically concerns the letter E, which is the most frequently used letter in the alphabet. When you’re drawing a capital E you might have the desire to make all three arms the same length. Mary Kate advises against that practice and encourages letterers to make the middle arm a bit shorter than the other two. The reason? Readability. When there’s another letter right next to the E, that little bit of breathing room in the middle makes it much easier to read.
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While this guide serves as a great place to start, we definitely encourage you to check out some classes to get a true handle on the basics. These classes are taught by hand lettering mavens, people who understand the art form inside and out. They’ll review the step by step lettering processes, what tools you need (and when to use them), how to draw basic letterforms, and will even go over more advanced techniques. Many of these tutorials even come with project guides, worksheets, and warm ups.
This comprehensive introduction to hand lettering is one of the most popular classes on Skillshare and as soon as you take it you’ll see why. Mary Kate is an excellent teacher, providing a thorough but not intimidating runthrough of the basic hand lettering concepts. She breaks each lesson down into smaller steps and makes lettering look totally accomplishable for even the most novice of hand letterers. This is the first of her many other classes including Hand Lettering: Add Digital Color and Texture for Final Polish and Vintage Hand-Lettering: Styling Phrases for Timeless Appeal. This class could definitely save you hours in getting a hang of the basics and serves as the basis for much of this guide.
Spencer Charles is a typographic designer and letterer currently residing in Brooklyn, and he presents an amazing class on how exactly letterforms work. He shows his students how to add embellishments, drop shadows, and all sorts of other flourishes. Plus, he provides exclusive tips for hand letterers who want to work in Adobe Illustrator. This is a pivotal class for anyone who wants to dive deep into the more advanced parts of hand lettering.
Jessica Hische is a lettering artist and author whose clients include Wes Anderson, the New York Times, and Wired. Her class has a very simple (yet critical) goal -- understand how to create just one beautiful letter. She shows you how to sketch your idea, digitize your work, and give your pieces those crucial finishing touches. Her class’s stats speak for themselves: 19,000 students, 712 completed projects (many of which are totally stunning in their own right), and a 99% positive review rate.
Instagram’s a perfect social media platform for a hand lettering artists. It’s totally visual and allows artists to share polished projects as well as work in progress. In order to really dive deep into lettering, we recommend you start following some of the masters. Plus it’ll be a nice break from the memes and brunch pics we know are currently occupying your timeline.
Like this guide and want to dive even further into hand lettering? Skillshare’s comprehensive (and fun) hand lettering classes will bring you up to speed in no time. Check out Mary Kate McDevitt’s Hand Lettering Essentials for Beginners, our most popular Skillshare class ever, and the basis for most of this guide.