September 16, 2017

Five tips for beginners to start having fun with lettering and calligraphy, with (almost) no budget

I just got a message from a friend from my freshman year dormitory at the University of Minnesota:

hey, i thought you would maybe be the guy to ask about this sort of thing. For a weird period every day, i’m a high school art teacher, and the first thing i’m doing is on hand-lettering. Wondering if you had any tips/links/etc about what a good place to start is, a fun structure for some unenthusiastic highschoolers, low floor/high ceiling projects, what kinds of pens i should buy (if any)… or anything else you think could be useful. Particularly the pens - the rest would be a bonus.

Some parameters for my particular situation: I have no meaningful art training, so anything I teach has to be something I can learn alongside students and get a sense of, and the budget is more-or-less limited to my willingness to buy things (I am willing to, but I imagine there are highly diminishing marginal returns at the top end of art supplies, and would like to avoid that where possible)

First things first: some terminology and a general approach

The German language has an all-encompassing word for designing with letters: schrift. English, however, doesn’t technically have such a word (even though in casual converation, people tend to use the word typography). If you want to make things with letters, it’s worth knowing the technical meaning of a few terms, so you can easily communicate with others about your goals and methods.

Practice Definition
Lettering Drawing letters as a specific composition
Hand Lettering Lettering by hand
Calligraphy Writing letters in a decorative way, often in a specific composition
Type Design Designing a system of letters (e.g. “type” or “fonts”) to use in any combination
Typography Using and organizing type to design

Types of letterforms

When looking at example alphabets, it’s useful to start to recognize what letterforms are made by what kind of tool.

Once you know the type of writing tool, the next useful thing to think about is the “logic” of how that tool writes letters. Generally, downstrokes are thick, while upstrokes are thin. However, the specific stroke shapes will vary a lot between a flat pen, an “expansion” nibbed pen, and a brush.

The fastest way to understand this is to see a few videos of someone doing calligraphy. I’ll mention a few more other inspiring letter-makers below, but take a look at Seb Lester – and pay close attention to the tools he is drawing with, to get a sense of how they influence the shapes that result.

However: even though you can see letterers and calligraphers getting cool results out of special pens and tools, it’s important to remember that by far the most important part of lettering and calligraphy is practice, patience,exploration, and creativity (but mostly practice and patience). A fun example of this is another Seb Lester video, showing that you can make great calligraphy by taping any two pens (or markers or pencils) together:

1. Check out some inspiration & example alphabets

A simple and important way to learn about lettering is to copy example alphabets. You can either copy by eye – looking at the example, and reproducing it on a separate sheet of paper, or by tracing – maybe more useful if you’re fairly new to studying letterforms, so you can get an understanding of the relationships between different shapes. One of the most famous books for this is The Speedball Textbook. It’s been around for more than 100 years, and it’s still a fantastic source of useful alphabets. It’s available at many art stores and bookstores, and of course you can get it on Amazon, too.

If you’re unable to buy a book and you have the time, you can also find some pretty great examples from the internet, and print them if you want. I don’t feel comfortable posting or linking to any copywritten examples on my blog, but Pinterest and Flickr have a wealth of examples if you do a bit of digging. Keep in mind, though, spending $5–15 on a book might just save you a bunch of time and provide more ready examples worth following.


For a few specific example alphabets, I do have a new Pinterest board where I am saving example alphabets: https://www.pinterest.com/thundernixon/calligraphy-lessons/

Pinterest can be terrific for starting to gain an awareness of what moves you most about a given visual field, including lettering. It’s easy and fun to go down a path of pinning one thing, then pinning a related thing, etc. Just remember: collecting inspiration alone won’t make you a great letterer: you still need to observe through practice and “remixing” the styles you like.

For broader ideas and inspiration, I have a longer-running Pinterest board where I’ve saved images of interesting and exciting things done with letters, in all formats and methods: https://www.pinterest.com/thundernixon/letters-etc/


Instagram is a great place to find and follow amazing letterers, calligraphers, and artists of all stripes (it was probably even better for this before they introduced the “algorhythmic” feed, but I digress…).

A very incomplete list of a few of my favorite IG accounts, in no particular order:

  • The already-mentioned Seb Lester
  • Ken Barber is a master of lettering and type design. He makes amazing logotypes, based largely on script styles of midcentury modern design and advertising. He’s so good, it almost hurts to look at. I will never be this good at any one thing. What’s more, he is also a great type designer.
  • Luca Barcellona is another incredible calligrapher – the best graffiti/calligraphy artist I know of.
  • Karolina Lach makes amazing, creative pottery with lettering. Her work is clever, funny, and will make you want to own some pottery.
  • Nim Ben Ruben pairs crazy-good lettering abilities with a quirky sense of humor and wild ideas. Definitely worth checking out.
  • I’ve only recently come across the work of Jen Mussari, but this letterer makes some awesome stuff with (mostly) brush script.
  • Louise Fili has done some of the most-successful (and beautiful) lettering-led brand design work for restaurants, food packaging, and books.
  • Nix Benson is a stone carver who cuts letters into stone. His work is classic and breathtaking.
  • Jean Mosambi screenprints modern posters with a jazz vibe, using both type and custom lettering
  • John Stevens: Widely recognized (including by Seb Lester) as perhaps the world’s best living calligrapher
  • Kelly Thorn makes wonderful work that is at once classic and realy fresh. Lately, she’s been mixing in more illustration, including some tattoos that make me want a tattoo. Kelly recently formed the studio charlesandthorn with her partner Spencer Charles, who has similarly awesome work, and lately a lot of great calligraphy.
  • Lauren Hom makes colorful, swoopy, friendly lettering for murals, menus, advertisements, and more.
  • Simon Walker creates lettered logos that look a bit like the record covers you might dig up in an old vinyl collection of funk and rock bands. They are sweet, and always make me want to doodle letters with soft corners and wavy flow.
  • Carla Hacket does great work with brush and pen scripts.
  • Jonathan Faust puts out what are consistently my favorite letter-writing videos, especially of brush and marker-based scripts.
  • Sergey Shapiro makes more awesome script logos.
  • Gemma O’Brien paints mostly black-and-white, very-detailed, super-cool murals.
  • I met Adé Hogue at a Ken Barber script-lettering workshop a couple years ago, and he has since been cranking out work and getting really, really good at it.
  • Martina Flor makes colorful, gorgeous scripts that make me happy.
  • Dana Tanamachi does lovely lettering work for murals, products, books, and stationery.
  • There are a bunch of Instagram letterers that I don’t know much about, but who do consistently nice work.
  • Scott Biersnack churns out creative, really-well-executed script compositions, packaging, and logos.
  • MuirMcNeil is a super-creative, experimental type design studio. They make really cool modular typefaces, and consistently post colorful work that’ll make you want to experiment with letters in weird new ways.
  • For some historical context and great ideas, look at posts from the The Lubalin Center at Cooper Union, in NYC, which holds ephemera from some of the best graphic designers and letterers from about 1940 to 1990.
  • The Letterform Archive is like the Lubalin Center, but in San Francisco, and with apparently an even larger collection
  • 36 Days of Type. There are a bunch of Instagram accounts that find and repost great letterers, but this one has gained a massive following, because each year, they put on “36 Days of Type,” where they repost one letter of the alphabet, then numbers, for each day. The range of letters here is incredible, and many, many talented artists have contributed to the project.
  • My sisters are super-talened artists that have a stationery company, Tiny & Snail. They do more painting/illustration that lettering or calligraphy, but I’d be remiss to not plug them while I’m mentioning my favorite IG accounts 😄

Not on Instagram, but super good: Jessica Hische is a master of lettering, and has pioneered it in the modern day, in many ways. A project that helped make her go viral was The Daily Drop Cap, where she illustrated a capital letter each day, for 12 full alphabets (that’s 312 creative capitals, in total).

2. Trace, Trace, Trace – to learn and to iterate

If you find an alphabet or composition you like, trace it or copy it. Key thing: cite your sources! Never pass off copied work as your own work. If you’ve traced or copied something to learn, consider not sharing it, but if you do, be sure to clearly link to the original artist.

When you are tracing or copying by eye, try to honestly evaluate how well you are following the proportions of the original letters. Just like if you’re drawing a person’s face, very subtle differences will totally make-or-break a letterform. Drawing letters well is all about making the right optical adjustments, rather than making things that are “mathematically” correct.

Start to notice things like the way the tops of a capital “S”, “B”, and “R” are almost always a little smaller than the bottom, to provide the right visual balance. Notice that for a horizontal line to visually match the weight of a vertical line, the horizontal line must be a bit thinner (usually around 80%-90% of the width, though it varies by the style of letter). Notice that even round-looking letters are never truly round. Notice when the weight distribution is a bit slanted in an “e” or “C” or other round letter (and when it’s not). Notice how strokes taper when the bowl of a letter (“b,” “p,” “a,” and more) meets the main stroke. Notice the peculiarities of the given font or script you are looking at.

Once you start to grow familiar with letters, a really fun way to practice lettering and calligraphy is to “remix” styles you see and like. You still need to be honest when you’re mostly copying someone else versus when you are creating really new work. To be safe, it’s usually good to link to work that inspired what you’re making. It’s super informative and satisfying, though, to try your hand at a script or blackletter you really love, guessing what other letters might be like in that same style, and trying to add your own flavor.

You can also use calligraphy to come up with ideas and to understand how a tool makes a shape, then re-draw it as lettering, which gives you the chance to refine and perfect your less-than-perfect calligraphy. This is a favored technique of mine.

3. Tape any two pens together, and draw on any paper

Like in the Seb Lester video above, this really is a fun, easy, and cheap way to try calligraphy, right now. This can be two cheap ballpoint pens, two regular pencils, two Sharpie markers, two whiteboard markers … whatever. You can even get creative and add more than two pens, though you’ll need to experiment to keep the tips in a rigid, straight line.

4. Use a crayola marker for brush script

One step up from taping pens together is finding some standard crayola markers, and trying your hand at brush script. This is a bit tricky, but once you get the basic shapes down, you can start to make some really fun letters. Best of all, you probably haven’t gotten to play with these markers since elementary school, so you might experience a nice jolt of nostalgia.

Here’s a great tutorial on this:

4.5 You can also get a little more fancy with your tools

Once you’ve set up your pen, practice copying calligraphy alphabets that are made with a broad nib. When you try to draw something, you can usually get a sense, pretty quickly, if it was made with a flat-topped tool or not.

If you want to go a bit further, the Pilot Parallel Pen is a great pen for calligraphy. It’s about $10, is super-smooth to write with, and is easy to refill. They come in multiple sizes, but my favorite version is the 6mm size.

There are also some really nice pens for brush script. A couple that I have tried and enjoyed are the Pentel Pocket Brush Pen and the Molotow Aqua Pump Softliner.

If you get any kind of fancier ink pens like this, it’s also very much worth getting paper which is smooth and won’t let the ink bleed. My favorite is slightly-thick Bristol paper (I don’t have much of an opinion on the specific brand).

For ink lettering, it’s best to start with pencil, then trace on thinner paper, with a felt-tip pen such as a Micron marker or as a level-up, the Copic Multiliner SP. If you are using this approach, I find it most helpful to use a just-transparent-enough marker paper, such as 70g Canson XL Marker. This prevents ink bleed, allows you to trace from one sheet to another, and gives a really satisfying final result.

5. “Draw the skeleton” of letters and compositions, then build on top

As beginners, many artists and designers have the false idea that “real” artists must be good at making something great in one try, without rework or touch-ups. Great calligraphers can reinforce this impression, because you can watch their videos that make writing flawless scripts look easy. However, like pro skateboarders, you just don’t generally see all the failed takes and years of practice before that.

This is really a blog post (or a whole course) in and of itself, but basically, you should draw any lettering composition in the fastest, most-sketchy way possible at the begginning, then trace and refine, layer-by-layer, on top. This includes the overall composition and the letters themselves. That is, you can block out the approximate rectangles, waves, and circles you think words might fit into, and get these working as a good composition, first. Then, you can write big letters freely, and get the general sense of how letters should be spaced, proportioned, and sized to fit where you need them to. Let this be a back-and-forth process. You won’t get the shapes and spaces right the first time.

Embrace tracing, redos, throw-aways and iterative work. Your final results will definitely improve from the effort.

Learn more

There are tons of amazing lettering tutorials, books, and courses that you can find online and in bookstores. In Progress, by Jessica Hische, offers a look at her portfolio, and some helpful composition and lettering advice. Ken Barber has a simple but great FAQ on his website, and he occassionally gives lettering workshops, if you are lucky enough to have the chance to attend them.

I haven’t personally tried these, but many of my favorite letterers have courses on Skillshare, including Jon Contino, Rylsee, Kelly Thorn, Spencer Charles, Lauren Hom, Jessica Hische, and Louise Fili.

I hope you’ve found something helpful in this post. If you have any further questions, let me know! I probably won’t write a whole post on them (though I might), but I’ll help if I can.

Happy lettering / writing / type designing / typography-ing!