A gateway to lettering, for anyone, even you with the self-proclaimed horrible handwriting, and you who claims to have not a single ounce of creativity in your body, as well as the rest of us.
“Your writing is so cool!” (Yes, yours! But we’ll get to that later. For now, grab a piece of paper and whatever’s handy to write with, a pen or pencil is fine. Got it? Good, let’s go.)
I hear that a lot. It makes me laugh, because I honestly struggled through penmanship class, perhaps because there was the specific outcome expected of me. I’ve never been one for memorization or exact regurgitation of things.
This in mind, I didn’t even attempt to take calligraphy in college (perhaps a mistake in retrospect) — it looked like a lot of very specific replication as the foundation. Thankfully a few years down the road from graduation I found myself at TypeCon ’08 (holler!) in Buffalo NY, and signed up for the calligraphy boot camp workshop, which was really enlightening and fun at the same time. It was basically a half-day hands-on crash course in calligraphy—a foundation, and look at letter anatomy. I’ve practiced my calligraphy very little since then (sorry).
Calligraphers create letterforms in a similar way to how you probably learned to write, certain strokes are made with a writing utensil. Go ahead, write this sentence down on your paper. See what you did? That’s how calligraphy happens too, just at a different level. Many definitions of calligraphy cite that a pen or a brush is used, and there are plenty of calligraphy-specific pens or brushes to be found, often with an aspect to them that allows for variations in thicknesses made with the same tool.
Enter lettering, which is still in the realm of making letters, except there is emphasis on that these letters are drawn. Drawn like you might draw any other shape or object. Draw a few simple objects on your paper, perhaps a cat, an ice cream cone, and a car. Do you see or feel the difference?
Lettering seems to be everywhere now — ten years back, not so much, but the work of Dana Tanamachi, Jessica Hische, Mary Kate McDevitt and many others has put lettering on the radar of the general public, whether consciously or not. Don’t believe me? Did you get any mail last year with the red 2012 LOVE stamp? Lettering by Jessica Hische. Or perhaps you’ve seen her lettering elsewhere, like the poster for Moonrise Kingdom, or on Target gift cards.
If the differentiation between calligraphy and lettering is still all a bit foggy, this video “She Draws/ He Writes” show both techniques side by side.
One other misleading compliment I’ll get is something like “I love your typography!” which, it’s possible that someone could be loving on my typography, but once again, they’re usually talking about my lettering. In typography, the letterforms created are done so to be used over and over again. Think about a typewriter, every time you type the letter “e” on a typewriter, it is formed the same, and the same “e” is used throughout, save for capitalizations. To contrast, in lettering it’s often the case that each word and each letter of that word is formed with a very specific shape in mind (remember your cat and ice cream cone? Good.)
Now that we’ve gotten all the technical stuff squared away, it’s time to play! Pick a short sentence (perhaps “My example is awesome!“), and write it five times on your paper in your typical everyday handwriting, don’t try to make your writing anything in particular, let’s just leave it as it happens, though feel free to leave some space between each iteration of the sentence.
I’ve called to the Nerdship and friends for assistance with the following examples of the same sentence in their everyday handwriting, just incase you still believe that my lettering is awesome solely because my everyday handwriting is awesome. Much thanks to everyone that sent over an example!
Let’s talk about rules. Did I just hear a big sigh of relief from those of you who claim to have not an ounce of creativity in their bodies? Well, those of us that are aware of the creativity in our veins also are relieved, even if we know it not, yet. Making rules for visual executions of similar things can create consistency and rhythm throughout your sentence. Sure, you could go about trying to draw letters ransom note style with seemingly no rhyme or reason, but even in that case, I’d advise putting a rule in place to help avoid the supposed random string of letters to not look like a pattern. The first rule we’ll try is thicken vertical strokes, rounded and heavier at the top, and tapering toward the bottom. If you’d like to take that even more simply, try just thicken vertical strokes. Alright, give it a try! Thicken all of the vertical strokes of your letters in the first sentence.
Lookin’ good! Let’s try another rule on sentence two. When referring to type or letters, the “hole” of the letter is called the counter—think the middle of an O, or Q, or of the top part of an R or P. Rule number two will be fill in the counters. Include any space that is fully enclosed by the lines or strokes of your letters even, so if your writing is particularly loopy, you might be filling in for awhile.
For sentence three, I’d like you to make up your own rule, perhaps it’s something like make dots underneath any curved letter’s bottom or draw a parallel stroke to any vertical stroke or make all of the counters into cat faces. It’s up to you how ridiculous you make your own rule.
For sentence four, choose two or all of the above rules you’ve tried, and combine them. This won’t quite work for some combinations, such as if you have your counters filled in, as well as drawing a cat face in the counters. The example I’m showing is a combination of a simple thicker vertical stroke + dots underneath any curved letter’s bottoms.
Last but not least, for sentence five let’s just leave it for a control group. FOR SCIENCE.
Congratulations, you’ve just powered through your (potentially) first explorative toe-dip into lettering, and yes, your writing is cool as well as awesome. Rinse and repeat the process, use a new sentence, see how far you can push your own rules, whether to the ridiculous or to the subtle. Show me your sentences! Post a photo on the Nerds and Nomsense Facebook page, or tweet them to me at @lauriebreaker. You’re brilliant, and I can’t wait to see.
Stay tuned for future forays into lettering, where we’ll be shaking things up, and we’ll get back to that cat and ice cream cone, promise.