Consistent Letterforms: Basic Lettering Process, Part 1

The artwork in question is grayed out, except for all the problems discussed in this section, which are all highlighted in fuchsia.

This pandemic stuff is rough. The constant news cycle on every social media platform is wreaking havoc in my brain and body. So I’ve been thinking a lot about what I can do to take care of myself. I wondered if I could take this opportunity to give you something free and valuable, too.

I took the question to Facebook. A few people said they’d love to see my lettering process in action. (Thanks, Blue, Connie, Holly, and Ivy!)

What a perfect suggestion, too! I love to teach. Lettering is my life. I have a stack of old projects I’ve been wanting to revive. Plus, I’ve been wanting to start actually posting videos to YouTube for months on end. This is the perfect opportunity for all of these things.

The video is embedded here for you to watch and follow along if you like. I’ve written up a description below of what the video entails, for those who learn best through reading.

For this entire series, I’m working in Procreate on an iPad Pro with an Apple Pencil. I’ll likely finalize the design in either Adobe Illustrator or Affinity Designer. However, I’m not teaching you how to use a specific program. I’ll be teaching you how to think about your design and how to get it beautifully on paper. All you need is paper to sketch on, and a pencil or pen.

Before We Start

Start with an existing project or sketch, if you can, so you can work with me. I’m not covering conceptualization and initial sketches and layout in this video series. (I might be developing a one-on-one comprehensive class, though!)

So, before you jump in to follow me, pick the words you want to letter. Try to choose no more than 3 words for this. Do research on the sort of lettering you’d like to emulate, and study how the letters are formed. Try to notice shapes and patterns in the alphabet you choose. Work on several sketches to figure out the basic shapes and layout. Make sure your design will fit your paper well. But also give yourself plenty of room around the edges to avoid crowding your art.

You can use any kind of paper or program you like. I love to use a dot grid when lettering. Typical gridded paper feels constricting to me — those solid lines boxing me in make me feel creatively trapped. But a dot grid gives me room to breathe, while providing enough structure for me to create consistent letterforms. If you’d like to give it a try, you can download the dot grid PDF I made just for you.

Once you have your word or phrase picked and a basic idea of where you want to take your piece, you’re ready to jump in with me.

A monoline art nouveau-inspired lettering and illustration piece. The words "keep breathing" are written in a beautiful interlocking cursive, set at about a 60° angle, surrounded by swirling lines that imitate both moving air and water.
The swirling lines surround the words to imitate both moving air and water.

The artwork I’m revisiting is a monoline art nouveau-inspired lettering and illustration piece. The words “keep breathing” are written in a beautiful interlocking cursive and set at about a 60° angle. “Keep breathing” is surrounded by swirling lines that imitate both moving air and water. To be honest, it’s a relatively strong piece with calm emotion and movement.

So why did I choose this piece to rework? Say it with me now: inconsistent letterforms.

Noticing a Lack of Consistent Letterforms

If you’re able, let’s start with noticing my ascenders here. (Ascenders are the parts of a lowercase letter that extend upward — in this case, my “k,” “b,” and “h.”) Each of them feature a loop extending up and right before crossing back over to the left. The loop of my “k” is rounded at its tip, with a lot of space within the shape. But the loops in my “b” and “h” are thinner, with a sharper turn and less open space. These are hardly consistent letterforms.

The ascenders of the "k," "b," and "h" are isolated from the artwork and placed side by side. The "k" has a wide, rounded loop, whereas the "b" has a thin slope and the "h" has a thinner loop yet that's also elongated.
Each loop in the ascenders here is a different shape and angle.

Now let’s study the rest of the basic shapes that comprise my modified alphabet here. If you look at the bowls of my “a” and “g,” they have a squared off, gently rounded top that narrows at the bottom. If I wanted to mimic the shape of classic italic calligraphy, this wouldn’t be a problem. However, I was imitating and making my own version of Palmer’s cursive, which requires a uniformly round shape. The inconsistency of shapes and alphabets causes visual problems.

The bowls of the "p," "b," "a," and "g" are isolated and placed side by side. Each shape is different and often wobbly.
When the bowls of the “a” and “g” are set beside the bowls of the “p” and “b,” it’s clear there are problems in paradise.

Last thing to notice for now is the 3 “e”s of the piece. Every single one has a junction (crossover) at a different point in the letter. As a result, each one has a different shape.

The three "e"s of the piece have been isolated and placed side by side, with their junctions highlighted. Not only are the junctions inconsistent, but the shapes and sizes of the letters vary too much, as well.
Not only are the junctions in different places, but the shapes and sizes of the letters are different!

So, while beautiful at first glance, the structure and flow of my letters quickly fall apart. The composition is held together by the movement of decorative lines around it. The lack of consistent letterforms in the main design weakens it so it can’t stand on its own.

The artwork in question is grayed out, except for all the problems discussed in this section, which are all highlighted in fuchsia.
When all these problem areas are highlighted, it’s clear that an overhaul is required.

Balance Versus Symmetry

Graphic design theory was my favourite class to teach. When discussing the principles of design, my students often had trouble with the idea of balance without symmetry. I’ve noticed this in lettering beginners, as well. The desire to make your work symmetrical seems ingrained and strong.

Symmetry, however, often lends a stiff formality to a design. It’s appropriate for things like traditional invitations. But it simply isn’t as visually dynamic as using positive and negative shapes to accomplish balance. While symmetry is inherently balanced, we ought to use things like the Golden Ratio or the more basic rule of thirds when working with any design.

Screenshot of my iPad screen. The artwork and dot grid are dimmed, but there are 3 fuchsia vertical lines on the artwork, indicating where the swash of the "k" ends, where the stem of the "k" meets the baseline, and where the top of the stem of the "g" meets the mean.
While the swash for the “k” extends beyond the stem, the letter itself begins where the stem meets the baseline.

My original design uses the left-most boundary of the swash of my “k” and the right-most stroke of the stem of my “g” as the guiding lines for a symmetrical balance. In this instance, the piece is symmetrical — it’s technically balanced. So for this update, I’ve made adjustments to ensure that it’s visually balanced instead. I’m using the bottom of the stem of the “k” as my guideline now, rather than the swash. And instead of careful measurement to make things precise, I’m visually calculating where the design will feel most balanced. The swash can make “keep” feel heavier than it is. That’s why I’ve brought the whole lettering composition to the right slightly more than is necessary in a technical sense, for the sake of visual balance.

You can see other examples where I make this decision, most notably in the “p,” “b,” and “g.” The bowls of those letters meet the stem, which can make them feel visually heavier at that junction. I often round out the bowl on the opposite side to compensate and counterbalance this visual effect.

Start with the Structure

Swashes — the fancy bits of curving flair erupting from some types of lettering — are just fun to draw. If you’re working on a flowing piece like mine, you’ll likely have as many as I will.

A cropped screenshot of the final redrawn "skeleton" of my lettering. The mean and baseline are both marked, and the angle is marked by guidelines set every quarter inch or so. Many of the letters look incomplete, but all share similarities. The consistency in the letterforms makes the words feel more united.
The mean and baseline are both marked, and the angle is marked by guidelines set every quarter inch or so. Many of the letters look incomplete, but all share similarities. The consistency in the letterforms makes the words feel more united.

But when I begin a composition like this, I focus on the bare bones of the letters. Notice how I don’t complete all of the letters in this initial redrawing. I don’t even close the eyes of my “e”s. Those are opportunities for decorative elements. I want those decorations to be attached to the solid foundation of well-structured, consistent letterforms.

There are two elements that I’m choosing to keep consistent, as well — my baseline and my mean. The baseline is the invisible line where your letters rest (so descenders descend below this line). The mean is the invisible line dictating where the top of lowercase letters end (so ascenders ascend above this line). It’s possible to have what’s often called a “bouncing” baseline, which produces a similarly bouncing mean. But, as I’ll touch on shortly, the alphabet I’m imitating keeps those lines solid, so I’m choosing to do the same.

Lastly, the structure of my letters are monoline, meaning that there is no variation in my stroke-width. If you’re imitating calligraphy, brush script, or a typeface, be sure to study letters in those styles. A good rule of thumb is that your down stroke will be thicker than your up stroke.

Following and Breaking Lettering Guidelines

I stated earlier that my lettering inspiration was Palmer’s cursive with an art nouveau influence. That influence is seen in the swashes used to intertwine the strokes together, representing the fluid inhale and exhale of calm, uninterrupted breathing.

But while Palmer’s cursive is what I’ve chosen to emulate, I’m not trying to replicate those letters 100%. There are several places where I stray from the prescribed shape of various letters. I know what the “official” shapes are, but I’m choosing to modify them to fit my art nouveau-influenced design. The “k” isn’t a strict replication of Palmer’s cursive “k.” In fact, none of the letters with ascenders or descenders follow that guideline exactly.

It’s really good to know what the standard approach to your alphabet is. And it’s just as good to say, “That’s nice, but I’m going to do it my way.” Give your piece variability and personality!

Consistent Letterforms, Not Identical

Part of the beauty of hand-lettering is that we’re not simply typesetting. Not to negate the art and craftsmanship of typesetting — that’s certainly one of the major inspirations for my work! But when we see something is hand-made, that touch of humanity draws us in.

Closeup crop of the two "e"s in "keep." They've been redrawn in a pencil-type brush, but they don't close all the way. They are an example of consistent letterforms that are not identical.
The shapes here clearly follow the same outline and are thus consistent, but they’re not exactly identical.

Since I’m working digitally, it would have been easy to just copy and paste the first “e” I drew. The letter would have been identical then. But I don’t want my letters and shapes to be identical or replicated. I want to leave a touch of my imperfect hand. That’s why I hand-draw almost every letter in most of my pieces.

Share your progress! #FatGirlTeaching

Did anything you learned in this video or post inspire you to start drawing? I’d love to see what you’re working on. Share any progress you’re making on a public social media platform (so I can see it!). Use the hashtag #FatGirlTeaching, and I’ll take a look and maybe even give you some feedback! Thanks for following along. I’ll see you next week for Part 2, moving from consistent letterforms to negative and positive space.

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