Society6 is doing another “Free Shipping Worldwide” promotion, so since my store kind of sucked, I figured I’d take a couple minutes and throw a few prints together from my talk slides at last week’s Creative Mornings Pittsburgh.
All the lettering was done with a Tombow Fudenosuke Brush Pen, and the backgrounds were hand-painted by me with a custom Photoshop brush I made.
Some are humorous, some are serious, and they’re all terribly out-of-context.
If you hate shipping fees, consider picking one up today from my Society6 shop.
In an effort to consolidate the sharing of my thoughts and experiences with lettering into one archived, searchable resource, I’ll be reposting entries here from my column on The Industry. The following was originally published here on November 11th, 2012.
Yesterday, we looked at a concept-building method I sometimes use that we called your scanner is your best friend, and how in the no-save-button world of analog, creating checkpoints with a quick scan can be a life saver if you decide you’d love to just undo back to your happy place.
Today, I want to show you a different method of concept building that I use, that you might say is sort of a step further on the skill scale from the Scaling & Shaping approach.
For this method, I’m going to be using ink, rather than pencil, namely a couple of Pentel Color Brush. Later in the process, I’m going to also put my fine-point PITT artist pen from Faber-Castell to good use for some finishing.
So let’s get started with a method I’m going to call Brush & Build.
We’re going to start by grabbing a few sheets of plain white printer paper. Sure, go ahead and use your dot grid books or your Moleskines if you wish, but personally, I like to save those for more thought-out, detailed sketching. For this, we’re going to be filling up sheets fairly quickly, so something cheaper might make more sense.
With your brush pen of choice, simply start throwing down letters to get a feel for where your potential interactions are, where the interesting areas of the word or phrase you’re working with might lie, and how you might want your forms to look.
These ink “sketches” should be quick and, like before with Shaping & Building, try to experiment with it and attempt to make each one as different as possible from the others. This is extremely helpful in finding something you can really get excited about. With the infinite possibilities of something as versatile as a letter, you owe it to yourself to thoroughly explore and find a style that’s truly special.
A lot of these are junk, and many are basically the same but perhaps attempted a few times to get the idea out properly. The important thing, though, is that we’ve explored a bunch of options, and finally, have the direction below to proceed with.
Not Important: Clearly, I can’t decide which spelling of whisk(e)y I prefer, something I’m guessing you might be able to relate to. I think the ‘e’ feels better, but then the US Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits uses the ‘whisky’ spelling, so whatever.
Now that we know where we’re headed with this logo, we can begin thinking about the exact shapes we want these letters to take on. As you get better with your brush pens after practicing for a while (I’ve still got a ways to go before I’m really happy with mine, too), you’ll be a lot closer to your final look after the initial sketching phase. But for now, you’ll probably want to give some attention to stroke widths and shapes to make them a bit more balanced and attractive.
After you’ve been doing this for a bit, you’ll find that it becomes easier and easier to see your desired result in your mind and head more directly for it, like I’ve kind of done below. But while you’re first beginning to play with this method, start by cleaning up edges and slowly building them out stroke by stroke. This will allow you to better gauge not only the balance and uniformity of your weight and spacing, but also the equally important negative space.
Once you have your final inked logo, your next steps are similar to our previous method. The big exception of course being that this time, you have a solid, smooth image to scan that might even be much more suited for direct use as opposed to redrawing in vector. It all depends on the look you’re going for with the project at hand.
So if you haven’t gone and picked up a brush pen or two yet, you may want to go find one to give this approach a whirl. While you may find it challenging and maybe even a bit frustrating while you’re trying to get the hang of it, playing with these letters in such a natural and heartfelt way is something I’ve found to be a ton of fun, and incredibly rewarding.
You should follow me on Twitter to keep up with any updates to this post or even the methods themselves as they happen.
In an effort to consolidate the sharing of my thoughts and experiences with lettering into one archived, searchable resource, I’ll be reposting entries here from my column on The Industry. The following was originally published here on October 29th, 2012.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve been talking a lot about the things you can do to prepare yourself for getting started in lettering. We’ve looked at some of the tools that I personally rely on for getting from point A to B in my work. We’ve also looked at some good sources of inspiration.
But I reckon that if we don’t start looking at some actual process stuff and how-tos, you guys aren’t going to keep sticking around for much longer. I get it. So let’s do it. I’m going to ramble for a minute now about the “why”, so if you’re back for a second time or just don’t want to read this crap (though I think you should), you can skip to the good stuff here.
On Friday night [last October], we went to pick up our second Shiba Inu puppy from the breeder. I eventually plan on getting a photo site up to share pictures of our two pups, so I thought why not put together a custom hand-lettered header “logo” for their site. So there we go, subject matter.
For these first couple process posts, I thought it might be good to go over some different methods of iterating and building concepts to get to
What I want to show you today is a method I’m going to call “Scaling and Shaping”. At a high-level view, what we’ll be doing is shrinking and enlarging our sketches to easily and quickly move from rough initial thumbnail sketches to Illustrator-ready final concepts. File this one under “Working Smarter, Not Harder”.
When I first began playing with this approach, it admittedly felt a little dirty. I was sketching and doing a ton by hand, but instead of drudging through all the tracing and redrawing that it seemed most or all of the pros were doing, I was using the computer to, uh…not have to do all that. One of the first things I realized when taking on my first couple commissioned lettering gigs was that typical processes and good old due diligence weren’t very cost effective. At least not until I got better and faster at those processes. So I used what I already knew to compensate for what I didn’t. I turned to Photoshop.
Now, I see that this hybrid analog/digital approach is not only perfectly acceptable (if it’s okay for some to go all-digital, there’s definitely nothing wrong with playing both sides), but it’s also a great starting point for people just like you, who chances are, are very familiar with Photoshop, but maybe not so much with sketching. So let’s begin.
With any new lettering project, you first have to get a feel for the letters and words you’re going to be working with, to see what kind of character they have, what they look like next to each other, and where the opportunities for creative expression may lie.
Pull out a sheet of paper, sketchbook, whatever, and quickly sketch out as many ideas as you can, trying to make them as different as possible. This is something I’m trying to improve on, personally, and if it’s not inherently obvious, this is where those sources of inspiration can come in very handy.
IMPORTANT: It’s very easy to find inspiration and let it dictate where your “creativity” goes. Fight to keep your ideas your own and your concepts as original as possible. Practicing someone else’s style and concepts is great for learning. Using them to avoid the hard work that is creativity and imagination is not so great, and very bad for making friends.
Before too long (hopefully), you should have a stand-out concept that you feel really good about. For me, it was this simple linear script with somewhat tight spacing and a modest slant. Once you’ve picked an idea, pull out a ruler, draw out some guides for yourself (Assuming your concept is flat, of course. If not, sketch out some guidelines in the shape you’re looking for. Example: http://cloud.ha.mrick.me/JlqG), and try to redraw your idea a little cleaner, maybe a little bigger, and get it closer to the shape and look you have in mind.
We still don’t want to spend a ton of time at this stage, but more than our rough initial sketching. At this stage, you’re focusing more on how you want everything to interact and flow, and less on drawing it perfectly.
Once you’re happy with the form of your sketch, it’s time to hit Save. Huh? Right.
This is super-crucial realization number one about working in analog. You don’t always know exactly where you’re going with a project until you’re there. But if you go where you think you’re headed, that place could totally suck when you get there, and you might want to go back to a time when you were still stoked and didn’t hate everything about what you made. Checkpoints, guys. For this, we must scan.
REMEMBER: When working in analog, there is no Undo; only Redo. Scan that shit.
If you don’t have a scanner, you don’t need anything fancy, and can get one pretty darn cheap (I still use the printer/scanner I got for free when I bought my MacBook Pro two-and-a-half years ago). If that’s still too much, I’ve gotten by just fine by taking a straight-on-as-possible shot with my iPhone camera in a pinch. This may not re-print as nicely, but it’s not nothing.
So at this stage, we’re going to scan this sketch for two reasons. First, for saving purposes. Should things ever go terribly wrong, you can simply print this sucker back out and start from a happy place. Secondly, we need to pull it into Photoshop for the next step.
Now that we have our monolinear sketch on our computer, let’s open a new Photoshop document that’s the size of a piece of printer paper. Since mine’s a more horizontally oriented piece, I’m using the custom preset I saved for U.S. Paper Landscape. If yours is more vertical, well, you know.
Now we’re going to place our scanned sketch into the document. At this stage, let’s not worry too much about rotating or doing a ton of cleanup, unless you’ve got some absolutely crazy things going on with yours. Mine, for instance, is slightly rotated counter-clockwise, probably from lying funky on the scanner bed. We’ll fix that later.
For right now, we can use a Levels adjustment like in the shot above to bring out the sketch some more, if your scanner just likes to tease you with a light hint of what you wanted to scan like mine does. Once we can see everything clearly, we’re going to scale this bad boy down. There’s no certain amount you should reduce it, since it all depends on the size of your original sketch, but the idea is to substantially reduce its size so that your letters are, say, no taller than a half-inch on paper.
Once we’re sized down, we’re going to simply copy it a couple of times and then print out a sheet like the one above with several of the same sketch included. Why the hell are we doing this? I’m glad you asked.
When you’re trying to decide things like what the contrast should be (the difference in the “thicks” and “thins”), or how heavy or light to make the overall shading of your letters (how thick those thicks are), you have a couple of options. You can try to redraw your piece over and over, doing it a different way each time, or as I like to call it, settling for the first thing you do because dude, I don’t have time for this shit.
Or, you can do it the smart way. Shrink things down, print out a few as a guide, and quickly “mock-up” what several scenarios might look like. Not only will they all be a more accurate representation of what the end result would be since they’re all from the same basic skeleton, but it’s also worlds faster to flesh things out small than doing the same thing full-scale. I always notice my spacing and balance problems much quicker when my work is scaled down, so starting there just sets me up for fewer issues later on.
Most times, I’ll just keep working in pencil, building the letterforms up stroke by stroke, but some times, I’ll grab a brush pen to see what actual single strokes might look like as well. What matters is getting to a weight and contrast that you like; the method is up to you.
Now that things are shaping up the way we want them, it’s time to jump back into Photoshop. Scan your best weighted sketch in, and once again, plant it firmly in a paper-sized document. You should always scan your sketches in at 300 dpi, so that when you’re using them in a 300 dpi, 8.5 x 11 inch document, they’ll be represented just as they were on paper.
So unlike last time, we’re going to be scaling up now. Resize your sketch to essentially dominate the middle of the page. Drag out a horizontal guide to the baseline or x-height (as shown) and rotate your sketch so that it’s level, if need be. Now you’re ready to perfect.
This is the fun part. After adding some weight to my letters, I now have some spacing issues, it seems. No worries. One way to approach this would be to break out the tracing paper and redraw each letter, shifting the original ever-so slightly underneath until you have them all perfectly spaced. A fine practice to sur—wait…now that it’s done, you see another spacing issue. Well, I guess we’ll do it again. We’ll get it this time, for sure.
Maybe you’re already doing this, and if so, golf claps to you. For the rest of you, this is so awesome, but when I tell it to you, you’re going to flip at how easy this is. You should have your sketch large and centered on the page. Now duplicate the layer and click the “Add vector mask” button at the bottom of the layers pallete. Do this once with the copy selected, and once with the original selected.
Now hide your copy layer and click inside the vector mask on the original. Grab your brush tool (B) and make sure your foreground color is black (if not, hitting ‘D’ will quickly make it so). Now, your going to start from the left and see where your first problem area lies. For mine here, I’m seeing that the spacing between the ‘e’ and ‘i’ in Reizo is a bit tight for my taste. Not a problem, I’m simply going to start masking out everything to the right of that ‘e’. Yes, everything. Then, I’m left with this:
Now, I’m going to essentially do the same thing with the copy. First, make the copy visible, and hide the original. Click inside the vector mask in your layers panel, and with your brush tool, mask out that initial ‘Re’.
Now, you have two separate parts. Make sure they’re both showing, and with the copy selected, use the Move Tool (V), and nudge the second layer to the right until you’re happy with the spacing. Has the light bulb gone on yet?
I’ll continue on with this until I’ve bumped everything around to my liking, each time essentially splitting up the last copy made until I have it in the right amount of parts to get it perfect. The GIF above shows the original scan on top, with the improved spacing version below, and I’ve colored the different sections I made to get my spacing the way I wanted it.
The image above shows two more important notes. As you start moving these copies around, you might notice that your unmasked white areas start covering up the other layers. To quickly avoid this, change all layers to the “Multiply” blending mode so that only the dark shows.
Also, it can prove extremely helpful to rename each layer to the letters it contains so you can quickly select the one you want for moving or mask touch-ups.
Now that we have our sketch all cleaned up and properly spaced and balanced, we’re ready to move on. select all of your individual sketch layers, and drop the opacity at the top of your Layers panel. How much depends on how dark your original sketch was, but the point here is to leave it just dark enough to see the edges, but no more. When you think you’re good there, print away.
Once we have our neatly spaced, almost invisible sketch printed as a guide, we’re ready to complete a final, perfected sketch. I like to start by drawing in some new guide lines just so I can get everything looking really sharp. Notice how I drew my slant guides directly through the body of each letter. This will just make it that much easier to avoid straying from my slant as I finish my line work.
With the guides in place, it’s time to start carefully and meticulously drawing in the outlines of each letter, considering any improvements that may need to be made to any curves or corners.
I want to make a quick comment about my personal experience with differences in pencil posture (Is this a thing, or did I just make that up? Let me know, if you know.) as it pertains to this stage in particular. I have a long habit of holding my pencils at a pretty low angle like the image on the left below. I always thought it was a much better approach to drawing smooth curves, and while this is definitely not completely false, I’ve found good reason to believe it’s not the best for everything. If you’re like me and sketch with numerous, quick, and short strokes as you move along your intended path, you’re probably well-familiar with “fuzzy lines”.
One way I’ve found to limit this is to hold my pencil more vertically like the image on the right above. Kick it up about as close to vertical as you can comfortably draw and you should see a drastic improvement in the cleanliness of your lines. It also seems to keep you with a respectable point for slightly longer than drawing on the side of the lead. This could just be me, but who knows, give it a shot and see if it makes a difference for you.
Once you have your final sketch outlined, you can chose to scan it back in for drawing your vectors in Illustrator, or proceed to color it in. I typically always fill mine in for a few reasons. A completely filled-in sketch is much better for checking spacing and even weight distribution than outlines, and it’s also easier to see any bum curves that need a little last-minute love.
So that’s just one example of how you can get through the concept and sketching phase of a lettering project a little easier, and maybe a little faster. I’d like to go over at least one more approach in the next week or so, but then, we’ll move on to Illustrator and talk about a couple different ways to move from fine-tuned sketches to client-ready vectors!
You should follow me on Twitter to keep up with any updates to this post or even the methods themselves as they happen.
Several of the tools featured in this post can be found and purchased through my “Things” page where I link to products people ask me about the most.
In an effort to consolidate the sharing of my thoughts and experiences with lettering into one archived, searchable resource, I’ll be reposting entries here from my column on The Industry. The following was originally published here on October 13th, 2012.
With platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Dribbble and the like, designers and artists are able to share their work to so many more people and so much faster than ever before.
Given that my particular line of work is so heavily based in the analog, at least at first, a lot of what I post on Dribbble and such ends up being a sketch (I’ve also found that sketches are substantially more popular than finished vector art, but that’s a topic for another time and place). And in my undying quest to share process, I sometimes place the tool I used to accomplish that particular sketch in the shot.
Two or three times a week via email and Twitter, and nearly every time I do this on Dribbble, someone asks what these tools are that I’m using (seriously, here’s the first eight I could find – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8).
So for our first real post on Industry R&R, I figured what better way to kick things off than with a solid look at some of the best tools out there to really dive head-first into practicing your lettering? Also, I’ve come to the clear realization that getting these posted on a weekday is probably as far from feasible as you can get, so instead of delivering these to you late, let’s call it Saturday from now on, okay? Cool.
Before we do, though, I should start by saying that you absolutely do not need a single one of these things. You can do literally anything anyone else can do with a simple sharp #2 pencil and a piece of printer paper. In many cases, what these tools really provide is convenience, greater efficiency, or even just a different way of doing the same things.
Alright, now that the lecture part of the post is over, let’s get to the gear!
Like I said, there’s nothing wrong with a good ol’ wooden pencil. But if you’re looking for precision, a little heft, and the ability to get a perfect, needle-sharp point every single time, a lead holder is the way to go. These tools use a clutch mechanism that holds a special 2mm lead at whatever length is most comfortable for you. There are countless brands to choose from, but some are much more accessible than others. Personally, I’m a big fan of Staedtler products. They’re easy to find, inexpensive and quality-made.
Most good lead holders include a small sharpening mechanism in the cap on the opposite end, but honestly, you should only use it in extreme emergencies, and only after you fail at gnawing it to a point with your teeth. To get a truly proper point, you’re going to need a lead pointer.
These come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but probably the most convenient and effective option is a rotary tub style pointer. There are guides to get your lead extended to the perfect length for the exact point you’re looking for. Then, you insert the entire end of the holder into the hole, and rotate it with the top of the tub to move the lead around the sharpener inside. Some times it’s a rough sandpaper-like surface, and others, it’s a circular blade like this one here. Either way, you’re left with that needle-sharp point every single time.
You can also find a desk mountable version like this that just tacks on an additional layer of convenience, since you then only need one hand to sharpen instead of two.
Sidenote: There are very few things I’ve come across in my practice that has made as profound a difference as an extremely sharp pencil. Whether you’re using the classic wooden variety, or a $100+ Rotring lead holder, a sharp point will not only greatly improve your precision and capability for detail, but your curves will also be smoother. I haven’t figured out why this is, exactly, but I’m working on it. I’m thinking it has a lot to do with how much freer your pencil is to go where you don’t want it to when it has a dull point, and a sharper tip grips the paper more. Just a theory.
When I first found this dude, I was ecstatic. Ninety percent of the eraser shields you find in stores are the exact same shape and look and are pretty standard. They’re made of a thin, solid aluminum, and the cutouts are all the same. This guy, however, has tiny holes throughout the areas that are typically solid, so you can see your work ever-so-slightly through the shield. After posting this on Instagram one day, a friend of mine told me he got one of these in a drafting kit in college and never knew what the hell it was—so now he was going to go erase some shit.
Eraser shields, if you too aren’t familiar, are typically used for technical drawing, often found in drafting kits, like I said. But guys, these are great for lettering! If you accidentally smudge into the counter of a letter, make an upstroke a bit too heavy, whatever. This bad boy has all the cutouts you need for precision erasing and cleanup. Plus, they’re like a dollar, so do check these out!
When you’re working with high-detail stuff like lettering, using a big rectangular eraser can be less than optimal for cleaning up tight spaces without ruining your hard work. An eraser holder like this one can help a lot. It’s not the finest-point eraser you can find (Tombow actually has a 2.3mm eraser holder that I’ve yet to try out, but I really want to), but even just having something that you can control in the same way as a pencil goes a long way, I’ve found.
I first saw something like this used in the magnificent House Industries trailer (if you haven’t watched this, take a few minutes to do so, I’ll wait), and I just had to try it. This is a really cool alternative for quickly sketching out lettering concepts with a little contrast as opposed to working with a thin line and having to build out your shades. Sharpening these can be kind of tricky, but you do have a few options. You can use a sanding block or even just regular sandpaper, but it can be a bit messy.
I actually came across this little gem at Hobby Lobby, and it’s specifically for perfectly sharpening a flat pencil like this. One side tapers the broad side of the pencil, and then you turn it around, and the other side is set up to fine-tune your tip in the other direction. Give this a shot if you get a chance.
When I’m not laying graphite down to rough out ideas for a lettering project, you might catch me with my trusty Color Brush from Pentel. Guys, this thing is amazing. As opposed to brush pens (more on that in a minute), the Color Brush has an actual synthetic-bristle brush tip, fed with ink from the body of the brush.
This thing is incredibly helpful for quickly concepting brush-script style logos and letterforms. The best part is that you can really saturate the brush with a ton of ink, and not only will it not bleed through your paper, but it lasts forever. I just retired my first one after a solid six months of regular use. Seriously.
I’m also a huge fan of the brush pens from Tombow. I’ve been using the Dual Brush model that has a large soft-point on one end and a finer firm tip on the other. No bristles on these, but the felt tips give by far the best control and versatility of any brush pen I’ve ever used. And like the Color Brush, there’s virtually no bleed, unlike a good majority of other comparable pens on the market.
There are a few other things I like to keep around for various reasons, but that maybe I don’t use as regularly or that are more easily substituted.
The dot grid books from Behance’s Creatives Outfitter are a great alternative to lined or gridded paper. The dots don’t get in your way as much, but give you the perfect points of reference when working on something technical or for when you’re particularly concerned with balance. I just find myself using plain old Staples copy paper just about as much of the time, so that’s why this guy’s down here.
A good scanner can also be a huge help, not only for scanning in your finished sketches, but also for iterating quickly. I plan to touch more on this in the coming weeks.
I’ve probably forgotten about half of what I regularly use, and I’ll try to bring this stuff up as much as possible in future posts, but this should give you a pretty good head start on your way to doing some seriously fun and creative new things with lettering.
You should follow me on Twitter to keep up with the tools I’m using at any given time, as they change frequently.
Several of the items listed here can be found and purchased through my “Things” page where I link to products people ask me about the most.
I had the privilege of working with the awesome people at Holstee, and this is the result.
Buy the whole set for just $20 here, right now:
These prints will be available for purchase at my Creative Mornings talk on Friday here in Pittsburgh. The talk is titled “Progressing Backwards, so for anyone in attendance, this will actually mean something (hopefully).
Only 25 will be available, so once they’re gone, they’re gone!
I’ve been asked to give a talk at this Friday’s Creative Mornings in Pittsburgh. The theme for May is “backwards”, so that should be fun.
All 120 tickets are already gone, but you can still head to the Pittsburgh Creative Mornings Eventbrite page and jump on the wait list.
My good buddy Lisa from Sapling Press is also sponsoring the event, and we may just have a limited edition letterpress print on-hand to purchase the morning of the talk!
The topic of vectoring letters seemed to repeatedly come up this weekend in discussions I was having with just about everyone at Creative South.
Eventually, I really do plan to continue my lettering column over on The Industry, that is, if they’ll have me back.
For now, though, I’ve actually shared a few things on Dribbble that might prove helpful right away. If nothing else, several of these stemmed some pretty good conversation from other leading letterers and designers in the comments, so be sure to check through those, too.
Clicking on each image below will take you to that actual Dribbble post itself.
On this one, I showed an example of automating an otherwise tedious and intricate flourish by creating a custom-shaped brush in Illustrator.
With this H, I was trying to show the basic concept of where to plot points for your bezier curves, and that a good rule of thumb (or at least a starting point when first getting comfortable with this stuff) is to place them so that your handles will lock at exactly 0° and 90°.
When I shared my new script logotype, I tried to show the way that I built out the vector, which was by drawing in in a monolinear fashion first, and then drawing the “thicks” as separate shapes on top of that.
Lots of good conversation in this one on methods like this vs. using the variable width tool in Illustrator.
And last, but certainly not least, I used this example to show that for the best curves, it’s always good to use the absolute minimum amount of points needed to make your forms.
This one’s a monolinear example, but the same concept applies to higher-contrast pieces. There would just be a point on either side of the weight at any given spot.