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Today we’re going to talk all things hand-lettering and modern calligraphy. And at the bottom of this post – I’m sharing my FREE lettering guides with you, so you can start your own brush lettering practice at home.
Let’s get started!
Here’s what we’ll cover in this post:
- The difference between hand-lettering and calligraphy
- The basic principles of modern calligraphy/brush lettering
- Tools for hand lettering and calligraphy
- Tips for beginner letterers
- Practice Guides for modern brush lettering
The Difference Between Hand Lettering and Calligraphy
I often see and hear the terms hand-lettering and calligraphy used interchangeably, but technically– they aren’t the same thing.
In fact the history of handwriting is a long and convoluted one – but I’ll make it simple!
Hand lettering is any form of lettering drawn by hand, but it isn’t just cursive or script.
Come with me back in time for a moment. A time before sign shops- as we know them- existed. Take the sign shops of colonial America, for example- which wouldn’t have been equipped with industrial size printers or plastics or neon, because none of that existed yet.
If you needed a sign for your store front, someone would have had to hand carve or hand paint it for you.
And they may have painted it in any style – big block letters, script, or letters that mimicked the penmanship of those days.
Calligraphy – on the other hand- was first practiced in China in the 3rd Century BC and eventually led to cursive script, though not the English style.
English letters come from the Romans, the Latin and Gothic alphabets – and evolved over the years with the introduction of pens. Lower case letters and script were formed as a way to speed up the writing process, and many of the styles & shapes were inherent to the instrument used to form the letters.
Of course- today- calligraphy and hand lettering have taken on a new, modern style. This is the type of lettering we typically think of when we say we want to learn hand lettering:
Modern hand lettering is a script style with a mix of thick and thin strokes inherited from calligraphy styles. This is the style I’ll be referring to for the remainder of this blog post!
If you want to see some inspiration or get ideas for your own hand lettering – check out 6 Hand Lettering Artists to Follow On Instagram.
The Basic Principles of Modern Calligraphy / Brush Lettering
Now that we’ve had a brief history lesson on the origins of lettering, let’s get started with the basic principles you need to know to create modern calligraphy.
Modern calligraphy – with it’s thin upstrokes and thicker downstrokes- is usually created with a brush pen. I’ll recommend some good brush pens you can purchase a little later, but for now, let’s talk about the basic rules to follow when you’re learning modern calligraphy.
If you don’t want to bother with a brush pen, check out my easy tutorial for How to Fake Calligraphy
Modern Calligraphy / Brush Lettering
The first principle of modern calligraphy is that the upstroke is thin. You can see this illustrated below:
Any time you’re moving your pen up to form a letter, like when we begin writing the letter A, you will make a thin stroke.
Modern Calligraphy / Brush Lettering
The second principle of modern calligraphy is that the downstroke is thick. You can see this illustrated below:
Any time you’re moving your pen down to form a letter, like on the second half of the letter A, make the stroke thicker.
Modern Calligraphy / Brush Lettering
The third principle of modern calligraphy is that cross-strokes vary in thickness. See this illustrated below:
When you’re printing (ie not cursive) your letters, your cross stroke will usually be thin.
When you’re forming script letters, your cross stroke might be thick and thin.
And those are the three basic principles to remember as you start practicing your hand lettering.
Tools For Hand Lettering and Calligraphy
With the three guiding principles in mind, it’s time to decide which tools you’re going to use to start your hand lettering practice.
Here is a list of my favorites!
Tombow Fudenosuke Brush Pen
The Tombow Fudenosuke Brush Pen comes in hard tip or soft tip. I recommend hard tip if you’re just beginning and soft as you get better at working with a brush pen.
Tombow Dual Brush Pen Art Markers
The Tombow 56185 Duel Brush Pen Art Markers have a brush pen on one end and a fine tip on the other end. They are available in a wide range of blendable colors- making them perfect for hand lettering.
iPad + Apple Pencil with Procreate App
If you want to start lettering digitally – you need this blessed triad of tools: an iPad, an Apple Pencil, and the $10 Procreate App.
At one time apple pencil was only compatible with iPad Pro (read: expensive). Lucky for us, this is no longer the case.
New model iPads are compatible with Apple Pencil and will only run you about $400 USD. However, you can find iPads even cheaper if you look for sales or wait to purchase during shopping holidays like Black Friday.
If you want to letter digitally in Adobe CC Apps like Photoshop or Illustrator – your best bet is to purchase a tablet with a pressure-sensitive stylus.
Make sure the stylus is pressure sensitive – otherwise you won’t be able to make thick and thin strokes by applying varying amounts of pressure.
Tablets can range anywhere from $20 to $300+, and this is one of those instances in life where you get what you pay for.
If you’re planning to use your tablet only ocassionally for lettering – a $40 Huion Tablet will do just fine. This is what I have & use personally, and it’s still working great a year later. The more expensive tablets are really aimed at freelance and commercial digital artists.
Other Miscellaneous Tools for Hand Lettering
If you plan to get fancy with hand lettering, you’ll probably want to grab yourself some basic tools also.
- Ballpoint Pens
- Crayola Markers
- Straight Ruler
- Tracing Paper
This is where all your old school supplies comes in handy!
Be sure to check out 3 Cheap Pens For Hand Lettering – I’ll bet you probably already have them at home!
5 Tips for Beginner Letterers
If you’re brand new to lettering, it can feel a little overwhelming at first, but here are a few tips you can use while you practice
- Practice every day!
Even if it’s just for a few minutes, try to set aside some dedicated time to practice your lettering every single day.
- Start with Pencil
I know it’s tempting to run out and buy a brush pen right away, but practice your calligraphy letters in pencil first. One reason for this is that brush pens are pricey and can dry out quickly.
But a better reason is that pencil is actually useful for beginners, because you can apply lighter pressure to mimic a thin upstroke and heavier pressure to form a thicker downstroke.
- Use YOUR handwriting
It can be tempting to copy the same style as someone else, but your handwriting is unique! Don’t try to force it to be something it isn’t.
Just use your own style of handwriting, and incorporate the three principles of modern calligraphy as you write. It will evolve over time into something truly beautiful!
- Get Familiar with how Letters are formed
Even though everyone’s hand lettering will look a little bit different, it’s all down to the same stroke patterns: thin upstrokes, thick downstrokes, and varied cross-strokes/flourishes.
Practice individual strokes on their own before trying to combine them, and also try picking up your brush between strokes. Eventually you’ll get a feel for it, and modern calligraphy will become second nature.
- Use FREE Resources
The internet is full of free resources to help you learn lettering, so take advantage! I’ve created free lettering guides for you to start practicing with.
Scroll down to get them absolutely FREE!
FREE! Practice Guides for Modern Brush Lettering
I’ve created a series of lettering guides for you to download. This 13-page Hand Lettering Guide .PDF is available in my Free Resource Library.
In order to access the Free Resource Library, you’ll need the password. If you’re already on my mailing list – the password is always at the bottom of every email I send! Search your inbox for “Maker Lex” to find my latest email.
Otherwise, you can obtain the password by filling out this form:
If you don’t see an email from me within a few minutes of signing up, check your Spam or Bulk Folder!
You can print these guides as many times as you like and trace over the letters with a brush pen or pencil. The guides contain 13 pages of practice sheets including strokes, upper and lower case letters, numbers, some punctuation, and a few practice words.
What are you waiting for? Go get started with your hand lettering and make sure to tag me @makerlex on Instagram so I can see what you create!
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