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Good news! If you want to learn how to hand letter, the barrier to entry has never been lower.
Honestly, I attribute this to the creation of the Apple Pencil and the ever-popular Procreate App for iPad. I’ve been a faithful user of the Adobe Creative Suite for more than 10 years now, but even I have to admit: apple pencil + procreate = unparalleled combination.. if you want to letter and potentially sell your digital creations, that is.
And honestly, you don’t need any fancy courses to learn how to hand letter. If you want to jumpstart your new lettering hobby, check out my completely Free Hand Lettering Guides.
However, I can totally sympathize with those of us who have invested in Adobe for all these years and either on principle of the matter, or for lack of funds currently, don’t have an iPad that supports Apple Pencil, much less an Apple Pencil at all. Ok, actually I’m just going to empathize with you, because I actually do have both of those things now.
At one time I didn’t, and so figuring out how to hand letter in Adobe Illustrator was my only means of creating digital lettering. (Apart from lettering with a real ink pen + paper, then doing an image trace in Illustrator – should I make a tutorial on that?! Comment below if you’re curious.)
Therefore, today I’m going to tell you exactly what tools you need to get started hand lettering in Adobe Illustrator and then show you exactly how to do it.
Tools for Hand Lettering in Adobe Illustrator
So here are the items you’re going to need to letter in Illustrator if you don’t have them already:
If any of you reading this were thinking of arguing that you want to letter with your mouse or your finger & the track-pad on your laptop – just, no.
First of all, I personally possess excellent dexterity when it comes to drawing with a mouse, but even with my superior skills, there’s no way in Hades it will ever pass as art. (Hopefully you catch the sarcasm here 😉) .
Adobe Illustrator Software
As you know, everything’s a subscription service these days, including Adobe Illustrator. The con is that you pay monthly, but the pro is that you have the latest, greatest updates in the software at all times. And I have to admit, there are some incredible innovations in the software that my old CS6 version of Illustrator just can’t stand up to.
That said, this tutorial does work with Illustrator CS6, and I’m assuming with even older versions than that. As long as you have the ability to create a new brush that is pressure sensitive, and partly that option will come through your tablet/stylus.
Which leads me to my next point…
Digital Drawing Tablet
You will need a drawing tablet for this tutorial. There are a lot of them out there, but I personally own and use this Huion Tablet.
It’s $40, so it won’t break the bank, it has the bells & whistles you need for lettering, most importantly: a stylus with a pressure-sensitive tip.
Seriously – don’t go blow $300 on a tablet – unless you’re a professionally trained fine artist. I’m definitely not!
How to Hand Letter in Adobe Illustrator
Now that we have the supplies out of the way, let’s talk about how to actually letter in Illustrator.
Step 1: Set up a Comfortable Work Space
I know setting up a comfortable working space may seem obvious, but I always have to learn the most simple of lessons the hard way. So if it isn’t obvious: don’t set up the way I did in the above photo!
I’m serious. The key to success here is to set up on a tabletop or desk where you have plenty of room to spread out and attach all of your USBs to connect your tablet and pen to your computer.
Step 2: Connect Your Tablet & Make Sure Your Computer is Detecting It
When you buy your tablet, you’ll have to download some software to make sure your computer can see it. I won’t go into all the setup details – those instructions should be included in the box when setting up your tablet for the first time.
If it’s been awhile since you’ve used your tablet and your computer isn’t “seeing” it, make sure you have the latest software installed.
If everything is working correctly, using your tablet should be as simple as plug & go, but sometimes mine likes to troll me.
This article explains how to troubleshoot. If you’re using a different tablet than the Huion, check your manufacturer’s website for help.
Step 3: Create a New Illustrator Canvas for Lettering
Now that you have your tablet and stylus connected, go ahead and create a new Illustrator canvas to work in. The canvas settings are up to you, but I went with these settings:
- 1000px x 700px
- Color Mode: RGB
A quick tip about Illustrator canvas settings: If you’re creating for print, then you want to choose a higher resolution, like 144 – 300 ppi, and you want to use CMYK for the color mode. If you’re creating something strictly for digital use, 72ppi (screen resolution) and RGB color mode are the correct settings.
Step 4: Create a New Brush in Illustrator
Once you have your new canvas in Illustrator, it’s time to make our hand lettering brush. To do this, first go to Window > Brushes to open the Brushes panel (if it isn’t open already).
At the bottom of the Brushes panel, click the icon with a plus sign inside a rectangle to Create a New Brush, then select Calligraphic Brush, and click OK.
The next box that appears is the Calligraphic Brush Options. This is where you get to completely customize your lettering brush.
You can give your brush a custom name, adjust the angle, the roundness, and the size according to your own preferences. Don’t sweat these settings too much, just go with what looks good for now. I’ll show you how to easily re-adjust your settings in the next step.
Once you click OK, your new custom brush will appear in the Brush Panel.
As you can see, I chose a -24° angle, 87% roundness, and 14pt size. But here’s the MOST IMPORTANT STEP: Select Pressure from the Drop-Down Menu next to the Size Settings and Adjust the Variation. I started with 5pt Variation and worked upwards, as you’ll see in a moment.
Good hand lettering, especially the calligraphic variety, is dependent on the ability to control the pressure of your up and down strokes. In fact, it takes a lot of practice to master. If you want to understand this topic better, I urge you. Yes, URGE YOU – to check out my blog post all about hand lettering.
I quickly wrote out the word “hello,” but the variation between my up and down strokes wasn’t enough for my liking.
If at any time you want to adjust your brush settings, simply double click on your new custom brush icon in the Brushes Panel and make adjustments. I increased from 5pt Pressure variation to 8pt, and then up to 11pt.
Step 5: Practice, Practice, Practice Your Hand Lettering Strokes
Now all that’s left to do is to practice.
Hand lettering isn’t easy, so don’t worry if you don’t get it perfect on the first try! Part of the beauty of digital art is that it’s easy to erase and start over.
Fail fast, recover fast! And always try, try again!
Learning how to apply light pressure on the up-strokes of letters and heavier pressure on the down-strokes of letters takes a lot of time and patience to master.
You can easily see the difference between the up and down stroke variation in the image below:
And that’s really all there is to it!
Don’t forget to check out my hand lettering post to download free guides that will make your practice so much easier.
Using this method of hand lettering in Illustrator, I created all of these artworks & more:
For more Adobe Illustrator Tutorials, check out these:
- Watermelon Illustration in Illustrator
- Perfect Heart Hack in Illustrator
- Free Adobe Illustrator Course for Beginners
And to access ALL THE LETTERING FREEBIES, Join my Mailing List:
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