Mastery Series January: Lettering

monthlyserieslogo3What I'm doing:  This year,  I take one mixed media skill or medium each month and I practice and learn in one month's time. Then, at month's end, I share what I made  and what I learned...and that's when you get to check in with your own inner artist who will most likely be saying, "Hey, if she can do it, anyone can!"

The series for January was Lettering

Jan Mastery Collage

The bar was low, very low.  Three years ago, I had almost forgotten cursive handwriting and I sat down to re-learn it after decades of scratching with a self-created cursive/print hybrid.  I still don't have capital "Q" or "Z" down, although I'm proud to say I don't hate the cursive capital" I" anymore.

Re-learning cursive didn't improve my handwriting.

Last fall,  I'd purchased a package deal I couldn't refuse from Cloth Paper Scissors: both book and video  by the whimsical lettering champion, Joanne Sharpe, plus a blank journal and several Faber-Castell ink pens!  I read the book and watched the video.

The lettering journal is still blank.

And oh yes, I have a Lettering board on Pinterest. That counts, right?

But honestly, all I could do was some grade-school outlined and block letters at the beginning of January, so I was learning lettering from scratch. I was bound to learn something.

I set three objectives for January's mastery series in lettering, as you might recall:

  1. improve my handwritten text and headlines in my AJ
  2. increase my repertoire of handwritten fonts and styles
  3. improve my skill level, from fine motor skills (better lines) to lettering design.

So how did I do?

Well, as I had hoped, I learned a lot!!! I would say that I definitely met my objectives to some degree (although as I said, the bar was low). I wanted to be able to use text in my art journal more artfully, and I've pushed that needle further for sure. I definitely know more fonts and styles now. And I've improved my skills a bit.

Yet, I really hardly started. I filled just 16 pages in my mastery series journal, and some of those pages were notes about lettering, not lettering itself.  I spent maybe the first week just studying the art form (reviewing the book and video as well as hundreds of Pinterest examples). And then I mostly worked on lettering in the evenings while watching tv.

So, am I lettering wizard now? Absolutely not. As with all things worth doing, I still need much more practice and time. But—wow. Overall, it what a great month! I feel like I learned a bunch and maybe most importantly, I'm primed to continue my quest for improvement.

what i learned

Studying has its place—but then you just have to do it

Could it be that I possible study something first as a stall tactic? Hmmm.  I didn't know where to begin with lettering so I surveyed the field, first. That's how I like to learn things. I read up and got advice from experts and then did a few exercises they recommend as warm ups. Now, I think it's important to understand the art form and its possibilities and all this was good work. But did I need to spend 25% of the month doing it? Maybe not. Let's face it. Yes, I was nervous so I stalled.


artful dodger

Lettering is drawing. Handwriting (caligraphy, cursive, print) is writing.

This was one big takeaway. When you're lettering, you draw letters, and compose those letters into words or sentences on a page. You are working with lines and marks. Handwriting, on the other hand, is training your hand to compose uniform letters over and over again. Creativity is spent on the content of what you're trying to express. The content of lettering is pre-determined in your mind and you're focusing your creativity on drawing the forms to fit that content. I think I kind of understood this before, but now I really get that lettering IS drawing .


Tools are critical and I learned much more about what kind of tools work best for different jobs

First:  If you're composing letters/words into any kind of form on the page, it's absolutely essential to use a ruler or T-square, pencil and eraser.


Second: I've come to love permanent, black ink pens. You can erase pencil marks and use water media over permanent ink (although as you can see in these exercises, first you must use an eraser to actually erase the pencil lines. Oops!).


Third: I now have much more knowledge about kinds of pens and "the point of their points". I almost abandoned Faber-Castell fine points because I was trying to write with them. But you have to hold Faber-Castells at a 90 degree angle so they are not meant for handwriting.  They are meant for drawing rich black lines with their black india ink.  Micron pens are my favorites and I quickly learned the difference between the different point sizes, from .01 through the .08. The smaller the number, the more fine tipped and of course—of course—you need different widths for different widths of lines.


Fourth and finally: color.  So far, I haven't found that I like colored pens for lettering. I love black ink. But I hardly tried, and I did learn that I do like to add color to black ink. I prefer watercolor.


I didn't like adding water to water-soluble Tombow ink pens to spread color. They are harder to control and too bright for my taste. I have much more to learn about color and lettering.


Whaddya know? When I want to get creative and make new letters, I can!

This has to do with my ongoing struggle with my inner critic, who tells me I am not innovative or imaginative.  Yet, when I sat down and created from my own mind, I could definitely come up with new ideas.


I'm particularly thankful to Megan who was featured on Alisa Burke's blog just last week (serendipitous timing!). She suggested the exercise of forming 100 different versions of the same letter shape—and I did!

60 As40AsThis exercise was quite an eye opener. First, yes, the possibilities are infinite! Second, like I said, I was surprised to find my creative mind actually works. And third...I can see how it would be fun to make a whole alphabet from some of my favorites...hmmm...

Sketching with pencil first is critical when I create a complete composition, but not so much when "just" drawing letters.

Pencil sketching really helps place the letters on the page and also, when I'm forming letters over the pencil, I'm more confident and actually change shape/placement of lines on the spot because I can see where the pencil marks needed correction. However, when I'm just drawing a letter? No pencil necessary.

There's a lot of room for correction by thickening in ink.

And that brings me to the last lesson. What's nice about drawing letters  is that all you really have to do is start with simple lines and then add from there—and it's very forgiving.  If lines aren't  straight at first or even with one another, you can thicken the lines to straighten them.

language of the soul

What i still need to improve

Oh, there's so much!

Fine motor skills

My line/mark-making is still wobbly. It helps to slow down (also something I learned), but the truth is I don't have as still a hand as I'd like. Maybe it's my age or my inexperience and lack of practice. I'll go with the latter right now and continue to try to improve.

More creative lettering in words/sentences/compositions

I really didn't create that many lettering compositions, but the lettering in the ones I did are pretty similar to one another. I need to practice more and work outside my comfort zone—take risks.

Go bigger.

I feel this need to make fatter letters. That's where I feel the biggest urge, right now. I need to let loose with bigger/fatter letters both in rich, black ink and also experiment with fat colored markers.

All in all, as you can see, I think I made great headway toward my objectives. I have a few more tricks up my sleeve, which I'll be taking to my art journal where I hope we'll see a lot more (and better?) lettering going on as I practice more.  Not only is lettering a useful skill, but it's also quite engaging and fun. I strongly recommend embarking on your own learning adventure with lettering!