There are rules and principles of drawing and constructing letters. From the style of letters; Serif, Sans, and Script, to the thickness and optics used to make a letter legible at a distance. Then there are techniques to drawing letters in different styles, using a skeleton, pushing and pulling curved and straight lines. Lettering and the art of drawing letters is all about shapes. Knowing what letters share similar shapes allows you to develop a technique where you can borrow the drawing style and shape from different letters. Meaning, the shape of a capital ‘G’, is identical to a capital ‘C’ just extended at the end.
Knowing these similarities between letters will help in the learning process with developing a technique to drawing the letters. Here are a few principles and techniques to drawing Serif and Sans Serif letters;
Thin, Contrasted, Thick
These are the types of letters you will come across. Thin and thick lines are all around similar shapes and are straight forward to draw, using only one thickness in a letter. Where things get technical is when the contrasted letters, which is a combination of both thick and thin strokes in a letter, come into play. The style is pleasant to look at and has a beautiful artistic appearance in a final piece, but it requires knowledge of how letters work with stroke direction to be able to pull it off effectively.
With contrasted letters, it’s easy to get it wrong by not knowing which stroke to make thick and which to make thin. But, there is a technique to it and a practical way of remembering.
The image above displays the direction of the stroke and the thickness of that stroke. When you are drawing in the North, North East, East direction, your stroke will always be thin. On the contrary, when you are drawing in a South East, South direction, your stroke will always be thick.
Stroke direction when using a contrasted style is crucial to having an effective piece of handlettering. If one of your stroke directions are off, then the piece won’t feel coherent. Try it yourself. Start drawing a contrasted-style sans font, like in the top image, and think about what direction you are going in and what thickness it needs to be for each stroke.
When you are creating a letter that has a crossbar or a horizontal line, you need to compensate its weight compared to the vertical stem. Crossbars are thinner because of how our eye perceives the horizontal line in conjunction to the vertical line. Your eye is tricked into thinking its thicker than it actually is so to compensate, you need to make the horizontal line thinner. See image above for the correct optics. You will see this technique used on the letters ‘A’, ‘H’ etc.
Overshoots & Overhangs
An ‘Overhang’ is when the top of a letter (generally the part over the x-height) hangs over the bottom part, or comes too far past the bottom. Think of a ‘C’ and see image above. If the top part of the ‘C’ comes to far over the bottom, the letter will feel like it’s about to topple over, this will upset the balance of the letter. A letter should look like it’s resting in place. In general, the curved top part of a letter should always be slightly inward when compared to the bottom. Think ‘S’, ‘B’.
When drawing curved letters, you will need to use a technique called ‘Overshooting’. This is when the curved line of a letter overshoots it’s boundary, ie. Baseline or Cap Height. But also overshoots its width. See the ‘O’ in image above. The curves extend outward past it’s boundary. This is to compensate for the curvature of the letter and how it curving the letter will naturally make it look thinner. This way, it beefs the letter up and makes it appear fuller and more natural when next letters with no curvature.
Pushing & Pulling Strokes
The above gif is from master handlettering artist, Seanwes. This technique is subjective and may or may not work for you, I found it effective which is why I am sharing it here.
To achieve straighter lines, pull on curved lines, and push on straight lines. To do this, lock your elbow, and use your bodies natural hand motion to help you draw less jagged lines, whether they be straight lines or curved line.
Tips, Takeaways & What to do now
- These principles are how letters work. Study and practice them using the different styles of typography; Sans, Serif, and Script.
- Don’t practice them all at once. Pick one principle and learn how it’s used with any letter, but also learn why it’s used.
- Research Metrical vs. Optical spacing in typography. While metrics uses mathematics to space the letters to their optimal points to achieve balance. Optics takes into account how your eye will perceive the letters when beside each other. See this article on Typographica.
- ‘Skeletons’ are a great way to map out how your letter is going to look. It’s a great technique for when you want to get a feel for the spacing of a handlettering piece before starting to draw the full letter.
- Download the Lettering Practice Template and start putting each of these techniques in place one at a time. Pick a letter per line and go through the alphabet.