When Katie and I first started talking about starting (the then nameless!) Freckle & Fair in earnest, one of the first things we did together was take a calligraphy class on Skillshare. Neither of us had ambitions of becoming professional wedding calligraphers or anything of the sort — it was more about learning together.
That's what this post, and in a lot of ways, this blog, is about. There's a lot of beautiful, amazing work out there. When you're trying to learn a new skill (Katie's a photographer by trade and I'm a graphic designer), it's easy to get overwhelmed and hard to know where to start. But continuing to learn and try new things is pretty amazingly rewarding, even if you don't feel like a pro right away.
Over the course of the past year or so, we've built up quite a few resources that are friendly for the non-pro. Our hope is that this primer can provide you with all the resources you need to get your feet wet in the world of calligraphy and lettering. There's a lot out there, and the best way to find out what you like is to experiment and find what sticks for you.
The images you see in this post aren't perfectly polished Instagrams — they're pages torn from our sketchbooks. In a world where everything seems like a final product, I think it's helpful to see process work once in a while. Come learn with us!
There are a lot of terms when it comes to the shapes of letters. And a lot of them get used pretty interchangeably, but that's not always very accurate. We're here to help clarify the basics:
- Calligraphy: The best explanation I've heard for calligraphy is the art of beautiful handwriting. The goal is to practice a particular alphabet (or set of alphabets) so well that it becomes second nature to produce gorgeous lettering straight-out-of-the-nib — no Photoshop clean-up needed!
- Lettering: Lettering is the art of drawing letters, words and sometimes illustrative elements for a specific situation. It's more drawing than writing.
- Type design: The art of designing systems of letters that must work together in infinite combinations. Unlike lettering, where you're only drawing a specific set of letters for a specific context, type designers must draw every character and piece of punctuation. And they all have to play together nicely. It's a tough job!
- Typefaces & fonts: Although many designers agree that the two terms can be used interchangeable (thanks, Tobias Frere-Jones!), technically a typeface is the system of letters — for example, Helvetica — and a font is the specific set of letters you're working with — Helvetica bold in 8 points.
- Typography: This is the art of setting designing a composition with existing typefaces. Here's a link to some poster eye candy — you catch my drift.
There are so many ways to learn a new skill, often the old adage rings true — practice makes perfect, especially when it comes to something you're making by hand. But classes can be so incredibly helpful, not just for the expert tips and tricks, but also for the motivation and energy that comes from being part of a group. If you're lucky enough to live in New York, check out continuing education classes at the School of Visual Arts, Cooper Union, the Fashion Institute or Pratt. But for most people (even New Yorkers!), online classes are the way to go. We're all about Skillshare (click here for a free month!), but there are a lot of different options to suit your budget and what you're trying to learn. We've taken most of these Skillshare picks, and the others are part of our wishlist for future online learning:
- Typography That Works: Typographic Composition and Fonts by Ellen Lupton (author of Thinking With Type, curator of contemporary design at the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum in New York and director of the graphic design MFA program at the Maryland Institute College of Art ). OK, you really can't miss this one. First of all, it's FREE. Second of all, Ellen Lupton is a walking contemporary expert. And third of all, if you want to get into anything that has to design the typography and lettering, it's best of start of with a strong foundation.
- Introduction to the Art of Modern Calligraphy by Molly Jacques. Molly's class is quick, fun and a great way to get your feet wet with the tools you'll need to practice pointed pen calligraphy. She's got an adorable personal style of her own that's super inspiring to watch, and she explains how she developed that and how you can go about crafting your own.
- Lettering for Designers: One Drop Cap at a Time by Jessica Hische. Jessica's class gives an amazing overview of what lettering is, but importantly for some, she explains this process in context. If you're a graphic designer looking to get lettering work on the side, this is a great class for you — she frames the class assignment as a brief from Penguin Books, complete with feedback on her own work from an art director. Lots of fun, complete with plenty of wit and honesty from Jessica.
- The First Steps of Hand-Lettering: Concept to Sketch (Lettering I) by Mary-Kate McDevitt. Mary-Kate has a four classes total on Skillshare, so if you like the first one, there's a lot more to choose from! Her class offers a lot of guidance on research, process, and how to draw. She also offers a workshop called Illustrating with Lettering that delves deeper into this process.
- The Golden Secrets of Hand-Lettering: Create the Perfect Postcard by Martina Flor. Martina's class offers a wealth of resources on process: How to train your typographic eye, how to refine your sketches and how to sketch in general. Her style is incredibly versatile, which makes her class super helpful.
- Beginning Calligraphy on creativebug.com: If you're looking for a more in-depth calligraphy class, Maybelle Imasa Stukuls offers a four-week beginning calligraphy class with two hours of video content.
- Calligraphy 201 on Brit + Co. If you've got the basics down, Brit + Co offers a class by Lauren Essl that should teach you some new tricks push your skills to the next level.
- Hand-Lettering Basics on Brit + Co. This class by Danielle Evans focuses on brush pen style lettering (versus the highly controlled compositions in Jessica and Martina's classes!)
Some of this work you can do without anything fancy: A mechanical pencil and some computer paper would suit you just fine. But depending on what you're doing — calligraphy in particular — you're going to need some special tools. The good news is, in most cases, they're very affordable, and in all cases, they're very fun:
- Higgins Eternal Black Ink: This is exactly what you'll need to get started with calligraphy. Specialty inks (gold, white or colorful gouache) can be fun down the road, but do yourself a favor and start off with black! Nota bene: Make sure you get waterproof Higgins ink if you plan to add watercolor or any other sort of wash on top of your ink. Otherwise you'll end up with a very sad mess.
- Nibs: You can experiment to find your favorites, but Molly Jacques recommends the Gillot 404, Gillot 303 and Nikko G. We like the Nikko G the best as beginners for its flexibility. Definitely don't pick up any old pack of Speedball nibs at your local craft store — you'll likely end up thinking calligraphy is a lot harder than it is.
- Speedball holder: You can't go wrong here! Once you get comfortable with the straight pen holder, you can graduate to an oblique pen holder, too.
- Calligraphy Practice Paper: While any paper will do just fine, calligraphy practice paper will help you really focus on getting your letters even and consistent, which what it's really all about.
For brush lettering & writing:
- Tombow Dual Brush Pens: These come in a rainbow of shades (you can see some in the photos above) and are great for achieving nice thicks and thins. They also blend beautifully if you want to get your ombre on. If you're curious about how these pens work, check out YouTube for some demonstrations.
- Pentel Brush Pens: Here's another option along the same lines, but with refillable ink cartridges.
- Pentel Water Brush: Similar concept, but you can add water and your own ink or paint to the chamber inside.
- Pentel sign pen: Do you want everything you write to look pretty? Even your grocery lists? Use this felt-tipped pen. I get really possessive of it when I loan it to people and hover over them until it has been returned to me.
- Papermate Flair felt-tipped pen: When I can't find my Pental sign pen, I go for this one. It's a bit fatter and still in that fantastic felt-tipped family. Perfect for doodles and comes in a rainbow of colors.
- Pencils: Use your favorites! The great thing about lettering is that it's essentially just drawing letters, so you can break our your glittery mechanical Bics, because no one's judging.
- Tracing paper: When you're revising and refining your illustration, it's really helpful to be able to trace on top of the original drawing using either semi-transparent layout bond or a roll of tracing paper. Both are very easy to get at a local craft or art supply store.
- Micron pens: These ultra fine pens are great for inking a drawing with an impressive degree of accuracy. You'll be shocked at how fine a point they come in.
- Scanner: If you choose to finish your lettering piece digitally, a scanner (or even an iPhone app like TinyScan) will be your best friend.
- Watercolors, gouache paint, illustration markers: There's no right answer when it comes to adding color, but it can be helpful to keep a stash of supplies on hand to add some color to your work in real life, even if you don't plan to finish your piece digitally.
Books can be your best friends when it comes to learning a new (visual!) skill. They can help teach you, serve as reference materials and can be very helpful to explain things to visual learners. Here's a selection of what you can find on our bookshelf:
- Thinking with Type by Ellen Lupton: This is more or less the book on typography. Although it's not a calligraphy or lettering book specifically, it does give an amazing foundation on typography in general that's really a must for anyone trying to learn about letters.
- The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst: Another great overview book (though again, not specific to lettering or calligraphy). It's like the dictionary for designers.
- The Little Book of Lettering by Emily Gregory: This book is a round-up of contemporary lettering in different styles. It's cute and great for your coffee table, but also a great way to see what's out there right now.
- Hand-Lettering Ledger: A Practical Guide to Creating Serif, Script, Illustrated, Ornate and Other Totally Original Hand-Drawn Styles by Mary-Kate McDevitt: This book offers more advice from Mary-Kate in printed from with lots of pages of workspace alongside. In addition to advice, she provides "right" and "wrong" examples and step-by-step samples of her own process work.
- Mastering Copperplate Calligraphy: A Step-by-Step Manual by Eleanor Winters: This is a practical guidebook to learning traditional copperplate calligraphy (recommended by Molly Jacques). It's incredibly helpful to have the process broken down in such detail. If you're serious about learning to really master the calligraphy, buy this book!
- Vintage Type and Graphics: An Eclectic Collection of Typography Ornament, Letterheads and Trademarks from 1896 to 1936 by Steven Heller and Louise Fili: This is a great reference book for those with a soft spot for vintage.
We love blogs (obviously) for their visual content, but also for their context. It's great to see a sexy snapshot on Instagram, but it's it's even better to get the story behind it through a blog post. Here's a list of some of our favorites:
- Oh So Beautiful Paper: Gulp! Gasp! Sigh! Nole Garey and her team's celebration of paper is just to die for, and I mean that almost literally. You'll find a little bit of of everything here — calligraphy, lettering, typographic design — but all of it with the same expert curation.
- A Fabulous Fete: Beautiful calligraphy, gorgeous photography and perfectly on point art direction. We can say no more.
- Cocorrina: This blog is run by a graphic designer who draws a lot of her own lettering in her work and in her blog posts. She's got an eye for typographic compositions and her blog is bursting full of love for letters.
- Molly Jacques: Molly's style is so playful and her use of color is a delight. It's pretty impossible not to enjoy her work.
- Letter Collections: Letter Collections is a side project by Martina Flor full of custom lettered postcards. Let us warn you: You will get lost in this!
- Daily Drop Cap: Daily Drop Cap was started by Jessica Hische in 2009, and although it's no longer her major side project, she talks about how it helped her launch her career into what it is today in her Skillshare class! Definitely still worth a look in 2015.
- Mary-Kate McDevitt's Tumblr: Mary-Kate McDevitt's work has a personality all it's own, and that truly shines here. If you need convincing: There are gifs, mischievious popcorn, and dancing s'mores claiming it wants to feel the heat with somebody. GO NOW.
INSTAGRAMMERS TO FOLLOW
Blogs are beautiful but we definitely understand the need for those bursts of pretty. Here's a round-up of 25 Instagrammers who are killing it at the calligraphy and lettering game:
- Ashley Buzzy McHugh
- Bryan Todd
- Caitlin Bristow
- Cast Calligraphy
- Courtney Shelton
- Erik Marinovich
- Ian Barnard
- Jasmine Dowling
- Jay Roeder
- Julie Song
- Kal Barteski
- Karla Lim (Written Word Calligraphy)
- Kathryn Christenbury
- Laura Hooper-Leader
- Lauren Essl
- Lauren Saylor
- Layers of Loveliness
- Mary Kate McDevitt
- Molly Jacques
- Molly Suber Thorpe (also teaches calligraphy on Skillshare!)
- Neil Secretario
- Pauline A. Ibarra
- Seb Lester
- Studio Maco
- The Weekend Type
Photos and text © Theresa Berens and Katie Currid, 2015. All rights reserved.