What is your lettering process?

When I letter a single letter, word, phrase, or quote, the process is pretty much the same:

  • Concept
  • Sketches
  • Underlying Drawing
  • Inking
  • Scanning
  • Vectorizing
  • Coloring

Which steps I go though depends on the end product. Sometimes I do them all, sometimes I skip inking, and sometime I end at inking. Here’s how my process works.


Lettering starts with an idea. I always start with the words or letter or whatever of course. But the idea comes in the interpretation of the word(s). How is this best expressed? Sometimes that’s through layout, sometimes that’s through letter style, often a combination of both.

I think about my intended medium. What am I lettering this for? Does it need to fit a certain space? Does it need to be a certain size? How will it be used? If I’m going to be using it on a large poster or billboard or something, I might not want it to be super tiny, because depending on what I do with it those details might come through. I might want the details, depending on the concept though. Everything hinges on intent.

I sketch all of this stuff out. I write the words, I write what I think about the words. I might mind map visual associations until I come up with a core set of visuals that meet with the intent of the lettering. If it’s just small and fooling around, I might go to the next stage without a whole lot of mind mapping or word association fuss, and sometimes I just know what style something should be in based on previous experience or obvious association. But for a client, better to go whole hog and make sure the concept fits the goals and objectives of the piece.

I need to answer these questions:

  • What words/letters are most important?
  • What size should each word be?
  • What style or styles should I use?
  • How should the words or letters interact?
  • What color(s) am I working with?

These are the only questions that are the same for ever job. How I answer them differs with every project based on the goals. For instance, what words are most important depends on the goal of the message. What style should I use depends on the goals and objectives of the message and the audience. The concept part is where the lion’s share of the work is.

These concept sketches are small. They only show enough detail to get the important points accross. Once I’ve got my concept in place, I can use it to start sketching layout.


Layout comes first, with style in mind, and then style comes in later in detail. I starts sketching for layout with the words written out real simply, taking into consideration which ones need the most emphasis. I’ll do this again and again until I have a good layout, gradually adding in details like size, weight, and basic type style as I go along. Once I’ve got a good sketch in place that meets my goals, I move on the drawing it out.


Most on the time when I’m lettering, I draw my letterforms. Even if they’re going to be calligraphic, brushed, or what have you, I still usually draw them. It’s habit. I’m working on learning calligraphy and brush lettering because I figure if I can do that it won’t take me as much time as drawing it out. But I’m still most comfortable drawing because I have total control, even if it takes a bit longer.

When I draw, I might rule out the layout with light pencil, or with blue pencil if I’m going direct to the scanner without inking. The grid or lines at the baselines, x-height and cap height are helpful for me especially if there are more than a few words.

I’ll start out lightly drawing the most important words, the ones around which a layout might hinge, with a 2H lead because it’s light and easy to erase. As the forms come into being, I’ll use heavier lines to define the shapes I want.

Once everything’s drawn in I’ll do one of two things:

  1. If I’m going to do clean and precise vector lines, I’ll go straight to scanning it in and vectorizing.
  2. If I want it to be imperfect or if I’m doing a commissioned original, I’ll move on to inking.


This is my least favorite part, honestly. I feel like ink bleeds and looks bumpier than a nice sharp pencil line. However, ink has permanence and good contrast. It’s almost a necessary evil. Maybe it bleeds more because I’m using crappy paper (which is probably the case). Maybe it’s just that I can see the imperfections better because black ink on white paper is so high contrast compared to grey pencil. Maybe I’m overthinking it. Regardless, this is the next step. (And my hat goes off to all those in the comic and graphic novel industry whose sole job is inking. You have my utmost respect.)

Inking for me is just veeeeery carefully tracing my pencil drawings with my Staedtler pigment liner. A good rule of thumb I follow is moving my fingers and wrist for curved lines and moving my whole hand from the arm for straight. Basically, if I’m doing a straight line, my hand and wrist will be perfectly still.

I begin with the outside edges, then trace along the inside of those edges to make the lines thicker for a buffer around any shapes I’m going to fill in. Lastly, I’ll fill the shapes. If they’re relatively large I’ll fill with a brush pen. If they’re small I’ll just fill them in the rest of the way with the pigment liner.

When it’s all done I have to be patient and wait for it to dry. Otherwise if I erase any extra pencil lines I’ll end up smearing the ink. Once I’ve erased any extra pencil lines, it may have dimmed or dulled the blackness of some of the ink, so I may need to go over it once more in those areas. If I’m smart, or if it needs to look extra nice, I’ll use a light pad or light table to trace the lines in ink on a new piece of paper, and that way I don’t have to mess with the pencil lines at all.

If the piece is just meant to be photographed, or if it’s being delivered to it’s intended recipient as is, then I’m done. Otherwise I move on to vectorizing.


When it’s time to get the drawings into the computer, I prefer to scan it. It’s just neater. If I’m in a pinch, away from my office or whatever, I can just use my iPhone. It works fine, and I can send the image to my laptop using AirDrop. Any skewing or weird angle from the position of my phone I can fix in Photoshop if need be. But preferably, I’ll use the scanner. It just works well.

Once it’s in the computer, I go one of two directions, both of which start in Photoshop.

  1. If I’m going to digitize or vectorize an inked drawing as is, then I need to make it nice and clean in Photoshop. I’ll boost the contrast, make the background nice and white and the inks nice and black, using the Curves tool. I find I have a lot more control of various tones when I use this tool over using Levels or Contrast. (Levels may be debatable, I just don’t like it as much.)If needed I’ll use the eraser tool to get rid of smudges, and the brush tool to fill in any missed or light areas. The idea is to make sure there is black where it’s supposed to be, and white where it’s supposed to be. No unintended holes or gaps or bits hanging around for when I run Live Trace in Illustrator.
  2. If I’m just going to trace over a drawing (not inked) in Illustrator, then I might just boost the contrast using Curves in Photoshop to make it look half way decent. It doesn’t take much time. Mostly I’ll make sure it isn’t skewed, that everything that needs to be on a horizontal baseline is in fact horizontal. None of this 1.5º tilt nonsense.

The next step is moving into Illustrator to vectorize. Again, two possible paths here.

  1. If I’m vectorizing an inked drawing that I want to look like it’s hand drawn in all its imperfect glory, then I’ll use Live Trace. It’s a good tool, and can be tweaked and customized for my needs. I have a few presets saved, and they do the job rather well.The one thing I need to think about is if I’ll be coloring in any spaces that I’ve left white in my drawing. In this case I’ll do a black and white Live Trace. If I don’t need any of the white spaces, then I’ll be sure to select the “Ignore White” option. Ta da! Easy peasy.
  2. If I’m going to trace over a drawing, this is where the patient work comes in. I’ll put the drawing into a background layer and lock it so I don’t have to worry about it. I might add some guides at this point, depending on the piece. Then I start tracing with the Pen tool.I generally work with a magenta outline, because it’s easy to see. If I need to tell different pieces apart, I’ll change them to cyan, orange, and leafy green. These all have good contrast with each other and the background.Now, point placement is a whole other post, but generally I follow the rules of a good OCD type designer and put my nodes at extremes with horizontal or vertical control points (handles). I start at one end and work my way around until it’s all traced. It’s very meditative.


Once everything’s vectorized it’s time for what I consider to be the hardest part: color. Color is very simple when it’s just one, but dealing with multiple colors gets complicated quickly. I like to make liberal use of the Adobe Color site and all the palettes available there. The Color Guide window in Illustrator is also very helpful. I’ve read and continue to read color theory books. It never seems to get much easier. When in doubt, steal like an artist. Use palettes from other work that fits the mood of the piece.

Now that it’s been colored, I can export it as needed, and everything’s done! Good times.

* * *

If you are interested in having me implement this process on your behalf, please contact me.






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.