Lettering as Contemplative Practice

I hear so much about how our screens and games and shows and the internet and social media are sapping our attention. Everything we consume is meant to give us a little hit of dopamine. It’s meant to keep us consuming. It’s meant to keep us going back for more. While this is good for commerce, it’s not good for living. We need time to reflect.

There are plenty of things that can get us out of the rut of passive consumption. Reading long books. Taking long walks (without our phones). Having conversations with other people. Stop to smell the roses.

Coloring books for adults are hugely popular. It seems as though the market should already be saturated, but there are always more coming out. Why? Consumers want something to do for an extended period of time while they can think. People need something contemplative.

This may be one of the reasons for the rise of hand lettering. Perhaps we are not only pining for something made by hand in the face of increasing amounts of technology in our lives. It’s not just the people who want to consume the lettering who find something in it. It’s also the people who make the lettering who find something in it. Why would I start lettering in the first place? Aside from the fact that it’s a time-honored tradition that meets myriad needs, lettering is also therapeutic. It’s contemplative. Here are some of the things I get out of the act of lettering.

Lettering as listening

If I want to listen to something—to actively listen—I need something to do with my hands. The act of doing helps my brain retain what I’m hearing. While taking notes is the best thing for this, lettering as something to do with my hands aids my listening.

Taking it a step further, doing sketch notes would be even better. I have to admit I’ve done precious few sketch notes. But when I have I found them challenging. Lettering my notes forces me to really listen. I need to think about what is most important. What am I going to emphasize? How can I concisely encapsulate the information I’m hearing? These questions heighten my focus on what I’m hearing. They attach meaning to the words I’m drawing. The process reinforces the message through a physical act.

Lettering as meditation

Repeating what I’m lettering like a mantra or prayer is another way to be contemplative. Repeating a word or phrase or set of words has been a form of meditation and contemplation since… probably since words came to be. It gives power to the words.

The act of repeating what I’m writing ends up being a way to internalize the meaning of the word(s). It’s not only contemplative but meditative. It’s relaxing, and reinforces the idea of what I’m lettering. With this in mind, I have to be careful about what I choose to letter, what I choose to internalize.

Lettering for understanding

This brings me to another point. Researching and thinking about a word’s meaning and purpose is a part of the process. When I try to figure out how I’m going to make a word look, I have to think about how its look reinforces its meaning. The process of thinking about the full meaning of a word is a form of contemplation. By thinking about how a word should look, I think about what it means. I think about all the connections this word may have. I think of how the person who may have said the word felt or thought. It becomes an act of not only contemplation, but empathy.

Lettering as looking

On the flip side of this, I look at form when I’m lettering. How is this shape made? Why doesn’t it look quite right? What makes it look perfect? I have to stop thinking about the idea of a word or letter, and start thinking about the form.

When researching letterng styles I’ll look for a possible letterform in books. Then I copy the forms. (I don’t copy for the actual piece, but as examples to be assimilated into my mind, reproduced in my own hand with my own visual voice or flavor.) When copying a letterform, I pay attention to where the lines actually go. I look at how the form curves or moves. I see the shape without seeing the letter. It’s a process of first forgetting what it is I’m seeing in order to truly see it.

* * *

Lettering ends up being a great tool for my mind. It breaks me away from chain-viewing notifications on my phone, binging on videos, and scrolling endlessly through news feeds. It stops my mind from spinning, clinging anxiously to the hope of some good being dropped in my lap from an external source, addicted to meaningless bits of dopamine hits.

Lettering gives me power and control, focuses my mind on what I choose, and gives me direction and purpose in the doing. It is a great contemplative practice, something that can be used by the amateur adult coloring book fan and master penman alike.






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