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Help! My Work Was Shared Without Credit!

When I first started hand lettering, I knew very little about sharing my work online. A little while into my lettering practice, I drew up a Dumbledore quote, inside the shape of a lightbulb. I was proud of this drawing, so I shared in on Instagram and my blog at the time, and then pinned the image from my blog on Pinterest. That pin has now been repinned over 2,500 times, and I’ve seen other pins of the image with several hundred repins as well. I made a rookie mistake, though. I didn’t include any kind of watermark or credit on the image itself, as it never occurred to me that someone repinning the pin might not keep the source link. If you see this image on Pinterest now, it can be difficult to figure out that it belongs to me.  

A few months ago, a good friend of mine texted me to let me know a friend of a friend had posted my drawing! The only problem, of course, was that my name or username was nowhere on the post. I wasn’t really sure what to do. Do I slyly comment on the image, giving myself credit for the drawing? Ask my friend to do it? Call the person out and shame them for not giving credit? Do I just let it go?

If you have to deal with a similar situation, my number one piece of advice is: don’t do nothing - it’s your artwork, you deserve to be credited, and it’s a great chance to make some new connections! I’ve actually run into this issue with that drawing multiple times since then. And I’ve found that it always, always pays to be friendly.

Attribution vs. Theft

There is an important distinction to make here - this person was not taking credit for my work, claiming to have come up with the concept or drawn it. This is an issue of attribution, just someone reposting something they liked and forgot to credit or weren’t able to find credit for. The other, someone trying to claim credit as the artist, is totally sketchy and might warrant less friendly action.

Don’t Get Aggressive

When there’s no attribution, you need to give the person the benefit of the doubt. Often attribution gets removed long before this person posted your work - they’re likely not intentionally snubbing you. Locating the original artist is a large enough obstacle that many people don’t even try and just post without attribution.

You can’t expect that someone wanting to post a pretty image of song lyrics or a quote they like on Instagram would realistically spend more than a couple of clicks (if that) trying to figure out who the artist is. As an artist you might, as you are overly sensitive to this topic, but the average user is not.

Be Friendly

If a friend lets me know they saw my work somewhere with no attribution, I always ask if they feel comfortable commenting with something like “Hey, my friend @ambrgarnr drew this! So cool to see it here!” It’s the most natural way to have credit given - someone with a connection to the post addressing the issue (and, it's reflective of what actually happened!). Then you can come in and reply, since you’re now tagged in the comment, thanking the person for sharing your work. It all looks like an awesome coincidence (and it was!), and you get your work attributed, ninja-style.

If they’re not comfortable posting, I go ahead and comment. I approach it as if I just stumbled upon the post - you don’t want the person to get defensive and think someone sicced you on them!

My friendly comments are along the lines of “Woah, so awesome to stumble upon my work on Instagram! Thanks for sharing!” or “My artwork, spotted in the wild! Thanks for reposting!”. The response has been 100% positive. Sometimes the person will apologize and say they’d have given credit if they’d known, or they’ll reply saying they’re so happy they finally know who drew it.

It’s a win win win - no one aggressively attacks the poster for stealing work, you get credit for your work, and you build new connections.

Don’t Publicly Shame

You’ve seen it before - a person feels wronged by someone, posts a screenshot of the wrongdoing on their own account, and puts the other user on blast.

Have you ever seen this actually go well for the shamer? Sure, their merry band of followers might go and harass the wrongdoer until they comply, but there’s always some backlash. Does the shamer retain the same reputation and level of respect they once had? No. Their devoted fans will remain, but many of their more passive followers will be put off - especially if it turns out that it was all a misunderstanding and they overreacted. Shaming should never be your go-to reaction. If you want to get frustration at the situation off your chest, talk to your friends. If you post something like that online, at best you look pouty or catty, and at worst, you look aggressive and self-righteous - especially if you have thousands of followers. 

Learn From It

If you find your work is being posted without attribution regularly, particularly from a pin that's been stripped of your credit, there's not much you can do for now. But you can protect your work for the future!

Make sure your images always have some kind of credit on the image itself. My friend Jenn at Hello Brio has a super easy tutorial for adding a subtle, tasteful watermark to your images. This doesn't guarantee that someone won't crop it out later, but it adds some additional protection to ensure you get credit for your work.

When you're sharing an image of your work and link back to it on your own site, make sure it's to a URL that's here to stay. Both the Etsy listing and the blog I linked to on my original pins are now defunct, so even if they were still on the pin they'd be pretty useless for leading people to information about crediting me properly.

Have you ever found your work posted anywhere without attribution? How did you handle it?

 

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Slow Down: Great Lettering Takes Time

We’ve talked a bit about looking to other lettering artists for inspiration, and I’m sure you’ve seen countless examples of the great work you can find in the form of print ads, book covers, products and wedding invitations, just to name a few. These polished, perfectly imperfect pieces can provide motivation and inspiration, but they can also paralyze you. Will my work ever look that good? The short answer is yes, it can. The more accurate answer is: yes, but not without time and effort. There are no shortcuts.

When I first started lettering, I didn’t realize the time these amazing artists were putting in. It’s hard to get a feel for the time commitment of a project when all you see is the final version. Even if an artist posts process shots, you still don’t see how much time per day, or per project, they’re putting in. This caused some serious frustration, because I was convinced they were achieving detailed, high quality work in a flash - so in my mind, not only was their work much better than mine, but they were putting it out faster, too.

This simply isn’t true. In fact, a lot of them were probably going slower than me - which is part of the reason they were able to create such intricate detail and maintain near-perfect lines.

How Long Should a Lettering Piece Take?

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Obviously, the answer to this question depends on the project and the scope of the piece. The time you put in should scale according to the requirements of the work. A quick piece for your daily Instagram post is a very different time commitment from a hand lettered poster for a client.

My time commitment for an average client lettering piece (not including digitization) is generally 3-5 hours, depending on the piece’s complexity. Many of my simpler Instagram posts only take an hour. Between thumbnail sketching, measuring guides, framing, adding the body, shaping up the style, tweaking, re-sketching, and inking - building a strongly composed lettering piece is no small task.

Even if you’re a master hand letterer, your drawing speed has a limit if you want clean lines, and want the image on paper match the quality of one in your head. You’ll either spend the time taking it slow and doing it the right way first, or you’ll spend additional time drawing and redrawing. If you can’t seem to get natural curves and precise straights, slow down and see how you improve.

How Long Will It Take Me To Get Better?

To truly master a craft, you need to show up every day with meaningful practice to address your shortcomings.

I’ve been seriously hand lettering (practicing every day) for over 2 years, and I still see plenty of room for improvement in my work. Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours concept didn’t become widespread for no reason (which has been debunked a bit, but the sentiment of dedication and hard work is still important).

This isn’t to say you won’t be considered good (or even great!) after only a year or two - your initial improvement WILL be much faster than your later improvement, especially if you’re intentional about practicing the fundamentals. But just as you wouldn’t expect to be a piano prodigy with a few months work, you shouldn’t expect to be a Sean McCabe or Jessica Hische level lettering artist right away. You can be good enough to attract clients in a shorter time frame, but don’t think your improvement stops the moment you start building a client base.

Sean McCabe maintains that in order to build an audience and establish yourself as an authority in a field, you need to show up every day for two years. It’s not a magic formula wherein you half ass your practice for two years and stumble upon a pool of perfect clients - it’s about showing up, pursuing your passion, and honing your skills. That’s all fine and good (and in my experience, about right!), but no one thinks about a project, hobby, or skill in two year increments - that’s way too daunting!

The most important thing is to break your improvement into actionable steps. It can be overwhelming when you see all of the different techniques you need to improve upon. Pick one that excites you, and work on it consistently until you see improvement. When you’re happy with your level of improvement on that technique, or feel yourself getting bored or burnt out, pick something new to work on. This is why 30 or 100 day challenges are fantastic for improving your lettering - they provide hyper-focused periods of improvement in a specific area. Chain a few of these together, and you’re well on your way to a polished skill set!

Keep things fresh and make sure you’re enjoying every single day of practice. The challenges of learning hand lettering should excite you, not cause you to procrastinate or dread practicing. In the beginning, it’s about making sure you actually like what you’re doing, if you have any prayer of committing to it long-term. If you hate practicing brush lettering, that technique might just not be your style. But, if you’re jumping around hating every technique you try, maybe lettering is a passing hobby rather than a serious pursuit.

Don’t Get Discouraged

One important thing to keep in mind when you get discouraged about your current level of lettering is this: everyone started where you started. Every expert you see was once a beginner. Scroll back through some of your favorite lettering artists’ feeds, and compare their work from a couple of years ago to now. I’d be willing to bet you’ll notice an enormous difference in the consistency of their letters, the quality of their compositions, and the accuracy of their lines. Improvement may feel slow, but it will happen steadily if you regularly show up. 

Just look at the difference between one of Sean McCabe’s first Instagram posts (213 weeks ago) and one of his most recent. The level of quality now compared to 4 years ago is astounding. Or my own from 101 weeks ago to something more recent. Slightly less astounding, but still a marked improvement.

The bottom line is this: be patient and practice. All valuable skills take time to learn and master, and hand lettering is no different. And I’m right there with you! I know in a year’s time I’ll be comparing my work then to my work now, and I’ll be a little embarrassed at the work I was putting out. Even the best hand lettering artists still have room for improvement - it’d be a pretty mundane existence to not find new projects within your craft that challenge you and push your limits. Draw energy from the challenges ahead, and rise to meet them.

Hit a Plateau? You May Need a Side Project

Let’s be honest: as important as practicing the fundamentals is to improving your lettering, it’s not always the most exciting thing. When lettering begins to feel like a chore, a good way to spice things up, reignite your passion, and keep your creative juices flowing is to develop a side project. A good side project starts small, and scales up as you decide to commit more time to it - it doesn’t need to have a perfectly coded, dedicated internet home. Some side projects work best with a dedicated website, Tumblr, or Instagram account, but most are fine if they’re just something you post on your existing accounts in addition to your regular work. Integrating it into your existing web presence leverages your current followers for feedback on the project and makes the project a part of your personal brand, while a dedicated space for the project gives it some permanency.

Benefits of a Side Project

They keep you creative and productive.

A big part of culture while working at Google includes encouraging employees to spend 20% of their work time exploring other creative pursuits or working on side projects. Google found that this increased productivity, happiness, and collaboration among their teams. Google benefited immensely from this side project policy - 20% projects are credited with the development of many of Google’s products - and your lettering work can benefit, too.

Your regular lettering work will improve.

Creative hobbies have proven time and again to can increase work performance, and help employees bounce back from the stress of their everyday work. When your deliberate lettering practice begins to stress you out, your productivity (and rate of improvement) will suffer; it’s time to develop a side project!

The right side project will inject excitement into your lettering, and motivate you to keep going - in both the side project and your regular work. The lettering you do for your side project will also act as additional practice to improve your overall lettering skills.

Bonus: You might gain notoriety (but don’t bank on it)!

Many lettering artists have gained notoriety for their side projects, because side projects are naturally shareable content. The common theme or interesting twist the work is united under makes a side project more shareable over your regular body of work. (“This guy does calligraphy” isn’t quite as interesting as “this guy does calligraphy with vegetables.”)

However, notoriety should not be your motivation. A side project should excite you, and that is what will make a project great, which is what will make people want to share it. Focusing on notoriety will kill the side project magic.

Types of Lettering Side Projects

There are a few different structures you can build a side project around. Most end up being a cross section of at least two of these structures - a numeric technique-focused project, for example, might have you practicing vintage lettering styles every day for 100 days.

Set a numeric goal or deadline.

Numeric side projects are pretty simple. Pick a content area, topic, or tool, and commit to doing it for x number of days, or x number of words or letters. Numeric goals are generally centered around something you want to explore or focus your practice on for a limited time - they’re a great way to challenge yourself to learn a new tool or technique. Terence Tang recently completed 100 days of calligraphy videos - he committed to posting a video of his calligraphy process to Instagram for 100 days in a row.

Focus on a specific lettering tool.

A side project can be a great way to learn how to use a new lettering tool (or think outside the box and use a non-tool as a tool), and really see your progress from start to finish. Trying new things is an important way to reinvigorate your love of lettering and create a well-rounded body of work. Calligrapher and letterer Ian Barnard used vegetables as calligraphy tools, to inject some fun into his work. He wasn’t worried about perfection - he was focused on experimentation.

Focus on a specific lettering technique or style.

If there’s a specific lettering technique that intimidates you but you’d like to try, a side project is a low-risk way to feel it out. Maybe you’d like to practice blackletter calligraphy for a week, or create a series where you’re drawing representative type for different words (like drawing the word lightning to look like lightning, for example).

Focus on a specific topic or content area.

Topic-based side projects frequently don’t have a specific end date, so they’re great for an idea you have that you think you’ll be able to continue to come up with content for. Some great examples of these are Lauren Hom’s Daily Dishonesty, and Shauna Panczyszyn’s We Need To Talk. Both of these talented ladies stumbled into a content idea from something that struck them in their everyday life, and developed fantastic side projects around expanding on that idea.

The best content-based project concepts tend to come about organically. I purchased some Crayola markers to try some brush lettering techniques with them, and realized it would be fun to create lettering pieces with all of the old craft and art supplies I loved as a kid. Thus, my Throwback Thursday lettering series was born!

Choosing Your Side Project

Be ambitious, but realistic.

Don’t overcommit. Unless you have nothing to do all day, setting a goal of creating digitized, ready-to-print pieces under a specific theme every day for 100 days is probably a recipe for failure. A good side project pushes your creative boundaries and skills, but realistically and in a low-stress way. Set enough constraints to give the project some definition, but don’t box yourself into a stressful, too-serious undertaking. Jessica Hische’s Daily Drop Cap is a great example of evaluating your deadlines to maintain quality and make sure you're enjoying the project. She initially wanted to put out one alphabet a week, but realized that would be too much to keep up with and adjusted her (and her followers') expectations. 

Find an idea that truly inspires you.

Shauna Panczyszyn’s neighbor left garbage out on the porch, attracting raccoons, and she hand lettered a note to leave on his door about it. Her friends loved the note and wanted similar passive aggressive notes - enter “We Need To Talk.” A side project doesn’t have to be life affirming or world changing - it just needs to spark something in you that will make you excited to generate content under that theme. In fact, many creatives think stupidity is the key to a great side project idea - the less seriously you take it, the more stress-free and exciting it is to work on.

Set deadlines.

Set deadlines within the project to make sure you’re committing to working on it. This deadline shouldn’t overwhelm you or stress you out - you should look forward to the next time you get to work on it. If you commit to working on the project more frequently than you can handle, you’ll burn out on the project and it will become a chore. The best part of a side project is that you can structure it however you want - and you don’t have to make it public until you’re ready.

What’s your project?

Side projects are a fantastic way to boost your creativity, try a new skill or tool, and learn to not take yourself and your work too seriously. The right side project will be a source of stress relief and excitement, and will make your regular work much more enjoyable and productive.

What are some of your favorite side projects? Do you have a side project of your own right now?  

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