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Essential Supplies for a Travel Lettering Kit

At home, I’ve got a great lettering set up. I’ve got a nice big desk, a comfy chair, and drawers of storage so all of my (many) art supplies are right at my fingertips. But some months it seems like I spend more weekends away from home than not, which can make continuing to practice lettering tough, since I can’t take my entire home office with me! Over the years, I’ve developed a travel lettering kit that is full of essential supplies to make sure I keep practicing, whether I’m spending the day at the park or a week in another country.

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Moleskine Notebook (5 x 8.25)

Moleskine notebooks have an outstanding reputation for being a great sketchbook. Beyond containing high-quality drawing paper, they also have the added benefit of an elastic closure and a hard cover. I love that the notebook stays securely closed, protecting my drawings and blank pages from getting crumpled in my bag! If you go with a gridded or dotted notebook, you can probably even get away without packing a ruler in your travel supplies.

Pencil Bag

I use an old makeup bag as my pencil bag, and it’s the perfect size. And it didn’t cost me any additional money, so bonus! If you have an old pencil pouch or makeup bag lying around, use what you have. This bag fits all of my basic supplies and more, so I have enough supplies with me even for a long trip.

Micron Pens (full set of liners)

I keep a dedicated set of Micron Pens in my travel bag so I never forget a size! I use the smaller sizes for fine details and the larger sizes for fills and larger letters, so I like to keep every size with me, including a Graphic 1 for big fill areas.

Lead Holder

I don’t like to bring #2 pencils with me on trips because without fail, the lead snaps. I have a sharpener to fix that, but the frugal person in me always gets frustrated over wasted materials. With a lead holder, I can slide the lead fully into the the holder when I put it in the travel bag, so the tip is fully protected. No wasted lead! Plus, if I’m going on a very long trip, packing extra lead takes up less room than an extra pencil.  

Lead Sharpener

Obviously, you’ll need to bring a way to keep your lead nice and sharp! The standard Staedtler lead sharpener is the perfect size to store in my pencil bag. If you want an even smaller option, this tiny little guy takes a little more effort but does a pretty good job!

Eraser

You’ll definitely want to bring an eraser to fix any stray lines, particularly if you’re going to attempt lettering in a car, train, or plane (turbulence be damned!). Any small eraser will do, but I like my Faber-Castell eraser that has a plastic enclosure. It protects my eraser from getting covered in ink should an accident happen in my pencil bag! Plus, when you have the eraser open the plastic casing gives you more surface area to grip.

Small Metal Ruler

I have a 6-inch metal ruler from college that has come in so handy for travel. It fits perfectly in my bag and is long enough for nearly all of the layouts I’d be tackling in a 5x8.25 Moleskine notebook. I find a metal ruler is best for travel because it’s flexible but sturdy, so it can handle being tossed around a bit in a travel bag without breaking.

Bonus: Brush Pens

Since I’ve got the room for it in my pencil bag, I always toss in a few brush pens for the road so I can stay on top of my brush calligraphy skills as well. Right now, I’ve been favoring Pentel Sign Pens or the Zig Cocoiro, but this option varies trip to trip!

No Excuses - You Can Practice Anywhere

When travel interrupts your routine, it can be easy to decide not to stick to a practice regimen. No matter where you’re going, this small lettering kit is sure to fit in any bag you bring. So no excuses - keep practicing!

What can’t-live-without lettering tool do you bring on trips?

Are You Correcting For This Optical Illusion in your Lettering?

I’ve emphasized the importance of guidelines in many of my posts, but one mistake many new letterers make is setting up guidelines and following them too strictly. Setting up your guidelines and drawing every letter precisely to the edges of your guides sounds like a foolproof plan, right? Well, not exactly. Thanks to a little optical illusion known as the Müller Lyer Illusion, your letters will actually end up looking like they’re different heights, and thicker in some spots than others.

Even if you’re brand new to the lettering and type world, you’ve probably encountered this effect without even realizing it, through examples like this:

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So how exactly does this affect your lettering, and how do you fix it?

Think of Letters as Three Shapes

All characters can be lumped into one of these three shapes: squares, circles, and triangles. Square shapes, like H and M, are relatively simple - they can follow the baseline and cap height and have no problems at all. Circular letters like O or C look shorter than square letters. Triangular letters, like A, tend to look even shorter than circular or square letters.

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Take a look at the image above. Do you notice how less of the circle and triangle touches the cap line? This is what causes the illusion. When characters are mathematically the exact same height, they don't actually look like they are.

When you’re drawing a circular letter or a triangular letter, you’ll need to adjust for this by drawing circles and triangles a bit taller than your guideline - this is called overshoot. If you don’t, circular and triangular letters will look smaller even if they are the same height as square letters.  

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Remember, Horizontals Look Heavier Than Verticals

Horizontal lines, like the crossbars of A and H, look heavier than verticals. To adjust for this, make them a bit thinner than the other strokes of the letter.

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Don’t Work Only With Outlines

Working with only outlines of your text can make it tough to accurately get a feel for the visual weight of every stroke. Filling in your lettering can help you really see how heavy your letters are, so you can tell if you’ve successfully outsmarted the tricks our brains play on us.

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If you’ve been noticing that no matter how exact you are with your guidelines, some of your letters seem to look smaller than others when you’re finished, don’t fret! After you learn to make a few small corrections to your lettering, you’ll be outsmarting our silly, broken brains.

If you make these adjustments, your letters will look even, and you’ll be the only one who knows they’re actually not!

What IS Lettering? (And What's Not?)

Typography. Lettering. Calligraphy. Fonts. Typefaces. Handwriting. There are so many words for how we visually represent language! As these areas have increased in popularity, many designers have added one or more of these skills to their arsenal. This, along with the rise of using computers to create work, has caused a lot of confusion about what each one means, how they are different, and what they have in common. Many of these terms are often mixed up, but they are not interchangeable. They have distinct meanings and each represent a specific discipline and skillset. They do share some commonalities, and even frequently draw inspiration from one another (lettering styles often imitate typeface styles, and some typefaces imitate a calligraphic style, for example). Typography, lettering, and calligraphy all rely on similar principles, like character spacing and consistency in weight and contrast, but they approach these principles in very different ways.

Let’s take a look at what’s what!

What Is Lettering?

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Lettering is the art of drawing words (whether on a computer or with a pencil, pen, paint, or some other artistic medium), rather than writing them or typing them. A lettering piece is the result of sketching many layers of detail to create a final piece, just like figure or still life drawing. This gives designers freedom to experiment with ligatures, flourishes, and ornaments to create a truly one-of-a-kind piece. Lettering is made up of multiple strokes, not always following the natural flow of writing. This is very unlike handwriting or calligraphy, which create letters and words in a single pass. 

The words in a lettering piece are drawn for a single design only - nothing is meant to be rearranged or reused. When you create a lettering piece, you only create the characters you need, rather than the entire set of letters, numbers, and symbols. 

What Is Calligraphy?

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Calligraphy means "beautiful writing", and that describes it pretty accurately. Characters are written with only a few strokes, rather than through drawn layers like in lettering. As it involves creating characters in a single pass (even if a character is broken up into a couple of strokes), calligraphy is much closer to handwriting and penmanship than to drawing.

I like to think of learning calligraphy as very similar to learning an instrument. Calligraphy involves a specific tool set (dip pens, fountain pens, or brushes) and is a skill developed through regular, structured practice. Like playing the violin, true calligraphy has a strong emphasis on muscle memory.

Note About Brush Lettering/Calligraphy: Brush pens are an area where the terms lettering and calligraphy are most often mixed up. If you use a brush pen to write script in a single pass (even if it's multiple strokes), you are actually practicing calligraphy techniques, but this is also commonly referred to as brush lettering. It confuses the issue, but c’est la vie.

Where Do Typographers and Typefaces Fit In?

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Typography is focused on the arrangement of type. A typeface refers to a specific, complete set of characters. In short:

  • Typographer: Chooses and uses typefaces to arrange text

  • Typeface Designer: Designs a complete set of characters, aka a typeface

A typeface is a set of characters made to be reused over and over, in endless configurations and combinations (eg, Arial, Georgia, etc.). Typefaces can have stylistic alternates and ligatures, so you can mix up how characters look and imitate some of the variety available in lettering, but repeated letters are identical. Typeface design is a highly skilled, technical endeavor, and much more focused on perfection (even if the goal is for the typeface to look a little imperfect!).

Quick Note: A font and a typeface are not technically the same thing, although merging the terms is becoming more widely accepted. If you want to get really nerdy about it, this is a great explanation of the difference.

What About Handwriting?

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Handwriting is using a writing utensil to forming letters and words in a single pass. Handwriting typically demands the least focus on principles like spacing and consistency (though those with great penmanship may disagree!). The goal of handwriting is communication, focusing on content rather than artistic form. Some people use their own handwriting as an accent in lettering work, but writing words is not lettering. 

That was a lot.

Let’s do a quick recap:

  • Lettering: Drawing words for a single use, focusing on artistic form

  • Calligraphy: Writing words for a single use, focusing on artistic form

  • Typography: Using typefaces to arrange content

  • Typeface Design: Creating a system of characters that can be reused in endless combinations

  • Handwriting: Writing words, focusing on content

Hopefully that clears up any confusion! With the recent growth of many of these areas of design, it’s important to understand what’s what. Whether you’re interested in learning one of these crafts or interested in hiring someone working in these fields, it'll keep you from looking silly! And it will help you find the most suitable resources for what you’re looking to learn or commission!

Getting Serious about Hand Lettering

Hand lettering has blown up in the last several years and has earned widespread attention, even outside the design and typography community. Businesses rely on hand lettering more and more to bring a relatable personality to their brand. When you see the amazing hand lettering examples all over Instagram, it can be really intimidating -- I know it was for me! But with some focus and time, you can hone your skills and become a great hand letterer. Whether you’ve dabbled a little in lettering but haven’t practiced seriously, or are entirely new to the field, here are some important things to think about if you’re trying to get serious!

Simplify your supply list.

Lately I've been seeing a lot of hashtags like #whichpendidyouuse popping up on Instagram (many artists point out how frequently they're asked this question, which, despite its best intentions, tends to subtly imply that the pen is somehow responsible for the work being awesome). While it might be true that different techniques and styles can be more easily achieved with certain types of pens, it’s a myth that you need all kinds of pricey supplies to make great work - and if you don't know the proper ways to use expensive, specialized pens, they're going to do nothing for you. Those Instagrammers' great pieces weren't a result of their pen choice.

You can do an awful lot with a shopping list pencil you can grab for free at Ikea and some basic graph paper. I’ll be doing a post later on about my go-to tools, but if you have a sharpened pencil, a ruler, printer paper, and a felt-tip ink pen, Sharpie, or a plain old marker, there’s plenty for you to work on! There’s no need to break the bank to say you’re serious about improving your lettering.

Start small and master the basics.

It will be easier to practice individual letters before you work your way up to more complex tasks like drawing words, experimenting with how letters can connect (called ligatures) within or between words, or creating layouts of lengthy phrases. If you start with a lengthy quote or verse, you may quickly get frustrated at the complexity.

Master the basics first. It can be a little tedious, but working with individual letters will help you learn how to apply the same styles to different shapes and understand the negative space each shape needs for legibility.

I’ve been hand lettering seriously for nearly 3 years, and I still do this kind of practice frequently as a warm up. Think of it like a pianist practicing scales or a basketball player practicing free throws; it’s important to build a foundation and keep those skills sharp.

Learn about letters.

I can’t overstate the importance of understanding basic typography concepts. Learning how to distinguish between related styles and how the attributes of different styles can affect mood or readability will be immensely helpful as you start exploring different lettering styles. There are a ton of awesome books out there to give you a solid overview of the fundamentals of typography and lettering. I’ll create a more exhaustive list later on, but The Complete Manual of Typography is a great standby, as is The Anatomy of Type.

I've also found it helpful to look at compare different fonts to more basic fonts like Times New Roman or Arial. What’s different? What’s similar? What kind of personality does the font have compared to Times or Arial? Why? Once you start to realize how different attributes lend certain personalities or tones, you’ll be able to combine them in interesting ways to create your own unique lettering styles.

Practice every single day, deliberately.

As with any skill, you’ll never get the hang of hand lettering if you’re not consistently showing up. There’s also a difference between mindlessly doodling and deliberate practice. Deliberate practice will help you identify your weak areas and focus your improvement. Set out each day to improve on one thing. Are the curves of your rounded cursive letters not looking so hot? Practice some u’s, o’s, s’s, and n’s! Having a hard time maintaining consistent weight in all of your block letters? Get on it (and maybe use some graph paper)!

If I could give myself some advice on this 3 years ago, it would be to focus on deliberate practice instead of what I thought would look great in an Instagram post. Deliberate practice may not always result in Instagram-worthy work, but it's essential to improvement.

Try new things.

You’re bound to get a little bored with practicing basic shapes over and over again, so find ways to spice things up as you go along. Play around in different mediums, like brush pens or watercolor. Draw one letter as many ways as you can. There are endless possibilities to add character and distinct style to letters. This is a great exercise in creativity and learning about the tone and personality of different lettering styles. You'll start to understand what attributes are necessary to maintain the integrity of a letter (we’re getting a little existential here, but what’s needed for an A to stay an A?).

What’s to come

I’ll be back next week with an overview of two hand lettering exercises that have become my go to for warming up or finding and perfecting new styles, so stay tuned!

When I first started hand lettering, it felt like there weren’t many resources for me to use to learn, and it took me a while to really get serious and learn about purposefully improving my work. What was out there was scattered around, without a centralized place for me to find what I was looking for. So, I’m starting this blog in an effort to be that centralized resource for you.

The goal is to create tutorials and resource posts I think will be helpful to you and wish I’d had when I was starting out, including links to resources from other fabulous artists that have helped me learn along the way.

So, I want to hear from you: If you’re a more experienced hand letterer, what’s one thing you’d wish you’d known in the beginning? If you’re just starting out, what’s something you’re having a hard time getting the hang of that you’d like a tutorial on?