Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Topical Typography

This is a longer one from me today, so you might fancy getting yourself a cuppa to sustain you.When I started the Nature Sketchbook Exchange, I knew right from the beginning that I wanted to add some lettering to my pages. At college, lettering and typography were my favourite aspects of graphic design, and I loved the quirky aspects and personality that choosing the right type and style of letters could add to a piece. Plus, I love playing around with words, so I have never lost the passion for this art form. Having posted some of the pictures of the pages, I have had a number of requests to write a post on how I do it. So, here it is.

This is a great play on letters to get us started.

Tiago Pinto
'The Type Faces'
A witty and creative take on using the type to make faces.
Image c/o 99designs

First, let's get over the difference between Typography and Calligraphy. According to the dictionary, this is the actual definition of Calligraphy

Calligraphy is a visual art related to writing. It is the design and execution of lettering with a broad tip instrument or brush in one stroke (as opposed to built up lettering, in which the letters are drawn). A contemporary calligraphic practise can be defined as, "the art of giving form to signs in an expressive, harmonious, and skillful manner".

And here's the definition for Typography

Typography is the art and technique of arranging type to make written language most appealing to learning and recognition. The arrangement of type involves selecting typefaces, point size, line length, line-spacing (leading), letter-spacing (tracking), and adjusting the space within letters pairs (kerning). 

Essentially, a calligrapher will design and create the type themselves as they write it using a specialist calligraphy nib, where a typographer will use either a font they have designed or created typefaces to set and manipulate the type according to the setting. This is what I was trained to do. Having been a graphic designer, I would select typefaces and adjust their size, spacing and so on to create what the client wanted. Think about any printed material you see on a daily basis, from packaging to magazines, all written material has to go through the hands of a typographer, typesetter or layout designer. Now of course, it's all done by computer, but when I was at college, it was done by hand. 

Modern examples of typography used as art form

I love this one by designer Lauren Hom called
'Daily Dishonesty'
Simple, elegant and to the point. Simple leafy flourishes and sweeping lines tell the story
Image c/o Creative Bloq

'To Define Is To Limit'
A motivational series of posters taking quotes by some of our most creative thinkers
by the clever folk at
Baron Fig
Edgy and sharp, the playing visual of different sizes of type and use of quote really is spot on
Image c/o Creative Bloq
Typography quite literally on the streets of Berlin
A big, simple type face with bright yellow grabs the attention of visitors
Outside the Berlinische Galerie
Image c/o Creative Bloq  

Now, I'm not going to go into nauseating detail as to how I measure all the type and set the spaces too much here, but what I will do is give a bit of an insight into choosing type, setting your page, transferring the letters, and finishing them. So, if you fancy adding a bit of lettering to your work but don't fancy learning calligraphy, this might be the way to start.     

Reference books are a great source for material

First up then, choose your typeface or font. For a modern effect, you will probably go for one that doesn't have 'serifs', the little strokes at the ends of the letters. Sans-serif and Helvetica are examples of these simple types of font. For the more flamboyant, handwritten, formal 'script' styles, then Palace Script and Antiqua styles might suit. Either way, you should try to use a style of type that suits the setting. For the sketchbooks, I used a formal, script style of typeface. 

Here's good old Helvetica. Simple and easy to read, Helvetica has been used for public signposts in countries all around the world.


And for something a little more formal with serifs there's Times, Also called Times New Roman, this font is so called as it is the typeface used for The Times newspaper in Britain


The set up

My chosen typeface. This is my favourite just now.
I love this typeface as it most resembles my own handwriting,
(when I do it properly with a fountain pen)

You can see on this page that some of the guidelines you will need are also shown.

Don't panic for this little intro, you won't use them all.

Tip: Pick a typeface that isn't too light or too small and has some 'body' to the letters. A nice thick letter is easier to paint that a wispy one with lots of flourishes. You are seeking the Goldilocks of typefaces

Some useful kit.

Tracing paper, rulers, fine brushes, sharp 2H pencil, fine Rotring pens
and different sizes of Ruling Pen

French Curves are also useful, but just now I can't seem to find mine.

Before you start to even think about drawing out your words, you need to set up your tracing to fit the area where you want to place them. It would be a disaster if you went to all the trouble of drawing and tracing out your phrase, only to find it won't fit. it takes a little time, but it's worth the effort for a lovely finish. 

Setting up the lines on the tracing paper

Measure your space carefully and place a couple of pencil markers onto a clean piece of tracing paper, before drawing a straight baseline between the two. This gives you your overall size, including spaces. Next, you need a typed or printed alphabet in the typeface and size you initially want to use, (remember, you are not designing the typeface yourself and you may need to change the size). Ideally, you want some space between each letter so you can see what you are doing when you trace them.

Another lovely typeface but the spine of the book distorts the letters.
A clean photocopy of this would make it perfect for tracing.

Bit of a pain to paint as a starting effort though 

Place the tracing paper over the first capital letter at the start of your lines and draw a box around it, (to get it's perimeter), Using the lowercase letters with the tracing paper over, count the accurate number of lower case letters you have in your word or phrase and place a little pencil mark at the end, (this is the approximate space for your first word). Leave about a 1cm gap for a space, (this can be made bigger or smaller to suit) and do the same with the other words. 

If once finished, the words overlap your original space markers, you will need to adjust the size of the font or reduce the spaces a little if it's only a small difference. This is easily done on computer by changing the point size. Adjust the size up or down until you are happy with the overall look. (There are other, more technical ways of doing the sizing and setting up thing, but this is simpler)

Once you have your size of typeface correct, you can set up for the tracing. Place your alphabet under your sheet of tracing paper, with the base of the uppercase or capital letters lining up with your pencil baseline. Carefully draw a fine line using a pencil and ruler along where the very top of all the letters sits. This is your topline. The letterform of some letters like A, B E F and so on have a central line, or crossbar. To keep this accurate, you will need to draw another line across your paper. 

The first letter I want to use.

All the guidelines are in place and the letter lines up with them perfectly.
The lowercase and descender line is also seen along with the crossbar 

With the lower case letters you will need another line where the bottom of the ascenders, or bases of letters like y j and g are. And another line where the topline or x height of the lower case sits. This sounds like a lot of lines, but unless you have them, your letters can end up very misaligned and awkward looking. 


You will need an exceptionally sharp pencil for this job, preferably one that is a 2 or 3H. You will also need to sharpen your pencil every three or four letters or you will begin to get an inaccurate size. Carefully and lightly trace your letters, (you can use a ruler for the uprights). Now you can transfer this to your paper either using a lightbox or other transfer method that you prefer.

Ready to go.

All the letters are traced.

You can see where the 'e' has it's little tail end doesn't quite meet with the first upstroke of the 'l'.
Here you need a little 'artists licence' to create the joined up nature of this sort of typeface.

Squeezing them in a little to meet each other as you trace gives a good level of space between letters.

To show how much a very sharp pencil is needed, the 'O' was traced using a slightly blunter 2H.
The final tail of the 'o' has been extended a bit to fit the space more comfortably.

Once complete, any adjustments in accuracy and sharpness can be done

On the paper, and neatened up.

The baseline and lowercase guidelines are in place to keep the letters straight.

You may want to put the other lines in as a guide for when you are painting.


This is the bit that takes practice and care. Your mix needs to be about the consistency of single cream, so not a mix that would be good for painting a subject. Gouache is also a great medium for lettering, but it can also work with watercolour as long as the consistency is okay. You can also use a Ruling Pen for the straight lines in your letters. A Ruling Pen is a device that has a little reservoir for paint and a couple of sharp nib points that you can bring close together to only allow a fine thread of paint out. A steady hand can do the job just as well.

For letters I use a very fine brush with a long point. A rigger brush is great for signwriting and letters as it has a lightly elongated point, but a 0 or 00 does just as well. To start, if the typeface is large I tend to outline the entire letter with paint before filling in. For finer, script type fonts, the pressure you apply with the brush as you go can be enough to fill the area for you. 

For this exercise, I used a size '0' da Vinci Maestro 35 brush that has a slightly longer point.  

Using a very small brush and a 'single cream' mix of paint you can start painting.

On the 'H' I started by painting a consistent line along the outer edge if the upstrokes.
By turning the paper around you can do the other edges.

An even pressure should infill the area for you but if not just go up between them. 

The very fine flourishes are done with a very light pressure.

First, I completed all the straight lines.
For this, I could use a ruler and Ruling Pem but here I didn't bother.

Then, using the natural curve of my wrist, I gently painted in the curves.
It's a good idea to keep turning the paper so that your wrist is comfortably using it's natural motion,
giving the curves a cleaner finish

Keep the pressure very light and use the length of the point of the brush to help.

Once dry, any slight errors such as the the slight wobble on the upstroke of the 2nd 'L' can be scraped off with a very sharp scalpel.
Now, very gently rub out all your pencil lines    

For these following pages, the pressure applied was enough to get enough paint where it was needed on the Palace Script lettering. Lifting the brush to a few hairs with an even stroke gives the lighter flourishes. 

The set up for 'Summertime' was important to keep it straight, evenly spaced and within the space left by the flowers and the edge of the page. 

Choosing a bright pink shade for the summertime theme complemented the colours of the flower heads.

Using the same script font for the typography but placing the type at different angles gave a nice effect  

Hand rendered lettering for a Christmas card theme in this sketchbook
maintained the 'handmade', personal touch appeal.

A berry red is very festive and matched the hanging tomato beautifully.
Using a traditional script font always looks lovely for Christmas.
Leaving enough space between the lines of type prevents the ascenders from crashing and colliding into each other. 

You can see the straighter lines on Happy Christmas are a little wobbly at places. Here I could have started with the Ruling Pen to get these really precise. Let the paint dry before finishing letters with the brush.

Well, there are loads of different ways to add type and lettering to your work and everyone will find their own method of doing it. This is one of my methods and I hope it gives you a starting point to get going with one of my favourite art forms. Give it a go, I'm going to try gilding letters next. So, I'll keep you posted. 

If, like me, you love a good typeface you can see more of the top 10 favourite fonts chosen by designers for 2014 on the Hypefortype Blog 

Care of Hypefortype

here's a late addition. If you love illuminated works, artist Kelly M. Houle is working on a superb illuminated edition of Darwin's Origin of Species. Take a look at her progress here  


Anonymous said...

I loved this post, there is a definite affinity between botanical painting and lettering. I have often thought about combining the two and now you have inspired me to have a go!

Sketchbook Squirrel said...

That's really great Chris. :) x

shevaun said...

It's beautiful! I'm not sure if I would ever have the patience.

Sketchbook Squirrel said...

Ha ha ha, that's so funny Shevaun. You have infinite patience, you put up with me. LOL. x

Janene said...

Fascinating post--I love your lettering and you are so generous to tell us how you do it!