Brush Lettering for Beginners

By: Shelley Hitz 

Would you like to learn brush lettering as a hobby that is relaxing and creates beautiful art, but you don’t know where to start?

Maybe you’re confused about all the options available for brush pens and markers that you could invest a lot of money in, but you don’t know which is the best one for a beginner.  I personally made the mistake of investing in the wrong pens in the beginning and will share with you the one option I recommend for beginners.

Maybe you’ve tried brush lettering and you’ve given up because you couldn’t get the hang of it.

When I was first learning brush lettering, I did a lot of research and practiced for hours, but still failed miserably.  I was about ready to give up when I learned the basic strokes. When I started practicing my basic strokes on a consistent basis, I had a breakthrough in my lettering and saw a huge improvement. I will share these basic strokes with you in this class.

I will also share with you the anatomy of the lowercase alphabet and how to form each letter. You will learn exactly when to lift your pen and when to make a stroke so you won’t have any guesswork about what to do.

Not only is brush lettering relaxing, it also produces a beautiful outcome you can use for gifts, cards, artwork, and more.

Let’s get started!

The Basics of Brush Lettering

To start off, let’s cover a few basics of brush lettering.

First of all, you need to know that your letters will have a thin upstroke and thick downstroke. This is what gives brush lettering such a beautiful look and makes it different from regular cursive writing. Therefore, you need to place heavier pressure on the downstroke and lighter pressure on the upstroke.

Learning the difference in the pressure is a skill that is learned with consistent practice. With time, you will develop muscle memory and what seemed hard in the beginning will get much easier. I promise!

Initially, it took me months of daily practice to get comfortable with my thick and thin strokes. And I continue to improve every day.

Before we lay pen to paper, let’s go over the anatomy of a lettering practice sheet. As you practice brush lettering, you will see different lettering practice sheets.

I did purchase some practice sheets when I was first learning, but now I have created my own.

In the beginning, I was so confused about the lines on the practice sheets and what they are each used for. On the sheet we will use here, there are only four different lines. This same pattern of four lines is repeated over and over again.

The thickest line on my practice sheet is the base line. I created it to be the thickest line, so you can find it quickly. The baseline is the most important part of the practice sheet. Looking at the example, you can see the bottom of all my letters fall along the baseline and you know immediately know, “Okay, that’s where the baseline is and that’s where the bottom of my letters need to rest.”

Next, we have a dotted line. This line is called the x-height. It is called this because it is basically the height that the lowercase x will be. It is also the height of the lowercase e,c,a, and so on. In some references, this line is called the waist line. I am going to be referring to it as the x-height.

The top line is called the cap height and is the height of your capital letters. It will also be the height of letters that ascend higher than the x-height, like the letter “f” and the letter “b.”  The cap height is also called the ascender line in certain sources.

The fourth, and final, line is called the descender line. This line is where letters that descend past the baseline, like letter g, p, and y will extend.

Here’s how works together:

  • You have your baseline, which is always going be your anchor. You always need to know where that baseline is and that’s why I decided to create the baseline thicker for you on this so you can always quickly identify it.
  • The dotted line is the x-height.
  • The top line is the cap height.
  • And then you have the descender line below it.

In the example, you can see how this works with the letter “f.” Anything that goes above the x-height is called the ascender. Anything that goes below the baseline is called the descender.

Traditional calligraphy is written at a 55 degree angle. Many practice sheets will have angled lines at the 55 degree angle so you can stay consistent. However, modern calligraphy can be any angle. Modern calligraphy breaks the rules. Personally, I like a slightly more upright look.

When creating letters with brush lettering, it is an art form. Think of it like drawing and illustration and NOT handwriting. Therefore, you need to take your time and go slow. This is something I wish I would have learned early on, because I was trying to do it too fast.

Art has taught me so many things and one thing lettering has taught me is to slow down and relax. I can be a Type-A personality, but lettering has taught me to go slow, relax my shoulders, and enjoy the process.

Also, make sure you are breathing, It is easy to hold your breath while you are lettering, so make sure you breathe and take your time.

“To practice any art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow. So do it.” – Kurt Vonnegut

Next, let’s talk about the easiest way to get started with brush lettering.

Faux Calligraphy

One of the easiest ways to get started with lettering is using faux calligraphy. Faux means “fake” and so it is fake calligraphy.

There are three simple steps to faux calligraphy:

  • STEP ONE: Write out letters
  • STEP TWO: Thicken the downstroke
  • STEP THREE: Fill it in

Here’s an example:

The fun thing is you can use faux calligraphy with any style of lettering, even your own handwriting. You can take my Faux Calligraphy class for free here.

Brush Pens and Paper to Use for Brush Lettering

As you are learning brush lettering, one of the most important things you will need is a brush pen. But, there are so many options that it can be confusing to know which on to get.

I have a word of caution for you from my own experience. One of the biggest mistakes I made when I was learning brush lettering is that I bought EVERY pen and tried EVERYTHING at once. However, in the beginning, the best thing to do is to choose one tool.

Why?

Well, every brush pen or tool requires a different skill and requires different muscle memory with your hand. So, if you’re practicing with a lot of different pens, it will take you a lot longer to learn this skill then if you would stick with one in the beginning until you feel comfortable with it. Then, you can branch out and try other pens and brushes once you are competent with the foundational skills.

You also need to know that the magic is NOT in the pen.

A more expensive pen is not going to necessarily give you an “easy button” and instant success. However, there are certain pens I recommend for beginners.

My favorite brush pens for beginners is the Zebra super fine brush pen.

Here are a few pieces of artwork I created with the Zebra super fine brush pen:

http://www.instagram.com/p/BdX0HotBxib/

http://www.instagram.com/p/BheNTOnHQ2e/

http://www.instagram.com/p/BhFi3mvBvB9/

Both of these pens are easier to control because they have a smaller tip and less flexibility. A brush pen like the Tombow dual brush markers have a bigger tip, more flexibility and are therefore much harder to control. This can be very frustrating for a beginner try to master the pressure required for the thin and thick strokes.

To be honest, these are still the pens I use most often because I do most of my lettering over watercolor backgrounds and they work really well on watercolor paper. Felt tip markers will fray very quickly if you use them on rough paper like watercolor paper and so don’t work well for my style of art.

Speaking of paper, I recommend the HP Premium Choice Laserjet paper (32 lbs). This paper is super smooth and will not fray your pens.

However, for the pens I recommended, you can use any paper you have on hand, mixed media paper, watercolor paper, etc.

Tracing paper can also help you develop muscle memory when you are first learning. You can have a certain brush lettering style printed off and then use the tracing paper to copy it exactly as shown. This is like using training wheels to learn to ride a bike. Eventually, you will graduate from copying other people’s styles and learn your own. But, in the beginning, tracing paper can really help.

The Seven Basic Strokes of Brush Lettering

To be honest, practicing the basic strokes is something I skipped when I was learning brush lettering. I jumped right into writing words and yet if you don’t practice and get good at the basic strokes, you are going to struggle.

When I really got serious about practicing the basic strokes consistently, it was a turning point for my lettering. I return to the basic strokes anytime I feel rusty or haven’t practiced with a certain type of pen or brush in awhile.

Basic strokes are key. They help you learn the building blocks for letters and they train your hand with muscle memory. They are also a great way to warm up before doing any lettering.

First of all, you want to hold your pen at a 45 degree angle. This helps you achieve the thick and thin strokes easier.

Remember, brush lettering is all about the pressure. So don’t be afraid to push down hard on your pen tip. They are flexible and are meant to be bent.

Here are the 7 basic strokes:

  1. Line
  2. Overturn
  3. Underturn
  4. Compound curve
  5. Oval
  6. Ascending loop
  7. Descending loop

Anatomy of Each Letter

When you start to learn letters, it is easiest to begin with monoline letters. Monoline means one line and can be done with any pen or pencil as it doesn’t require the pressure.

Starting with monoline letters helps you learn the structure of the letters in a certain style without having to also focus on getting the pressure right.

In this video, I will show you the anatomy of the lowercase alphabet in the style I developed called, Ink Dance.

Now it’s time to add in the pressure. Remember to go slow. I recommend starting with the lowercase first until you get comfortable with it. Then, you can add uppercase letters.

Remember, lettering is different than cursive handwriting. You will lift your pen between each stroke.

Watch me as I letter the alphabet in the video below.

Practice makes progress!

”Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.” ~Steven Pressfield

If you want to learn more, I recommend taking my Brush Lettering for Beginners class. In it you will be able to watch my videos, download practice sheets and much more here.

Developing Your Own Brush Lettering Style

Developing your own style will come over time. In the beginning you will practice using other people’s style.

However, the end goal is to find your own artistic voice and have a lettering style that is recognizable as your own.

If you want to develop your own lettering style, I have lettering classes that may help.

  • Discover Your Lettering Style: Strategies to Help You Design a Hand Lettered Font
  • 10 Ways to Letter the Lowercase Alphabet

You can see all my classes here.

Conclusion

Lettering is a skill I believe ANYONE can learn. Believe me, I did not consider myself to be artistic when I first started lettering in June 2016.

However, with consistent practice, I have grown in my skill and my love of lettering.

Even just 5 minutes of practice a day can make a HUGE difference. Grab your Zebra superfine brush pen and a small notebook to carry with you wherever you go.

In closing, I want to leave you with these inspirational quotes. Keep creating. The journey is worth the effort!

“The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually fearing you will make one.” – Elbert Hubbard

“Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow.’” ~Mary Anne Radmacher