Calligraphy is no longer just for wedding invitations. Fancy lettering is everywhere these days. Whimsical scripts and playful phrases adorn everything from pillows to wall hangings, T-shirts to tote bags, stickers to mugs.
The final products of calligraphy and hand lettering may look the same (to the untrained eye!), and the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. Really, though, calligraphy and hand lettering are different arts borne of different processes. According to Caroline Kelso Winegeart, the artist behind Hand Lettering for Beginners, hand-lettering is drawing letters by hand, with “individual attention paid to each letter and its role within a composition.” Calligraphy, is writing letters, usually with nib and ink, and is “marked by a variation in width for the upstrokes and downstrokes of each letter.”
These trendy art forms can be just as much fun for the beginner as they are for the master. My introduction to hand-lettering came through a workshop at Paper Source, which is now offered virtually. In a couple of hours, I learned how to take my normal handwriting and fancy it up. I later used those skills to letter our family’s mission statement to hang in our dining room. There remains room to grow, but I learned a lot in a short space of time.
Modern calligraphy has been more of an investment of time for me to learn. I began with what was then a free printable, when my oldest boys were about eight and six. I printed copies of the worksheets I was using for them, and they quickly surpassed me. For weeks that summer, each day during our quiet time, my sons took out their worksheets and pens and learned to shape letters. They enjoyed the practice as much as their finished projects.
Either art is worth dipping into as an inexpensive and accessible means of slowing down and flexing your creative muscles. Plus, you might never have to buy a greeting card again!
I talked to three professional artists about how to get started.
Getting started with hand-lettering
Katerina Deem, owner and designer of Little Way Design Co., says the most important thing about learning lettering is “to remember that lettering is not the same as handwriting. . . . When you switch your mindset from writing to drawing, everything changes dramatically: from the process of learning it to the final product. When you understand yourself as making art when lettering, you will automatically slow down and enjoy the process more!”
It’s not a process you can rush, according to Catherine Ohbayashi, owner of Dearest Words. She says, “Patience is the key to success in anything, but especially in something that you do with your hands.” Her advice for newbies is to “allow yourself to be a beginner, nobody starts off perfect.”
Ohbayashi started by copying her favorite fonts on Microsoft Word with a Sharpie pen and Crayola super tip markers. She quickly learned she needed to give herself grace as she tried something new. “Hand-lettering can be frustrating at the beginning, but being patient and practicing words or a style that you love will pay off in the end.” Early on, she decided to keep each project she made, even if she didn’t think it was good. “Over time, I could see how I got better and how my style changed. I love looking back on my journey and seeing how far I’ve come.”
Deem’s worksheet program is what I used to learn calligraphy. Her Instagram videos of her completing each sheet are a great complementary resource, because you can see how her hand moves the pen for each stroke. For beginners, Deem recommends regular printer paper and small brush tip pens like the Tombow Fudenosuke hard tip calligraphy pen. She finds large brush tip pens are harder to control at first, but you may need to experiment to find which tools work best for you.
Getting started with calligraphy
Calligrapher Erica Tighe Campbell of Be a Heart told me, “The most important thing to keep in mind when you are learning is that it takes time! Although many calligraphers make it look effortless, remember that they have likely practiced for years when no one was watching. Equally important is to go slowly. You can’t write as quickly as you would with a ballpoint pen so slow down and stay mindful.”
Confidence will come, but it will take practice, Campbell says. “I am self-taught and learned through books because it was before there were many online and in-person classes. I used the wrong side of the nib for six months. I was terrible. But my goal was to enjoy it and that I did. With time I got better and created my own style. And if you’re really stuck, try another online class (I have a class on Skillshare that you can take for free).”
Campbell practices both hand lettering and calligraphy, but she recommends learning calligraphy first, so that you can “learn where the thick and thin lines belong that you can then adapt to other lettering practices.” She found that computer paper wasn’t the best fit for her. Once she tried better paper, she found, “the ink didn’t bleed, and the pen didn’t catch in the pores of the paper.” When she teaches, Erica uses two different types of pens so that her students can determine which they prefer.
Making it a habit
Each of the women I spoke with said it took at least a couple of months for her to feel confident in her work, so don’t despair if progress seems slow. I asked each artist how her craft has helped her grow, and found a common denominator in the deep impact putting letters on a page has yielded.
Deem says, “Lettering has helped me slow down my fast-paced life and has become a tool for practicing intention and mindfulness.”
Ohbayashi told me, “Knowing that I’m good at something has helped give me confidence in knowing that I am also good at other things, like being a mom and a wife. Hand-lettering has helped me recognize that I am still growing creatively as an artist, as a mom, as a wife, and as myself. It has helped me give myself permission to keep growing as a person, and [to realize] that I’m not stuck in where I’m at in life.”
For Campbell, “My lettering practice forced me to slow down and enter my body, which ultimately helped in my crippling anxiety and depression and thus changed every aspect of my life!”
What a beautiful thing just a few minutes every day can do!